Note: This is a spoiler-free review of Ernest Cline‘s Armada.
Ready Player One was so chock-full of wonderfully geeky and giggle-inducing references to some of my favorite science fiction movies and video games from the 80’s, that I couldn’t wait to jump into Cline’s sophomore effort about a gamer named Zack Lightman (yup, think of Matthew Broderick’s ‘David Lightman‘ from War Games) who discovers that the line between his virtual gaming world and his real life is completely erased when an alien ship from his favorite video game suddenly appears, and is real.
What follows is a wonderfully fun ‘fantasy-come-to-life’ that every gamer dreams of, as Lightman learns of the mysterious alien race’s malevolent intent to destroy all of humanity, and Zach must muster all of his gaming skills – along with millions of other gamers from around the world – to save Earth from utter annihilation.
If this premise sounds familiar, like me, you were probably a huge fan of 1984’s, The Last Starfighter, and grew up dreaming of a day when your impressive gaming skills would be recognized and called upon to save the World …DO YOU HEAR ME, MOM?! SEE?! GAMING ISN’T A WASTE OF TIME! …*twitch*
Sadly, this never happened…but we can all dream, right?
Staying true to his Ready Player One form, Cline fills the pages of Armada with an equal amount of nerdy references to everything from Firefly, Battlestar Gallactica, Contact, Star Wars, Flight of the Navigator, Aliens, Ender’s Game, Independence Day and other fan favorites that are sure to make you smile if you’re familiar with the references.
Zach is accompanied by a cast of colorful characters and familiar gamer personalities – that we’ve all encountered while playing online – who must use their gaming consoles, computers and mobile devices to take command of any army of remote fighter drones and robots, that the governments of the world have been steadily (and secretly) stockpiling ever since the existence of the alien race – and their malicious intent – was discovered decades ago on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
“The Suspension of Disbelief is Strong With This One”
And this is where my primary criticism of Armada lays. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book for many of the reasons that I loved Ready Player One, there is an immense amount of blatant “handwavery” when it comes to realistic science and technology, that makes it difficult for me to recommend the book to everyone (like I was able to do with RP1) other than my fellow gamer and science fiction geeks.
In that respect, Armada was the antithesis of The Martian …a book that I also reviewed and loved immensely.
Without spoiling anything, there were a number of borderline preposterous events that occur within the story that is simply chocked up by the author to our ability to “reverse engineer alien technology” in order to meet and engage with a technologically superior species. In Ready Player One anything was possible because the majority of the story occurred within a virtual world…but in Armada the majority of events happen in the very near future, and within reality.
Don’t get my wrong, Armada is science fiction and meant to be playful and fun – and it was! – but when a spaceship (for example) can seamlessly convert from a space-craft fighting near the moon, to an airplane flying over a major city, and then into an underwater submarine… well, there is only so much suspension of disbelief or acceptance of the miraculous capabilities inherent to “alien technology” that I can take before I have to say, “C’mon, now.” and roll my eyes…which I found myself doing on a couple of occasions. Other times, due to unimaginative and far-fetched descriptions in the story, I occasionally felt like I was reading a children’s book.
It was also not until I was over 80% into the book, that things started to really heat up …but by that point, I started to feel as though Cline was just rushing through to the ending and outright dismissing some pretty major information and plot points (again, no spoilers).
But leading up to that final 20% was a lot of fun, filled with multiple make-you-smile moments.
It’s for that reason that I’m happy to recommend Armada to anyone who grew up gaming, loves Sci-Fi and doesn’t mind suspending a little extra disbelief in order to enjoy an entertaining look at what would happen if we were ever called upon to leave our couches, and use those hard earned gaming skills to save the planet!