Ernest Cline had remarkable success with his 2011 debut novel Ready Player One, a science fiction romp about an elaborate virtual Easter egg hunt that was fuelled by geek trivia and ’80s pop culture references. Mining the vaults of nostalgia worked so well for him the first time round that he decided to do it all over again in his second book, Armada.
Set in the near future, Cline’s latest novel follows the story of Zack Lightman, a nerdy high school senior obsessed with all things sci-fi. An avid gamer, the teenager spends way too much time playing videogames, especially Armada, a popular online flight simulator, dedicating his nights and weekends to protecting a virtual earth from fictional alien invaders. His life takes an unusual turn, however, when he notices a spaceship in the sky while staring out of his classroom window one day, only to realise that the flying saucer looks just like a Sobrukai Glaive, one of the fighter ships piloted by the aliens in his favourite videogame.
The sighting leaves him questioning his sanity, while reminding him of the conspiracy theory his late father, Xavier Lightman, had detailed in one of his journals. Before his death when he was only 19 and Zack was just a baby, Xavier had made notes about a top-secret project that he believed he had uncovered, suggesting that the US military was working in collusion with the entertainment industry to prep the populace for the impending arrival of extraterrestrial beings through alien-invasion-themed movies, shows, and books, while readying them for combat through training simulators in the form of videogames.
Ernest Cline’s second science fiction novel is as far away from hitting all the right notes as it could be
Zack soon discovers that he hadn’t been hallucinating about the spacecraft. The ship he saw was, in fact, real, and his gaming expertise, as well as the skills of all the gamers around the world, is the only thing that can save the planet from annihilation.
Drenched in geek references and overdosing on nerd nostalgia, Armada stumbles from one pop culture nod to the next without saying anything substantial in between. Cline lazily relies on the efforts of better writers, using fragments from their works to evoke emotions instead of bothering to do so himself. For instance, instead of telling us how Zack actually feels, Cline writes, “I’d felt like a young Clark Kent, preparing to finally learn the truth about his origins from the holographic ghost of his own long-dead father. But now I was thinking of a young Jedi-in-training named Luke Skywalker, looking into the mouth of that cave on Dagobah while Master Yoda told him about today’s activity lesson: Strong with the Dark Side of the Force that place is.” At another point, he states, “I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-Wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Ender Wiggin arriving at Battle School. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.”
The story gets buried under an avalanche of references, and disappointingly, the author doesn’t even do a good job creating a sci-fi patchwork. The constant onslaught of trivia isn’t merged seamlessly into the text, and at times its inclusion serves no purpose beyond giving readers a chance to pat themselves on the back for being familiar with yet another movie or game allusion. Nostalgia dependence overpowers the narrative and makes it seem like the American novelist doesn’t have anything original to say, an impression that is reinforced by the tiresomely derivative and annoyingly predictable nature of the plot.
There are fragments of interesting ideas buried within the story but they aren’t fully explored or developed. Instead, the ‘gamers save humanity’ storyline unfolds like a nerd wish-fulfilment fantasy without making any attempts to look for something deeper under the tale’s self-indulgent surface. The writer could have embedded something meaningful into the novel, using its plot as a chance to comment on drone warfare and the psychological impact on young pilots, but he makes no effort to do so here. Instead he puts together a badly paced, implausible yarn, devoid of exciting twists and drained of suspense because of too much foreshadowing which never leaves you in any doubt as to how things will eventually turn out.
The way Cline describes the gaming aspects of the story makes it seem like he wrote the novel with its film adaptation in mind, and while the reported seven-figure film deal will serve him well, the dry, descriptive writing style is very unfair to his readers; his notes might one day help create exciting onscreen action, but it really isn’t very exciting to read at length about a space battle between drones.
Armada is populated with one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs instead of well crafted individuals. There isn’t a single well-written, engaging character in the novel, which makes it hard to care about anyone’s fate. The depictions just seem like a pile of young adult clichés; the dialogues and reactions simply don’t ring true. The protagonist sounds less like a teenager than a grown-up clumsily trying to give his own youth culture an unconvincing teenage voice. Zack’s journey from daydreamer to “intrepid young space hero” embarking on an epic adventure isn’t particularly captivating, and the sense of danger that he and the planet are facing is never quite palpable.
Had the writer bothered to add some depth to his potentially entertaining (albeit very unoriginal) premise, Armada could have been an exciting, fun read. But Cline just opts to indulge in nostalgia worship, borrowing heavily from works like Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter and stringing together a stream of geeky references instead of trying to create something remarkable himself. As a result, the novel keeps reminding readers of the many works that it’s influenced by, unwittingly displaying just how dull Armada is in comparison to those far more interesting and creative efforts.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.
By Ernest Cline
Crown Publishing Group, US