The following article reproduced below is the work of book reviewer and blogger, Matt Freeman. Why not check out his site, The Bookbeard’s Blog?
Ernest Cline may well be one of the leaders of the latest cultural zeitgeist: rejuvenating many of the tropes and feelings that the 1980s were so enamoured with. His debut novel, Ready Player One, successfully merged a stunning futuristic dystopia full of pop-culture references to video games, music and movies of the 80s whilst imbuing the novel with the unique essence of that same era. In Armada he has done it again, this time with the volume turned up to eleven.
The book’s protagonist, a teenage Zack Lightman, has the kind of back-story you might expect from a John Hughes movie (think The Breakfast Club). He’s a gamer nerd at heart with a small but tight unit of friends. However, there’s tragedy as well because he lost his father as a baby which is the root of his wicked temper – and doesn’t the school bully know it. This is the heart of the story: a boy, about to reach manhood, yearning for the father he never knew all the while wondering what it is he feels he is meant for.
Thankfully, for Zack, an imminent alien invasion helps to clear all that up. While the teen ponders his father’s death and the man’s slightly unhinged diary entries, the action begins. Zack thinks his Dad was bonkers and that he is heading down the same road but that odd hallucination of an alien fighter craft he has at school was actually real. The government has been hiding the truth for decades about any number of things from technology to extraterrestrial life, and video games are not only propaganda but training simulations for Earth’s defense league.
It’s a lot to take in, especially for Zack and the other elite players of the game Armada. Suddenly, everything they thought they knew is blown out of the sky and replaced with the virtual reality of the game they’ve been playing for the last few years. Moon bases, aliens from Jupiter’s moon Europa, space battles and lots of other crazy mechanoid stuff are all real. Just as quickly these gamers are asked to put there skills to the test, piloting remote space battle drones to defend Earth from the invasion.
But, some things don’t sit right with Zack. There’s too many unanswered questions, too many odd occurrences that just don’t add up. Cue Xavier Lightman stage right and an emotionally fraught reunion between father and son. The conspiracy runs deeper and the duo soon realise that the ‘war’ they are fighting is actually something else entirely.
Ernest Cline has managed to create a meta-80s masterpiece. It’s all the things that made movies like The Last Starfighter great whilst remaining self aware and reflexive. Tropes are acknowledged and unpacked and though Armada references them it never becomes parody. Instead it uses them to great effect, producing a story that is both fresh but also, for those old enough, reminiscent of so many classics.
Much like Ready Player One, Cline’s cast of characters and dialogue in Armada is superb. It’s action packed and the pace is relentless making for a fast read. Whilst some critics have mentioned that the ending lacks a little, that is debatable. Yes, it’s a fairly Hollywood blockbuster finish (movie rights have been optioned) and, yes, the big questions go unanswered. However, it seems the author has left a nice opening for a sequel. What is undeniable is that Armada is heaps of fun and well worth the trip down memory lane.
This review comes from Matt Freeman of The Bookbeard’s Blog: check out more from him here