I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Armada by Ernest Cline
Published by Crown on July 14 2015
Genres: Adult, Science fiction
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The nitty-gritty: A fast paced, frenetic story of alien invasion written as only Ernest Cline can write it, with plenty of video game action for gamers and sci-fi movie references for everyone else.
As we ascended, my internal monologue went something like this: That isn’t some guy cosplaying at SobruCon IV, Zack. To me, he looks like a real-life EDA pilot, in a real-life EDA uniform, who is currently piloting the real-life EDA shuttle you appear to be aboard. So, let me see now—multiply by two and carry the one—hey, that’s really weird, but if my math is correct then THE EARTH DEFENSE ALLIANCE IS FUCKING REAL!
It’s appropriate that I’m writing this review the day after I returned from San Diego Comic Con, because Ernest Cline was there, and I got to see him on a couple of panels (although I decided to forgo his book signing because I just didn’t want to be part of the crazy, out of control crowd.) And he was very funny and very good in front of a crowd, and seemed like an honestly all-around nice guy. His main reason for attending SDCC was not to promote his new book, Armada, but to celebrate the fact that Ready Player One will soon be a movie, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg.
But as excited as I am about the movie, I’m actually here to talk about Cline’s newest book, Armada, which goes on sale today. And while it didn’t have that indefinable spark that made Ready Player One so magical, Armada does stand on its own very well and offers plenty of entertainment value and even some very emotional moments. In short, I had a blast reading Armada, and I expect it will skyrocket into bestsellerdom soon (if it hasn’t already) simply because it’s Ernest Cline. This is not a sequel, people! I think some readers are confused about that. If you haven’t read Ready Player One (and if you haven’t, I have to ask, why the hell not??), don’t despair. Cline captures that same sense of nostalgia that he did with 80s pop culture in his first book, but this time he focuses on alien invasion movies, television and video games, beginning in the 70s with Star Wars and touching on such famous properties as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, Ender’s Game, Tron, and many more.
Zack Lightman is sitting in math class one day, staring out the window, when he sees something impossible—a flying saucer shooting through the sky. That alone is pretty weird, but what freaks Zack out the most is that it’s an exact replica of a ship called a Glaive Fighter, one of the spaceships from his favorite video game Armada. At first Zack thinks he’s dreaming. After all, math class is pretty boring, and he’s just counting the days until graduation. But when one of the ships actually lands on the school grounds, and a man named Ray, who owns the vintage video game store in town, steps out of the hull, Zack is convinced that something terribly strange is going on.
And boy, is it! Ray explains to Zack that he is being recruited to join the Earth Defense Alliance, a secret government organization that has been in place for over forty years and whose purpose is to prepare the people of planet Earth for an impending invasion from a race of aliens from the planet Europa. All those books, movies, TV shows and video games about alien invasions that we’ve loved over the years? Well, turns out they were part of the EDA’s plan to make us feel more comfortable with the idea of alien invasion when it finally happens. And even more importantly, the EDA created video games like Armada to actually train people to fight the aliens, à la Ender’s Game. Now Zack is joining other top scoring players from around the world to get ready for a drone invasion, one that could decide the fate of our planet.
As Zack and his new friends learn more about their mission and prepare to enter the battle, something feels, well, off. Engaging with the Europan drones isn’t that difficult, and they seem to be letting the EDA win. Or is Zack just a really good player? As the convenient occurrences start to stack up, Zack discovers what the aliens are really up to, and it’s a race to prove his point before humanity screws up its one chance for survival.
Even if you aren’t into video games—I’m not a gamer at all, and I enjoyed the hell out of this book!—you’ll love it. From the very beginning I had the feeling that something was up, that a simple alien invasion story was far too simple for Ernest Cline. And I was right. There is a twist, but you’ll have to wait a while before you get to it. Cline’s pacing is so good that you won’t mind the wait at all, as he pulls you deep into the action and introduces you to Zack’s new recruit buddies.
The characters in Armada are downright funny, and Cline has given them some awesome lines, like these:
“Lila!” she said, wincing again. “Such language, honey! Your parents don’t let you swear like that around them, do they?”
Whoadie folded her arms. “Well, no, they didn’t used to,” she said. “But they both died in a hurricane when I was little, so now I get to say whatever the fuck I want.”
Milo: “This is just great,” he grumbled under his breath. “Here I thought I was being recruited for an epic space adventure, but it turns out I’m a guest star on Love Boat: The Next Generation.”
There were times in the beginning of the story when I thought Cline was deliberately ripping off Ender’s Game, but then Zack actually mentions Ender’s Game and I realized Cline is totally going meta on his readers! As you can imagine, there are tons of references to movies and TV shows, and the characters are constantly quoting those shows. But I think this time around, readers are going to get more of these references than they might have in Ready Player One, which dealt with a very specific time period. After all, it’s the science fiction geeks that are going to pick up Armada, and who among us can’t quote a line or two from Star Wars?
Cline doesn’t shy away from an emotional story line, and he creates a wonderful bond between Zack and his father, who died in an accident when Zack was only a baby. (I know you’re wondering right now, how can there be a bond between Zack and his dead father? Just go with it:-)) His entire life, Zack has voraciously searched through the boxes of his father’s old stuff, stored lovingly in the attic by his mother, looking for clues and trying to get to know his dad better, and it is from these vintage 80s and 90s video games that Zack’s love of gaming grows. Zack also finds his dad’s “Raid the Arcade” mix tape in the boxes, full of 1980s rock goodness. I loved that Zack cranked up the music every time he played Armada, jamming to Queen and AC/DC. And Cline includes the playlist of Raid the Arcade at the end of the book, which is an awesome touch.
Speaking of emotional, Cline ends his story with an old familiar trope, that kind that usually makes me groan, but this time nearly brought me to tears. No spoilers here, you’ll have to read the book for yourself to see if you agree with me!
My only quibble with the story was a strange feeling of disconnect from all the violence. Yes, characters die, and Europa’s drones are the cause of terrible destruction during the fighting scenes. But none of that ever really got to me. It was as if I was playing a video game myself! And I suspect that’s exactly the reaction that Cline was going for.
There’s a lot to love about Armada, especially for geeks who are ready to jump into a big vat of science fiction goodness. For those of you who are big RPO fans like myself, expect a much different story, one that takes Cline’s obvious love of geekery in new directions, while remaining true to the thing about RPO that I loved so much—the joy of being a fan.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.