“Armada” by Ernest Cline


I recently wrote a review of Ernest Cline’s Armada for Mythgard Academy’s blog (available here). I am reprinting here as it is in many ways a companion piece to The Last Starfighter

In 2011, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (which I reviewed here) became a bestseller by capturing the gestalt of geek culture. For a generation that grew up during the 1980s and is rapidly approaching middle age (myself included), the book felt like a tribute to our collective nostalgia. In that book, teenager Wade Watts competes in an online video game by using trivia of 1980s pop culture to unlock hidden keys. Cline’s most recent book, Armada, is not a direct sequel to Ready Player One, but instead serves as a spiritual companion. If Ready Player One was “about” 1980s movies and video games, Armada attempts to recreate the archetypal 1980s sci-fi story in novel form.

Not surprisingly, although Armada takes place in the near future, it starts out like a typical 1980s kid’s movie. The protagonist, Zack Lightman, lives with his mother in Beaverton, Oregon, after his father died in an industrial accident. Zack inherited his father’s love for 1980s pop culture and still keeps much of his father’s memorabilia. Zack flounders in school but happens to be very good at video games. One day, he sees a spaceships from his favorite game hovering outside his classroom. He later learns that the game was in fact a test by the Earth Defense Alliance (EDA) to identify and recruit the best pilots to defend Earth against alien invaders.

If this sounds familiar, it should. As other reviewers have noted, Armada comes across like a remake of the 1984 film The Last Straighter (which is ironic because several directors, including Steven Spielberg, had unsuccessfully tried to remake that film, but Cline has already sold the film rights to Armada). However, Armada isn’t just a copycat. Perhaps the most important difference is that the EDA recruits many pilots into its program, so Armada has a broader and more diverse cast of characters. Zack is part of a team and doesn’t even have the highest score in the game (he ranks sixth overall). This makes Zack Lightman less of an übermensch than The Last Straighter’s Alex Rogan.

While Armada revels in classic 1980s movie tropes, it also inverts some of those very tropes. Far from being an obstacle to Zack’s dreams, Zack’s mom is a casual gamer who encourages her son to turn his love for video games into a viable career. The beginning of the book hints at “Spielbergian” daddy issues, but Zack ultimately has a healthy respect and love for his father. Moreover, gamers in the 1980s could only play with local friends and family, but the use of online gaming complicates character interactions in Armada. Through the game, Zack befriends suburban moms, punks, military officers, and others outside his usual social circles. Some of the best scenes in the novel are those in which characters who had competed against each other for years finally meet. As in Ready Player One, gamers must reconcile online personalities with real-world personalities.

The plot and character arcs of Armada are all very straightforward – perhaps too straightforward. Armada isn’t necessarily a short book, but it feels short. Only a few days elapse from Zack’s first UFO sighting to the denouement. Unlike Enders Game, when Ender trains for months before fighting the Buggers, Zack goes from suburban teenager to military leader within the span of days. He’s confronted by a series of literally earth-shattering revelations, yet never seems phased for more than a few moments. Whereas Ready Player One felt jam-packed with ideas and characters and plot twists, Armada feels bare.

I had this arcade machine as a kid. Unfortunately, never saw those spaceships outside my school…

Given that I regularly enjoy science fiction, I found it surprisingly difficult to suspend my disbelief while reading Armada. In Armada, the EDA had been preparing humanity to confront the alien invasion for decades through pop culture, funding movies like Star Wars and cooperating with the video game industry. According to Cline’s fictional subcreation, this is why we saw a surge in sci-fi movies and games during the late 1970s. As with most conspiracy theories, it strains credulity that everybody from Richard Nixon to Stephen Hawking to Arthur C. Clarke knew something about the extraterrestrials but never broke their silence.

More importantly, Armada overlooks the fact that science fiction did not begin in the late 1970s. H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, the quintessential alien invasion story, 80 years before Star Wars. Alien invasion movies peaked during the 1950s, partly a representation of America’s fear of Communism. Star Wars itself was inspired by Flash Gordon, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Armada occasionally mentions these older stories, but never really reconciles them with the EDA conspiracy plot. Ironically, science fiction in recent years has moved away from aliens. The most popular new science fiction franchises, such as The Hunger Games, typically feature no aliens. Given the dearth of good science fiction on TV nowadays, I actually wish the EDA were providing funding for more space operas.

Armada is much more interesting when Cline explores how characters interact with pop culture. More so than in Ready Player One, Cline’s references to 1980s pop culture aren’t just self-indulgent exercises in nostalgia or trivia. As a self-professed “geek,” Cline understands that pop culture helps us make sense of a complex, changing world. Zack frequently analogizes his current circumstances to pop culture stories, even beyond the obvious alien invasion tropes. For example, when forced to sit in class with his ex-girlfriend Ellen and bully Doug, Zack compares his dilemma to the infamous Koybyoshi Maru test from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which was designed to see how officers would respond to a non-win scenario. For readers who get the reference, Zack’s use of pop culture says much more about Zack’s thoughts and emotions than he could ever put into words.

This ability to help reinterpret and communicate the normal helps explain why so many introverts and people with learning disabilities are drawn to speculative fiction (though, of course, not all sci-fi fans are socially awkward!). Those of us who have trouble forming interpersonal bonds or coping with complex situations can use speculative fiction analogies as a crutch to understanding. In the real world, a difficult choice can be overwhelming or even depressing. Yet, when we compare it to the Koybyoshi Maru, we can better accept the nature of the dilemma, and even begin to solve the problem by asking what Captain Kirk would do. Many Star Trek fans with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome identified with the android Data and his trouble expressing emotions. If for nothing else, I recommend reading Cline’s work to get an insight into how pop culture not only entertains but also empowers people.


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