Armada is a book aimed directly at me. I am the key demographic. I am male, same as the author, Ernest (Ernie) Cline. I am in my late 30’s, so my childhood was spent during the 80’s and 90’s. I am a rabid indoorsman, taking a higher degree of pleasure in things like video games, TV, and movies than many. Having those admissions out of the way, I’ll also admit to enjoying this book quite a bit.
Some background: Ernest Cline’s first book, Ready Player One, is an iconic, nearly-universally loved novel for almost 100% of the people in that demo I described above. In that book, the hero must complete a virtual quest to prevent the super-future-Internet from being taken over by jerks. To do that, he’s got to use the most arcane knowledge of 80’s pop-culture and video games ever assembled into a single work to complete a series of challenges before a final showdown with the virtual jerk army. Thanks to the book’s largely virtual setting, Cline is able to mash-up influences from Blade Runner, Rush albums, Back to the Future, The Matrix, Star Wars, and just about anything else people in the above defined demographic ever thought was cool. It’s like he read Neuromancer and said to himself, “Why so serious?”
With that book, Cline established himself as a quasi-scholarly guru on 80’s pop-culture and got a movie deal. Since he wrote that book in 2011, Cline has been taking his trademark DeLorean (Ecto-88) to conventions and getting to be the guy that wrote Ready Player One. Not a bad deal, but eventually, he would have to put out another book. That day came a couple weeks ago.
Armada has a lot in common with RPO (and that’s fine with me).
It’s a single point-of-view, first-person narrative told by a young man, on the cusp of high school graduation and without any traditional prospects. Both characters, Wade from RPO and Zach from Armada, have non-traditional families. They both have a singular focus on their respective virtual worlds and in turn, those worlds grant them adventure and fulfillment that the real world never will.
It’s also got a LOT of references to pop culture from the 80’s and 90’s. They’re a little out of place here at times though. For the main character, Zach, being informed on these subjects is a way to stay connect with his absent father, because they were his favorite topics as well. As Zach interacts with other characters, mostly other kids with his same aptitudes, we find an assumed universality to the reverence Zach holds for things like Star Wars and mainstream sci-fi. Having my own experiences with nerds and geeks from across generations, this rings inconveniently false. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy reading it because I think this book may have been written especially for me. It’s more like nerds these days have their own nerd-topics and the sacred nerd-lore that was so formational in my own nerdery are almost like quaint relics. If you don’t believe me, find a 20-year-old nerd and ask if they’ve seen Return of the Jedi more than once (and be ready for disappointment).
There’s a love interest and I think they might be the same girl (Art3mis from RPO and Lex from Armada). Bear in mind all I said about the book’s target demo and you won’t be surprised when you find an attractive, capable (but doesn’t have the X-factor like the narrator does), ass-kicking Grrl that wants to be Zach’s girlfriend for some reason. I didn’t have a problem with her, but I found myself wondering what Zach had done to get Lex so interested in him.
Other stuff to know:
If you’re reading this, then you’ve already heard about the book’s premise. And you’ve already thought, “That’s just The Last Starfighter.” Well, it kind of is, but mostly isn’t. In fact, there are a few times where Cline lifts an entire story beat from a beloved text (or movie), shaves off the rough edges, and fits it into this story. A better comparison might be Ender’s Game. These little homages throughout the book reminded me of a Tarantino movie. The familiar plot elements aren’t being used because of a lack of creativity or as a cheat. I think it’s more like a boiling-over excitement on Cline’s part to show how cool it would be if you took an awesome concept from one thing and matched it up with something cool from something else. That’s what reminds me of Tarantino; he’s not hiding how much he loves and respects his inspiration.
It’s very fast paced. We go from hum-drum high school classes to saving the world in about 50 pages. There’s a pretty cool explanation for why that’s plausible though.
This is not hard sci-fi. This is an action movie transcribed for your mind. If you read speculative fiction to enjoy the proper use of conservation of momentum in space flight and hate things that just spontaneously generate gravity on a moon-base, you will find a lot to dislike in this book. I, however, do not care about any of those things. Explosions in space totally rule.
The pop-culture references are thick and heavy. If you aren’t conversant with the sources I list below on a level where you know the names of locations, characters and major lines, you’ll miss a lot of the book’s humor.
Unabashed influences on the book:
Star Wars, Ender’s Game, The Last Starfighter, most “big-robot” anime, The X-Files, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, and many more books and movies from the 80’s and 90’s. There are lots of other things mentioned, (Star Trek, Dune, Robotech, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dungeons & Dragons, to name a few) but the book doesn’t actually borrow much inspiration from those sources.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 DeLoreans