Although I've heard a lot of good things about Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, I have yet to give it a shot. So when Armada showed up in my mailbox and I read the blurb, I was intrigued. This appeared to be exactly what I needed to bring with me on my hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies.
This book is a very entertaining, but also very “light” science fiction tale. You'll go through it in a few sittings, which shows how much fun it truly is. The ending, however, leaves a lot to be desired. It's not a deal-breaker per se, but it does take something away from the overall reading experience. Which is too bad, as early on this looked like it would be one of the speculative fiction titles of the year. But then I realized that Armada is not marketed as a genre title. Hence, it is aimed at an audience which might not be as demanding as the regular scifi crowd. All I know is that if Alastair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, or Peter F. Hamilton had come up with such an ending, chances are they would have been crucified. . .
Here's the blurb:
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? At once gleefully embracing and brilliantly subverting science-fiction conventions as only Ernest Cline could, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming of age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one whose every page is infused with the pop-culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.
I found the premise of the novel to be quite interesting. First Contact was made with an alien civilization back in the 60s. This fact was classified, as it appeared that they were bent on mankind's destruction. Unbeknownst to everyone around the world, the rise of science fiction movies and TV series such as Star Wars and Star Trek was contrived to prepare the world for the coming of the day when the aliens would attack the Earth. And video games became a means to prepare two generations of men and women to face that threat.
Cline does a good job setting everything up. And if you are a child of the 80s, this book will take you back to your childhood and teenage years. Like Zack's father, I was also a big Atari 2600 gamer and I won a load of Activision badges back in the day. There are so many references to pop culture, geek culture, and to old video games that reading Armada acts like a time machine. There seems to be references to every single science fiction movie (the good, the bad, and, of course, the ugly) ever made. I swear to God, the amount of stuff he was able to cram into the narrative is impressive. And a whole lot of fun to read!
The characterization is interesting until the proverbial shit hits the fan. Zack Lightman is an easy protagonist to root for. Having lost his father at a very young age, his only link to him is the collection of old video games and movies the man left behind. Zack is a well-drawn character and a likeable teenager, one that many guys my age will relate to. As such, channeling his own life through his dead father's obsessions, Zack is kind of an anachronism. Younger readers who won't get all those “older” references probably won't be able to relate to him as much as people in their 30s or 40s.
The problem with the characterization lies in the supporting cast. Where Zack is a three-dimensional protagonist, basically everyone else lacks what makes Zack genuine. Many are walking clichés or tools, and thus are disappointments. You can see that love story coming from a mile away, which somewhat cheapens the whole thing. Each new member of the EDA that teams up with Zack has that skill or something that will allow them to save the day. Sadly, it was too contrived for my taste.
The pace is fluid throughout the novel, making Armada a page-turner. The pop-culture-savvy prose and dialogue make this a joy to go through. All the way to the last few chapters, where pretty much everything goes down the crapper.
As I mentioned, the poor ending doesn't kill the novel. At least it didn't do that for me. Though I have a feeling it might put off some readers. My main problem with it is that it's extremely lackluster and doesn't make that much sense. Armada was such a strong work to begin with that I felt sad that Cline would cap it all off with an ending that fails to live to the high expectations generated by the first 300 pages or so.
Despite the ending, Ernest Cline's Armada will nevertheless appeal to all those boys and girls who, like me, spent hours playing on those old gaming consoles and who grew up watching all those scifi flicks and TV series. There are so many good things throughout the book that it will take you back on a trip down memory lane and make you smile, again and again. Too bad the author couldn't close the show with the same sort of panache that he demonstrated early on. But in the end, Armada remains an amazingly fun and entertaining read!
Armada could have been a terrific novel. One of the very best speculative fiction titles of 2015, no question. Yet the poor ending makes it merely a good one. Still well worth a read, though.