Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline
A review copy was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Crown (July 14, 2015)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
For fans of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I don’t think there’s any other book coming out this year as highly anticipated as his second novel Armada. The new book is again a novel with pop culture references galore, but whereas Ready Player One was like a love letter to the 80s set in not-too-distant future, Armada takes place in present day with a shift in focus to all things sci-fi and gaming.
Needless to say, as an avid gamer with particular penchant towards massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, I must shamelessly confess to having a natural inclination to stories of this type; more than once, reading Armada made me wish that Eve Online and Dust 514 played like the games described in the book, or that Star Citizen was released already. And I think if you enjoyed Ready Player One, you might enjoy this one too. In many ways the two books are different, but in many ways they are similar as well — both are stories about average young men in the position to save the world, thanks to their super awesome Powers of the Geek!
We begin the story with an introduction to our protagonist Zack Lightman, worrying that he might be losing his mind. Staring outside the window during one his boring senior math classes, Zack spies a flying saucer in the sky, and not just any kind of flying saucer. The spaceship looks exactly like an enemy Glaive fighter in Armada, his favorite first-person space combat flight sim MMO. In the game, players from all over take the role of drone pilots, controlling Earth Defense Alliance ships to do battle with alien invaders. Zack’s been playing the game so much, he’s starting to think he’s hallucinating it in his real life as well.
Turns out, the good news is that Zack’s not crazy. The enemy fighter he glimpsed was as real as it could be. The bad news is, so is the Earth Defense Alliance and the war against the aliens. Governments around the world have known about this imminent attack for decades, and all the science fiction films and video games since the 70s have been preparing humanity for this very moment. Since their inception, online games like Armada and its companion ground-based first-person shooter Terra Firma have been training and honing the skills of potential recruits for the coming battle, right under everyone’s noses. As one of the highest ranked players in Armada, Zack is enlisted with other skilled gamers into the EDA’s forces.
It should have been a dream come true. In fact, the entire book reads like a wish fulfillment fantasy for any gamer who has ever wanted their favorite video game to be real, and to be the big damn hero of their own epic adventure. But still, Zack can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong. For example, if this real, why then are the aliens acting exactly like the way they would in his games and in all the science-fiction movies he grew up with? Zach realizes that life is imitating art when it really shouldn’t be – and it’s this concept that erodes the idea that Armada is just another version of The Last Starfighter but Ernest Cline style. Yes, the author has adapted that theme for his book, but at the same time he’s also subverted it, so that certain sections almost read like a tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at what audiences today expect to see out of an alien invasion story.
The story of Armada is thus actually quite clever, despite it being undeniably cheesy. We reach a saturation point with many of its ideas – some of which border on the totally ridiculous – that frequently call for a good deal of suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part (and not least because entrusting the fate of the entire human race to a bunch of regular civilian gamers is a dubious idea; if you even spend three minutes exposed to the general chat of any popular MMO, you can kind of infer why). And yet, the book is also undeniably fun. Simply put, the cheese works. It worked the same way it worked for a film like Galaxy Quest which parodied a lot of well-known Star Trek and sci-fi tropes, but somehow in the end still managed to function incredibly well as its own action-adventure stand alone. The result is that it’s still possible for someone not familiar with gamer culture or references to sci-fi movies like Star Wars (of which there are many) to enjoy Armada. However, writing as an addict to online gaming and all things Star Wars, I think that in many ways Armada can also be seen as lovely tribute to fans.
It does seem, though, that Ernest Cline has chosen his target audience and defined his niche, pressing the same hot buttons that brought him success with Ready Player One. He employs similar gimmicks in Armada, appealing to the reader’s sense of nostalgia while loading the book with lots of movie quotes and injecting a similar style of humor. A lot would depend on the individual reader, of course, but whether audiences will embrace this shtick again or demand something different, I think only time will tell. We’re also focusing less on general 80s this time around, so I think the appeal will also be much narrower, and it’s possible that those who really liked Ready Player One might not find the same enjoyment in Armada.
All told, my own stance is simple: if you’re just looking for a fun read, you’ll get it in spades. While the plot and characters in Armada aren’t particularly deep, the book certainly isn’t aiming to be a literary masterpiece. Instead, it goes for broke, not caring how far it goes in its quest to provide the maximum entertainment value for your time. As a result, Armada ends up being pure, unadulterated escapism. I loved the book, devouring it as soon as I got my hands on it and I sure don’t regret doing so at all. I can think of no other science fiction novel coming out this summer that would make a better beach read.