With Armada, author Ernest Cline tries to re-create the success he found with Ready Player One, but his sophomore effort feels like a retread.
Armada is the tale of Zack Lightman, a high school student who lost his father to an accident at a young age. Zack is one of the world's best players at Armada, a space dogfight simulator that's one of the biggest games worldwide. Armada itself is one-half of a set, with adjoining title Terra Firma offering up a simulation of ground combat against the same alien force. One day while sitting in class, Zack looks out the window to see an enemy ship from his favorite game cruising around in the real world.
In short order, Zack finds out that Armada is not just a game, it's a recruitment vehicle for a real war and the local game store he works at is more than it seems. Armada and Terra Firma are simulators based on an actual alien foes who have built up an army over the year and are coming to destroy humanity. As one of the Top 10 Armada players, it's up to Lightman to join an elite drone squadron at the war's frontlines. Can he save humanity, or will he die in his elaborate drone cockpit?
The novel is part The Last Starfighter and part Ender's Game, cribbing concepts from both properties pretty heavily. Into this mix, Cline throws a few twists, but avid readers will guess each twist before it's revealed in the book. The ideas are telegraphed pretty hard, so there's very little in the way of surprise. Things happen in roughly the order you think they will.
The problem with Armada is it feels like it's trying too hard to deliver on the same elements that made Cline's debut novel, Ready Player One, successful. I hadn't read Ready Player One prior to getting this early review copy of Armada, so I picked it up. RPO was big on gamer culture and heavy into 80's references for games, movies, and television. It was a Willy Wonka-style dive in virtual reality, with one young gamer looking for the Easter Eggs that could potentially hand him control of a multi-billion dollar empire.
Ready Player was a solid, entertaining book. It wasn't the best novel I've read - some prose needed work and some of the characters, like the villain, were cardboard cutouts instead of real characters - but the premise was unique, the references were fun, and it all came to a satisfying conclusion. Combined with its unique love of everything gaming, it easy to see why Ready Player One succeeded.
Armada doubles down on similar ideas. To compensate for his lack of father figure, Zack has spent his life engaged with the same 80's pop culture that his father loved, watching the same films, reading the same books, and listening to the same music. The opening chapters are littered with offhand references. Within the first 15 pages you'll find references to Star Wars, Star Trek, Tron, War Games, The Last Starfighter, Cocoa Puffs, The Hobbit, Thor, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Say Anything, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Superman, and Battlestar Galactica. Expect far more over the course of all 349 pages, since you potentially get another reference every page or so.
An example, from the beginning of chapter 2:
I parked in the empty driveway and killed the engine, but I didn't get out of the car right away. Instead I sat there gripping the wheel with both hands, peering silently up at the attic window of our little ivy-covered brick house, thinking about the first time I'd gone up there to dig through my father's old possessions. I'd felt like a young Clark Kent, preparing to finally learn the truth about his origins from the holographic ghost of his own long-dead father. But now I was thinking of a young Jedi-in-training named Luke Skywalker, looking into the mouth of that cave on Dagobah while Master Yoda told him about today's activity lesson: Strong with the Dark Side of the Force that place is. In you must go, mofo.
Or this example from chapter 7:
"What the fuck is happening right now, ray?" I asked, unnerved by the amount of fear in mor own voice.
"'Somebody set up us the bomb,' pal," he quoted. "Now it's time to take off every zig for great justice."
He chuckled softly. I wanted to sock him in the face.
Most of Armada is written in a similar way. In Ready Player One, the references made sense because Wade Watts had been focused on a scavenger hunt for years. He and his peers were steeped in the pop culture needed to succeed in the hunt for most of their lives. The callbacks made sense and had a solid place within the context of the story. In Armada, they don't serve a similar point. Instead of enhancing the story, it feels like Cline is saying, "Hey, remember this great thing? Cool. Let's move on." If it was a TV show, I'd think the references were product placement. They add little to the story and the story itself doesn't illuminate any new facets from those older works.
Lightman himself has almost no arc and his journey in Armada is mostly conflict-free. Yes, he loses squadmates along the way, but you never really connect with those characters in any meaningful way. (There's a cocky love interest who probably should have been combined with another character, given how little she factors into the overall story.) They're a collection of various physical backgrounds and pop culture references, right up until they die. More time with these people and less time with the references would've helped Armada immensely.
Armada establishes that Zack has anger issues and problems listening to authority, but those facets aren't dealt with later in the novel. They don't hold him back at all. There's no struggle here, as Zack is handed the right tools and information at every step of the way. The biggest threat other than the faceless alien armada is a hardline military commander who simply doesn't want to listen because he's not in on the science-fiction references like everyone else is.
The pacing is also off. The book is split into three phases. Phase One is the introduction of the premise and Zack's first dogfight, all in 95 pages. Phase Two is the escalation of the war and covers most of the book, from pages 99 to 297. So Phase Three has to wrap everything up in around 50 pages. It feels rushed, with what should be the strongest sequences in the book rushing by a light speed. Events happen quickly, one after the other, and then the book is over. It's unsatisfying. Adding to that unsatisfying feeling is the fact that Armada earns one ending and then decides to completely throw that ending away, seemingly planning for a sequel.
I've wanted a sequel, reboot, or spiritual successor to The Last Starfighter for years. In Armada, Cline has a good premise to work with, but the execution is lacking overall. The story was predictable, Zack himself showed no real conflict, and his supporting cast passed in and out of the book like ghosts knowledgeable in pop culture. It's not a horrible book, but it's not a great one either. When I put it down, I felt no desire to revisit the novel or the world again. I can say Armada has a sense of fun, but it's entirely wish-fulfillment, like fan-fiction. "Zack is the best and you are too!" it wants to say. If that's your thing, Armada is worth picking up. If not, Ready Player One is Cline's better book and there are other novels that mine similar ground in a more enjoyable fashion.