Armada is the sophomore effort from Ernest Cline, who burst onto the SF scene with the wildly-popular Ready Player One, a fun-filled romp through 80s pop culture via a virtual reality game that managed to skillfully depict a dystopian future and also be a rollicking adventure and coming-of-age tale. The secret to Ready Player One’s success was that you could still enjoy it without catching every obscure geek reference, but many readers who grew up in the 80s absolutely loved it.
There’s an old adage about “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so it makes perfect sense for Ernest Cline to go back to the well for another bucketful of nerdy 80s gamer trivia and ladle on generous helpings of references to every alien-invasion video game and movie you’ve ever heard of, plus all the other ones you didn’t know (but the author is happy to tell you about). This time the references are heavily weighted towards space combat games, so we get an endless stream of descriptions of different fighter types, mechs, particle beams, disruptors, droids, dreadnoughts, etc. If you like that stuff, you’re in the right place. If not, you may need to look elsewhere.
The storyline itself heavily echoes the successful formula of Ready Player One. Our young protagonist Zack Lightman is a gaming geek high-schooler close to graduation who doesn’t have any concrete career plans but currently works at the local video game store. He is one of the top 10 players of Armada, a space-alien invasion combat game, and plays constantly with his buddies. He has been raised by a single mom, since his 19-year-old father died in an explosion at a waste treatment plant. One day, while daydreaming at school, he looks out the window to see an alien fighter ship similar to those of The Last Starfighter zipping around outside. Of course, nobody else sees it but Zack is sure it’s real…
Similar to Ready Player One, our protagonist is a kick-ass gamer who suddenly discovers his seemingly-useless skills are suddenly needed, in this case to save the world from an impending alien invasion. He is a high school nerd but has some close friends. One of his rival gamers turn out to be a cute Tank Girl gamer-chick who has lots of wise cracks but they eventually connect through shared respect for each other’s game skills and geek knowledge.
Though Armada follows the same basic formula as its predecessor, there are two major differences. First, it is set in the current world, which is far less interesting than the resource-depleted dystopian future of Ready Player One. Second, it does not feature the massive virtual reality world of OASIS that dominates the storyline of Ready Player One. Instead, the vast majority of Armada’s pages are devoted to how Zack Lightman and other hot-shot gamers are recruited into the EDA (Earth Defense Alliance) to fight the alien invaders (based on Jupiter’s moon Europa, a reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two), and their early training is a clear tribute to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
Zack and his fellow trainees are thrown straight into real combat (though they control their ships remotely so they can survive to fight again if their ships are destroyed). They find themselves outnumbered by the enemy and the situation looks dire. But humanity is not such a pushover, and Earth mobilizes its defenses for a massive space and land battle to repel the alien invasion. Just when you think you know exactly how this will play out, there are some inexplicable anomalies in the aliens’ strategy that only Zack and another character recognize, and it’s up to them to prevent humanity from making a fatal mistake…
Overall, Armada is an entertaining story for anyone who likes video games, 80’s trivia, alien invasions, extensive space and ground combat sequences, a wise-cracking teenager protagonist, and plucky gamer buddies. However, as the plot is heavily weighted towards combat game trivia, I think the target readership is far narrower than for Ready Player One, since that story is fun to read for anyone who grew up in the 80s, whereas you had to be a hard-core gamer to really appreciate all the details of Armada.
I’m sure most fans know that Steven Spielberg is slated to direct the film version of Ready Player One, and that the screenplay has been completed by Zack Penn, but there will be a lot of hurdles getting the rights to use the hundreds of references to movies, music, games, books, etc. In addition, there is the added challenge of translating the virtual reality of OASIS to the screen without losing the human story. In many ways, Armada is a book that would translate to film much more easily, and could be the ultimate mashup of Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens, Ender’s Game, etc.
Finally, I have to give a shout out to fan favorite Wil Wheaton (who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation), since he does an excellent job with the audiobook narration for Armada (ditto for Ready Player One). He is simply the perfect voice for a teenage gamer geek (I mean that as a compliment) — he imbues his characters with the proper reverence for every reference in Cline’s copious arsenal. They are an excellent team, and I had no idea Wil Wheaton actually had a small part in The Last Starfighter back in 1984! Now that’s what I call serious geek credibility.
They say a writer should stick to what they know, but isn’t writing the same book twice taking the old adage a bit too far? Ready Player One was one of the standout science fiction novels of the past few years, so it’s natural that Ernest Cline should trust his previous formula. In Ready Player One we had the teenage protagonist who excelled at gaming. Oh hey, just like Armada. Then there was the wise-cracking hot gamer girl love interest… just like Armada. And then the race against time to complete the task that only the protagonist’s seemingly useless gaming skills and knowledge of 1980s trivia could win! Sort of exactly identical to… yeah, you get the picture.
Zack Lightman is your regular run-of-the-mill high school kid who’s about to graduate. One day, bored in class, he glances out of the window and sees a UFO that looks like it’s come straight out of The Last Starfighter. Thinking he’s going insane like his deceased father before him, Zack tries to persuade himself that he’s playing too many video games. He vows to stop — after one final challenge on the space shooting game, Armada. He turns up to school the next day only for a space shuttle belonging to the Earth Defence Alliance, an organisation that’s been using the game Armada to train young gamers in their fight against real aliens, to pick Zack up.
Said aliens come from Europa and are called Europans (or, as one character repeatedly keeps calling them, Europeans. This was, to Cline’s credit, a rare funny moment in Armada). Zack and a motley crew of gamers are recruited to save planet Earth. Enter the love interest, Lex. She is eerily reminiscent of the female protagonist from Ready Player One. As a character, she’s pretty two-dimensional and seems to be there purely as a projection of Cline’s own fantasies. He evidently likes his sassy gamer girls. Someone should point him in the direction of George R.R. Martin so he can see how a strong, convincing female character ought to be written.
There are various twists and turns that are on the whole pretty unsatisfactory just because you can see them coming a mile off. But it’s not poor plotting that let the book down. Whilst the pop culture references were prevalent in Ready Player One, they were, on the whole, unobtrusive and didn’t detract from what was essentially an excellent and original concept. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Armada. The prose is so thick with geek culture references it’s difficult to find the story line. Zack’s experiences are not described, merely compared to those of characters before him.
I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y- and X-Wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Ender Wiggin arriving at Battle School. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.
Younger readers are going to be alienated by these references, and older readers aren’t going to have the patience to wade through an entire book of trivia. I was so, so ready to like this book — especially as Ready Player One has been one of the best science fiction books I’d read in years — but it seems Cline is his own worst enemy. With a predecessor like Ready Player One, I can’t help feeling he should’ve written Armada first.