The problem with releasing a spectacular debut novel – and intending to continue writing – is that you have to release a follow-up. And no matter what you do, you can never really best yourself. After all, the phrase “sophomore slump” exists for a reason. I used to say that the only author who had found a surefire way to avoid it is Harper Lee, and you see how well that’s been going… This is not to say Armada is a bad book, because I don’t think it is. Ready Player One is simply better. At the same time, it borders on unfair to compare one book to another (unless it’s a sequel, and it’s not). Armada is its own book, with its own set of characters, and its own set of flaws.
Angst-ridden teenager Zack Lightman – who has earned the rather large chip on his shoulder – is good at video games. In fact, he is one of the best in the world at Armada, a go-to-war-against-the-hostile-invading-aliens game. He’s so good that when the aliens actually begin to invade, he’s recruited by the government to defend the planet. If this plot line sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It has certainly been done before (Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter come to mind immediately), but Cline attempts to bring a fresh perspective to the story line. It’s not necessarily successful, but it won’t make you cringe either.
The book is fun is a way that I’ve come to expect from Ernest Cline. He writes quite the love letter to the ‘80s. In this case, Zack’s father died when he was very young, and in order to feel close to him, Zack immerses himself in everything his father loved (meaning everything sci-fi and everything ‘80s – from music to movies to automotive choices). There may be a moment or two where you’ll feel beaten over the head with too many pop culture references, but in the context of who Zack is and what he loves, they make sense. Here is an example of where it is just a bit too much. For what it’s worth, there are many moments where it really works – and I always love a good X-Files reference.
This novel has very polarizing reviews. Huffington post called it the best sci-fi novel you’ll read all year while Slate called it everything wrong with gaming culture. The only way you can find out who is right is to read it yourself. For me, Armada is popcorn fiction: fun, but without any substance*.
I liked it and if you choose to read it, I hope you do too. If you want to read about a teenage boy defending our planet – always a good time – grab a copy. Maybe put on a little ZZ Top (Sharp-Dressed Man, as one does), pull out Star Wars, and settle in with your inner nerd.
Pair this one with grilled pizza from Oh Sweet Basil. Zack claims to have eaten it in order to avoid dinner with his mom, and even though he didn’t actually eat it, I still believe he loves it. Or I love it enough for both of us. Either way, I’m not recommending Funions, which he enjoys.
(Long live the ‘80s. Of note: I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.)
*And best when you don’t compare it to the best popcorn you’ve ever had…(ahem, Ready Player One)