Sunday, August 9, 2015

Staff Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

I’ll admit it. I'm a fan girl. I was more than ecstatic that Ernie Cline’s long-awaited book Armada was finally released. His previous book, Ready Player One, was such a fun adventure – nostalgic about the past, but set in a dire and ugly future landscape that everyone escapes by going to a virtual reality called “OASIS” to live their lives. Cline has such an extensive vocabulary of 1980s popular culture, that it permeates the whole book. In Armada, Cline takes us through similar tropes – video games, nostalgia for the 1980s popular culture, adventure, and a very important quest.

Zach Lightman is 18 years old and he has spent his childhood angry at the death of his father when he was only a baby. He lives with his widowed mother (who sadly never found love again) and spends many hours going through boxes of his father’s old belongings. His father was killed during the 1980s and most of his belongings portray a life deeply immersed in video games, popular science fiction films and space-themed paraphernalia. Zach takes on these interests, becoming an expert in his own right. He gets a job at a local arcade and becomes one of the best ranked Armada video game players in the world. Armada is a flight simulation game – the plot of which imagines a war between the people on earth and alien invaders called Sobrukai. Armada players fly unmanned drones that shoot down the alien spaceships.

Life changes for Zach when he looks out of his classroom window and sees one of the alien spaceships hovering in the air above his town. A Sobrukai craft. The same spacecraft he knows so well from his video game Armada. Zach soon discovers that his talents as a gamer (indeed the talents of all Armada gamers the world over) are needed to help save the universe from alien invaders. What follows is a whirlwind of flight simulation, discoveries about the universe, and betrayals and secrets that challenge everything Zach knows about his life, his history and his father.

This book felt heavier than Ready Player One - it doesn't have the sense of lightness that RPO had, even though RPO was set in a much bleaker landscape. The 1980s references and knowledge the main character had in RPO helped him through the story. In Armada, having the knowledge of his father’s past feels like a burden to Zach and one that holds darker implications. Also, unfortunately, it seems that the references don't actually move the story forward, nor do they play much of a role in the plot. They seem to be there just as gratuitous elbow nudges.

This book is very similar to existing stories - like The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game. This is freely acknowledged in the book and I think this book was meant as a nod/tribute to these stories. The numerous acronyms, combined with flight simulator equipment, functions and warfare strategies, were a bit heavy handed for me and I felt a bit lost at times. It took me out of the story. I was spending too much time trying to imagine just exactly what flight maneuvers he was doing, rather than focusing on where the story was going.

Zach’s general smart-assery betrays his absolute terror of what is happening to the world around him. One feels for Zach as he tries to handle all that is heaped upon his plate, but we don't quite know if he realizes it or if he is just in shock. His sarcastic and witty remarks do tend to ring a little desperate and look like a defense mechanism against the chaos. We don't get into Zach's head enough and so he fell a bit flat for me.

My conclusion: I think expecting Armada to be RPO all over again, though, was going to be a letdown no matter what. And it is not exactly fair to compare them, but of course that is what readers do. But I would definitely give this author another chance. I do think he is an inspired writer and I love the blending of "popular culture as character" into his works. Plus, Cline owns and drives a DeLorean. Come on now. I’d give Armada a C+ for effort.

~ Angie, Adult Services



  1. I agree. I think the book had some issues anyway, but I was more disappointed because I was hoping for another RPO (even though I knew it wasn't going to happen).

    1. Ready Player One was so fantastic, wasn't it? I still have high hopes for future books by Cline. I know he can tell a good story. Have you read "For the Win" by Cory Doctorow or "Reamde" by Neal Stephenson? They are supposed to be similar. They involve online gaming and its impact on the real world. They are definitely on my to-read list.