I loved Ready Player One. It was absolutely one of the best books that I’ve read in recent times, and I was pretty honoured when one of my closest friends (and his dad) agreed about how awesome it was. What hooked me with Ready Player One was the dystopian setting, the quest set within this fantastical world, some prophetic nods to future virtual reality and some engaging and entertaining characters wrapped up in this layer of 1980s nostalgia that was not just there for the sake of being there, but was integral to the plot, while being unashamedly geeky.
Armada has very few of these qualities, and I feel obliged to state how disappointed I was with Ernest Cline’s second outing.
Armada begins in very much the same vein as its predecessor. Ultimately, Armada lives in the shadow of Ready Player One. A young man, Zach Lightman, who is a massive fan and accomplished player of the titular video game, looks out of his classroom window and sees a fighter from the game over the tops of the trees…
The narrative of Armada was trite to the point it became almost like Painting by Numbers. There didn’t seem to be any surprise to the plot twists and events as the book read like something we’d all seen before. I felt that Cline repeatedly, and irritatingly, used shout-outs to famous science fiction properties not as legitimate plot points (as they were in Ready Player One, where knowledge of 80s pop culture drove the story on) but because there was room, however tiny, to hammer them in. I felt a little insulted to be told, explicitly, about how an event was ‘just like in The Last Starfighter…’ (a film whose plot seemed to have been Xeroxed here). To me, the episode of Futurama wherein videogame characters come to life to attack Earth springs to mind…
The prose too was pretty juvenile and, while easy to read, I felt it was awkwardly written in a lot of places. There’s a ton of teenage vernacular, to the point where I feel the author was beginning not to reflect gamer culture but to parody it. Perhaps, with the crews wishing that may the Force be with you to each other while preparing for the final epic battle might really be what is said if gamers are entrusted to save the world, but where it was a little endearing The revelation of the Armada game being a collaboration between Richard Garriott, Gabe Newell and other esteemed gaming glitterati, with James Cameron designing all the ships, Peter Jackson and Weta rendering the cut-scenes and John Williams writing the score… this felt so amateur. Such a coalition, naturally working in absolute secrecy in an always-online world, comes across as outlandish. Namedropping these famous gaming icons felt, to me, an awkward and unsuccessful attempt to cover all the bases. It seemed to be an alliance of talent so improbable that my suspension of disbelief was strained to the limit. Even the global financial crisis was – you guessed it – resultant of the secret war preparations. The inclusion of scientific figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, again, as pretty undercooked cameos, induced a bit of a cringe on reading. The writing felt disappointingly adolescent; sure, the characters were teenage geek gamers but I felt the prose, at times, unintelligent and, ultimately, Armada read increasingly like the “naff” and “cheesy” sci-fi movies it made reference to. Even the names of the characters: Zack Lightman and his father, Xavier, gave off the impression of trying too hard to arbitrarily give this book a shot in the arm with stereotypical “geek” culture.
The barrage of unconnected 80s pop-culture references would be sure to alienate a younger audience. Was Armada a massive piece of fanservice for those that appreciated the nostalgia of Ready Player One?
Zack Lightman’s character starts out interesting, and we want to learn more about his motives, but I felt the backstory was shovelled in through journals that Zach, naturally, read prior to the book. A core tenet of writing is to show, not tell; I felt these expositionary passages were very much telling, without much showing. But any interest behind the character is quickly swept away once the alien invasion starts. Naturally, the crack team is composed of the Armada leader board that is alluded to throughout the first third of the book, though the real life personas don’t seem to get a terrible amount of development. The ‘romance’ with Lex, a fellow recruit, is forced and severely underdeveloped. Zack is attracted to her because… well, I couldn’t answer that besides she’s hot. Which was disappointing. Zack’s school friends are personified as nothing more than idiot gamers. Their motivations and concerns in the upcoming tragedy are left unexplored. They’re simply extant to be a dopey foil to Zack’s character.
Despite all of that, Armada isn’t terrible. I genuinely wanted to love it like I loved its predecessor. The action sequences are cinematic and deftly crafted, and there are a few strands of moral questions about Earth’s warlike behaviour, even if these tropes (such as the military mind being hell-bent on blasting the aliens) are well cooked. The idea of using videogames to train troops is a prescient one – the reference to America’s Army – one of the few that apply directly to the plot. But, after seeing how skilfully the references to a pop culture the author clearly loves and a fond affinity for everything geeky that was the very spirit of Ready Player One, I feel Armada doesn’t quite live up to the hype (one modern gaming trope it inadvertently succeeds in). Certainly, I felt, Armada was more Ernest Cline’s “practice run” at an 80s-infused, geeky, video-game themed sci-fi tale before Ready Player One. It is certainly not a worthy successor. Perhaps, with geeky video-game adventure novels, lightning doesn’t strike twice? And if I had to quote a movie, this book is more a disappointing Speed 2: Cruise Control than a sublime Godfather Part II.
Read my previous review of Ready Player One here.
Buy Armada on Amazon UK