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: Ready Player One

Next on my book pile: 2011’s debut novel from Ernest Cline, Ready Player One. It’s a few decades into the future, and as real life is far from ideal most of humanity prefers to spend its time in a haptically enhanced virtual universe created by a now-dead reclusive videogame genius billionaire. Somewhere in this virtual universe is an egg, hidden by the genius, and whoever finds it – by following clues and solving puzzles – inherits the billions.

A pixellated quest story, then, with the usual heroes and assorted villainy. The virtual setting lifts what might otherwise be a standard boy-meets-sword, boy-faces-impossible-odds fantasy tale into something new: where magic and technology coexist (or not, according to the rules of that part of the game), where trudging and poetry are abandoned in favour of teleports and 80s cultural references, and where danger exists in both virtual and real forms.

The lurking menace in a story of this kind is the deus ex machina – with in this case the machine an actual computer, and the god its programmer. They give the story world an easy malleability making it trivial for heroes in apparently inescapable peril to survive thanks to a magical artefact they happen to carry in their infinite virtual backpacks. Always a problem in any fantasy tale – Chekhov’s spell, if you like, taught in act one to be cast in act three – but enhanced here in a world whose rules could change at any moment or location according to the whim of our deceased coder to get Cline out of a plot pickle. The author just about gets away with it, I’d say. One scene springs to mind which klaxons “I am important later” in a way I found rather too unsubtle.

A few scenes also suffer from backstoryitis: the suspension of plot progress to allow for a couple of paragraphs or a page of exposition. Perhaps these infodumps would have been better woven into the ongoing text – or deleted entirely. It’s tricky, I know. (I deleted several paragraphs of backstory from The Pauline Conversion. Ultimately it was there for me to better understand the characters: it was irrelevant for the reader.)

But these are nitpicks: minor bugs in the Ready Player One meta-universe, I suppose, if I’m being poncy. It’s an enjoyable book. In particular the 80s references are delightful and, even better, accurate. I’m sure someday someone will create the virtual universe in this book, and I’d love to visit. Meanwhile a movie is in development hell, and may or may not eventually emerge from the Hollywood sausage machine. But given the rights issues (there are a lot of cultural references key to the plot, such as videogames, TV shows, songs and movies) it’s open to question whether the movie will resemble the book. My advice: don’t wait for the movie. The virtual universe inside your head is much more realistic anyway.