Armada, by Ernest Cline
Posted May 18, 2016on:
where I got it: purchased new
I liked Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One. I don’t remember if I really *really* liked it, but I recall enjoying it. I was excited to hear he had a new book coming out, and even more excited when Armada showed up in paperback. Armada was going to be just as good as Ready Player One, right? It was going to be better, right?
Well, it was certainly an Ernest Cline book, that’s for sure. And Ernie Cline fan or not, you’re either going to really love this book, or really hate it.
In his free time, high school senior Zach Lightman plays his favorite MMO, Armada, with his buddies. Even at his part time job at the local gaming and comics shop, Zach gets to play Armada with his boss when the shop is slow, which is usually is. And because this is an Ernest Cline book, not a paragraph goes by without a reference to the video games, music, and scifi movies and tv shows from the past 30 years. Zach even digs through his late father’s VHS tapes and cassette tapes, in an effort to know the father he barely met.
(Ok, something neat was happening here: Zach and his generation are the children of today’s gaming teenagers. Zach grew up playing video games with his Mom, and most of his friends grew up playing video games with their parents. That’s actually pretty cool.)
As it turns out, the video game Armada and it’s sister game Terra Firma are simulations designed to train an Earth force and identify highly skilled pilots. Earth is being attacked by aliens from Europa, and our best and last chance are the best players of Armada and Terra Firma! All that time playing video games wasn’t wasted after all! And in fact, the entire science fiction entertainment industry was designed on purpose to get humans used the idea that we are not alone, and that one day we would have to defend ourselves.
As one of the top Armada players in the world (because of course he is), Zach is whisked away to a secret training base. He learns our scientists have been capturing alien technology and backwards engineering it for decades (because of course they have), and that the enemies in the Armada video game were designed to mimic the aliens from Europa. Entrapped into enlisting into the Earth Defense Alliance, Zach is given a shiny uniform, and assigned to Moon Base Alpha. This all happens incredibly quickly, and the how’s and why’s are heavyhandedly swept under the rug. Because who wants to think when you’re in the middle of a space battle, defending the Earth and everything and everyone you cherish? Right?
Here’s the thing: I couldn’t buy into what was happening. And it wasn’t just me, even the characters were having trouble buying in to what was going on. And when they do question what’s going on or verbalize that things don’t make sense? They are shut down and told to shut up. And that annoyed the living hell out of me.
Eventually Zach notices that the alien invaders suffer from “Stormtrooper syndrome”, and can’t hit the broad side of a barn, making it look like people are in danger but actually easily allowing the heroes to get to where they need to be for a leveling up boss fight. On top of that, even with alien technology, the science and physics in a number of scenes just don’t work. Even with alien technology, It should take more than 40 minutes to get to the moon (and the moon base shouldn’t have Earth gravity), and it should take more than a few hours for a fighter drone to get to the moon Europa. If you’re playing a video game, you can hide travel time with a cut scene, but in a book I just couldn’t buy it. Being reminded by the characters that things “just didn’t feel real” and “didn’t make any sense” didn’t help either.
The entire book felt like a set up for some kind of M. Night Shaymalan twist. Maybe everyone constantly questioning everything is just some really unsubtle foreshadowing? Alas, that was not the case. When the “big reveal” did show up, it didn’t feel connected to the rest of the story, and for my money it couldn’t have been more disappointing.
Some readers are going to really love this book, and that’s great, I’m happy for them. But Armada was a giant fail for me. The writing was incredibly heavy handed, the action scenes were oddly boring, and as a reader I felt like I was being talked down to. Yes, I get that 80s gaming, music, and movie references are Cline’s thing, but after having a reference in nearly every single paragraph, it quickly spiralled from fun, to gimmicky, to me feeling like someone was bragging “look how much I know about the 80s! Aren’t you impressed with how much I know? Let me tell you more! I know, I’ll tell you more!”. Yes, Cline, I get it. We all get it. Can we get on with the storytelling now? I was so disappointed in this book that I wouldn’t have even finished it, except it’s this month’s pic for my local scifi book club, and I really was hoping for some kind of cool crazy twist at the end.