ARMADA: We've Been Here Before
Author: Ernest Cline
Published: July 14th, 2015
Length: 368 Pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780804137256
Trade Paperback ISBN: 9780804137270
Zack Lightman is really good at video games. Like, really good. Specifically, he is in the top ten players for a video game called Armada in which an intense and aggressive alien invasion is thwarted by human members of the Earth Defence Alliance using reverse-engineered combat drones. Outside of the game world he struggles with his obsession with his father who died when he was a baby, his anger issues and the resulting reputation at school, and the constant wish that his real life was as adventurous as the video games he plays. Until one day while sitting in class he sees an alien spacecraft flying around outside. What’s more, its exactly the same kind of spacecraft that he’s been shooting down for years in Armada. Turns out the alien invasion is real. And Zack is one of the best chances Earth has to survive.
It feels almost impossible to discuss Armada without acknowledging Ernest Cline’s previous science-fiction novel Ready Player One. Mostly because Armada contains much of the same style of pop culture, science fiction, and video game referencing as Ready Player One. The main difference is that in Armada these references often feel stale, forced, and off-key. While the concept and relevance of these constant references – the plot’s foundational idea is that for decades science fiction movies, tv shows, and video games were being used to subconsciously prepare the population of Earth for an actual alien invasion – is clear, there is no escaping the fact that they do not capture the fan-boy/girl feel of Ready Player One. The references end up feeling more cumbersome than inclusive.
Armada’s premise is also built around an attempt at subverting the predictable and problematic elements of the very science fiction pop culture that it so heavily references. In this respect, it succeeds at the cost of logic and originality. The strongest part of the novel is near the end of the second part where so much of the burdens of the narrative fall away and for a brief time the novel gets to relish in its surface value. This is the point in the novel where it seems to really grasp what it wants to be: fun. Too much of the beginning reads like a transcript of watching a video game – unsurprising, as it literally is – which proves to be quite boring and mostly expository. And the final part of the novel falls into so many tropes of science fiction and movie culture that it becomes painfully predictable and anti-climactic. Armada cannot seem to get out of its own way and ends up self-sabotaging in an attempt to force its content into a love-hate letter to science fiction and video games.
Meanwhile, the characters are all decidedly one-dimensional, except perhaps for Zack. Told from a first-person perspective, each character Zack meets is given a single identifying trait that becomes the singular aspect of their character. Thus, as the trope-y elements of the ending come into line, the characters all fulfill their roles without any conflict or difficulty simply because none of them possess the depth of character necessary to complicate the task of saving the world. As for Zack himself, while he does struggle with more dimensions than any other character, all of his problems take a back-seat and are miraculously resolved by the totally illogical (though, logical through the contrived nature of the plot) series of events that befall him. The story slowly whittles him down into a one-dimensional character as time goes on. Zack does not overcome or mature, he devolves and simplifies.
Ultimately, Armada’s attempt to subversively tackle the tropes of science fiction back-fires and turns into a case study in the predictability and lack of entertainment that these tropes can generate. By calling attention to the tropes so often, Armada unintentionally calls attention to its own flaws and problems.