You know those moments, when you have to sneeze so you scrunch up your whole face and make that “ahh, ahh…” noise preparing for it, and after all that effort, you DON’T SNEEZE. It’s a false sneeze. Your nose tickled; it had all the indications of a real sneeze, but in the end it simply did not satisfy. It teased you—what a terrible feeling.
This was it. Armada was the third ah of a false sneeze, a.k.a. disappointment.
Everything that was awesome with Ready Player One, Ernest Cline ripped-off from himself with Armada and shot to death. Cline’s 2015 follow-up novel to his debut bestseller is nothing but a pale imitation of the original. Much like Ready Player One, the “new” story in Armada featured a high school 80’s pop-culture-obsessed teen who gets wrapped up in an alien invasion and inevitably saves the world.
Zack Lightman is the main protagonist, a nerdy gamer whose father died when he was young and so chases the image of the man through his father’s favorite movies, video games, and music, which just happens to be popular during the 80s. Zack then gets plucked out of his ordinary life just before he has to graduate high school, gets asked to join an elite force called the Earth Defense Alliance (EDA) which were coincidentally made up of gamers, and tasked to save the Earth from invading alien forces from the planet Europa. As it turns out, Zack’s father had been following conspiracy theories relating to the urban legend of Polybius, an arcade game said to have caused players to literally go crazy and foam at the mouth, as well as other government propaganda contained within video games. His father wasn’t crazy, however, and in the world of the novel, the government had been truly embedding training simulations into video games, to secretly train defenders of Earth, just for a day like that one, when aliens attacked.
If that sounded a lot like Ready Player One, it pretty much was. However, what worked with Ready Player One was that Wade Watts lived in an escapist dystopian future, and so the virtual reality element and the in-game Easter Egg was believable enough. Armada took that plot set up—nerdy boy saves world through knowledge of video games—and rammed it up its own ass; simultaneously down readers’ throat. Armada was so much like a bad first draft of Ready Player One I was appalled it was written by the same author, afterwards.
Admittedly, I had so much hope going into Armada. After finishing Ready Player One, I was delighted to know there was another work by Ernest Cline. When I got my hands on Armada, I burned through the pages, finding myself frowning and becoming annoyed with the very references that charmed me in Cline’s first novel. In Armada, the sheer number of references finally became too much; it was sickening.
While the plot of Ready Player One accommodated for the intense use of references—the kids scouring through 80’s pop culture for clues to crack a man’s life and fortune seems like a valid reason for the obsession. In Armada, the endless regurgitation of trivia from Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Dungeons & Dragons, Transformers, Starfox, Space Invaders, Iron Eagle, and so on became like a bunch of spoiled gamers trying to establish “street cred” with one another. It’s forced, unnecessary, and makes the entire story remarkably unbelievable when high-ranking military officers understand these kids’ quips and sci-fi film homages.
Other elements of the plot and story make it so ridiculous it’s hard to believe this wasn’t some sad video game fan fiction that would be found circulating on the dark depths of the web. I mean, c’mon, at one point the main character even called his mom, IN THE MIDDLE OF PREPARING FOR BATTLE, and told her: “All those years I spent playing video games weren’t wasted after all, eh?” Seriously, at some point, every gamer yelled at by their mother to get away from the TV and eat or shower had dreamt of saying those exact words. This is pure wish-fulfilment fantasy by the author, and the fantasy, in all honesty, isn’t even that good!
The endearing characters we had in Ready Player One were also highly-skilled gamers well-versed in 80’s pop culture like the ones in Armada, but once again Armada lacked the honesty that Ready Player One had. While characters like Wade, Art3mis, and Aech in Ready Player One dealt with scattered themes about the complexity of family, body image, and gender, the characters in Armada are presented only to boost the “coolness” and “street cred” of the main character. Furthermore, the so-called hero that Cline gives us in Armada comes across as an entitled brat whose video game skills are almighty, lacking the endearment factor that Wade Watts managed to capture which was a nerdy determination and a certain human desperation. For Armada, the characters are flat and unlikeable, playing into common science fiction stereotypes that Cline made a point to quote/reference but does nothing else substantial with.
From Ready Player One, it was apparent that Cline’s use of language wasn’t too special, and the charm of the book relied on nostalgia and references. It swiftly became obvious that a good work of fiction cannot be based on gimmicks, or in Cline’s case nerdy references, alone. In Armada, the characters became unable to describe events, feelings, or settings on their own terms, and instead relied on references to paint out the world. Instead of giving the reader a description of what the spaceship hangar looks like, Cline gave us a bunch of references to Luke Skywalker, and Ender Wiggins.
The only semi-redeeming factor I found while reading Armada was the nod to the Polybius urban legend that had been circulating around on the internet for a while, but again, it was just a nod. Cline had many opportunities to play with tropes and stereotypes that make for a great story, like he did with Ready Player One, but Armada failed to do that. Instead, I just wanted to bang my head on the desk while reading this book, and I actually became a little mad that he thought he found an idea that’s worked, then ripped it off completely. I mean, come on!
“This human understands enough to know when he’s being messed with.”