For any gamer, the premise of Ernest Cline’s Armada is pure wish fulfillment: geeky teen Zack Lightman discovers that his favorite video game is actually a training simulation for a real life war against alien invaders. Suddenly, his leet skillz make him the most important person on Earth, and quite possibly the savior of humankind. But as he rockets from high school fights to airborne battles, Zack begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems…
If the premise sounds familiar, it should: it’s pretty much the exact plot of the 1984 film The Last Starfighter. Just like Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, Armada wears its influences on its sleeve (sometimes literally–Zach has a jacket covered with patches from classic video games). It’s full of quotes, references, and homages to films, books, and video games like The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Iron Eagle–not to mention Star Trek and Star Wars. At one point, Zack’s two best friends have a lengthy argument over which fictional weapon was the best, Thor’s Mjolnir or Frodo’s Sting (a fruitless discussion–the correct answer is obviously Axe Cop’s axe).
This kind of nerdy banter is one of the best things about Armada. For someone who likes video games, comics, and cheesy sci-fi movies, reading a book by Cline is like hanging out with a smart, funny friend. Some readers called Ready Player One “nostalgia porn,” but for me there’s a huge difference between Armada and cynical cash-grabs like Pixels: Cline genuinely seems to love this stuff, and love talking about it. In fact, one of the most fun and exciting moments in the book is just a play-by-play description of Zack playing his favorite video game.
Unfortunately this delight in all things geeky, which made Ready Player One such a joy, feels a little out of place in Armada. This is a book with a literal doomsday clock, a rapidly declining countdown until the aliens arrive and start tearing Earth apart. It feels a little out of place when characters take a break to make a Yoda joke or talk about their characters in Dungeons and Dragons. The tone swings wildly between grim war story, nerdy diatribe, and family melodrama. It’s as if Rorschach took a break in the middle of Watchmen to discuss what an underrated show Mork and Mindy was.
The ending of the book also feels rushed and incomplete. There’s a revelation about the aliens I won’t reveal here, but it’s foreshadowed so early and so frequently that when it finally arrives it feels a bit anticlimactic. What promises to be an epic final battle is compressed into a few short pages, and feels more like we’ve been given an outline of the battle than actually experienced it firsthand. It’s odd that this encounter falls so flat, compared to the exciting and downright joyful depictions of Zack’s in-game missions early in the book. The last two chapters feel like they could have been an entirely separate book, a condition I like to call The World’s End Syndrome.
Despite all this, I enjoyed Armada. I think Ready Player One is a better book–it has fewer weaknesses, and they are easier to ignore. But for anyone who has ever cranked up the stereo, fired up some video games, and felt like a hero, Armada is a welcome escape. If nothing else, it would make a terrific movie. I can even think of a title…
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars