Okay. I’ve been sitting on this review for about two weeks, getting my head around how I felt about Armada for a bit longer, and 3.5 stars it is. It’s not a bad book — all things considered, it’s very entertaining — but even without comparing it directly to Ernest Cline’s first (and still best) book Ready Player One, it is precocious and simple in ways that aren’t completely flattering. There will be some spoilers below, and I’ll mark them.
In this paragraph, I will bring up Ready Player One for the last time, just to get its relevance to this review out of the way: I think a big problem with Armada was that Cline saw how people dug the panoply of 80’s nerd references in RP1 and then more or less turned Armada into what comes after “But wait, there’s more!” The nostalgia was built into the fabric of RP1: an eccentric billionaire creates a treasure hunt based off of all of his favorite things from the 80’s. By necessity, the story is immersed in the stuff. By contrast, in Armada, the references are hamfisted and packed in without any subtlety. The characters are obvious fans of the music, movies, games, and TV of the period, so it’s bound to come up from time to time, but the way the pop culture is inserted into the dialogue reminds me of that one friend who makes the joke and then goes “Get it?” Yes! We get it! In Armada, you have dialogue that goes:
Character 1: “[Star Wars quote]”
Character 2: “Nice Star Wars reference, man”.
Signposted with a cherry on top, as if Star Wars were all that obscure. All of this goes to say, I felt like the references were fun Easter eggs in Ready Player One, but in Armada they were gratuitous and overabundant in a way that transformed the characters from enthusiastic nerds into trivia robots.
So all of that stuff kind of got in the way of character development. Yes, Zack Lightman and his friends are nerds who are good with games and computers. And?
The plot is occasionally ridiculous and occasionally brilliant, and it was all together the strongest individual component of the novel. It’s 100% wish fulfillment, the idea that the video game you play religiously is actually training you to be an officer in intergalactic armed forces, prepared by your “time wasting” hobby to defend Earth. This is great! Cline’s particular stroke of genius that he winds into this basic trope is twofold:
spoiler if anything that unfolds in Armada sounds familiar, that’s because it’s as familiar to the characters as it is to us. The science fiction they (we) have been weaned on exists to prepare us for inevitable warfare against an alien race that has been making (allegedly) hostile contact for decades. Second, inconsistencies and plot holes in popular sci-fi are discussed by the characters in the context of “Why would the aliens do that?” It’s very meta, and very clever.
I was let down again at the end though. I think that as part of his effort to include and lampshade many of the more popular genre tropes, Cline included a character sacrifice that was as telegraphed as it was unnecessary. So though I suspect Cline meant for it to be somewhat ironic, I still think he could have gotten more creative mileage out of putting some kind of spin on it (and if you read the book and/or the spoilery section above, you know that “a spin on it” is exactly what the rest of this book is when it comes to tropes.) Furthermore, the ending is kind of glib when it comes to the aftermath of the war. It’s basically
spoiler “Okay, the aliens and us are all friends now, we passed the test, and since we’re cool enough to chill with them they’re going to give us all of their technology that basically cures cancer and every other illness and life on Earth is perfect now.”
/spoiler Again, it’s probably a way of poking fun at “happily ever after”, but it just didn’t work for me.
So, yeah. I feel bad: I can be kind of a nasty reviewer, because it’s always easier for me to articulate issues I had with something than what I loved about it. So, with apologies to Ernest Cline, in this review you get like four sentences praising the plot and another four paragraphs griping about the rest of it. So let me be clear! I still have net positive feelings about Armada. I’d still recommend it to friends who are into this kind of thing. And I’ll definitely still have Cline on my watch list for future releases.