The new novel Armada is Ernest Cline’s follow-up to Ready Player One, his hit novel about virtual reality and pop culture Easter eggs. It’s almost obligatory to describe Armada as a follow-up, because that’s what it is in every sense: it has the same earnest nostalgia for the ‘80s and the same young protagonist whose knowledge thereof unlocks an epic quest. It takes place in a different universe, technically, but in truth it’s in the exact same world: the world of fandom.
The book’s main character is Zack Lightman, a teenager who is obsessed with the ‘80s because of an absent father who left him with boxes filled with movies and games. After fighting with the school bully, talking to his mom about his future, and digging through his father’s movie-fueled conspiracy theories, the real action begins. Because of his skills at a video game, he’s recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance (the same entity in Armada, the game) into an actual fight against aliens. The video game is real, it turns out, and humanity has been engaged in a secret battle and has been using video games and movies to prepare the populace for all-out war. It’s the plot of Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter on purpose: those pieces of culture, you see, were seeded by a secret government program to subliminally prepare us for the coming alien onslaught.
Straightforward, open prose that disarms you with its innocence
That setup could lead to a set of clever and incisive commentaries on pop culture and our obsessions with it. But no, there’s only room for fandom here, even if the things Zack is obsessed with were secretly government programs designed to turn him into an alien-killing machine. And every plot twist, such as it is, is telegraphed so strongly that you mostly just find yourself along for the ride, waiting for revelations that you can see coming a mile away.
To be fair, it’s a pretty fun ride. Cline writes with a kind of straightforward, open prose that disarms you with its innocence. And to be fairer still, if you think of Armada as strictly a Young Adult kind of novel, you can almost forgive the lack of depth you’ll find in most characters, although unfortunately those two-dimensional stereotypes tend to hew to geek culture, too. Zack’s love interest, Alexis Larkin, is every punk rock manic pixie dream girl trope rolled up into one combat-booted, R2-D2-flask-drinking, walking piece of wish fulfillment. The only saving grace is that the lack of depth is reflected by virtually every other character in the book. Everybody is only one "hey buddy, are we cool?" conversation away from clean and simple resolutions. There are plenty of YA novels that aren’t afraid to present moral complexity at the heart of their main characters — Armada isn’t one of them.
In Ready Player One, a wealthy genius creates virtual reality worlds about his personal obsessions, ‘70s and ‘80s geek culture, in a massive contest that’s designed to impart a sense of culture and humanity on the people who live in the future. In order to play in his virtual reality world, they need to bone up on TV shows, old arcade games, and increasingly obscure movies.
It's like Willy Wonka made you prove you knew the chemical composition of nougat before he let you into the chocolate factory
Armada runs through the same game plan, only the wealthy genius is Cline himself, and the people who have to learn about ‘80s culture are his readers. Cline’s mission to get America’s youth to care as much about Iron Eagle as he does is starting to feel like a slog. It’s as though Willy Wonka made you prove you knew the chemical composition of nougat before he let you into the chocolate factory.
More than anything else, Armada reads like fan fiction, but with a wider set of source material than just one book or movie. There’s a simple joy in fandom that’s hard to be cynical about, and Armada is so far from anything resembling cynicism that it can be refreshing. The 12-year-old version of me would have really loved this novel. But the 12-year-old version of me existed 25 years ago, in the American-centric suburban white geek culture that infuses every corner of Armada. For today’s 12-year-olds, I have to wonder if the Star Wars, Queen, and Robotech references are really going to be worth the effort.