It’s a rare thing these days that I don’t enjoy reading a book. Gone are the days when I had two hours of commuting a day and could rip through a novel or two in a week (several weeks if it was by Neal Stephenson). I am now left with whatever time I can find in between podcasts and on occasional jaunts on public transport, as well as the brief time before sleep. My reading time is increasingly valuable, and I make sure that I’m going to like a book before I pick it up. Unfortunately, my research sometimes fails I don’t always get it right, and this – spoiler alert – is one of those times.
Ernest Cline made his name with his last book, his debut: Ready Player One. A densely written book of equal parts geeky pop-culture references, nods to the formative years of computer gaming and author wish-fulfilment, it picked up accolades and, being a gaming-obsessed geek, I grabbed it as soon as I could. I was disappointed with its predictable story but drawn in by the ‘do you remember?’ referencing of my childhood, and decided to give Armada, Cline’s follow-up, a go. A decision I have come to regret.
It is the tale of Zack Lightman, a gamer with anger issues, weeks away from leaving school, who gets drawn into an incredible tale of interplanetary warfare, where his skills at the joystick help him – actual spoiler alert – save the world. If you’ve seen any of the films or played any of the computer games referenced in the book, and there are many, then there’s a very good chance that at this point you can reel off the plot of the entire novel. If I add in that his father died shortly after he was born and left records of a plot to slowly introduce humanity to the concept of hostile alien life, then there’s a good chance you can guess the rest.
I have no issue with a dense concentration of cultural reference, especially if it’s geeky things that allow me to perform the ‘I remember that’ dance – I’m still a big fan of Spaced – but when those references take up more space than the thin story, I have to draw the line.
The writing and themes seem to be pitched at a non-existent, stereotypical young adult, with the emphasis of the book being wish-fulfilment for late-teen boys. In contrast, the references are aimed squarely at the geeks of the 90s, a mismatch that alienated me from Zack’s first classroom scene. Unfortunately, I think that most young adult readers will baulk at the text as much as their older counterparts. It’s a clichéd and patronising look into a life that most young adults will have experienced parts of, but it’s written with the lack of understanding of a 40-something looking back on the goode olde dayes of his childhood and how he wish they had turned out.
In the end, the only reason that I finished reading the book – other than masochism and the unashamed pushing of my nostalgia buttons – was a belief that the story couldn’t be as simple as it seemed: every problem solved with a convenient, previously unmentioned skill; every hole in the plot explained after the fact in an unconvincing fashion; every sacrifice set up and ignored within paragraphs. It was not to be, and things ended as predicted from the first few pages. If I had felt the book was cleverer than it seemed to be, then I would have potentially seen its use of drone warfare, hidden military training and young soldiers as a comment on a separation from the reality of warfare, ‘click to kill’ culture of video games and militarisation of children around the world. But in the end, each just drops in as a lift from more intelligent works and a yet-another-cultural-reference, alongside nods to Space Invaders, Alien(s), and the love of Dungeons & Dragons players for Funyuns and Lucky Charms (without milk).
So, in short: a story which takes every beat from somewhere else, and revels in the appropriation without expanding on it. Rather than an elegant combination, pulled together by a skilled remixer, it’s a boring mess, showing how good the original material was and how much this falls short. Not even a comment about the cake being a lie could save it. Avoid.