Book - Armada

Armada by Ernest Cline

Nate McKenzie gets all Fanboy (see what I did there?) as he gets Ready Player One (I don't know why I bother) for Ernest Cline's new book Armada...

By all accounts I can be considered an Ernest Cline fan (not just because we are both Ohioans). The sampling size of his work may be limited thus far, but between Fanboys and Ready Player One I think he has demonstrated a keen ability to connect with his audience without pandering. He successfully engages readers and viewers by simply sharing his love for all things relating to pop-culture from the 1980's, the science-fiction genre, and anything else that falls under the geek/nerd banner.

In Fanboys he expounded on his love for the (original) Star Wars Trilogy via multiple personifications of Star Wars acolytes in the form of the characters of the film. Even those on the fringe of Jedi worship know at least one person represented in his 2009 homage; each of those characters seemingly exemplifying a different facet of Cline's devotion to the series. The tribute, though, was finespun. Overt, without being excessive; complimentary without being deifying. A generally enjoyable celebration of Star Wars fandom.

Ready Player One on the other hand was about total obsession. Delving into the expanse of the RPO universe is as immersive as strapping into one of Wade Watts haptic rigs, donning the virtual reality headgear, and becoming a completely different person for the duration of your stay within its pages. I once tried to track all of the film, music, television, video game, sci-fi, and general pop-culture references in Ready Player One. It was impossible. I've read the book at least ten times since I first discovered it and I catch new references every time I revisit the world of O.A.S.I.S. It is the perfect and complete geek guide in the form of an exciting virtual treasure hunt. The surplus of references never feels like a deluge. Cline manages to buoy the story instead of drowning it.

Like Fanboys, Ready Player One is a tribute to the films, music, etc. that he grew up loving and gives one the sense of being included in his teenage excitement, like a kid being handed down his fathers comic book collection; it is that enthusiastic bestowing of passion that skyrocketed the novel to such heights of fandom.

So, of course, many of his fans (myself included) were excited about the announcement of a new offering from Ernest Cline, albeit, with understandable reservations and questions. How does one improve on the perfect first attempt?

Well, apparently the answer is - you don't.

Armada is the story of Zack Lightman, a gamer and (as you could guess) pop-culture aficionado. Zack is the only son of a single mother after his father perished in a factory explosion when he was an infant. He spends his time playing a video game, the eponymous Armada, with his two best friends. In Armada, the goal is to defend Earth from alien invaders from the cockpit of a futuristic spaceship. When Zack sees one of the enemy ships from his game outside of the window of his school he thinks he is going crazy. Shortly after, he finds out he is not, and is thrust into a real-life battle against the foes he has virtually battled for years. This trope has been visited countless times in science-fiction but I had high hopes for Cline's intonation. Unfortunately, Armada never really takes off.

Dissecting the narrative is like seeing an attractive visage of a beautiful woman smiling at you, then getting close and realizing she's nothing more than a cardboard cut-out. It's not the redundancy of the storyline but rather the execution. "Regular Joe saves the day" can be successfully reworked, but not if you don't even bother changing the guys name from Joe. The willing suspension of disbelief is suspended when there is nothing in which to ensconce your senses. If reading Ready Player One is a plunge off the high dive, Armada is spilling water on your toes from the water fountain.

The cast of characters in Ready Player One all had depth, vision, and an important role in the story. There was also a strong social commentary present regarding self-esteem and identity in the advent of technology that allows us to be someone different while online. Apparently, everyone in Armada is supremely happy with who they are. Even when they shouldn't be. The tiny dribble of substance that leaks through when two characters are revealed to be gay, however, is touched on for almost an entire paragraph. How generous.

I admit, it isn't necessary for every story to have a social conscience (especially in the sci-fi adventure genre) but if you're going to give a voice to a cause don't muffle it after a squeak.

Speaking of squeaks...

The big reveal towards the latter half of the book could not have been more obvious. You don't even have to try to guess at the surprise to get it. M. Night Shyamalan thinks the twist is obvious. There were times where I honestly thought to myself "Oh come on..." at some of the plot points. And that's coming from a guy who loved 2012.

My biggest worry with Armada was that Cline would have trouble making pop-culture references that he hadn't already made in Ready Player One. To my surprise he did manage to make mostly all new references. He also managed to shoehorn them into the dialogue with the skill of a guy using bad pick-up lines at a bar. Even the most obscure references in RPO had a reason for being. Armada was a carpet-bomb of contrived lines from sci-fi's B-list that landed like duds.

Cline is not the worlds greatest writer. As I sped through Ready Player One I was struck by how sophomoric some of the writing was. But, his shortcomings in regards to technically precise writing were eclipsed by a fantastic story. Unfortunately, Armada's technical failings only enhanced the jejune nature of the story.

It might be unfair to compare Armada to Ready Player One but it's an impossibility to refrain. If Cline had attempted something wholly different it might have been better realized. Like a Nicholas Sparks style love story. Although, if that happened, the climax would inevitably be:

"I love you..."

"I know."

(If you don't get that reference then I don't even know why you're reading this)

Regarding the ending of Armada I can say this: At least it wasn't the ending of LOST. He wasn't dead the whole time, it wasn't a dream, and it wasn't a computer simulation. So, I guess... that's good. Right?

I am left to wonder if maybe too much success came too easy on the heels of Ready Player One. Dan Brown had limited success with Angels and Demons and his other works that preceded The Da Vinci Code, as some of his previous novels were only moderately well done. But as The Lost Symbol wasn't a huge success, he came back strong with the fantastic Inferno.

Perhaps Cline can achieve that sort of resurgence with a subsequent novel. As for Armada, it's worth one go if you're a sci-fi junky or Cline devotee. Otherwise, read Ender's Game. Or Ready Player One (again).

Image - Amazon.