Disappointing and derivative.
These are the words I would choose to describe Armada, Ernest Cline’s second novel, a story of alien invasion and the ascendancy of gamer geeks.
I adored his debut work, Ready Player One. It’s one of the very best novels I’ve read. It ranks as one of my favorite books of all time. I desperately wanted to like his second book but it just doesn’t live up to expectations.
Despite my disappointment, I’m still a fan of Mr. Cline and I retain faith that he can—and will—produce more good work. In this spirit, I want to open my review by mentioning the things Armada does well:
1) Mr. Cline has a talent for creating relatable characters. The people we encounter in the pages of Armada are entirely believable individuals. I particularly appreciate that even the gruff sort-of bad guy turns out to be a decent, nuanced person.
I do have some problem with his punk hacker girl character, though—she’s too much of a drooling teenage geek boy idealized stereotype.
2) The pacing of the novel is aces. It’s a fast, rollicking, and exciting book. I quite enjoy the climax of the novel, simply because the pacing is handled so well.
3) The main character’s taste in music runs to ‘80’s anthem rock, which inspires me to pull out some of my old albums and turn up my stereo too loud. This makes me happy.
And that, unfortunately, is the extent of the things I like about Armada.
The list of what doesn’t work in this novel is more extensive.
Armada is standard escapist fantasy. But that’s all it is. It’s entirely derivative of any number of movies and books from the past half century.
Derivative would be fine if Mr. Cline had some sort of original take on these tropes, a different perspective through which to explore them, or a unique voice for telling his story.
He doesn’t. It’s just derivative. Even the twist ending is a blatant rehash of a common trope.
Mr. Cline goes out of his way to explicitly name several of the movies and books that Armada rehashes (The Last Starfighter, TRON, Ender’s Game, etc.), as though admitting that the story is entirely derivative will somehow transmute it into something more substantial and worthy.
It doesn’t. Armada is nothing more than a string of worn and tired ideas.
With Ready Player One, Mr. Cline thoroughly established himself as an expert in the history of geek culture. Geek nostalgia is his primary tool of trade. In RP1, this nostalgia serves a purpose—it’s essential to the story. The characters need a deep knowledge of geek culture and history in order to function in their world. Mr. Cline uses nostalgia to create a unique and original tale—the story itself can’t be told without it.
Mr. Cline clearly intends Armada to be nostalgic in a similar way. He largely fails.
The geek culture nostalgia in Armada is superfluous. The characters don’t need it to be able to function. Their knowledge of scifi and gaming tropes helps them to solve the central mystery of the book to some extent, but shoehorning random movie quotes into dialog does nothing to help tell this part of the story. And the characters would probably still be able to figure out most of what’s going on even without this body of knowledge.
The history of humanity’s science fiction media is central to the main conflict of the story, but Mr. Cline could fully establish that part of the scenario without all the off-the-cuff references and name-dropping. You could remove the vast majority of the geek nostalgia from this book without any significant change to the story.
The nostalgia in Armada isn’t necessary. It’s just nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. It’s self-conscious and awkward.
Reading Armada reminds me of re-reading some of my favorite books from childhood as an adult and realizing they’re not very good.
I created hugely elaborate escapist fantasies just like this when I was growing up. This type of story is intimately familiar to me. But I outgrew them. I reached a point in my life when I no longer needed them.
To me, Armada doesn’t feel like nostalgia—it feels like regression. And that’s not good.
Lastly, I need to mention the massive plot hole that completely destroys the central premise of the book.
Mr. Cline sets Armada in the near-future of the real world. He establishes the existence of real movies, books, TV shows, music, and video games in the novel. The internet exists. Real-world gaming consoles exit. Beat up old cars exist. Et alia. Therefore, the internal logic of the story must answer to the requirements of the real world.
At the heart of this story lies a great secret that has been hidden from humanity for decades. This secret is revealed in bits and pieces through course of the novel. I don’t want to give anything away, but some of these revelations beg an obvious question:
There are hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers across the globe, and all sorts of private and independent organizations with powerful telescopes watching our sky.
How is it possible that none of them noticed?
It’s inconceivable that people wouldn’t have seen what was happening. It’s inconceivable that all of these private individuals and organizations throughout the world could have been effectively policed and silenced this whole time, especially not with the ubiquity of the internet over the past two decades. (And yes, that word means what I think it means.)
The premise that this secret could have been kept from all of humanity for so long strains the bounds of credulity past the breaking point. I simply can’t accept that this could ever happen. Without this secret, the rest of the plot completely falls apart. There’s nothing left. The story can’t happen without it.
It’s an insurmountable point of failure at the heart of the novel.
I would conclude that fans of Ready Player One should skip Armada and save themselves the disappointment. But it seems that Armada is intended to establish a potential ongoing series. I retain hope that Mr. Cline can still produce good work, so this novel may turn out to be a necessary part of his canon.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about that.