I’ve been waiting for Armada to be released ever since I fell in love with Ready Player One in January. I was so excited that I didn’t have long to wait until Ernest Cline’s next book came out and it was actually the second book in my entire life that I pre-ordered (the first was Heir of Fire). You could argue that the weight of my expectations damaged my opinion of this book, and I might concede if I were only mildly disappointed. The fact is, though, that I actually disliked this book and therefore the shoddy novel itself has to take the blame for at least some of that.
Plot summary: It’s just another day of high school for Zack Lightman. He’s daydreaming through another boring math class, with just one more month to go until graduation and freedom―if he can make it that long without getting suspended again.
Then he glances out his classroom window and spots the flying saucer.
At first, Zack thinks he’s going crazy. A minute later, he’s sure of it. Because the UFO he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada―in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.
But what Zack’s seeing is all too real. And his skills―as well as those of millions of gamers across the world―are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it. Yet even as he and his new comrades scramble to prepare for the alien onslaught, Zack can’t help thinking of all the science-fiction books, TV shows, and movies he grew up reading and watching, and wonder: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little too… familiar?
I’m perfectly aware that it’s not really fair to judge a book by its predecessor, but as I imagine a lot of people will be reading this off the back of Ready Player One, I’m going to do it anyway. This book is not like that one. There are no geeky references (aside from references to one 80s music playlist), little in-jokes or nods to pop culture – instead it’s pretty much just a straight sci-fi novel.
I don’t actually object to this in principle as I quite like sci-fi. It’s just that the plot… well, it’s not good. The basic gist is that films like Star Wars, Star Trek, Independence Day, etc, are all propaganda funded by the government to familiarise us with aliens so we don’t panic when contact is eventually made. Similarly, there are two games (one of them the titular Armada, and the other is… something else. I want to say Titan Fall, but that’s an actual game) promoted by the government to secretly train gamers into being able to control military drones when the invasion occurs.
It’s silly. The thing is, for sci-fi and fantasy plotlines, for them to be believable, the only thing that can be unrealistic is the existence of aliens (or whatever the theme happens to be). Our willingness to accept the fictional only goes so far. Asking readers to believe in an alien invasion is fair enough, but suggesting that we’d be totally calm about it because we’ve seen fricking Star Wars is pushing it and makes zero sense.
Within minutes, it seemed like the same newscasters who had delivered the news were now reporting with total confidence that most of the world’s civilian population was already responding to the EDA’s call to arms, and that hundreds of millions of people all over the world were already mobilising themselves by logging on to the EDA’s online operations servers to enlist and then receive their combat drone assignments and take up arms and defend their planet. Several networks were showing clips of people abandoning their cars in traffic to run into electronics stores and libraries and coffee shops and Internet cafes and office buildings, thousands upon thousands of people, all in a mad dash to get somewhere with Broadband Internet access.
Okay, no. First off, you’re just not going to convince ‘hundreds of millions of people’ to play the same game, whatever that game happens to be. Secondly, and most importantly, you can’t really be saying that if an alien invasion happened, we’d all be totally cool with it because of the sci-fi movies we’ve seen? This is set in our own world, after all. There would be riots and looting and general panic, not instant, staid determination to calmly traipse to the nearest computer.
Unfortunately that kind of lazy writing is prevalent throughout. Characters don’t react naturally, in the way that normal people would – they overreact or underreact, whenever the plot needs to be forced in a certain way. The ending also feels like an incredible cop-out as it seems very anti-climactic and a super easy way out.
Even if you could get on board with the plotline and weren’t ridiculously annoyed with the ending, as a standard sci-fi novel, there’s still nothing special about Armada. There are thousands of other books exactly like it, and therefore the only aspects that stand out are the negative ones. It reminds me a lot of Ender’s Game… which I didn’t even finish.
I feel slightly traitorous writing this review but this book took me two whole weeks to plough through and I almost gave up on it multiple times. I wasn’t just disappointed, I actually disliked this book, especially the ending. I’ll still read anything Ernest Cline writes, but my expectations will be infinitely lower next time.