Like a lot of kids, Zack Lightman — the main character of Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada (hardcover, digital) — has dreamed about being a space pilot since he saw Star Wars. It’s one of many reasons he spends his free time playing a space dogfighting video game. But when the alien invaders from his favorite game invade Earth for real, Zack realizes he’s hasn’t been playing a game all these years, he’s been training.
As you might imagine from the above description, Ernest Cline’s Armada is a fun, funny, and action-packed novel tailor-made for gamers and geeks. Told from Zack’s perspective, it’s packed with geeky pop culture references and jokes, and thus reads like it was written by someone who writes “Jedi” when asked their religion on forms, who says “42” whenever someone asks them about the meaning of life, and who has 1000+ gamerscore on every Halo game.
The thing is, if you don’t understand the above references, you may not understand all of Armada. Sure, you’ll get the main plot points, but you won’t get the jokes, won’t get the references, and, most importantly, won’t get why this is such a big deal for Zack. Well, for the most part, anyway. The whole “aliens are trying to destroy the world” thing is pretty universal.
Armada is also not a great work of literature. As a writer, Ernest Cline is no Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime And Punishment), no Marcel Proust (In Search Of Lost Time), and no Ernest Hemingway (For Whom The Bell Tolls). Heck, he’s not even Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy). But then, he’s not trying to be, nor should he. While Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Hemingway were great writers, they wouldn’t have had the same geeky enthusiasm, knowledge, or insight to pull off a book about a Star Wars-loving gamer fighting an alien invasion. Only Adams could’ve done it, but even then it might not have had the same depth of geek knowledge which gives Armada its fun factor.
Of course, it’s that geek knowledge that might turn some readers off. There are times, especially in the beginning, when Armada is so packed with pop culture references that you might think Ernest Cline should be writing scripts for Robot Chicken instead. Some might also shake their heads when, during moments of heightened anxiety, Cline’s characters are still quoting their favorite geek stuff like this is a sitcom. Or a movie, which Armada kind of reads like at times. But as someone who spouts lines from The Simpsons so much that a coworker once asked, “Do you have a Simpsons quote for every situation, or is it just that there is a Simpsons quote for every situation?”, I mostly found this penchant to be a fun way of looking at this dire situation.
Despite these issues, though, Armada is still a great read. As a gamer and a geek, I mostly found myself chuckling, as well as totally sympathizing with Zack, while knowing full well that I’d do the same thing in his position. Which may explain why I tore through Armada like Chewbacca ripping someone’s arm out of its socket when he loses. Not only did I read the first 175 or so pages of it on the night I started reading this book, but after getting through another 25 during lunch the next day, I polished off the remaining 150 that night.
Though it helps that the plot moves along at a great clip. Granted, some of the plot points are telegraphed, but there are still others will catch you by surprise. It also helps that Zack is a likeable character; so much of one, in fact, that when you get to the obvious and forced romance, you’ll still find yourself pulling for the guy, even though you know he’s going to get the girl.
Armada also gets points for taking place in a world where the novel’s basic story has already been told in books and movies. Not only do The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game exist in the universe of Armada, but Zack is a fan of both, and even comments about how his predicament is similar to the one faced by the heroes of those tales. Which is a welcome respite from all the movies, TV shows, and books in which people are being chased by a serial killer but none of them have ever seen a Halloween or Friday The 13th movie.
Lastly, there’s the obvious question: How does Armada compare to Ernest Cline’s previous novel, Ready Player One, which was the book everyone would recommend to their game-playing friends until they realized that everyone had already read it (now they suggest Andy Weir’s equally excellent novel The Martian). Well, while Ready Player One was less obvious, less jokey, and a little better written, Armada is ultimately just as much fun to read.
Which is really all you need to know about Armada: it’s a really fun read. It’s not a great work of literature, and it doesn’t give insight into the human condition, but it is thrilling, often funny, energetic, and utterly engaging. It’s not the great American novel, but it is the geek American novel. Which is exactly the kind of book Zack Lightman would like to read.