Okay, let’s get this out of the way: If you’re looking to recreate the singular reading experience you had with Ready Player One, to recapture that same magical feeling of wonder and awesomeness, you’re going to be disappointed with this book. Just, straight up.
Armada is not RPO. They have similarities, but there also a lot of differences, and those differences are going to cause a lot of people not to like this one very much. Them’s just the facts. RPO, as far as I’m concerned, is one of those once-in-a-lifetime reading experiences that even its author will have trouble topping. It’s this magical hybrid of wonder and pessimism, childhood and adulthood, games and real life, and it mixes the format of the quest story (which is about as generally of an enjoyable human story archetype you can get) with nerd culture and nostalgia in a way that appeals to vast swathes of people. And even if you didn’t get 100% of what was going on, most likely there’s something in that book for you to love.
Not so with Armada. Armada is niche, and not just because you really have to love sci-fi and/or video games to like it. In a lot of ways, Ready Player One sort of transcended Ernest Cline’s writing style. You could love that style or just think it’s okay and still have a really fun time reading that book. The story just takes over. With Armada, though, if you don’t like Cline’s style, you’re probably not going to like the book. He uses pop culture references as emotional shorthand, his characters here are a bit on the flimsy side, and his writing is focused more on the action side of the story than the emotion. He also errs more on the side of passionate than clever. I’m totally okay with all of that, for the record.
Well, okay, Ashley, what about the actual book? Short answer is that it’s a meta-homage to science fiction and video games, and I had a really fun time reading it.
It’s about a kid named Zack whose status as an elite gamer earns him a position in the real-life fight against aliens, and if that sounds like The Last Starfighter or Ender’s Game, that’s very much on purpose. There are really two twists that Cline brings to the story, though. (Spoilers?) 1: The universe of Armada is really our universe, meaning all of our pop culture is their pop culture. Zack and his friends and family have all seen The Last Starfighter. In fact, that’s the entire point of the book. Serious premise SPOILERS here, you’ve been warned: The book posits that the influx of science fiction in all its forms was a conscious effort by the part of a shadowy organization in order to emotionally prepare the world for the imminent arrival of alien life, and not only that, but of the war that alien life has promised. Starting with Star Wars, all the way up to the latest edition of the Armada video game, which Zack plays in the very first chapter, it’s all designed not only to emotionally prepare people, but to train them to fight. Which brings me to the second thing Cline does a little differently, and which apparently was the actual inspiration behind writing the book. 2: He’d never seen a sci-fi film or book that used drones as weapons, which he says now kind of blows his mind. Why wouldn’t you use drones to fight your battles as an invading enemy? Why risk your actual bodies when you could . . . not?
Probably my two favorite things about this book were the ways that Zack (and thus Cline) kept pointing out all the sci-fi tropes he could, and explaining why they made no sense, and then actually making that an important part of the plot. I also really loved the relationship between Zack and his parents (his dad having died when he was a baby). SPOILERS highlight to read: Except his dad isn’t dead, he’s been in hiding and fighting the war, and Zack gets the chance to get to know him in the second part of this book.
But with that said, there was one thing that didn’t sit quite right with me about this. For one, the resolution to the mystery of his father’s death, SPOILER: I thought it was cruel for Cline to bring back Zack’s father, reunite him with his family, have him save the world by almost dying, and then just when you think he’s safe, he actually dies. And not only that, he dies for no actual reason I could see in the plot. His death was completely unnecessary and really kind of pissed me off, especially when we find out that he just so happened to knock up Zack’s mom in their one day reunion. He should have kept him alive. The book in general was a bit more brutal than I was expecting, but I could deal with most of it, because most of it made sense for the story.
All in all, Cline is still one of my favorite authors. Even if he never again writes something that I love so unreservedly as I love Ready Player One, he still writes fun, nerdy stories like no one else in the business right now. I will read anything he sees fit to write.