When I found out that Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, was putting out another novel, I was so eager that I didn’t even bother to read anything about , this tale of aliens invading Earth and the humans who defend us by playing videogames. I just put it on my Audible pre-order list, and hunkered down patiently like a UFO abductee waiting for the mother ship to return. Unfortunately, this novel did not come close to living up to the originality, complexity or pure fun of its predecessor.
Armada features Zack Lightman, a teenager who grew up without a father after he died in a workplace accident when Zack was a child. Like many kids these days he’s a huge fan of videogames and, in particular, plays an alien invasion combat simulator called “Armada” with his buddies every day. When Zack starts to learn about how the aliens, ships, and reality of his videogames may be a little bit true, he draws connections to some of his father’s old journals where his father had some pretty wild theories about how aliens and space were being depicted in our pop culture. This sets up a bit of a mystery for us the readers about what the connections are really all about, and an expectation of a big reveal. Tragically the payoff is pretty disappointing.
Just like Ready Player One, Cline seems to target his writing at the nerd/geek community who already love sci-fi and can understand and get excited for the many (often unqualified) references he makes to everything from Close Encounters to Star Wars, even to obscure movies like They Live. But that nerd-appeal alone (even if you have all kinds of characters really getting into the movie quotes, etc.) is not enough to sustain our interest. There still needs to be an interesting, exciting, original story. In Armada, this idea of a conspiracy that plays with our pop culture and sci-fi is a great start, and the whole time I was expecting a twist or big reveal, but what came up at the beginning (that maybe the aliens are real) was not much of a surprise; and the big twist at the end (no spoilers here) was a kind of a fan-insulting cliche.
The characters were also ridiculous: some were teens, some were adults, and some were even in the military, but they all seemed to be spouting off the same kind of geek-speak that you’d more expect to find at Comic-con, rather than in a serious crisis situation. This rag-tag group of individuals were supposed to be defending Earth from an alien invasion? Granted, it’s a light-ish sci-fi novel, so it’s not claiming to be realistic, but it’s even more simplistic than any bargain-bin movie with cheesy effects and lame dialogue.
I don’t know what this says about Cline as an author. Was Ready Player One just a fluke, or was he a victim of the sophomore jinx? I’m hoping it’s the latter and that he still has some good books in him. In the same way we wouldn’t want intelligent aliens judging the entire human race on our worst individuals, I guess we shouldn’t do that for Cline’s work either. How’s that for an evolved sense of generosity? (3 out of 5)