Review: ARMADA by Ernest Cline (Century)

ClineE-ArmadaUKThe highly-anticipated second novel from the author of Ready Player One

Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada — in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills — as well as those of millions of gamers across the world — are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little… familiar?

Ready Player One, as I’ve said many times on here, completely blew me away. I was sent an ARC, and started it pretty much immediately. I devoured it in two gleeful, gloriously entertaining sittings, breaking only to get a few hours sleep. I’ve been waiting for Armada ever since. It was a very pleasant surprise, therefore, when an ARC arrived in the mail a few weeks back. With high expectations, and confidence that it would be another tale filled with geek references, nostalgia and gripping storytelling, I dove right in. What I found, however, thoroughly disappointed.

I’m going to keep this very short.

There will be many readers and reviewers who read this and are swept away by the sheer wealth and breadth of geek references and nostalgia. They will no doubt squee and be pleased by the things they spot, which remind them of their own early introductions to sci-fi cinema, computer games and culture.

I wanted to love this. I wanted to love this so very much. But I really, really didn’t. The weight of references is suffocating. The story was predictable. Indeed, the story felt as if it was secondary to trotting out nostalgic touchstones. The characters were bland. There are clear comparisons that can be drawn between Armada and Ready Player One. However, unlike this new novel, Ready Player One felt story-focused. The references were there to drive the story, which was unpredictable, fast-paced, and thoroughly entertaining. In Armada, the story seems to be there just to present opportunities to mention Cline’s favourite movies, games, etc. I’m sure many people will enjoy that. But I like a proper story. It didn’t really make as much sense, it had multiple dips in momentum, and was sometimes frustrating. It was, ultimately, overdone and just a little bland. Some of the jokes were pretty good, though — but that’s not enough to redeem it.

I have no doubt that I’ll still read Cline’s third novel, whatever (and whenever) that happens to be. In the meantime, I think I’ll go back and re-read Ready Player One. I don’t think I’ll be re-reading Armada any time soon, if at all.

A disappointment. Many people will no doubt disagree.

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