Book Review: Armada

I’m months behind in writing my book reviews, and while I feel like I should finish my older reviews first, I couldn’t help but jump in to the current discussion surrounding Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada.

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Before I start my review, I feel the need to state that I am a huge Ready Player One fan.  I simply adore that book.  It is like a love sonnet to 80s pop culture, and it is honestly one of the best books I have read in recent years.  I also got to meet Ernest Cline (briefly) while I was at San Diego Comic-Con this year.  He seems like a really cool guy, genuinely enthusiastic about everything nerdy, and very grateful for his fans and all of the excitement over his first novel and upcoming film.  I was honestly really excited about the release of Armada.  Of course, the fancy Comic-Con swag didn’t hurt much either.

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I had pre-ordered a copy of this book almost as soon as it was available, and I’ve been waiting in anticipation for months.  When it came it had quite possibly the coolest inside of a book jacket I’ve ever seen, which definitely only made me more excited for the story that was contained inside.

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Yup, this is the *inside* of the book jacket. The outside, obviously, consists of trivial things like the title and the author’s name.
The back of the book also had a cool feature – an old Maxwell mix-tape of the main character’s father’s collection of gaming songs entitled “Raid the Arcade.”  As someone who had used Castle Anorak’s Soundtrack list to create a Ready Player One Playlist, clearly I would have to continue my love for all things Ernest Cline by creating an Armada Playlist as a follow-up.

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This was the sort of book I knew I was going to love before I even started reading it.  Video games, 80s pop culture, Ernest Cline, what could go wrong?  I even created a ridiculous hashtag on my social media: #ForgetGoSetAWatchmanImReadingArmada – attempting to gently prod my more literary friends who where almost overcome with excitement about Harper Lee’s novel that had been released on the same day.  Suffice it to say, I was beyond excited to read this book.  Which is why, I’m sad to say, I’m finding it almost physically painful to write this review.

Armada is an alien invasion story about Zack Lightman, a teenage boy who spends too much time playing video games.  However, it turns out his youth is not wasted, as his high ranking in the game world means he is actually a highly trained drone pilot ready to defend the earth from alien invaders!  Beyond that premise, the story essentially consists of Zack learning about his family, and comparing everything to events from 1980s pop culture.

I really wanted to be absorbed in this story, fearing for the lives of the main characters, worrying at their peril from the alien invaders, but I never really had that emotional connection.  Possibly because I was never really able to believe that these characters were teenagers in 2015.  This story’s main failing is that it is set in the present-day, but the characters feel hopelessly stuck in the past.  While in school the students are tormenting each other with spitballs.  Spitballs!  I’m sorry, but in today’s world when you have an uninterested math teacher you don’t pelt spitballs across the room.  You hide your cell phone on your lap and psychologically torment your neighbor through texts, tweets, and facebook.  I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of physical bullying, which is still a problem in schools, but, honestly, today’s kids tend to be more sophisticated and less obvious than that.  In a world without internet it would make sense, but, as computers and modern technology are a large part of this story, its lack of presence in the classroom feels a bit… odd.

Secondly, it was a bit difficult to believe how much 80s and 90s pop culture the main kids had absorbed.  Zack’s obsession with his father’s possessions explain his knowledge, which was fine, but his friends were a bit too old-school to be believable.  Honestly, their conversations would have confused many of my high school friends, and we were in high school when the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was being released.  Clearly, my ability to grasp a majority of these references means I’m the Zack of my high school group.  I’m not sure how I should feel about this.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I never really believed that the alien invasion felt real.  I remember being three quarters of the way through the book and thinking, “This can’t actually be happening.  Like, it just doesn’t make sense.”  Unfortunately, the main character points out many of the logical inconsistencies of the book, but even in his attempt to “figure it out,” it just makes the events seem even more ridiculous.  Everything just felt so… derivative.  I hate saying it, but there wasn’t ever really a moment when I accepted this scenario as realistic.   The ever critical suspension of disbelief never really happened for me, and, unfortunately, without that the premise of this book really falls flat.

It could have possibly been remedied by an interesting protagonist overcoming difficult obstacles, but even then I can’t find much merit in this book.  Despite the difficulties Zack had in childhood, he sort of gets everything handed to him on a platter during the invasion.  He gets the royal treatment as a top-ranked player from the Armada video game.  He sits next to the love of his life who, surprisingly, is pretty interested in a relationship despite knowing Zack for only a few minutes.  (Yes, yes, the impending doom of the Earth could be a nice incentive to hurry things up a bit, but still.)  He even finds a wise sage with all the knowledge and wisdom and advice he could possibly want (not saying who, because, spoilers).  Sure, he has a bit of emotional trauma to deal with, but, on the scale of all-out alien invasion, well it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  Even the ending felt a bit like a pat on the head.  I sort of assume than an epic war-like event involving an alien invasion would make things feel different for the characters, but, while the story sort of sums up the aftermath of the invasion, if felt as though nothing had really changed.

So, what merits does this book have?  Well, to be honest, I still think Ernest Cline is great at writing banter between characters well versed in geek culture.  I honestly wish I could be a part of these conversations.  They are the sort of ultimate argumentative geek out that people in convention lines are too polite to engage in and your real life friends aren’t well-versed enough to keep up with.  I appreciate Cline’s ever present sense of humor, and his creation of screen-names is really a treat.  You can feel his enthusiasm bleed through the page, which is really what kept me reading this book, more than anything else.  The quality of the writing itself is pretty good, it is just the story itself which is lacking.

I don’t really want to compare this book to Ready Player One, because, honestly, they aren’t really the same sort of story.  However, it is a bit of an interesting exercise to try and figure out why the first novel was so successful, and why this one isn’t.  Ultimately, I think it comes down to believability.  Ready Player One is set in the quasi-not-too-far-ish future, which, theoretically, means that the kids in that novel should be even less interested in 80s and 90s pop culture than the kids in Aramada are.  However, the RPO kids have a strong motivating factor that the Armada kids don’t – a desire to get out of the utter shit-hole they’ve been living in.  Let’s be honest – if the only distraction you had was the internet and an Easter-egg hunt based on 80s trivia with the potential for lots of money as a prize, then you’d be watching the heck out of Family Ties too.  The idea that humanity will have wrecked the environment to end up in such a state isn’t too hard to imagine either.  And from there the rest of RPO is an exciting adventure mixed with a fun romp through 80s nostalgia, which easily pulls the reader through the story.  With Armada, the idea of kids playing video games isn’t weird.  The idea of an alien invasion isn’t weird (or, at least, not new).  The idea of using kids and their computer game skills to fight an alien invasion also isn’t new.  And yet I never felt invested in this world.  I never loved these characters.  I never cared if things got better for them.  And I think it really comes down to the fact that I never really believed that these kids were the characters they were written as.  The older generation we meet later in the book felt almost indistinguishable from the younger, and I think that was a major problem – everyone felt kind of the same.

So, ultimately, I can’t say I really recommend Armada.  There are better things in the kid vs. alien genre out there.  And, honestly, if you are considering this book stop and go read Ready Player One instead, because it really is fantastic.  If I think about what I really get from this book it boils down to about three things: (1) my Comic-Con swag is still pretty cool, (2) “Raid the Arcade” is a pretty kick-ass playlist, and (3) Go Set A Watchman hasn’t been getting good reviews either, so at least my hashtag doesn’t make me look like too much of an idiot.

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