Book Review – Armada by Ernest Cline

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There are few things more disappointing as a reader than to have a much anticipated second novel fall short of your high hopes. And here we are.

Armada is the second novel from professional fanboy and screenwriter Ernie Cline and tells the story of Zack Lightman – an obsessive gamer finishing high school who works part time in a video games store. His dad was killed at the age of 19 in an explosion in a sewage factory (seriously!).

We open with Zack staring out the window in class and them witnessing a spaceship buzzing his school. Not just any spaceship, it’s one from a series of alien invasion videogames he and the world are obsessed with – Terra Firma and Armada.

He starts digging around in his late father’s conspiracy theory journals and uncovers that his dad believed the entire computer game and science fiction movie industry to be influenced by shadowy forces with an agenda.

Fairly quickly in the story Zack finds out that Armada is more than a game – it’s a simulator designed to train the human race to defend itself from an impending alien invasion and that everything that goes on within it is actually happening in the real world.

Problem one – the book is so awash in sci-fi and gaming references that if you don’t start getting them very quickly you’ll find yourself feeling on the outside of quite an exclusive tent. I got a huge amount of them and even then there were times when I felt that he was having a wink at someone else over my shoulder. The book seems to be written for a very specific subset of gaming geeks and if that’s all you’re aiming at, fair enough. It just excludes pretty much everyone else.

It’s not just simple “may the force be with you” stuff. Ask yourself if the references “I find your lack of faith disturbing”, the name Moonbase Alpha, the phrase “by the hammer of Grabthar” or hundreds of others like it mean anything to you? Nope? You’ll be lost here…

You’d forgive all this if the story was compelling and original – it’s not. It’s full of standard tropes we’ve seen before and other stuff that’s just plain silly (at one stage a Global Council made up of Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson amongst other conducts a video conference call during an alien invasion).

Writing convincing action sequences in books like this is hard, here he hamstrings himself because most of the action occurs when the main characters are playing simulations and remotely controlling drones who are fighting the actual battles. Although I understand there’s a huge industry on Youtube of watching people playing console games I find it incredibly dull. Even duller than that is watching someone write about watching someone play a console game (even if the fate of the human race is at stake).

If you ever saw movies like Tron and The Last Starfighter in the 80s or even Galaxy Quest at the end of the 90s then where this goes will be familiar. Zack even says at the very beginning “Implausible crap like that only happened in cheesy ‘80s movies like Tron or WarGames or The Last Starfighter”. But then that’s exactly what Ernie Cline he goes on to write…

Unfortunately it’s one of the least original books I’ve read in a long, long time. There are very few sparks of the unexpected anywhere within its pages. Sci-fi and speculative fiction at its best is an arena of ideas, a mirror of who we are now and sometimes just mind-blowing. This is none of those. What’s so frustrating is that there is a compelling, dark, interesting “join the dots vast conspiracy” story in here somewhere, he just chooses to go the other way.

Sadly the book isn’t a patch on his first novel Ready Player One – a dystopian future book set in a dirty, ugly, resource-shy 2044 where the human race mostly lives plugged in to a vast utopian internet called the Oasis. Its creator and owner dies and then sets an elaborate game based on obscure 80s computer games to decide who gets control of his estate. It had wit, adventure and was a genuinely interesting take on the genre – Steven Spielberg announced last month that he’s to direct the upcoming movie.

There are so many more better SF books around at the moment – Armada is one best left on the shelf.

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