This review was first published on my Goodreads account over here.
Sigh. I really wanted to like Armada. I really, really did. I thoroughly enjoyed Ready Player One, and was looking forward to Armada, like, a lot. I had multiple coworkers (I work in a public library) on the lookout for Express copies for me (new books that have a different code in the catalog so they can’t be put on hold; they are grabbable on a first-come-first-served basis), and eventually got an ARC from the purchasing department.
But Armada fell completely flat for me. It disappointed me on so many levels. And I want to make this clear: It’s not disappointing just because I had high hopes and it didn’t measure up. It’s disappointing on an objective level. The narrator character (Zack Lightman) is kind of a terrible person (it’s one of those things that could be mitigated by a secondary character pointing out his shortcomings, which would at least reassure me that Cline knows what a selfish shit his main guy is; but since he doesn’t, the jerkiness is just left hanging out there with no repercussions which makes it annoying. More on this later), and the plot is predictable. Horribly predictable. Like my friend who read it predicted the ending when they were maybe 70 pages in, and when I got to the end and told them they were right (I read faster than she does), their response in Google chat was, “UGH! what? no. what? UGH. but also sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
ooooooooooooooooooo predictable.” They did not finish the novel.
Okay, so. I will try to avoid spoilers insofar as I can, but I’m also feeling like avoiding spoilers is kind of silly since, if you have any knowledge of science fiction tropes/classics at all, you will totally see the end of this book coming.
Zack Lightman is a high school senior. There is a spaceship shooter game that he spends all his free time playing (Armada). Then one day a flying saucer lands on the lawn of his school, and Zack discovers that Armada is a real battle against real aliens, and an international coalition of space ship fighters needs him to enlist in the real fight and save the Earth. This is probably as good a place as any to get into my “Zack is a selfish dickhead” argument: Zack establishes at the outset (and at every possible point thereafter) that his dad died when he was a baby and that Zack has spent a significant amount of his youth digging through boxes of nerd memorabilia that his dad left behind, in the apparent notion that knowing what movies your dad liked is the same as knowing your dad. He’s been raised by his mom, who has never remarried, and is still obviously in love with Zack’s dad. So when a flying saucer lands on his school lawn and Ray (Zack’s manager from his part-time after school job) steps out and says he needs Zack to join an intergalactic fight against aliens who want to destroy Earth, what does Zack do? Does he think, “No, I can’t do that, I’ll leave my already grieving mother all alone”? Does he say, “Hang on, let me talk about this with my mom, since we’re a family and our decisions effect each other”? Does he voice one single thought for his mother at all?
No. No he does not. Just fucks right off onto the spaceship. Look, I know teenagers are selfish jerks (I was a selfish jerk when I was a teenager), and Zack in particular spends way more time talking about and thinking about his dead dad than his live mother, but it seems like maybe Ray, or somebody, would have been like, “Oh yeah, and dude, before we join this deadly battle, let’s at least make sure your mom knows where you are so she doesn’t panic when the school calls her and tells her that her only son left school after almost getting into a serious fight with a classmate and that nobody’s seen him since.” But no. Everyone just fucks off to the battle and doesn’t tell his mom anything. When he does finally think of his mom, it’s to use her loneliness and grief to manipulate and hurt another character, not out of any spontaneous and standalone feelings of love or loyalty.
Speaking of the fight that Zack had been about to get into when the flying saucer landed. That fight? He’d been about to brain a rival classmate of his with a tire iron. Now, granted, in his viciousness and stupidity, the classmate in question is reminiscent of Biff from Back to the Future, but still, a tire iron? This after almost begging to get into a fistfight the day before, and several mentions of “The Incident,” a previous feud between Zack and neo-Biff, which was memorable enough that all of Zack’s classmates are demonstrably still afraid of him (and which, seriously, Zack should have been arrested and/or put into cognitive therapy over). Guys. This is not how you introduce an audience to a hero, even a nerd-hero who is meting out vengeance to a jock-villain. There’s a concept (and a book) in scriptwriting that is embodied in the phrase “save the cat.” I’m going to go ahead and cut and paste the definition from wikipedia: “a term coined by [scriptwriter Blake] Snyder and describes the scene where the audience meets the hero of a movie for the first time. The hero does something nice, e.g., saving a cat, which makes the audience like the hero and sympathise with him. [Snyder’s] inspiration for this was the movie Alien, where Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley saves a cat named Jones.” Ernest Cline has apparently never heard of this concept, since he introduces us first to Zack’s rage and second his daddy issues. If nothing else, this book takes place post-Columbine and every other damned school shooting, and my ability to tolerate cartoonish levels of violence and stupidity in stories set anywhere in the vicinity of a high school no longer exists (I’m from Littleton, hi, nice to meet you).
Just about every review of Armada I’ve read talks in depth about Cline’s constant referencing of nerd books/movies/video games, so I won’t go into it much here, except I agree that a) it’s everywhere and b) it adds nothing to the narrative. In Ready Player One, the nerd nostalgia added to the narrative. It moved the plot forward. Here, it does nothing but save Cline the effort of having to actually describe things, and frustrate the hell out of me because telling me that a spaceship hanger looks “straight out of Battlestar Galactica” tells me precisely absolutely nothing because I haven’t seen Battlestar Galactica (I know, I know. I should see Battlestar Galactica. It’s on my list). Describing things in terms of other things relies on being reasonably certain that your audience has seen those things, and in my case at least, Cline is severely overestimating his audience’s nerd-culture literacy.
I think I will spend the rest of the review telling you this list of plot point predictions that I made that turned out to not be true.
-This book could have been a surprise Ready Player One prequel. The aliens invade and, instead of humanity winning, the aliens lay waste to the Earth and several years after that Wade Watts is born. Since none of the world governments have revealed to the population that the aliens exist, we can go with the “global warming screwed up everything” reality that Wade Watts accepts at the beginning of RPO.
-Maybe Dad is really dead but the EDA (Earth Defense Alliance) killed him because he stumbled onto their plan. Zack finds out halfway through, after enlisting in the EDA himself.
-Somebody declines to join the EDA after being told of the alien invasion, or demands third-party verification of their claims of alien invasion. We find out if people are actually allowed to voluntarily enlist/de-enlist in the EDA.
-Decent female characters anywhere? Anywhere? Anyone that isn’t a love interest? Anybody?
-What if Zack and the other gamers decide that they’re not actually okay with the fact that Big Brother has been watching them and filling files on them for their entire childhoods, and rebel and overthrow the American arm of the EDA (because they’re the best gamers in the world this should be well within their capabilities), and China and Russia are like, “Well, I guess we’ll save the world from the aliens then since America’s defense arm has completely disintegrated.”
-Zack could be a female gamer who joins the EDA to save the earth, but then becomes so disgusted and discouraged by the misogyny and abuse and terrible jokes that she’s subjected to by the many minions of asshole male gamers who surround her in the EDA, so she leaves and goes home to her boyfriend (or girlfriend), who’s been wanting to spend more time with her anyway, and they have mindblowing sex until the alien apocalypse happens. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SHUT WOMEN OUT OF GAMES, GAMERGATERS? THE PLANET BLOWS UP. Also, surprise Ready Player One prequel.
Random aside: Zack’s dad’s middle name is Ulysses and Zack’s dad’s dog is still alive (though ancient) and I hope you see and are as annoyed by this obvious nod to classic literature as me. Seriously, this is why there’s no worries about spoilers. The dad’s name is Ulysses. The dog is still alive. Worst broadcast of a twist in the history of ever.
Other random aside: In a world that has a wrist-watch gadget that can apparently instantaneously translate English to Chinese for the one Chinese character in the book, I’m incredibly annoyed by all the American characters who don’t even try to get their wrist-watch gadgets to translate Chinese into English so they can have easy conversations with the Chinese kid. All the burden of translation, if he wants to participate in the conversations at all, falls to the Chinese kid. That kind of sucks. Way to be ambassadors of American hospitality and openness, guys.
Just. Fuck this book. Seriously. I really really like Ready Player One, (there’s a review of it by me floating around on this site somewhere) and I really want Ernest Cline to keep writing, because I like the place that he writes from. I like Wade Watts (the narrator from Ready Player One), who is a flawed but decent person, who wants the world to be a fair and balanced place, who believes that even the schlubbiest nerd can be a hero. That’s the best side of nerd-dom, right there. That’s what I want to read.