If you have even a passing interest in gaming or geek culture, you’ve likely heard of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s a book about a virtual reality simulation that combines all of the science fiction and fantasy interests that grew out of the 1980s, reveling in referencing pop culture and geek in-jokes. The book was a New York Times best seller and earned Cline a pretty good reputation among internet fandoms everywhere.
Ernest Cline’s second book, Armada, tries to recapture that success by following a lot of the same blueprints laid out in the first novel. Unfortunately, it’s neither as successful nor as fresh as its predecessor. However, taken on its own, it is ultimately an enjoyable piece of escapist fiction that retreads familiar grounds.
Armada is the story of Zack Lightman, a modern day high school senior who is obsessed with 80s culture and video games. In fact, he’s the #6 ranked player in the world in Armada, his favorite space flight/war simulator. It isn’t long before things start to unravel, however, with the game he loves leaking into his everyday life in the form of an alien ship in the sky. It turns out the alien threat from Armada is real and all the time Zack has been playing Armada he’s been training to fight in a real war. Joining the Earth Defense Force, he must put his video game skills to the ultimate test to save the planet.
Is it an original premise? Not quite. Anyone familiar with the story of Ender’s Game or The Last Starfighter has seen similar ideas before. What makes the story unique is that the main character’s response is colored by his video game experience. In the book, the genesis of science fiction itself was to prepare the average citizen for combat against aliens from Europa. Star Wars, Star Trek, Cosmos, etc. were all government sponsored in an attempt to educate the world without causing a panic.
The book has a few interesting ideas, but they never quite come together. One of the problems I found repeatedly as I made my way through were the constant references to pop culture. This turned out to be one of the more enjoyable parts of Ready Player One, but the virtual world in that story allowed them to be included a bit more seamlessly. In this book, it reads as though Cline attributes all of his success to his ability to make references and he’s going for broke. Not every page requires a reminder that the author knows his fandoms, but readers will get one nonetheless.
An additional problem in the book is the pacing. Reading Armada is a lot like riding a roller coaster – if while riding you were forced to disembark from the ride after every drop, wait thirty minutes, then continue the ride. The sci-fi action moments are fun, but in between you’re forced to wade through pages of exposition littered with references that tell you what you’ve already figured out.
Despite its flaws, the book is enjoyable if you’re looking for a mindless read. It’s a straightforward narrative that allows for a celebration of geek culture while keeping everything light and fun. However, if you’ve read Ready Player One, you’ve already been through this process. I was hoping Cline would provide something a little different this time around, but it’s just more of the same.