BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Zach Lightman discovers that the alien conspiracy theories his deceased father believed are all true and the government has used video games to train the population of Earth to fight back.
PROS: Great dialog; inventive video game systems; chock full to bursting with geeky pop culture references
CONS: Manic pixie dream girl; one-dimensional characters; action happens too fast, rehashed plot (if you’ve read Ender’s Game or seen The Last Starfighter, you know this story); story felt unbelievable and the characters make some bizarre choices.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun summer popcorn-flick of a novel that gets mired down in unbelievable situations and tired tropes.
Ernest Cline has a lot to live up to. His debut novel, Ready Player One, was one of the best books I read in 2011. I made everyone I know read it. My sister, who doesn’t like science fiction or video games, loved it for the abundant 80s references. A gamer friend of mine who doesn’t know anything about 80s nostalgia went crazy for the cool MMORPG parts. Everyone who read it found something to enjoy. To say that Armada, his second novel, had a lot of hype around it is an understatement.
For the most part, Armada lives up to the hype. It’s a genuinely fun book and very easy to read. Cline’s sharp wit and comedic timing is put to good use here and it continues Ready Player One’s tradition of 80s reference nostalgia. There are some parts that are so vivid, like the first time we see the main character play Armada (the video game the book is named after), that I ended up having Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust stuck in my head just like the lead character did. This book does not want for cool scenes of video game daring do.
The part that sadly falls flat are the characters and most of the plot. Armada isn’t a new story. If you’re a science fiction or video game fan you know this story already. Bright, talented kid with a gift for gaming discovers that the video game aliens are real and heading right for Earth leaving him the only one who can save humanity. Zach Lightman is our hero in this story, a high school senior with a bit of a temper problem and a serious addiction to playing Armada. He’s ranked sixth in the entire world in it, in fact! One day he spots an alien ship from the game buzzing by his high school and reality as he knows it changes. The aliens are real, they’re angry and they’re going to attack in less than forty-eight hours.
Zach is a good narrator. He’s a touch too angsty and a bit too trusting but he tells the story competently and it’s enjoyable to follow along with him. Sadly the same can’t be said of the rest of the cast. Since the story is told completely within the span of about forty-eight hours none of the other characters ever begin to seem real or lived in. They’re like NPCs (non player characters) in a video game, set up to tell the hero what he needs to do on his quest and not much else. Cline tries to give them depth but they’re still broadly sketched and I found myself completely disinterested in their fates. We’re clearly meant to feel for them, since some perish during the alien battles, but we are never given the time to form a bond with them. Their deaths left me cold instead of moved. One character is brought on as a love interest for Zach and sadly does not rise above being a manic pixie dream girl. Lex had a lot of potential to be a fantastic character but she’s relegated to the background and only brought up when Zach is feeling lonely. It was really annoying, I wanted to see more of her. In a novel full of interesting male characters, the female characters felt sort of like afterthoughts.
The plot doesn’t rise above the references it’s resting on. Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly fun with some great one-liners and some very cool space battles, but it just can’t seem to become more than a pastiche of other works. It relies heavily on well-worn tropes: the teenage boy who becomes the chosen one; a character everyone thinks is dead who really isn’t; terribly complicated government conspiracy; aliens who aren’t what they seem. There are some moments that are so unbelievable and over the top that I kept thinking “this is too much, this is where Cline will subvert these tropes and surprise me!” but he just plodded along with them instead. I think if the action took place over a week or a month everything would have worked better. He’s shoving an awful lot into only 48 hours and it just never comes together. The ending feels rushed and clichéd.
Despite everything, I still ultimately liked Armada! It’s a fun, pop culture-fueled space romp but it won’t really surprise you. It’s the novel version of a summer blockbuster and, in the end, there isn’t anything wrong with that. It’s cheesy, popcorn entertainment perfect for a lazy summer afternoon. I just wish there had been more to the book because it made a lot of promises that it just couldn’t deliver on. If you loved Ready Player One like I did Armada will seem like familiar ground but it will leave you wishing that Zach Lightman was playing OASIS instead of Armada.