Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Armada by Ernest Cline Review

Teenager Zack Lightman is the 6th best Armada player in the world, a sci-fi shoot ‘em up where you pilot a ship blasting away alien invaders. And then he discovers the game was really designed to find the best pilots in the world and he’s been drafted in a real-life war against aliens! 

Computer games used to find skilled players - kids, usually - to fight aliens in an intergalactic war? Yeah, it’s been done already in The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game. In fact the derivative nature of Ernest Cline’s Armada is emblematic of the novel as a whole which isn’t so much a story as it is a collection of quotes and references from other, actually original works of pop culture sprinkled liberally atop an adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasy.

The story is told in Zack’s first person. By far the most irritating aspect of the novel is the way Cline writes Zack’s internal monologue – note that Zack is a mega-fan of pop culture. Every simile – and I mean. Every. Single. One. – is a reference to something. A movie, book, game, whatever. 

For example: “I’d felt like a young Clark Kent, preparing to finally learn the truth about his origins from the holographic ghost of his own long-dead father.” 


“What if they’re using videogames to train us to fight without us even knowing it? Like Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid, when he made Daniel-san paint his house, sand his deck, and wax all of his cars - he was training him and he didn’t even realize it! Wax on, wax off - but on a global scale!”

This isn’t just lazy, sloppy writing but it’s detrimental to how the book will read to some people. Not only do we not know what Zack is supposed to be feeling because he’s not telling us, he’s describing how another character in a similar situation would feel but only describing the situation. But if you’re unfamiliar with the reference, you won’t know what Zack/the reader is supposed to be feeling. Or you’ll have to jump on Google to find out yourself which isn’t exactly what anyone sitting down with a book is hoping to end up doing!

The simile references aren’t just every now and then, they’re on nearly every page which becomes enormously tiresome. Zack cannot describe anything, or have a single conversation, without name-dropping at least one pop culture reference. And while I got most of the references, I didn’t enjoy them so much as I grew to hate Cline’s shockingly inept storytelling style.

The story itself isn’t much better. Yes it’s ripping off The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game but beyond that there isn’t much else to the book. The “gamers save the world” storyline is extremely self-indulgent and tedious, while the pervasive worship of nostalgia is simply boring. 

But at least Zack has a semblance of character as opposed to no-one else in the book. His glaringly obvious love interest, Lex, isn’t so much a character as an extension of Cline’s fantasy. She’s drop-dead gorgeous and as steeped in pop culture as Zack so the two get to make repeated obnoxious references to one another in the least funny, most annoying meet cute ever. Not only that but she is hot hot hot for nerds, especially gamers who’re super-good at Armada. Lex might be Cline’s most pitiful moment in the whole novel. 

Zack’s friends, Nerdle-dee and Nerdle-dum (I don’t recall their names but that’ll do), are just funnels for every fanboy message board, arguing about what superhero could beat some other superhero or what movie’s better than another. Describing these “characters” as one-dimensional is generous.

When he’s not making references, Cline’s describing the supposedly-exciting battle scenes in space between Earth’s forces and the aliens’. Except describing a space battle is not nearly as exciting as seeing one in a film, TV show or game and there are dozens of pages devoted solely to this. My eyes glazed over every time Cline was describing some super-awesome dogfight Zack was in.

But it isn’t just Cline’s inability to bring any real drama to the proceedings – just how exciting is it to see two drones fight one another? Because, for most of the fights, the people operating the machines are safely tucked far away from the action while two unmanned drones shoot at one another. Two lifeless robots shooting lasers at one another is as exciting to read as it sounds.

Things happen too quickly – one minute Zack’s a high school student making Lord of the Rings references with his Say Anything-obsessed mother in their living room, the next he’s in space preparing to fight a war that’ll save humanity. There’s no real build-up to the war against the aliens, no real sense of fear that this is “mankind’s final hour”. Everything’s too rushed to have any impact on the reader.

As unconvincing as the characters are, once these teens get drafted and are given titles like “Captain” and “Lieutenant”, it took all I could muster not to say “oh fuck YOU!” every time we saw some dweeb suddenly being saluted by self-appointed “Generals” and “Admirals”. It’s like watching little kids play dress-up or seeing a Scientology ceremony except you know they’re just idiots while Cline is asking us to take these teenage “Captains” seriously like everyone else in his story is for some stupid reason. It’s too much – I could suspend my disbelief for an alien invasion but not for some dickhead gamers being called actual military ranks and treated like actual ranking officers. There’s not enough vomit in the world to express how I felt during those scenes.

And really – we’re meant to believe that teenage gamers was the best strategy the brilliant minds of the world could come up with to fight the aliens? Socially dysfunctional, emotionally-damaged, undisciplined crybabies who’ve never know responsibility beyond a part-time job or an essay deadline are suddenly entrusted with billions of dollars’ worth of equipment to SAVE THE WORLD?! But then again we’re dealing with Ernest Cline’s fantasy specific to gamers so it makes (non)sense.

Armada is pure fan service to gamers. It pats them on the head, confirming their ridiculous beliefs that they are the most amazing people in the world and that nobody understands the true importance of gaming. The book is also for people who like seeing things they’re familiar with who’ll go “oh I remember that therefore this is great!” ie. mindless fanboys who only react to brands rather than substance and who enjoy feeling part of an asinine club because they “get” certain references others don’t. 

The real failing of Armada is that for all Cline’s knowledge of pop culture, he’s unable to contribute anything original to it with his book. That’s the point isn’t it – to create something new and start a whole new set of references rather than simply quote endlessly from others ad nauseam? But Cline opts for the latter and produces a book of completely insubstantial drivel.

Armada is tedious sci-fluff that renders itself near-unreadable due to an over-reliance on cultural reference shorthand to communicate key moments of its feeble story and the savvy-ness of the reader to pick up on them. When picking what to read, shoot for something higher, something original, challenging, ambitious and fresh - in other words, anything but Armada!


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