Published by Crown on July 14th 2015
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Also by this author: Ready Player One
Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.
But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.
And then he sees the flying saucer.
Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.
No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.
It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?
At once gleefully embracing and brilliantly subverting science-fiction conventions as only Ernest Cline could, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming of age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one whose every page is infused with the pop-culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.
Zack Lightman is a teenager obsessed with video games (but then again, what teenager these days isn’t?) His uniqueness comes from his obsession with 80s music, movies, and all things science fiction, but this is mostly because his dad was obsessed with those things and he died when Zack wasn’t even a year old. Buried in the personal effects he left behind, Zack discovers some of his journals which detail a possible government conspiracy where video games are actually a tool used to prepare people for a coming alien invasion. Zack thinks his dad was just a little loony towards the end but the harsh reality is his dad wasn’t too far off base with his theories. The end of the world is apparently coming and Zack and his video game buddies are the only ones properly trained to hopefully save the world.
After the success of Ready Player One, Armada could not come out soon enough. Per the summary, it still had the wonderful nerdiness we’ve come to expect from Clines and an interesting twist on video games and a fictional take on the importance in our culture. Yet in Armada, something special was distinctly missing. The complexities of the virtual world named OASIS that Cline created in Ready Player One was understandable, engaging, and tons of fun making you feel like you were along for the ride (even if you weren’t a bigger gamer like me.) In Armada, too much time was spent on the page count before the action actual began (100+ pages) as well as the details of the actions within the game that became inexplicably harder to understand as we got deeper in. The details of navigation (they were primarily flying drones) were given in place of actual action and it was hard to get a feel of things despite the fact the descriptions should have been able to put you smack dab in the driver seat. Maybe because RPO took place in a dystopian future made the concept easier to swallow, or maybe this is just an unfortunate sophomore slump.
The Last Starfight and Ender’s Game (or of course the book) both touch on the same subject: master video gamers are enlisted to save the world from invading aliens. The (slight) difference is the overabundance of pop culture references on just about every single page of this tale and how this pop culture knowledge is also key to helping to combat the invasion. The fact that RPO also focused on pop culture references worked better since the world they currently lived in left much to be desired. Those characters obsession with this particular section in time was viewed as a form of escapism more than anything. Zack Lightman is an 18-year-old kid in present-day who listens to Rush and apparently doesn’t watch any movie that wasn’t released in the 80s. Highly unlikely, even if this obsession is fueled by a father he never met. The whole story essentially felt like fan-fiction written by a gamer who daydreams how his video games skills will one day pay the bills. Or save the world in this case.
At this point, I get it. Cline loves the 80s. The music, the movies, and all the science fiction. If he keeps up the trend of going overboard with the 80s pop culture references in his next novel, I think he’d be better off actually setting the story in the 80s. But first and foremost, I’d like to see him come up with something new and original instead of playing off the same dated sci-fi tropes.