It’s hard to follow a debut that immediately became an international phenomenon, was published in 40 countries and is in the works to become a movie (hopefully with the same mind-blowing visual effects Warner Bros. brought to movies like Inception, The Lego Movie and The Matrix). The thing that made Ernest Cline’s first book, Ready Player One, so good was a nearly impossible balance between where-the-hell-did-that-come-from originality and the familiarity of Gen-X pop-culture references. There’s no such balance in his second novel, Armada. Familiarity surpasses originality—intentionally.
High school student Zack Lightman is staring out a classroom window, dreaming of adventure, when he spies the impossible: a prismatic alien spacecraft straight out of his favorite video game. His gamer father, who died in a freak accident years ago, predicted as much in his seemingly incoherent journals about a conspiracy involving the government and the entire sci-fi industry. But now it’s clear his father wasn’t crazy: The government has indeed been preparing for an impending alien war by training gamers as an army of drone-flying soldiers. Over the course of only a few days, Zack finds himself on the frontlines of intergalactic warfare as one of the best gamers around, and therefore Earth’s greatest hope.
Does all this sound a little . . . familiar? Is it ringing of Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter? Not to give anything away, but of course it does. Science fiction is a genre constructed through reused tropes, which can be manipulated to expand the cultural conversation of genre fiction—but in Armada, even Zack feels uneasy about falling into such a classic sci-fi narrative.
Armada is almost pure action-adventure while winkingly employing a barrage of jokes and clichés from video games and sci-fi movies, television and books. It’s big fun, especially if your idea of fun is sitting around watching your friends play video games while discussing important theories like Sting vs. Mjolnir.