“Armada” by Ernest Cline Fell Short

“Armada” was released in 2015 amid great anticipation as the new novel from Ernest Cline, the author of “Ready Player One” and the screenwriter of “Fanboys.”  I had mixed feelings about “Ready Play One” but I generally enjoyed that book as a page-turner with an interesting gimmick that played to the author’s strengths.

My feelings on “Armada,” which was unrelated to “Ready Player One” in terms of plot but was still very comparable in tone/spirit, ended up being similar to that of most reviewers.  It felt like Cline doubled-down on the pop culture references with “Armada” while allowing the book’s plot wheels to fall off.

Readers looking for alien invasion action in “Armada” would despair but I rejoiced that the book featured thankfully few actual battles.  I say ‘thankfully,’ since the action that the book contained was extremely boring to read.  Imagine reading about the novelization of an online cooperative videogame’s battles and you get the idea why it might not be overly exciting.

The book’s one trick that was sort of compelling involved the claim that all of sci-fi’s major milestones since the mid-1970s were in some way positioned or influenced to condition humanity to be ready for a pending alien invasion.  The invasion would be coming from aliens under the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa and was foreshadowed when an early space probe came across a swastika on Europa.  Debate as to if that swastika was meant to reference Nazism or if the swastika’s more-peaceful historical past led to confusion over the aliens’ motive on Europa.  Hostilities with those on Europa eventually escalated though and a secret global alliance on Earth was finally made public on the eve of a seemingly unstoppable alien invasion.

On the surface, that idea had potential but would obviously seem like a heck of a stretch to sell.  Cline never quite made this notion work since it seemed so implausible that humans had somehow kept secret the construction of massive numbers of giant military bases (including one on the Moon) and associated equipment.  The plausibility was justified with remarks such as blaming global warming and various financial crisis-es on these construction efforts.  There was a certain romantic whimsy to this notion that everything was all related but it ultimately blended together like something that I might have cooked up with some friends in elementary school when we used to have those sorts of conversations.

The immediate plot itself revolved around teenager Zack Lightman (yes, that was his name), whose video game-loving father died under mysterious circumstances (obvious spoiler – he’s not dead but was an early recruit to fight the alien war!).  Zack was raised by his single mother, had documented anger issues, and generally played video games to pass his time.  No, he was not a very likable guy.

Zack’s long-term career plans involved trying to continue working at the money-losing video game store where he’s had an after school job.  Luckily for Zack, he’s the #6 ranked player in a game called Armada and that puts him in a top position when the alien invasion was announced.  Armada happened to be a training simulator for piloting real space drones against the invading forces.

It took nearly 100 of the book’s 400 pages to establish Zack’s rather mundane life.  The next 200 pages were about a few hours leading up to the alien invasion, with Zack meeting his father (now a General!) and other top players.  The last 100 pages focused on a couple of battles in the alien invasion and a ‘big twist’ ending.  Surprise:  The ending wasn’t any different from what you’d find in the usual 3 or 4 ways that alien invasion stories tend to end.

(As a review, these types of endings usually fall into one of the follow categories:  virus kills them, we fight them back, or it was all just a test… the ending of “Armada” was one of those usual suspects).

The pop culture references, most oddly-particular to the 1980s, saturated the book’s every page.  There was a plausible excuse made for Zack being obsessed with the 1980s as a way to cope with losing his father and that interest being his way of getting to know the father that he never knew.  The fact that everyone else in the book spoke in the same era-centric references didn’t make a lick of sense and became grating at times.  We would only hope that if aliens did really invade Earth, our top military minds wouldn’t be constantly using over-used lines from old movies.

Cline had a few odd quirks in mind beyond the constant pop culture references.  In particular, his notions about sexuality were bizarre at times.  An earlier indicator of this oddness was the main character going on in first-person narration about how hot his single mother appeared.  She’s a nurse who was 38 or so but apparently looks 28 and was always catching the eyes of men.  But, she’s a geek at heart, watching Doctor Who and playing video games with her son.  What?  Really?  To be candid, the woman described as the protagonist’s mother was the proverbial unicorn and surely just middle-aged Cline’s wish fulfillment whimsy.

Zack ended up being about the only character in the novel that didn’t get laid within hours of the pending invasion.  He did start a relationship with a quasi-long distance girlfriend though, in the form of an older woman (Zack was still a senior in high school) who happens to be a computer genius.  Just like in “Ready Player One,” Cline shoe-horned in a gay character seemingly just for the sake of trying to make the novel seem more ‘diverse.’

One bit about everyone (minus Zack) getting laid:  Cline seemed convinced that most people would be focused on getting laid right before the alien invasion(s).  I guess that there was probably a biological impulse that one could argue in that regard, but the result in this case felt particularly juvenile.  If you were part of a small group that was being tasked with leading the response to an alien invasion in less than an hour, would your first thought really be on getting laid with some strangers that you had just met?  Maybe, but that wouldn’t be amongst my immediate priorities.

Late in the book, Zack’s parents were reunited after nearly twenty years of being apart.  The next wave of the invasion was about to arrive and Zack’s father was recovering from various medical traumas, literally coming out of unconsciousness amid a massive concussion.   Of course, the parents (including the medically-trained mother) decided that it was a good idea to have sex in what was likely a throwaway scene to set up a groaner of an epilogue result.

Cline also had an odd habit of making fleeting reference to religious caricatures in his characters.  Certainly it would make sense for religion to be mentioned in the context of life existing on other planets but Cline never played those ideas out.  Rather, he set up bland notions of people reflecting certain religious opinion stereotypes and used those stereotypes for brief conflicts.  Then, the topics were dropped.

Speaking of ill-conceived character elements, Cline had a modest technical background yet some of his plot conveniences involving computers were head-shakers.  For example, Zack’s new girlfriend was able to instantly hack all around a military computer’s operating system due to it supposedly having common vulnerabilities (!?).  Also, all of the recent recruits were issued special smart phones and she was able to perform all kinds of tricks to make the phones operate in ways that were convenient to the plot.

The use of Zack’s father in the story was particularly frustrating.  The see-it-a-mile-away obvious character arc would be to kill off the father near the end, leaving Zack to carry on alone.  The story played into that cliché but then seemed to defy it by momentarily allowing the father to live.  He didn’t last very much longer though, as a second ‘sacrifice’ scene later played out.  As a result, readers were treated to having to slog through the predictable aftermath as Zack was left anguished after having rediscovered his father only to lose him again.

Ultimately, these points were all a collection of annoyances amid the backdrop of a larger problem.  Cline did a nice job of critiquing the problems with past alien invasion fiction often containing large plot holes.  He set up a certain expectation that he was going to serve up an interesting new way of telling these sorts of stories but he didn’t actually deliver anything new.

It was disappointing that Cline’s financial success, book sales, and likely continued rise in profile will only validate what seems to be an unsustainable creative direction for the man.  He seems likable and genuine in interviews but his work is heading in more of a ‘lowest common denominator’ direction rather than growing into anything that will be considered profound or even remembered.

D.S. Christensen
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