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Armada: A Novel by Ernest Cline
Review by Ernest Lilley
Crown Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0804137250
Date: 14 July 2015 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Ernest Cline's new book, following the SF/gamer fic blockbuster, Ready Player One, is about a typical 18 year old, Zach, who's not all that different from most teens, more interested in video games than anything else and with no real plans beyond high school.

Only Zach isn't actually typical at all. He's the 6th ranked gamer in the massively popular space invasion game Armada, he's heavily into 80s rock, movies, and anything SF, partly because of his dad's trove of it in the attic, where his mom put it after he was killed in (wait for it) a sewage plant explosion. He's also got a serious impulse control problem. He's not typical, but when the spaceships he's been fighting off in the game turn out to be real, he might be Earth's only hope.

I've got mixed feelings about Armada. I'm sure it's going to be popular, and that's great. It's got lots of action, teen angst wish fulfillment, more geek/80's references than a Star Trek movie marathon, and some pretty cool ideas. But about the time a shuttle craft out of Zachís favorite game dropped out of the sky in front of his high school, where he was about to lose his temper and take on the school bully (he's the hero, not a bully himself) with a tire iron...I had a horrible feeling. He's crazy. And I mean DSM-5 schizophrenia crazy.

I don't think Ernest Cline meant it to be taken that way, but when the shuttle craft shows up, Zach is at the peak of an emotional crisis with the entire school watching. I got the weird feeling that the SF film he should have been referencing wasn't Independence Day or 2001, but Brazil. If you're in your early teens, you can read the book straight and everything that happens afterwards: the government conspiracy his father discovered before the accident, the alien invasion straight out of the game he'd played endless hours at, his suddenly becoming a Top Gun asset, and winding up with the hot chick, straight out of manga, specifically Tank Girl, all makes perfect sense. If that's you, great. In fact, you should stop reading now and go buy the book.

If you're any older than that, the endless cliches are gonna hurt. I'm not talking about the machine gun fire of media and SF in jokes and tributes. I'm good with that. What twists my noodle is that Cline has set up, and then executed, a nearly-perfect description of a psychotic break, though I don't think he meant to.

Of course, if you read it that way, itís a lot more interesting. All it needs is an epilogue where we see him in the Cuckooís Nest to finish the picture.

There are some good ideas in the book. The aliens are real, we've known about them since the first flyby of Europa, and we've been reverse-engineering their technology from the occasional Roswell type incident ever since. Why do the aliens keep crashing where we can find their toys? Why are they trying to invade us at all? Cline comes up with genuinely novel answers.

Since humanity needed the future real soon, and they could only do so much with the alien tech, Cline comes up with his second really good idea: steal designs from science fiction. His moon base looks a lot like the one in 2001, partly because they drafted the same designers. In fact, most of the movie industry seems to have been in on it. Brilliant.

Armada is either an over-the-top gamer's-dream-come-true, or half of a novel about madness and the line between fantasy and reality. Either way, itís not the novel that Ready Player One was, no matter how popular it becomes.

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