Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline – Back to Your Games!

So what do Star Wars, a sanitation plant accident, and a rockin’ mix tape have in common? Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada, has the answer.

I’m from the first generation of people enthralled and amazed by the video game culture. Star Wars came out the year I graduated from high school, the first stand-up games came out in the mid-’70s, and Atari released its home consoles, with Pong and Breakout, in the mid to late ’70s. I spent a lot of hours in the arcade in on Green Street in Urbana, IL, mostly watching friends play (because I went through my quarters way too quickly). We had one of those great Atari systems at home, and my brothers and I challenged each other whenever we could. But we never had the thought that all of this – and so much more, like Ender’s Game, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc. – was preparing us to challenge an alien race when and if the time came.

But Ernest Cline, the author of the amazing futuristic retro-gaming novel Ready Player One, has obviously had that idea. That’s the premise of his new novel, Armada, out this week from Crown Publishers. Armada, which is a completely separate novel from RPO, and in no way related, is told by high schooler Zack Lightman, one of the world’s highest scorers on the video game Armada. Zack is an average student, with a bit of a temper, a father who died at age 19 in a sanitation plant accident, and a longing for adventure.

I had spent hundreds of hours gazing out at the calm, conquered suburban landscape surrounding my school, silently yearning for the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse, a freak accident that would give me super powers, or perhaps the sudden appearance of a band of time-traveling kleptomaniac dwarves.

Zack’s mom has saved all of his father’s games, consoles, mix tapes and diaries, outlining his extensive theory that science fiction films, video games and books constitute some kind of acclimation and training program, readying the world to fight against a coming alien invasion. And as Zack sits in his dreadfully dull math class, watching the class bully torment the boy in front of him, he sees – or thinks he sees – the enemy warship from his favorite game, Armada, hovering outside the window.

The next day – the entire book happens over the span of less than 3 days – Zach’s boss from “Starbase Ace,” a gaming store at the mall, descends from an aircraft that Zach has never seen before, and offers him the adventure he’s been waiting for – as one of the world’s elite drone pilots in the war that they have unwittingly been training for.

Like Ready Player One, Cline’s stories rely heavily on action rather than description, straightforward story-telling instead of lyrical prose. They’re more the fictional equivalent of Pong and Breakout than Fallout and Assassin’s Creed – but this isn’t by any means a criticism. The story is best when it’s moving. While Armada has plenty of touchy-feely moments – Zach finds love and recovers something lost in the midst of the could-have-been-clichéd struggle for Earth’s survival – it’s important to remember that this is first person point of view from a high school senior boy, creatures not known for their introspection and lyrical language (I own two of these, and speak from experience).

Armada is fun and fast-moving. I found it much easier to get through than Ready Player One – it’s a much simpler story in many ways than Cline’s first novel. It’s set, at the start, in present-day Oregon, but moves into at least one exotic locale. It’s really the fantasy that I’m sure lots of avid gamers have, that they’re actually part of some secret plan to save the world with their great joystick skills. And based on the fact that the military does actually use video games for pilot training, parts of the premise aren’t too far off!

If you’re planning to buy a copy of Armada, make sure you look on the inside of the dust jacket. I know – who does? But you’ll be glad you did. And now, get back to that laptop, XBox, PS4 or Atari! You may be called upon to defend your world!

Click here to purchase Armada on Amazon.com

Ernest Cline’s Blog

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