I rushed blindly into reading Armada with very high expectations. I loved Cline's first novel, Ready Player One and found myself recommending it to anyone who loved video games, D&D or sic-fi/fantasy in general. I have to be honest and say that Armada is no Ready Player One, not by a long shot.
I'll start with the good, Armada definitely made me nostalgic for my youth - jamming quarters into Gauntlet & Double Dragon arcade cabinets, sitting for hours on my bed trying desperately to beat The Legend of Zelda on NES. Even the cover seems to glow with light from an arcade game. It's a novel that wants you to remember the golden age of video games, and that's kinda the problem.
Zack Lightman is a seventeen year old video game nerd with a tendency for physical violence. His father died in a mysterious factory explosion when Zack was one, leaving a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder. His mother, who Zack refers to as "hot" (huh?) can recite Battle Star Galactica and World of Warcraft references better than any Cheeto-crunching basement dweller in the state.
Zack finds solace in a video game called Armada, an online flight simulator he plays every night with his friends. Armada may be the reason Zack lost his girlfriend, but it's also the one thing that keeps him focused and connected to his deceased father, who was also a massive gaming nerd.
After school, Zack spends his time working at Starbase Ace, a shabby video game store owned by Ray, a video game aficionado and Yoda to Zack's Luke. Zack seems happy to not have a plan in life, whittleing away the hours paying Armada and debating Star Trek vs. Star Wars with his friends.
Then, everything changes. Bored in class one day, Zack's gaze wanders to the window where he sees a flying saucer, and not just any flying saucer, the enemy ones from the game Armada. Convinced that he's hallucinating, Zack tries to shrug it off.
The problem is, you can't shrug off an alien invasion.
Every gamer has done it - imagined what it would be like if their favourite game turned out to be true and they were called up to engage in the real life version. Heck, just the other night I had a dream I was asked to save the world by catching as many bass as humanly possible whilst listening to horrible music, just like the greatest video game ever made, seen here.
Turns out, Zack isn't hallucinating, the invasion is real. So real that a spacecraft lands at his school, men in futuristic uniforms hop out and tell him that he's part of an elite crew of Armada gamers needed to save the earth. That's right, all of those hours of playing video games finally paid off, the game wasn't just a game, it was a training module to prepare humans for the real deal.
Zack is rushed off to a secret base where he's given a few hours to digest the news that the world is about to be attacked by millions of alien craft and he and his slacker friends are the only hope.
That's the good part. I'm going to try not to be too negative, because I really, really wanted to like this novel. The problem for me is that Cline crams so many video game / music / film references into this story that at times it feels as if he inserted them first and then tried to write a story around them.
I don't mind the references, like I said, they made me nostalgic and I guess that's the point, I just felt like the plot and characters suffered because of them.
There's that, and then there's the awfully predictable ending that will make any fan of Ender's Game or The Last Starfighter roll their eyes so hard they'll fall into the back of their skull.
That said, it's a faced-paced, easy read and I am genuinely looking forward to recommending this novel to teens in the library that are immersed in this culture. I can tell Cline had a blast writing it, at least it feels that way, and I guess that should stand for something.
I've heard that Spielberg is making a film out of it, as a Librarian it's sacrilege to say this but I think the film could be done a hell of a lot better and I really look forward to it.
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