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Don’t compare it to Ready Player One…
Don’t compare it to Ready Player One…
This was the mantra I kept repeating to myself as I cracked open Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada. Ready Player One was, in my opinion, one of the best sci-fi novels of the past decade, if not ever (not to mention, one of my favorite books ever, period). It had everything a novel would need to capture a 20-something geek’s imagination and nostalgia:
And most importantly, perhaps, to the book’s success? A plot that made perfect sense, and was darn good even if you didn’t get any of the references. It’s famously described as “Willy Wonka meets the Matrix” for a reason.
So, despite myself, I was obviously quite hyped for Armada, despite my best efforts to remain neutral. But to be honest, even when I was originally reading Ready Player One, I kept telling myself “This feels like a really good idea that the author worked on for years and years, and it finally bloomed into perfection.” Sometimes, you reach a peak, and you spend the rest of your days trying to find that greatness again. Stephen King and The Stand, for instance. Or Michael Jackson and Thriller.
So I was kind of hyped, and yet kind of not for Armada.
The blurb reads like this:
Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.
But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.
And then he sees the flying saucer.
Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.
No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.
It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?
At once gleefully embracing and brilliantly subverting science-fiction conventions as only Ernest Cline could, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming of age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one whose every page is infused with the pop-culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.
Sounds like fun to me. But was it worthy of the hype, or did it sputter?
The plot. Well, that should be obvious. The plotline is a slam dunk vehicle for greatness. It’s got aliens, and starships, and that crazy scenario all geeks daydream about in high school. You know the one: where you’ll be whisked away to save the world because of some badass skill you have that no one else does. It’s very much a cross between The Last Starfighter (for the best kids at a specific videogame being called upon to save the world) and Ender’s Game (Kids saving the world from alien invaders, and they don’t even know the truth about the situation). The Last Starfighter is cheesy 80s sci-fi goodness, but Ender’s Game is simply one of the best sci-fi novels ever written, in my estimation. A combination like that can’t really miss. Not to mention the former has a really underrated quote/deathscene.
The gamer nuances. As someone who has played a lot of games online, I can always spot when a writer has actually done the same, or is just trying to mimic it. Cline clearly has put work into some games on the internet. RedJive’s “You’re welcome” macro is very similar to something friends of mine do every time they score a kill. That macro, and Zack’s reaction to it, were so authentic that it made me chuckle.
The references. This will… take some explaining.
For the same reasons that the constant pop culture references made Ready Player One so great, it made Armada kind of suck. Why do I say that?
It’s pretty simple. Part of the sheer genius of RP1 was how the plot was structured to make the references (a very specific set of references, at that) not only relevant to the plot, but also vitally necessary. The players had to immerse themselves in 80s culture to have a chance to win OASIS.
What motivation do they have in Armada? Erm, well… they’re nerds? That actually works for a chunk of the references, but so many come across as forced, the kind of conversations that you’d expect the socially awkward neckbeardy type of people at cons to have, not socially adjusted high school kids that are good looking enough to score chicks when they need to/want to. They were done without any sort of finesse this time around, and that’s a shame. There’s a difference of passion behind it. If they’d been doing it in a slightly more laid back manner, it’d be okay. But to passionately argue over legendary nerd weapons like you’re on a elementary school playground? It made me wince. And I’m a one man wrecking crew at geek trivia nights. If you read anything I write at all, you KNOW I am not claiming some high ground here. I am a super nerd too, you know. But the references were weak.
And do you honestly expect me to believe that high school kids of today know what in the blue hell The Brady Bunch is, let alone know the theme song enough to parody it? There’s few things more sloppy than an older writer projecting their knowledge onto a younger character with next to nothing to back it up.
I mean, RP1 had the occasional wince inducing references too. Like the Delorean with the Ghostbusters logo on the side. But it was so good, you just sort of smiled and kept going. This book didn’t have that going for it.
Which brings up another point…
The characters. Absolutely none of them even come close to what was realized with Wade Watts. Or any of his friends. The characterization is almost non-existent, and you know why? Because half of the words they say are quotes and references to something else. When something like this happens as often as it does in this book, they cease to be characters, and become quote machines instead. Almost every single character does this, to some degree. It’s fun in small doses… when it makes up the majority of what they say, it feels like the author couldn’t think of anything more personalized for them. For a reader like me, who is characters > story, this is a big problem.
The climax/ending. The entire story feels rushed, to be honest. But especially the ending. The plot is explicated, wrapped up, and given an ending within 10-15 pages after the major battle ends. It feels as rushed as a term paper that was worked on the night before. And it feels awfully convenient, too. “We won, so the world gets a solution to hunger, poverty, and energy as a reward!” I don’t care how large the stakes were for the rest of the book – when everything is wrapped up that neatly and quickly, it gives that feeling like it was rushed along.
As much as I wanted to like this book, I just couldn’t. It had too many weaknesses, and not enough craft to counteract the reference-heavy plot and dialogue. I’m sorry, but no matter how much you may reference other sci-fi books within your book, it’s not going to lampshade the fact that your own work is experiencing a serious dearth of anything that might resemble a new idea. For a book inspired by so many sources, it’s sort of amazing how uninspired it feels when you actually read it.
It’s a shame. Hopefully the sequel will get it back on track.
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