Armada by Ernest Cline performed by Wil Wheaton
Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.
But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.
And then he sees the flying saucer.
Even stranger, the alien ship 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.
No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’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.
It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?
I was really excited about Armada. Having listened to it, I am no longer excited. Normally we review things we like around here. I do it because most of the time I don’t want to sit down and write about why I just wasted a bunch of time on something that wasn’t very good. That often leads to the ancillary realization that I just wasted a bunch more time on it.
Still, I’ve expressed sincere affection for Ready Player One. In fact, I’m still feeling pretty good about the upcoming Spielberg adaptation. So I figure I should share my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s sophomore effort.
The ad copy up there gives the impression that there’s some sort of impenetrable conspiracy at the heart of the story, but that couldn’t be further from the case. The mystery is explained, and repeated, at the beginning of the novel. It’s then hastily bolted onto a framework composed of Ender’s Game, Starship Troopers, Iron Eagle, and The Last Starfighter. I’m not stretching. Three of those are namechecked in the book. The plot of Iron Eagle is laboriously explained. Then the protagonist’s penchant for listening to his Guardians of the Galaxy mix tape while he raids in the world’s most popular MMO is explicitly tied to the film.
And that’s a sort of snapshot of what’s gone wrong in Armada. In Ready Player One, also about the world’s most popular MMO and one of it’s top players, the ambiguous alternate future dominated by the imagination of an absent eccentric polymath, the appropriated language and imagery was almost convincing. An online space populated with pop cultural yesterday seemed at least plausible. Semi-anonymous relationships built on quote recognition and shared obsessions rang true to my experience as a Warcraft player.
Here, in the normal world, it feels forced. And explaining the genealogy of every reference or bit of wordplay absolutely reinforces that feeling. In the name of nostalgia, scenes are stripmined from science fiction staples and remixed, bereft of the theme and impact of the original. Out of context, what might have been a character building moment in the eighties is often just sociopathology in the twenty first century.
I didn’t care about Zack Lightman. I didn’t connect with the stock emotional beats. And I didn’t see the point of implying the obvious and then immediately explaining it.
It was like something out of a bad science fiction movie.
The audio is mixed well; and you can listen via your device’s built in speakers or earbuds without fear. Wil Wheaton does his best to inject some life and energy into the story. He performed the audiobook for Ready Player One, and returns with the same gosh wow energy he brought to Wade Watts. He sets the right tone for games, geek references, and emotional outbursts. Even as good as he is, though, he can’t save Armada from itself.
It’s difficult to recommend it at all. Where there was some joy of recognition and discovery in Cline’s debut, this one is stilted and formulaic. It’s evidence that pulling off recombinant culture is hard. I’m a soft target. I’ve written thousands of words delighting in Once Upon a Time for goodness sake.
Recommended for fans of Jordan Belfort, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Go Set a Watchman.