May 11, 2015
A retired programmer once told me that he had never heard a conspiracy about computer security that wasn’t at least partly true, and that was the thought I had running through my head as I read Armada, the newest novel from Ready Player One author Ernest Cline.
Similar to the premise of Ender’s Game, Armada follows Zack Lightman as he’s recruited to save the world from an invading alien force. Unlike Ender Wiggin, Zack is a teenager and does not go to battle school when he’s recruited. In fact, he enlists with the commission of lieutenant, which he earns playing two video games. Those games are Terra Firma and Armada, both of which are made by the same developer and deal with the same invading alien force. Where the games differ are in play style. In Terra Firma, the player commands various types of artillery drones and mechs; in Armada, the player is piloting drone planes.
My fear when I started reading Armada was that it would be too much like Ender’s Game. I didn’t want this to be Battle School with Queen on the soundtrack. Thankfully, it wasn’t. The big reveal toward the end was different, and Zack is aware of how his actions are affecting the war effort. There are other major differences between the two, including style, but none that I can talk about without getting into spoiler territory.
Where the aforementioned conspiracy comes in is when Zack finds out that all alien invasion science-fiction and popular media was sponsored by an international military force called the Earth Defense Alliance (EDA) for the sole purpose of desensitizing the world to the idea of an intergalactic conflict. Works like Star Trek, Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, and all of their tie-in media were all made so that humans would get used to being at war with aliens. Terra Firma and Armada were specifically made to train as many humans as possible to remotely pilot drones during war time. The games are also used as a recruiting device. Top players in both games earn military rankings and commissions, which is how our main character enlists.
Cline doubles down on the conspiracy by saying that the world’s top scientists are in on it, too. Carl Sagan? In on it. Neil Degrasse Tyson? In on it. Stephen Hawking? In on it. They all feign ignorance about extraterrestrial life, but they know, and are hiding it from us for our own good.
That’s what makes this a little brilliant and a little scary. I would love to find out all the time I clocked on Galaga was worth more than a high score. I would love to be able to claim that all those quarters were an investment in my future. However, I would also be terrified if alien drone ships suddenly dropped down and unloaded futuristic death machines. Which is exactly how Zack reacts. Cline seems to have a talent for characters behaving like people, a skill not as common as it should be in novelists. All of his characters may be a specific type of person (i.e., the talented gamer) and they each have their own personality, but they also act like real people.
And all the problems I had with the story were minor. Certain character deaths felt meaningless after a while, and the romance felt a little rushed. But on the whole, the book was engaging, entertaining, and made me want to kill some pixels. There were far fewer pop culture references than his last book, which seems strange considering the premise, but that could be the result of focusing on science-fiction specifically.
Yet, it seems these references were what bothered some readers the most. Other reviewers have complained that Zack keeps relating everything he sees to movies and video games. I feel like Wade got away with it in Ready Player One because the plot hinged on him knowing a bunch of trivia. In Armada, though, Zack comes off as a nerd who won’t shut up for five minutes so the plot can progress. Mind you, this didn’t stop me from liking the book, but then again, I know I would do the exact same thing.
Cline has a clear style that’s uniquely his own. In both novels, he delivers a story with a realistically diverse cast of characters, a rich world, and for some, that worked in Ready Player One and didn’t in Armada. Oddly enough, the people I know who read both enjoyed Armada more. They found Zack more relatable than Wade and the stakes more tangible.
It really does come down to tastes and opinions. Personally, I enjoyed it enough to hope for a sequel. There are concepts and conflicts that Cline teases in the epilogue that I’d like to see him explore, and I want to know more about characters besides Zack. The book has already been optioned for a movie, but no studio has yet picked up the rights. But if neither of these things happen, the ending of the book is still satisfying.