The meteoric rise of Ernest Cline should be an inspiration to all of nerdkind. I unknowingly first encountered his work when I read his Buckaroo Banzai sequel script that made the rounds in the early days of the Internet, and from there he went on to script Fanboys; a love letter to the Star Wars saga that was full of heart, even if the finished product was a little mediocre. His title of King of the Nerds was obtained with the release of his first novel, Ready Player One, in which young nerd everyman Wade Watts searches the virtual-reality replacement to the internet for an Easter Egg worth more than he could possibly imagine. Ready Player One practically became a nerd holy book overnight. The wildly popular tome was optioned for a film the day after release, and is currently in pre-production with Steven Spielberg sitting in the captain’s chair.
Last week, Cline’s second novel Armada hit book shelves everywhere. Less than a week later, it’s ranked 59th overall on the Amazon Best Sellers page, with a visit to the New York Times bestseller list almost guaranteed in the near future. It’s the story of Zack Lightman, a completely average, normal nerdy teen who discovers that his favorite video game is a lot more important than just entertainment. The question is: does Cline replicate the success he found in Ready Player One? Let’s find out…with minimal spoilers.
1. The Last Star Eagle Goes to Battle School
I was once told by my crazy great aunt that video games were a secret first strike weapon developed by Japan in order to turn Americans into fat, lazy sheeple, ripe for conquering. Cline’s plot in Armada is at least somewhat similar in theme, though certainly less nefarious. The governments of the world developed video games and science-fiction entertainment to prepare humanity for a forthcoming invasion from space, an invasion that is apparently hours away at the start of the novel. People from around the globe are drafted to fight an interstellar war they’ve known nothing about, including our hero, sixth ranked Armada player Zach Lightman.
If it sounds like a similar plot, it is. Armada’s plot is an amalgam of many of the stories it references. It’s like 1980s science fiction and action films had an orgy, and thirty-one years later The Last Starfighter gave birth to Armada. Readers of Cline’s past work expecting Armada to be new and groundbreaking will be disappointed, as Armada is much more of an adaptation than new material. Thankfully, for as much as the story borrows from films, shows, and books of the past (like Ender’s Game, The Last Starfigher and Photon), Cline has blended it up enough to keep it fresh. Armada won’t set any new standards in fiction like its predecessor did, but you’ll still have a good time along the way.
2. A Lesson in Conspiracy
I’ve been fascinated with the history of arcade machines since I was a kid, and it seems Cline is as well. While Ready Player One focused on the lighter side of gaming with Easter Eggs (hidden jokes and secrets contained in many video games since the Atari 2600 era), here Cline shines a flashlight on the darker, more nefarious areas of video gaming, including the military’s experiments, both real and imaginary, into video game development. He touches upon one of my personal favorites, the urban legend Polybius, as well as the development of Bradley Trainer, the real world’s first use of a video game for military training.
The concept of the government using video games to train the soldiers of the future is certainly a darker, and more grounded view than Ready Player One portrayed. Instead of a dystopian future where gaming, or rather the OASIS is a refuge, we see how easily technology can be used to manipulate us. It only takes seconds for me to boot up Call of Duty on my Xbox One and get fragged by an eight year old, an eight year old who might be controlling the military drones of the near future in a few short years.
3. I Understood That Reference
There’s no doubt that in the world of nerds, Ernest Cline is on the high score board. This is a man who could drive you cross country in his DeLorean, spitting out pop culture facts without repeating a single one. He has a true passion for pop culture, and it’s apparent in his writing. References pop up almost as soon as page one (actually page 5), and assault you almost relentlessly throughout the book. Even the dust cover references sci-fi that may be obscure for people under the age of thirty; the inner cover depicts the staple of Armada’s Earth Defense Alliance’s forces, the ADI-88 Interceptor, which looks strikingly similar to the Earth Defense Directorate’s Thunderfigher from Buck Rogers.
Characters are named after their counterparts in other media (Lightman, our hero is a reference to the young hacker of WarGames, while the school bully Knotcher is obviously based on a character of the same name in Iron Eagle), with tons of other references mixed in for good measure. It’s a model that worked well for Ready Player One, since that book is essentially a love letter to video games, but here it almost feels like too much. There are very few pages that don’t have a single reference to pop culture on them, and as the book progresses, some references will sail over the heads of people who never read Dune, Ender’s Game or other classic science fiction novels.
It’s almost like you HAVE to be a nerd in order to fully appreciate Armada, and while that’s fine for nerds like me, I can see how this would be disheartening to someone who picks this book up on a whim. At least Ready Player One came with footnotes; the amount of obscure references in Armada will have you reaching for Cliffs Notes.
4. Holy Shit, I Have to Finish
Armada is divided into three parts. The first describes Zach’s recruitment into the Earth Defense Alliance, the second explains what’s going on and the first major engagements between Earth and our invaders, and the third is the essentially the final battle. Part one spans, around one hundred pages, two almost double that, but the finale barely covers fifty pages. Normally I wouldn’t care too much about page counts, except that the entire third part of the novel feels rushed. The opening salvo of the war, The Battle of Crystal Palace (another Wargames reference) is easily the most exciting sequence of the book and had my heart racing, but the finale left me wanting more, and not necessarily in the form of a sequel.
Armada feels like the A New Hope of Ernest Cline books. It quickly established the main characters, throws them off on an adventure, and quickly wraps everything up in a nice package that alludes to a sequel if popularity warrants it. Ready Player One, on the other hand, is Cline’s combination of the entire Star Wars Trilogy. It’s a complete, stand alone work, whereas Armada feels like it’s just telling a small part of the story. The good news is, Armada‘s ending does setup the prospects for a sequel that could very well be more of a compelling read.
5. Control, Control, You Must Learn Control
Pacing was a major part where I felt Armada was lacking. Since the book takes place over the better part of two days, the entire operation felt rushed. The character of Zach is fleshed out enough that you care about him, but essentially all of the supporting characters feel like NPCs in a video game. You’re given just the basic information about the other members of Zach’s unit, with only quick glimpses into their back stories. The “romantic” subplot between Lightman and Lex is almost a joke, and essentially uses the female EDA captain for Deux Ex Machina purposes only.
At no point was the book not entertaining, so I feel Cline would have better served himself and his audience by making the story span more than just forty-eight hours. I would have been happy with a more drawn out story, spread over another hundred and fifty pages or so rather than feeling rushed once I finished the first part. While Ready Player One was only slightly longer than Armada, I feel the setting and the pace allowed the reader to become closer to the character. Instead, Armada feels like it’s paced to be a movie, or rather, the first of a trilogy of movies. Ironically, the movie deal was penned long before the book hit shelves.
6. Zero Gravity
While Ready Player One focused on a few central character and limited consequences, Armada ups the scale drastically. The future version of the Internet isn’t at stake, just the continuation of humanity as a species. It’s a big difference in the scale of the books.
As I followed the story of Wade Watts, a character I greatly identified with, I became absorbed by the story. As the events of Ready Player One took an unexpected turn for the dark, a huge bubble of anxiety rose up inside me. I was almost obsessed, reading through lunch breaks, flipping pages late in the night to try and find a release from the tension. It wasn’t until I reached the last page that I felt comfortable again. I felt like Bastian in The Neverending Story, skipping school to give the Empress a new (and pretty crappy IMHO) name.
While I also identified with Zach Lightman (I would love to know my video game skills could help defend the planet), at no point in his struggle did I feel myself slip into his shoes the way I did with Wade, even with the world and humanity at stake. I think that with Cline’s attempt to up the ante, he may have lost sight of the importance of his characters, something that also might have been rectified with another hundred pages or so.
7. High Score
One of the most immersive aspects of Cline’s writing is his obvious love of music. The rock of that era plays an important role in Armada, so much that the track listing of Lightman’s deceased father’s favorite arcade mix tape is featured in the back of the book.
While it’s mentioned periodically throughout the book, my appreciation for Cline’s love of music kicked in during the first major action sequence in the novel. As Zach enters real combat for the first time, his control station (which downloaded all of his music from his home computer) blasts Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me”, and as the battle unfolded, I swear I caught myself humming along and tapping my feet to a song that I wasn’t listening to (though I still prefer the version by the Kinks). It added a level of realism and contributed to the best action sequence in the book. I only wish later scenes with much more at stake were as entertaining.
8. It’s the End of this Review as We Know It
It was a daunting task to try and eclipse Cline’s first outing. While not all critics agree, Ready Player One was a nerd masterpiece, and any future outing from Cline will be held to the standards he already set. That being said, as much as Armada is not as good as Ready Player One, it stands pretty well on its own, and is an entertaining homage to The Last Starfighter, Iron Eagle, Wing Commander (the games, not the abomination that was the film), Ender’s Game, and so many other films, books, and games.
I’m almost committing a disservice comparing Armada to Ready Player One; they are two completely separate entities, and have little in common with each other aside from the tons of nerdy references and Cline’s obvious love for video games, science fiction, and other geek culture. This was Cline’s attempt at writing a tentpole summer blockbuster film, and he did a hell of a good job doing so. It was fun and entertaining, without requiring a ton of existential thought. The Shyamalan-style “twist” near the end is predictable, but leads to far more interesting potential for a sequel. For a summer “popcorn” book, it’s almost perfect, but people expecting the depth of Ready Player One will be left disappointed. Regardless, I’m looking forward to Cline’s next outing, whether it be a sequel to Armada or Ready Player One, or something entirely new, and I’m counting down the days to the film adaptations of both of his novels. Sheng-lee!
A fan of video games and science fiction from the moment he discovered his father's Atari 2600 and Star Wars, Jason Helton has been contributing to The Robot's Voice since 2011. Prior, he wrote for the UK's Den of Geek and was the producer and host of Iron Otaku Radio on XM's UPOP 29 channel. A die-hard fan of Battlestar Galactica (both old and new), Doctor Who, and pinball, you can follow him on Twitter @Razgriz1138.