(2015) Ernest Cline, Century, £12.99, hrdbk, 345pp, ISBN 978-1-780-89304-4
Fresh from the success of Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s Armada is a standalone story that explores many of the same themes as its predecessor. Cline’s fusion of eighties nostalgia into a modern story premise that plucks Zack Lightman out of high school and computer game addiction to join the Earth Defence Alliance (EDA) and battle against aliens is the kind of movie plot you might have seen in the eighties and more recently seen transported (by genre) into franchises like Harry Potter.
This direct approach is not quite as charming as Ready Player One. Zack Lightman’s life is set in our times and so, whilst the secret conspiracy to hide the EDA and its training programme in two computer games, Armada and Terra Firma does relate to some of the ways the US military has tried to use computer games as recruitment tools, the hiding of advanced space technology and more requires handwavium above that of Cline’s previous work. Ready Player One’s dystopian premise gave its main character appeal. Wade clung to the eighties and his quest for Halliday’s keys, Zack clings to the eighties as memorial to his father. Eschewing the dystopian setting, Cline elects to transform modern society into what he needs for the plot by revealing the EDA and the war. It’s a little too convenient and might have worked better with more lead up or more curiosity. Zack’s is not the restless curious character that Wade proved to be and as such, the there is a lack of urgency to the plot.
Cline’s writing can get bogged down with exposition, particularly when he is explaining the highly technical circumstances of Zack’s favourite games, Armada and Terra Firma. The first person narration softens this a little, but you do find yourself reading large chunks of instruction manual style text, which works for those of similar interest, but narrows the appeal elsewhere.
When we get to the battle briefing, Cline over cooks his biscuit. Facing an enemy of billions, Zack Lightman mugs his way through meeting a girl and blowing up the base with a set of pasted lines from every popular movie in Cline’s repertoire. The billions of enemies doesn’t provide anything for people to visualise, indeed, we can’t visualise it. David Eddings made a similar mistake with his battle descriptions at the end of the Belgariad, setting himself up for a fall. A better move would be to describe the countless numbers and bring more of an emotive reaction from Zack about what he sees.
The impersonality of drone flying also doesn’t help the space combat. Zack is flying ships remotely and so again, we feel remote and the actions become procedural rather than emotive.
After being sent to Moon Base Alpha, however, we begin to see a secondary layer to the story and for a time, Armada becomes more of a character piece allowing our principle to reconcile something of his past as he waits for Cline’s space invader Ragnarok. Gradually the layer beneath the alien invasion premise is hinted at and revealed, although the revelation is also something of a game with a generalised reward. These games have real world consequences in the narrative, with millions killed, a reflective question that Cline voices through Zack in the conclusion, but the story is winding up and you don’t get the sense that this is given as much consideration as it might be.
In Ready Player One, Ernest Cline found a way to fuse his fandom with innovative story construction and premise. In Armada, we have shifted more towards his fandom playbook, echoing The Last Starfighter, Battle Beyond the Stars and Flight of the Navigator. If that playbook is something you share, you will find things to like in this story. However, the overreliance on nostalgia and a referential code of Cline’s own devising exposes some writing weaknesses. Armada may not be the next book you were hoping for.
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