Cline, Ernest. Armada.

NY: Crown, 2015.

There’s a syndrome that attacks many new authors: The Sophomore Novel Blues. That blockbuster first book turns out to be difficult to replicate and the second one is a disappointment. Cline’s first effort, Ready Player One, was a hoot and a half, a combination of science fiction and gamer-geek nostalgia. This one obviously comes out of the same sort of authorial experience, but while it isn’t an actual failure, it isn’t nearly as satisfying — especially the first half.

The prose is often overwritten, even clunky — the sort of thing you often find in a first novel, and which generally improves as the author gains experience. (It feels, in fact, like this was Cline’s first novel and Ready Player One his second, much improved book.)

It all starts when 17-year-old Zach Lightman, only two months from high school graduation and anxious to escape in the world, looks out the classroom window and sees a UFO buzzing around the neighborhood — an alien fighter, in fact, exactly like those in Armada, the most popular space-themed shooter game in the world, and in which Zach himself now ranks No. 6 (out of a couple of million players) as a pilot-officer in the Earth Defense Alliance. He must be going crazy, right? Just as he suspected had happened to his father, killed at nineteen in a waste treatment plant accident. But then the Alliance turns up on the school’s front lawn to pick him up in an impossible spaceship of its own — a scene to feed the fantasies of any game geek who reads the book. The aliens are coming for real, and it’s up to the gamers of the world to defend it.

Like the reader, Zach wonders why the real aliens behaved the way they do in the games. “They had the upper hand from the start, so why didn’t they use it? Instead, they basically just handed us their technology and then gave us all the time in the world to reverse-engineer it.” As someone later comments, “Does any of this feel like something that could happen in real life to you?”

Of course, as in his first book, the author throws in literally hundreds of references to books, games, movies, and pop music, mostly from the ‘80s. The music, especially, plays an actual part in the story, because Zach’s weapons ability is greatly improved by listening to the right tunes. “The old rock songs on my father’s old mixtapes were perfect, because they had a steady, hard-driving beat that served as my mental combat metronome.” And the design of Moonbase Alpha is explicitly borrowed from Clavius Base in the film version of 2001. (The engineering designers were in a hurry and used a lot of what they already had.)

As I say, the writing improves somewhat later in the book. Just as you’re getting into things, suspending disbelief and all that, someone in command turns out to be a bass guitar player, or a science fiction junky. I like the way Cline uses throw-away mental images in his descriptions of non-real things and places, like “a tube-shaped [escape] capsule about the size of a VW microbus.” Even though this one was not, in my opinion, as good as his first, I’ll be waiting with interest for his next effort.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I’ve been wondering if it was good. Thanks for the review!


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