I loved Ready Player One, so when I saw another book by Ernest Cline, I grabbed it. Armada is very similar, but not quite as great. It’s got the fun mix of characters, a good geeky premise, and adventure, but it just doesn’t quite have the sparkle that the other story does.
I wonder if maybe I didn’t love Armada as much because I was comparing it to its predecessor, and the significant parallels between the books make that really easy to do. Both books star flawed heroes with rough childhoods who are nearing the end of their high school careers, both heroes are talented techy geeks with a few good friends and mentor/heroes they want to be when they grow up. Both find out that there is more truth in their virtual/digital fantasy worlds than they would have believed, and both decide to fight the corporate/government to triumph for humanity. Both end up miraculously saving the day, and getting the girl they’ve had their eyes on. Both heroes have fixations on 1980s pop-culture, although Armada focuses more heavily on video games than anything else.
The biggest difference between the two stories is that Zack Lightman (I spent a good 75 pages trying not to think ‘Lightyear’), the star of Armada, gets to see a lot more real life. He watches his single mother try her best for him, he gets mad at a bully who torments a classmate, he sees friends die in the fighting that ensues for the fate of mankind, and he makes a decision about the fate of the human race which he is suspicious of at the end of the book. In Zach’s world, happy endings don’t mean you can forget all the badness that happened before, and this makes the whole situation by the end both seem a little less happy, but also more promising of a follow up novel.
The video game/space travel is a little bit more limiting in terms of action than virtual reality worlds, so that might also be something that brought things down a little. Armada is really all about battling space aliens, and trying to figure out the aliens’ motives. The war between species and planets gives a different vibe than humans trying to get the better of each other, which could explain a lot of the grittier elements, and the less interesting (to me) action scenes. I suppose my geek inclinations do lie more in the direction of classic fantasy than space science fiction, so that’s likely the main source of why I didn’t love this one as much.