Review: Armada

I confess I’ve struggled to articulate my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s Armada. As the tricky second book following a blockbuster like Ready Player One, the temptation for this reviewer is to throw down comparisons in an endless series of bullets: Ready Player One was like this, but Armada‘s like this, which means XYZ.

That’s unfair. But not entirely. Armada isn’t related story-wise to RPO, and yet the two books overlap in many ways. Both have a teen male protagonist whose expertise in video games is the spine of the story. Both are rich with pop-culture references anchoring the story firmly in our world. It almost feels as if both books have a common ancestor, an ur-plot in Cline’s head. More likely Cline’s simply projecting his own experiences, as all authors do to some extent, and these two lenses have much the same prescription.

If I try to forget RPO exists, how do I feel about Armada?

The plot is captivating and straightforward: on page one our hero, Zack, looks out of his classroom window to see a UFO darting across the sky. What’s more, it’s a craft identical to the ones he sees and battles in a video game – called Armada. How is that possible? Is it real, or is he hallucinating? Either answer signals trouble, which subsequently arrives at a pace speedy enough to keep me turning the 350 pages. It’s exciting, thrilling and eventful. It feels almost like the novelisation of a screenplay (which is handy, as the movie rights were sold for seven figures).

It also feels aimed at a specific audience: teenage boys who might see themselves in Zack’s place. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, complete with absent father and a school bully.

In that sense it’s a disappointment. I have nothing against these sorts of stories at all. I suppose I was hoping for something a little different, in the way that Ready Player One felt different. But ignoring RPO, as I claimed I was: it’s a great story and it’ll make a watchable brain-off blockbuster movie. It has its faults, though: not least the massive implausibility of <spoiler>.

Aside from that, some lesser but important characters lack any depth: you can’t make an emotional connection to someone who’s little more than a checkbox. “Oh, we need one of them, and one of them…”

Also, the pop-culture references tend on occasion towards the gratuitous. The bickering is real enough: characters bitch and joke about real-world fictional characters just as we would. Sometimes it feels shoe-horned in, possibly disguising the lack of character depth. I have fewer reservations about the unlikeliness of the characters having sufficient composure under extreme stress to wisecrack quite as coherently as they do: hey, that’s fiction for you. Gibbering and damp trousers would not be the average teen boy’s idea of wish fulfilment.

There is one particular scene late in the book in which certain real-world people “guest star” as characters. I am not a huge fan in general and in this case I was overwhelmed by the aroma of cheese. For me, this device bumps up against a line: I understand it, and it makes sense in context, but… just no. I sincerely hope it doesn’t appear in the film, as all tension in that scene will evaporate in laughter (at least in UK cinemas).

These criticisms are niggles rather than chuck-the-book-across-the-room-isms, and possibly amplified by my own expectations after Ready Player One. This was always going to be Cline’s problem: follow that. People of a certain age (hello!) who enjoyed revisiting the minutiae of 80s video games and films in Ready Player One, who can nod sagely at discussions of Pac-Man tactics and mullets, might have anticipated and wanted another spin around the Pole Position track.

Armada is not that, and yet it’s too similar to Ready Player One to escape comparison, and that might ultimately be its biggest problem. JK Rowling wisely keeps well away from magic with her non-Hogwarts books, and in Armada Ernest Cline perhaps drifts too close to Ready Player One for safety.

Still, I’m sure he’s worrying all the way to the bank.

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Review: More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not – cover image
Please excuse the colour cast and the delicately distributed muck on top of my fridge.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an LGBT-themed book. Having finished Exo I saw the next few on my official to-read pile weren’t going to change that, so as a Christmas treat I decided to sneak in something new. Amazon opened its unwashed mac to show me a barely distinguishable selection of beefcake covers, and if you’ve read any of my books you’ll understand that’s not the sort of thing I write and it’s not my preferred reading material either.

I scrolled down, and saw a cover lacking both beef and cake. More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera. One blurb-skim later it plonked into my basket. It proved a fine choice.

I don’t remember reading anything like it before. A Bronx teen, Aaron Soto, struggles to figure himself out, torn between his girlfriend and a new, male best buddy, Thomas. Aaron’s father killed himself; his mother barely manages; his other friends run hot and cold, often violently. To Aaron, Thomas represents hope – and more? And threaded through the story, talk of a near-miraculous process offered by the Leteo Institute: the selective rewriting and deletion of memories.

A coming-of-age story, then, lifted by the generous peppering of a gritty setting and a dollop of SF mustard. In More Happy Than Not, no holds are barred, and teenage activities occur. This is not the (perfectly reasonable but) pastel, idealised world of some books. There are choices, and there are consequences. And the genre-mashing keeps you guessing, and keeps you reading, all the way.

Aaron is utterly believable: his thoughts, his feelings, his worries, all resonated to various degrees. The first-person present-tense style, not to everyone’s taste, brings an immediacy to a story focusing often on Aaron’s past and his future. I genuinely muttered “oh, god, don’t do that,” on at least one occasion, though I can neither confirm nor deny I was in a public place at the time and anyway it was noisy and nobody looked at me apart from that one lady.

I suppose if I were forced at knifepoint to find fault, I’d say I’d have liked the story to continue a little longer. That’s the reviewing equivalent to “my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist,” I know. I guess some of the supporting characters feel a little interchangeable (not a great sin here). I can’t say whether the Bronx scenes are truthful in any way – my reality involves regular sightings of students in three-piece tweed, and consequently I’m an unreliable judge. It feels real enough, as does Aaron’s family and its fractured lives.

This is a book I rattled quickly through (always a good sign) and I wish I’d been able to read it as a teenager. The SF angle would’ve given me the excuse I’d have been looking for and it would have helped me, I’m sure. Oh, to be a teenager again (modulo school, acne, exams, climate change, Brexit, Trump… hmm, on second thoughts).

More Happy Than Not is Adam Silvera’s debut novel, which makes me both happy and envious. I look forward to his next dropping onto my pile soon.

Review: Exo

Jumper series

Last year I reviewed Impulse, the third book in the Jumper series by Steven Gould. I’ve just finished Exo, the fourth. Yes, I’m still a way behind in my reading.

As in Impulse, Exo follows the activities of the Rice family: parents Davy and Millie, written in third person, and their 17-year-old daughter Cent, in first person. All three have the ability to jump – teleport – from place to place, subject to some plot-enabling constraints. In my review of Impulse I suggested Gould seemed to be moving pieces around in preparation for something bigger, and Exo is definitely that. I wasn’t expecting quite how big.

Impulse was Buffyesque: teenage girl with powers has to deal with school, boys, villains, etc. Exo has more ambition. The scope is not local, but global. Exo is about a young woman taking control: knowing (mostly) what she wants, and setting out to get it. Emerging from the shadow of her parents, from the shadow of their necessarily secret lives – they have enemies, trailing them through the books, who’d rather see them dead than jumping.

What does Cent want? Consider this: she can jump to places she can see or has visited. She can also jump “in place” adding velocity. So she can jump up, and keep going, adding bursts of speed to counter gravity, and then she can jump instantly back to where she started – and then instantly back to where she ended up. With the necessary equipment, how far up could she go? And what could she do when she got there?

And of course: what happens when, inevitably, she’s tracked?

Cent is a convincing protagonist, albeit implausibly bright. She still has to endure late-stage teenagerism with its embarrassing parents and boy-related awkwardness, even as she steps and/or jumps towards adulthood and the accompanying Stuff. I’m pleased she’s not the only focus: the many chapters following Millie and Davy broaden and support the story, linking it to the previous books and showing more of that Stuff. For example, Millie’s mother is very ill in hospital – and they suspect their enemies know, which brings obvious and non-obvious complications.

Gould doesn’t skimp on the technicals. Exo is a little heftier than its predecessors, and much of that seems down to the fine detail, the research brain-dumps he scatters throughout the story. Perhaps these are intended to appeal more to the teenage boy audience, to balance the female protagonist viewpoint. I know my proto-nerd self would’ve lapped up every nut and volt. It doesn’t feel like padding, slowing the story down. Instead it grounds the story in the real world: despite all the jumping you still need X and Y, and you still can’t do without Z.

What’s missing, curiously, is any great sense of threat beyond the dangers Cent experiences as a natural result of her ambition. The Rice family’s enemies are always in their thoughts, and Davy especially is constantly on his guard fretting about attack vectors, and that’s mostly as far as it goes. Not entirely. Perhaps that’s a more realistic approach than an attack-of-the-chapter style, which would only submerge the main plot in treacle. The reader wants to know what Cent does next, and that’s enough to keep the pages turning.

Exo marks a change in the Jumper series. The previous books were about dealing, struggling, adjusting, fighting. Exo is about owning and achieving. It’s positive, it’s progressive, and you’ll wish it were true. On the flip side, I’m not sure where the series goes after this. At least if it ends here, Exo is a fine conclusion.

 

Review: Impulse

jumper-reflex-impulse

I’m not sure where I first read about the Jumper books by Steven Gould. Possibly on Boing Boing. Impulse is the third in the series, following Jumper and Reflex. (There was an awful 2008 film called Jumper, loosely based on the first book, starring Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell and Wooden Star Wars’ Hayden Christensen. The books are much better.)

In the first Jumper novel we met Davey, a teenage boy, who discovered he could teleport — he called it jumping — under certain circumstances, and to certain places. This was a Pretty Neat Trick, and unsurprisingly one that authorities of various kinds wanted to exploit. Jumper and Reflex explored Davey’s adventures. He got older and fell in love, discovering he wasn’t the only jumper along the way, and learned jumping has physical limits. In essence he reverse-engineered the physics of jumping, and it wasn’t the get-out-of-jail-free card it might have seemed.

In Impulse, with the Jumper universe well established, we return to Davey and his other half Millie a couple of decades on (Jumper was published in 1992, so we’re still present-day). The pair have lived in hiding all that time, jumping discreetly and in disguise, and they now have a daughter, Cent, in her mid-teens but lacking any social existence. She’s been home-schooled all her life, and she and her parents have come to realise that’s more of a non-life. So they work out a way for her to attend a real school.

Naturally being highly educated, paranoid and the new girl, Cent attracts attention. It’s no real spoiler to reveal she discovers she too can jump. And as she masters the technique she figures out how to do more – all logical within the established universe. Jinks both high and low ensue.

Meanwhile her parents carry on with their humanitarian activities (being able to bring fresh water into disaster areas without the usual hassles, for example, is a tremendously useful skill). Although the focus is mostly on Cent – first-person, strong teenage female protagonist alert! – we also follow Davey and Millie (in third-person).

In truth those diversions from Cent’s story feel a little half-hearted. They move the Jumper universe forward a little but you sense the author’s treading water, moving pieces on the chessboard to prepare for another book. (Exo, the fourth book in the series, was published in 2014: no idea what it’s about. I’ll read it at some point.)

The adventures of Cent herself are small-scale: school shenanigans and teenage angst. Bullies, boys, and her growing independence from her parents. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s difficult for me to say whether it’s a realistic depiction of life for an unsocialised teenage girl in an American high school – as an ancient Briton my exposure to the freshman/sophomore/junior/senior lingo is limited (Buffy, 80s teen movies…). It feels convincing enough, which is all that matters. I’m sure almost all of us, whatever our backgrounds, can relate to bullying at school. (I’d have loved Cent’s powers on more than one occasion.)

In the three Jumper books I’ve read so far Gould has wisely resisted the temptation to give more and more characters the ability to jump. In Alfred Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination anyone can learn how to do it (Bester calls it “jaunting”, the same word used in the cardboard’n’flares 1970s TV show The Tomorrow People). Although the imagery of thousands of people bamffing into existence to gawp at a current event is beguiling, it’d soon lose its impact in the Jumper books. When everyone can jump, jumping is boring.

Impulse is, I’d say, less of a YA thriller than its predecessors – it’s more of a coming-of-age story with an SF twist – but just as compelling. The female teenage protagonist is great to see, even if my hunch is it may deter the stereotypical teenage boy from picking up the book. A shame if so – there’s plenty to enjoy.

Like Jumper and Reflex, Impulse is very much one of those books you read with an inner sigh, wishing you had the same power. Fancy a day skiing? Some authentic Chinese food? Easy. Right now, I’d jump to somewhere I can get my feet warm. Rio seems nice.

*thinks hard*

Nope, still here.