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 video games 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 video game 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?
If you are a long-time reader of this blog, then you will remember my delight at reading Ready, Player One for our Brunch Book Club. It was my first exposure to Cline’s work, and I became a big fan, recommending the book to everyone both in store and in the library. When I heard that there would finally be another book coming out this year, I was determined to repeat my experience on audio (again, read by Wil Wheaton – thanks, Wil!) and in paper form. There was some trepidation though – could it live up to the awesomeness that was Cline’s first book?
Well, the answer is yes and no. While Ready, Player One paid homage to the 80’s, Armada is a love letter to gamer geeks everyone, proving that playing video games is not a waste of time and can, in fact, save the world. We’re introduced to Zack Lightman, semi-angry young man and gamer extraordinaire, who is suddenly plucked from his everyday existence to become a fighter pilot in the battle to save Earth. Cline knows that this is a familiar sci-fi trope, used in many books and movies before, and he doesn’t hesitate to point that out to the reader. In fact, there’s a lot of self-referential action in this book – so much so that I wonder if readers who are unfamiliar with the original references might be a little lost. I’m not a gamer, but I’ve witness that fervent adoration in action with many of my friends, so while I might not have the first-hand pop culture references I definitely have a connection.
I really enjoyed how Cline threw in current trends by the military as they build in the use of video game simulations to their training programs with the ‘what if’ thinking of sci-fi alien attacks, and I felt that he did a great job weaving the fact with the fiction. While Cline certainly doesn’t turn preachy, he does have some things to say about how the military has taken over scientific innovation, and he makes the reader question when the concept of exploration and scientific discovery moved from the thrill of the unknown to the desire to own it all. After all, if we look back at old Star Trek episodes, who could have predicted how many of those technologies would come to exist in our day-to-day world? It’s that potential for the future that keeps us reading sci-fi, and that makes Armada such a fun read.
Much like the characters in Scalzi’s Red Shirts, some of the characters in Armada gradually become aware that things are a little too … predictable… for their liking. They can’t help but compare events around them to familiar stories from books, movies and video games, and they begin to see patterns in the story. It’s the knowing glance to the reader that tells us that Cline recognizes that this is a tale oft told, but that he also thinks that there are different ways to tell it. Perhaps my only quibble is that the female characters are not as richly described as the primary male characters, and there is a part of me (especially in the current gaming society) that wishes he had enhanced those characters a bit more. Strong role models such as Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Felicia Day and others might have been pivotal figures in this story.
Perhaps there is something to be said for playing the game for the joy of it, and recognizing the camaraderie that develops worldwide after playing as a team. Perhaps, as this book suggests, we need to look at our own actions and how others perceive them before we can move ahead. Either way, there is no doubting that this is a tremendously fun follow-up to Ready, Player One, and fans of that book (and the many cultural references within) will undoubtedly enjoy this one just as much. I know that I did for sure.
Armada is published by Crown/Archetype, a division of Penguin Random House (Canada). A copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ISBN: 9780804137256, 368 pages or via Audible.