In 2011, pop culture enthusiasts were tripping over their lightsabers as they rushed to praise Ernest Cline’s geekfest debut novel, Ready Player One. The novel’s futuristic/retro mash-up of a plot about the hunt for a lottery ticket hidden in a virtual world is as much an epic adventure story as it is a cautionary tale about the future of humankind.
If you loved Ready Player One’s hundreds of references to the nostalgia-inducing entertainment brands and gadgets of the 1980s, grab your game controller and get ready to do it all over again. Cline’s Armada (Crown) is a rollicking space cowboy adventure set in two iconic worlds: video gaming and our endless fascination with science fiction books, television shows and movies.
So imagine you’re a nerd chilling in your parents’ basement battling alien armies through the power vested in you by your Xbox or PlayStation. Mom keeps telling you you’re wasting your life, but in Armada these obsessive game players become the saviors of the planet—and a geek will lead them.
Zachary Ulysses Lightman’s life changes the day he spots “a shiny chrome disc zigzagging around the sky” just outside his high school. “I can’t believe it’s finally happening,” thinks Zack, who’s been “waiting for some mind-blowingly fantastic, world-altering event to finally shatter the endless monotony” of his small town life. Now he, his pals and Cline’s delighted readers are going to be dropped into a wildly crazy world. It’s as fantastical as if he’d seen a Klingon Warbird or a TIE Fighter winging past his school and just as harrowing.
The flying disc looks exactly like the alien ships Zack’s been destroying in Armada, his favorite multiplayer action video game. Gaming is Zack’s refuge and just like in such classic films as TRON and The Last Starfighter, life will imitate the art of gaming—and yes it is an art—as Zach’s status as one of the best gamers in the world qualifies him as one of the most formidable drone pilots on the planet.
Gaming, he soon finds out, is part of a worldwide military strategy in which players have unknowingly been “trained for real-life combat by playing a videogame simulation of it.” Zack and his compatriots have what it takes because “evading enemy fire power required lightning-fast reflexes, wicked spatial awareness and a gift for pattern recognition. You had to learn how to find the best route to cut through the enemy’s ranks.” Aliens are launching an attack against the planet and it’s up to Zack and other gamers to save the world.
Zack’s father died when he was an infant, which opens the door for Cline to stitch the classic fatherless-son trope into his novel. It’s one of the bedrock plot points in Star Wars and Armada, and yes, Zach is much like Luke Skywalker, though Cline imbues him with his own engaging personality and battle skills.
Cline heavily invests his story in the iconic worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, Mad Max, the Terminator and dozens of other epic tales, but his nods to their characters, plots and weaponry serve more as an homage than a lazy lifting of someone else’s ideas. Armada rocks, in its own right, as an epic battle drama with all the thrills we get from blockbuster sci-fi movies.
Set against the “mental combat metronome” of bands like Queen and Twisted Sister, Armada relies, sometimes, a little too heavily on lengthy descriptions of video game-like battles. No doubt they will mesmerize the gamers among us, but those who can’t tell a controller from a joystick may sometimes find them tedious. Zack and his compatriots fight the aliens known as Europans (because they launch their battle against Earth from Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon) from drone controller stations built deep under the earth’s surface as well as from a top-secret government base on the far side of the moon.
Why the Europans are waging war, how long Earth’s leaders have known about the coming attack and why the aliens’ battle plans seem to mirror video games are all questions that Cline answers with an intriguing backstory. Why, Zack wonders, “would real aliens behave exactly like video game simulations of themselves?” The answers, readers soon discover, will be found in Cline’s vivid imagination.
Armada serves up a somewhat predictable ending, but the novel’s cinematic, action-driven rollout more than makes up for it. Cline’s novels rank high on the fun meter. It’s why Steven Spielberg is directing the movie version of Ready Player One and Universal Studios is adapting Armada for the big screen.
Like Star Wars, Armada has a heart as big as the universe and is peopled by a lovable cast of characters intent on saving their corner of the world. Non-gamers will love this novel as much as their gaming counterparts. Armada’s propulsive action scenes and feats of daring do will have you running to your battle stations—I mean bookstores—for this summer’s best sci-fi adventure.