While I didn’t like Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, I do recognize that it has some very good ideas behind it, most notably the dystopian wasteland where everyone has access to a utopia. I find that setting brilliant, and it’s a shame it was left in the background. When I learned that Cline wrote a second novel, Armada, I decided I’d give him a second chance. He had the makings of a good book with Ready Player One; it stands to reason he’d improve and Armada would be everything the first one should have been.
I’d have never guessed it would actually be worse, though I suppose that’s my own fault.
Armada tells the story of Zack Lightman, a high school kid obsessed with video games and the 1980s, who is recruited into a secret government army bent on saving the world from an alien invasion. Their secret weapon: an army of spaceship battle drones and robots controlled via video game controllers.
In Armada the game is real. Zack has grown up in a world where Armada is the most played video game ever, though it’s really a top-secret government training program to help prepare the world for an incoming alien invasion. All of the drones used in the game actually exist, and they’re hidden all over Earth and controlled just like their video game counterparts. When the aliens show up, gamers everywhere can enlist and help defend the planet from their home computers.
The problem is, the first 1/3 of the book treats the main plot of the story as a bad conspiracy theory thought up by Zack’s dead father, yet any reader will know what’s going on because he read the back of Armada’s book jacket. I spent the first 85 pages wondering when something interesting was going to happen while I watched Zack and his friends play video games and have grating conversations about nerdy pop culture.
That’s an inexcusably long time to be bored. It doesn’t help that, just like in Ready Player One, there’s no real sense of danger throughout the entire novel. When everything is happening through a simulated video game, death means nothing. Even when the battles are flashy and filled with explosions, they never feel real. It’s not until around page 200 that Zack is truly threatened, but by then, I had stopped caring.
Good books can survive without any real sense of danger, drama, or action, but they need well-developed characters to do so. Armada has none of those. Zack Lightman is as bland as he can be, defining himself by his obsessions which aren’t interesting. His main character flaw is supposed to be an anger problem, but he only ever gets angry three times, and all for very justifiable reasons. He comes out on top every time, too.
The supporting cast are equally boring and nothing more than different variations on Zack. The love interest is Zack if he were a girl; one pilot is Zack if he were a bit more abrasive; another pilot is Zack if he were Asian; Zack’s mother is Zack if he were a mother; Zack’s friends are Zack but not as good at video games; etc. etc. etc. There are no characters here. None.
My biggest problem with Ready Player One was the intrusive 1980’s pop culture that existed on every page and took the place of descriptions, the punch lines to jokes, and world building. That returns with Armada in full force, though this time, there’s no excuse for it. At least Ready Player One had the hindsight to work the 1980’s into its world; here, it just exists, and it’s even more intrusive than ever.
Armada is a book where full conversations can be made up of quotes from movies, movie titles, and general word-for-word clichés to fill in the gaps. It’s shocking how awful it is. When Zack and Lex (the love interest) first meet up, they basically start spouting movie titles and giggling at how clever they are because they know the movie Escape from New York exists. Meanwhile, everyone else is afraid because the Earth is less than 24 hours away from being destroyed. I guess they should have watched more bad, 30-year old movies.
In a way though, maybe all of this is a good thing. Ernest Cline has proven that he cannot write dialogue, and substituting it all for movie quotes is somewhat of a step up in comparison to the grating, awful conversations that took place in Ready Player One.
Armada isn’t without its twists and turns, but they’re all shockingly predictable, and the last one is outright stupid. Here’s a book where you’ll able to call the ending around chapter six and then realize there’s an episode of South Park that does it better.
Perhaps the worst part is how seriously Armada takes itself. Because Zack knows his science fiction, he has a better grasp on what’s going on around him than anyone else. That’s fair. He’s the genre savvy hero in a piece of genre fiction. Yet he never uses his insight in any positive way other than to point out how one thing was sorta like Ender’s Game or some other piece of scifi media. What could have been an interesting deconstruction on the biggest scifi tropes turned into another story full of them, only now the hero points them out as if that somehow forgives their existence.
When scrutinized and reduced, Armada isn’t actually a novel. It’s a piece of wish-fulfillment fan fiction. I’m not one to play arm-chair psychologist, but after two novels where children obsessed with video games and pop culture save the world, it’s not hard to see that Ernest Cline is really the main character in his own books.
The Gary/Mary Stu is an annoying problem in stories, usually buff, handsome, without any real flaws. Someone who easily overcomes their challenges, and is always an author stand in. But different authors want themselves to be idealized in different ways. Bella Swan of Twilight seeks to be competed for, to be idealized and loved while also somehow acting as an outsider and mystery. Richard Rahl of A Wizard’s First Rule is the pinnacle of heroic masculinity as he goes from place to place, solving the world’s problems with libertarian philosophy. In the case of Ernest Cline, Zack Lightman isn’t a kid who squandered away his youth on bad movies and video games but a savior of the human race.
Armada and Ready Player One exist to make one author’s childhood retroactively awesome. That’s it.
In the end, Armada isn’t good enough to be a bad book. Never once was I angry at something that was happening; never once did I feel disgust or revulsion at how outright bad it managed to reach. No, the best I could muster was a strong sense of boredom and a bit of disappointment.
But that’s how I always feel when I read fan fiction.