Sunday 8 July 2018

Ernest Cline: Armada (2015)

Edition: Century, 2015
Review number: 1512

Ernest Cline's first novel, Ready Player One, was one of my top reads of 2018, when I finally read it. Even though I am not a gamer, I was introduced to computers in the 1980s and played many games in that decade, and Cline's nostalgia for that decade combined with the excitement of the story resonated with me. After that, it wasn't long before I sought out Cline's second novel.

In Armada, narrator Zack Lightman is an obsessive teenage player of the game Armada, a first person shooter where the aim is to prevent an alien invasion. When it becomes clear that Armada and other games are secretly training drone operators to fight an expected (and now happening) alien invasion of Earth, Zack is enlisted and flown to a secret base on the far side of the moon. But he becomes uneasy, as he starts to think that there is something wrong with the story he and the world have been told about the aliens.

In many ways, Armada is very similar to Ready Player One. The games and their integration into the story, the young, nerdy hero, the eighties nostalgia are all basically identical. The characters generally could be interchangeably in either novel. This makes Armada less than ideal to read soon after Ready Player One, but is not necessarily a bad thing - many genre writers essentially continue writing what they know and what made them successful in the first place, and a large number of readers enjoy each slightly different version of the same story.

As in Cline's first novel, the writing is good, drawing the reader in and providing an exciting read. I often find that lengthy descriptions of combat in science fiction become tedious, but this is not a problem here. (This tedium is really why I have never been greatly interested in first person shooter games.) Further interest is provided by an underlying critique of the clich├ęs of game scenario design - in fact, these are the clues which suggest to Zack that there is something going on behind what is on the surface. While this is interesting, it is damaging to Armada if regarded as a thriller, because of the way it undercuts so many scenes - visceral excitement is hard to generate if the protagonist is constantly wondering whether his role is too easy, if the enemy being fought is holding back for some reason, so that every battle is just within the capability of the player.

I would rate Armada at 6/10 - and I suspect it would get a higher rating if I'd waited for longer before reading it.