Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Book Review | Armada by Ernest Cline

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?


Isn't the world weird?

After decades of dismissal, what was once the preserve of known nerds is now everyone's favourite field. Video games are a cornerstone of contemporary culture. There are characters from comic books wherever you look. The fundamental stuff of science fiction and fantasy has been embraced in a big way by the mainstream, and though there are those who still question the merits of the speculative, even these outliers have had a hard time denying the cultural cache it has accrued in recent years.

Fair to say, then, that geek has never been more chic—a zeroing of the zeitgeist Ernest Cline capitalised on to heartfelt effect in his first novel following the cult film Fanboys. A celebration of all things 80s bolstered by a cannily-characterised protagonist who came of age over its uproarious course, Ready Player One was smart, but it also had a heart.

Armada starts strong, by scratching a great many of the same itches Cline's debut did. It too worships at the altar of this new, nerd-friendly nostalgia. It combines space-based spectacle with a series of intimate interruptions. It's frequently funny and remarkably referential. But there's a but.

Time is running out for Zack Lightman. With only a few months of his high-school sentence left to serve, he knows he needs to get his shit together, but instead of figuring out what he wants from his future, he spends his days playing a video game. Armada is a massively multiplayer flight sim, not dissimilar to Star Citizen, which asks its players to enlist in a war of attrition against a race of evil alien invaders:
Like nearly every race of evil alien invaders in the history of science fiction, the Sobrukai were somehow technologically advanced enough to construct huge warships capable of crossing interstellar space, and yet still not smart enough to terraform a lifeless world to suit their needs, instead of going through the huge hassle of trying to conquer one that was already inhabited—especially one inhabited by billions of nuke-wielding apes who generally don't cotton on to strangers being on their land. No, the Sobrukai just had to have Earth for some reason, and they were determined to Kill All Humans before they took possession. Luckily for us, like so many made-up evil alien invaders before them, the Sobrukai also seemed intent on exterminating us as slowly and inefficiently as possible. Instead of just wiping out humanity with a meteor or a killer virus or a few old-fashioned long-range nuclear weapons, the squids had opted to wage a prolonged World War II-style air and ground war against us—while somehow allowing all of their advanced weapons, propulsion, and communications technology to fall into their primitive enemy's hands. (p.36)
So explaineth the voice of God—aka Morgan Freeman, "killing it like always" (p.44)—in the cut scene that the game kicks off with.

The import of this infodump is only a mystery for a moment, because before long, in a twist of wish-fulfilment sure to tickle today's most dedicated gamers, it's revealed that Armada is real, as are the evil alien invaders Morgan Freeman mentioned—though they're known as Europans.

Ever since they made their presence felt by scorching a giant swastika onto Jupiter's moon in the 70s, humanity has skirmished with them in complete secret. To wit, alongside its twin, a first-person shooter called Terra FirmaArmada was developed by the Earth Defence Alliance as a training ground for potential soldiers. It just so happens that Zack is one of the world's best players, so when the war against the Europans takes a turn for the worse, the EDA recruit him right out of school, fly him to the moon and introduce our lad to his long-thought-dead dad.
Since I was a boy, I had imagined countless absurd scenarios in which my father had somehow faked his own death, or lost his memory, or been kidnapped by the CIA and brainwashed into becoming an assassin like Jason Bourne. But the fantasies had been just that—fantasies. I'd never really doubted that he was dead. (p.166)
That I had—that you will too—is emblematic of one of Armada's most significant stumbles: it's so predictable that, despite the interstellar setting and the evil alien invaders, not to mention the impending apocalypse, the plot feels depressingly pedestrian.

Even if the cover copy didn't give the Ender's-esque elements of the game away, Cline makes it plain from the first sentence of his second novel—"I was staring out the classroom window and dreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer" (p.3)—that there's more to Zack's favourite flight sim than meets the eye. Yet a hundred pages pass before confirmation comes.

Similarly, the second we learn that the only assurance Zack has of his father's passing is the dental records deployed to identify his body, readers expect a resurrection. And we get it. But it takes another hundred pages, I'm afraid, and in that time, the contrivance Cline requires to keep Zack from seeing through the oldest ruse in the book makes him a problematic protagonist. He's presented as cynical and scientific as opposed to earnest and easily led—he even comes to question the entire text's premise—but when it suits the author, he simply stops asking the questions anyone in his position would.

For all its faults, Armada is at the least an enjoyable romp. Sparse as they are, its action scenes are awesome. Its secondary characters, slight though they may be, are immediately appealing. Cline's writing remains supremely readable, and the gleefully geeky sense of humour that made Ready Player One such a referential pleasure is as winning as it was. Armada's endless allusions are as good as guaranteed to endear it to readers of the author's era—to readers like me, I might add. By that same token, though, they're sure to exclude some from the fun.

But accessibility isn't Armada's biggest issue. Instead, this love letter to the pop culture that's become so prevalent today is let down by a central character nowhere near as credible as Wade Watts was, a plot which pivots on a trio of twists so transparently telegraphed that they're difficult to miss, and—one last nail in what was a very promising novel's coffin—a truly dreadful ending. You might not regret reading Armada, but I bet you will forget it.


by Ernest Cline

UK Publication:July 2015, Century
US Publication: June 2015, Crown

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