Review: Armada, by Ernest Cline

ZZ48DF98EC>>Published: July 2015

>>Finally got around to it: September 2015

The Moon Base Alpha hangar bay was a breathtaking sight. The curved walls of the armored dome around us were lined with hundreds of gleaming Interceptor drones arrayed in the belt-fed launch racks that would fire them out into space like bullets from a high-velocity gas-powered machine gun. These were the drones we had been brought up here to pilot, I realized. We would use these very ships to wage war with the enemy when they arrived here, just over five and a half hours from now.

In that moment, I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Or Ender Wiggin arriving at battle school. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.

But this wasn’t a fantasy. I wasn’t Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Ender Wiggin or anyone else. This was real life. My life. I, Zackary Ulysses Lightman, an eighteen-year-old kid from Beaverton, Oregon, newly recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance, had just been reunited with my long-lost father on the far side of the moon—and now, together, we were about to wage a desperate battle to prevent the destruction of Earth and save the human race from total annihilation.

If this were all just a dream, I wasn’t sure that I would want it to end.

***

When is a story not a story? When it’s a masturbatory pastiche of pop culture references built atop the bones (i.e., ripping off) of better, more original narratives, and almost literally nothing else. When it adheres too closely to the old adage of plagiarism being theft from only one source, while research is to steal from many.

When it brings absolutely nothing new to the table—nothing original, no cleverness or evidence of thought and analysis beyond what’s on the surface, and not an ounce of fun to be found anywhere in its three hundred-plus pages.

Such was my experience reading Ernest Cline’s second book, Armada, which has the distinction of being, so far, the most disappointing, embarrassing, and at times infuriating novel of the year. And this from someone who quite sincerely enjoyed Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One.

And let’s talk about Ready Player One for a sec, as what that novel employed to pretty decent effect is at the core of what obliterates Armada from being anything remotely resembling a worthwhile read. I’m referring, of course, to the references.

To anyone who thought the obsessive, almost encyclopaedic amount of references to video games, film, television, and other assorted pop culture ephemera in Cline’s first novel was overwhelming, distracting, or just plain annoying… well, I’ve got some bad news for you, as Armada dials that shit up far past the threshold of good taste. And it’s in these references that all the novel’s problems are laid bare—including the attempted use of said referential material to mask its startling inadequacies (for example, every single woman, including the main character’s mom, being a skeletally sketched, manic pixie nerd dream girl). So let’s go through the book’s problems one giant red X at a time.

First up, the novel’s base narrative. It’s been said before but it bears repeating: this book is The Last Starfighter, WarGames, and Ender’s Game smashed together and repurposed as if it were the remains of three different types of deli meat rolled up as one and re-sold to the public (that’s how they make hot dogs, right?). The story follows Zack Lightman, a somewhat unhinged teenager with a history of schoolyard aggression, a love of video games, and a mother who loves and supports him and his nerd obsessions, many of which she shares. Zack’s father Xavier is thought to have died in a “shit factory” explosion when Zack was just an infant. (Spoilers, and also posted in the segment above: his death was a fake-out. For reasons, apparently.) Zack spends the bulk of his time when not working his after-school job at a Gamestop-like store playing the online flight sim Armada with his two best friends, and generally wishing his life amounted to more. Which, of course, it will, when the sim is revealed Ender’s Game-style to have been real-life training for the upcoming alien invasion that will decimate the planet, unless a plucky, sugared-up cavalry of the world’s best gamers can rally to save the day.

Armada is the hero’s journey filtered through a pop culture lens spanning almost four decades of content. Cline employed this same trick in his previous novel; in Ready Player One, however, the pop culture odds and ends had merit—the obsessive amount of detail presented through its references all played into the larger narrative, of uncovering a trail of Easter eggs left by an eccentric child of 80s and 90s multimedia and culture. While often overcooked, much of this content felt as if it had a reason for being there within the scope of that narrative. This is not the case with Armada. Take a look at that segment I quoted at the start of this review, where Cline jumps from one reference to another like a kid filling a plastic bag with one five-cent candy from every bin in a store. This is not an isolated incident; this is the norm—the entire book is a barrage of one reference after another, many repeated (there was a moment where I read one Master Yoda quote too many and audibly told the author to fuck off while sitting alone in my apartment), and few if any having an actual point within the context of the scene. Rather than being read as yet another encyclopaedic love letter to the shit from Cline’s (and my) youth, the sheer number of references smashed together reads as if the author could not decide or set himself to just one thing through which to make his point, which in turn reads as if he himself did not have an actual emotional ties to any one scene in this novel, as every scene is being compared to ten different things at once, forcing the reader to sift through and figure out what the author really feels or intends for you to feel in any given moment. And even then, not a single reference is delved into with any degree of analysis—it’s all there on the page for the author to show us the veritable shit ton of stuff he can rattle off, in hopes that we’ll be so stunned by the amount of content and accrued “knowledge” that we won’t look for the meaning beneath any of it, of which there is none. The references are manic in how they’re flung out, with no thought to the narrative’s artistic or emotional ambitions.

This shit is nerd-by-numbers—in place of developing an authorial voice, Cline’s writing distracts and infuriates by relying on surface-level comparisons for everything without taking even a moment to scrape beneath that first layer for some shred of actual substance. At one point, when referencing the construction of a military base, a character states, “The team of engineers who designed and built this place were in a huge hurry, so they borrowed from a lot of existing designs.” To which I only had to laugh, because no shit—everything in Armada feels as if it’s been pulled from something and somewhere else, but with no consideration as to why or how it actually fits within the world.

Next up, the women. There aren’t any. Actually, let me rephrase that: there are human females in this narrative, but they don’t actually exist unto themselves. They’re all kind of magical in that they don’t really have their own personalities or ambitions within the narrative; rather they exist as objects to pad out the gender balance. And the ones that are given anything at all to do (which isn’t saying much), are Zack’s mother, Pamela (who, of course, reminds him of Ellen Ripley, or Sarah Connor, or…), and Lex, whom he meets when first learning of the very real danger facing Earth from the invading alien Europans. And what’s Zack’s immediate reaction to the cooler than cool Lex? Basically, like she’s a unicorn in the woods:

I did a double-take at her. No one had ever gotten the Iron Eagle/Peanuts mash-up in my call sign without me first having to explain it to them—including Cruz and Diehl. I felt a strong urge to reach out and touch her shoulder, to confirm that she was real.

Here and throughout Cline falls into the very easily avoided trap of treating nerd girls like they are mysterious and almost non-existent, so much so that when one finds an elusive girl who’s intelligent, funny, AND likes video games, she must be touched and fawned over—otherwise she’s not real, just a figment of the imagination.

This shit is so very tired.

And when other women are introduced, they too are spouting references like there’s no tomorrow. Cline attempts to differentiate a bit by giving Whoadie biblical and Shakespearean quotes to rattle off instead of just the usual litany of may-the-force-be-so-say-we-live-long-and-prosper, but then goes on to say that all those interesting quotes were her uncle’s and not necessarily compiled via her own interest or volition, which helps ensure that most if not all of the women in this narrative exist as either a repository for the same information as the guys, usually provided to them by men, or they are themselves objects of wonderment and fascination. And yes, Lex and others do get to kick a fair amount of ass in the not-that-climactic end battle (I seriously wanted to skim the battle scenes as they are grossly overwritten and void of rhythm), but they don’t ever feel as if they are there for anything but to back up the men (and in the case of Pamela, to be worried, to patch up her wounded thought-dead husband, and then to get knocked up by him after getting over, in record time, the fact that he abandoned their family so many years prior, regardless of the reason). And in the end, despite how cool Lex is presented as being, she vanishes almost as quickly as she’s introduced, sits out much of the meat of the book’s second act, and in the close is there to make sure Zack gets his happy ending.

However, in this arena I will afford Cline a small—very small amount of leeway: none of the characters, male or female, really feel as if they have much in the way of their own voices or personalities. They are so thinly drawn, their histories and memories constructed by way of the art and creations of others, that in every instance the characters feel as if they exist only to give voice to the author’s own obsessions and not to have any personal development of their own, on or off the page. It’s like watching a film or television show and seeing every character introduced as “Ernest Cline as So-and-So.” His characters aren’t characters but cardboard cut outs designed to show us as readers just how clever and well read/watched/played he is.

Every now and then we see a spark of self-awareness in Cline’s writing with respect to the gender differential, such as when during a conversation about how men supposedly make the best fighter pilots, because of such historical figures as Maverick, Goose, and Iceman from Top Gun, a young woman responds by saying, “You’re aware that those are all fictional characters, right?” Sadly, this moment evaporates as quickly as it occurs, with no evidence that this comment causes any of the guys, or anyone in general, to take a step back and realize how deeply their obsessions have bled into, and in some ways usurped their realities.

And resulting from all this is the sense that Cline is not ironically commenting upon nerd culture and the problems therein, but bathing in the culture’s shortcomings. He employs gamer stereotypes, like how we supposedly sustain ourselves on a diet consisting purely of Cheetos, Slim Jims, and Diet Mountain Dew, and like how our most pertinent conversations have to do with what is the more badass weapon: Sting from The Lord of the Rings or Mjolnir from Thor. By about a hundred pages in, I was severely annoyed by the non-stop assault of references and more references that almost always seemed to divert from the larger narrative; by the end, I was feeling embarrassed by my own obsessions and gaming- and film-based interests. It’s as if a dyed-in-the-wool “old school” nerd, fifty years from now, was sitting around a campfire, reciting to a crowd of his most loyal mouth breathers about the one time his singular obsessions mattered a hot damn to anyone but himself.

So much of what’s wrong with this book comes from feeling like Cline is not so much searching for or working to figure out his voice, but cribbing it from others instead of doing any heavy lifting himself. It’s kind of like how in the mid-late 90s we saw a whole bunch of Tarantino-style rip offs following the unexpected success of Pulp Fiction. However, most of those copycats failed because they assumed the trick was simply tossing in a fuckload of references and asides, and to be all edgy with curse words and racial epithets, thinking that did the job, when it wasn’t in the plethora of shit being tossed out at viewers but in how and why it was used. And to that end, as much in what wasn’t used as what was—just because you can compare your character to Luke, Apollo, and Ender doesn’t mean you have to, and certainly not all fucking at once. But then, it’s easier to say “this person is like this, this, and this,” than it is to tell us who they really are, for you, the author, on the inside, just like it’s easier to pull a Yoda quote out of one’s ass for the umpteenth time rather than write an original joke or rely on actual character-to-character interaction, without the façade of their obsessions to fall back on.

Possibly the most infuriating thing about the whole book, however, is that in spite of everything I’ve said, there was a moment where crisis could have been averted, at least to some small degree. As the narrative hurtles toward its end, the heroes come to the realization that the invading aliens were responding to the humans by basing their attacks, and indeed much of their attacking force (including its built-in weaknesses), on the media they’d absorbed from transmissions from Earth. They’ve watched Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole showcase and glorify mankind’s aggression toward not only itself but to invading alien forces time and time again, and are using that to dismantle Earth’s meagre defences:

It almost seemed as if the Europans were unable to differentiate between reality and fiction. Either that, or they were intercutting the two on purpose, in an effort to make some kind of point.

Of course our pop culture-obsessed protagonists figure this out, realizing they’re being tested (before being flat-out told they were being tested in the conflict’s final moments). But instead of looking inward and seeing what’s happened, understanding that the content our species has put out into the universe can be construed as representing a barbaric and incredibly violent species with limited analytical depth, and then having our main characters turn that magnifying glass on themselves in order to realize that their obsessions with such things are all they amount to and that not one of them has taken the time to go any deeper than first-level passion with any one thing, Cline sidesteps having his characters make any sort of introspective analysis. In this, the narrative glorifies obsession with pop culture while ignoring the critique, analysis, and investigation into such things that lead to personal growth independent of simple, base-level obsession. The material is there for analysis, but Cline instead opts to pander to the audience, thereby reducing the value of the content within and his ability to command reference to it at the drop of a hat. As much as women are treated as objects, so to is the stuff Cline claims to love so dearly—it’s there to pad out the book’s word count without adding to its cultural currency.

This isn’t a book; it’s a list of what not to do if you want to write about nerds and nerd culture in today’s day and age. It’s as much about the actual cultural implications of such passions and interests as The DaVinci Code is about the actual tenants of Christianity. And to top it all off, the ending is rushed and emotionally manipulative—or should I say, it attempts to be manipulative, but has not done the ground work to carry it off. What I mean by this is that we’re told Zack’s dad died when Zack was young, only to discover midway through the story that not only is Xavier alive, but that he is the top-ranked Armada pilot in the world and will be leading the attack on the invading Europans. Zack gets a couple of scenes with him, but then during the first part of the final battle we’re led to believe he’s killed himself, going off on a kamikaze run against one of the lead alien ships. He survives, though, and Zack is able to save him and have a shred of hope that he’ll be able to piece his family back together again, only to have his father engage in a second suicide run during humanity’s final push, and this one actually succeeds.

See? Emotional manipulation, whereby extreme actions are used to attempt to get us to feel shit for a character we barely know, already feel next to nothing about, and then are tricked—twice—into thinking dead. All of which leads to us not actually caring when he’s dead for real.

We don’t even have time to wonder whether or not we should grieve, however, as the conflict shudders to a stop and an A.I.-ex-machina reveals itself as having built the Europan armada to test whether or not humanity is ready to join the Sodality, an intergalactic sisterhood of races a la the Citadel in Mass Effect. And Zack, being the hero, alongside dear old dead dad, who helped stop humanity from revealing themselves as the ultimate aggressors unworthy of association in this super secret galactic clubhouse, is made humanity’s mouthpiece, ending the war and ushering in a new era of human prosperity so fast you’d think the author was creeping close to his set page limit.

Fuck, even at the very end, when the A.I.-ex-machina reveals that this is just the first step humanity will take, and that in time it will take another… it’s not a reference to Sagan’s Contact, it’s just a rip-off.

It’s interesting to have looked at this book immediately following Sassafras Lowrey’s Lost Boi, which posited a modern-day queer punk Peter Pan who hasn’t so much succeeded in avoiding growing up as he exists in denial to the changing world around him and how he himself is changing alongside it, whether or not he’s willing to acknowledge it. Cline, meanwhile, intentional or otherwise, has crafted a novel based entirely about not growing up and, in fact, living through the media of one’s past. Simply having fun obsessing over video games and movies is fine, but as one gets older and experiences more of the world, for those passions to become elevated beyond the level of mere hobby—to be treated as art—they must be looked at in a different light, one that places said media within the surrounding world and not set apart from it. In its startling lack of analysis, Cline’s novel is actually quite depressing, as it appears oblivious to its own stark limitations and lack of critical thought. In this sense, Cline’s Armada is a Neverland unto itself. This is not a good thing—it paints the author as having not thought all that hard about his own story.

Right about now you probably think I’ve been too hard on a book toward which many will shrug their shoulders and say, “but it’s just supposed to be fun, right?” And that’s fine—if you can turn your brain off and have a blast with Armada, more power to you. But Cline, whether by design or by circumstance, has become something of a forward-facing voice for nerd culture’s literary ambitions. There aren’t many authors I can think of using fiction to really deep dive into our generation’s pop culture love affairs, at least to this extent. And maybe it’s unfair to place that weight on Cline’s shoulders, and I get that. But these are the conversations that are happening right now. They have been for years, and are currently, with no thanks to shitstorms caused by GamerGate and the Sad Puppies and other gaping, enflamed assholes crying foul when faced with any mention of equality, equal representation, or academic/critical depth relating to video games, science fiction, fantasy, or any number of their prized obsessions. And to be clear, Cline’s book doesn’t cater to any one of those horrid misappropriations of sperm. But neither does it do anything to further the conversation in the right direction. Armada is not misogynistic, but it is oblivious; it’s not unreadable, but it doesn’t engage. If anything, it feels like an immediate response to the success of Ready Player One, but without as much care given to its execution or style; Cline’s use of references is a one-trick pony, only this pony is dead and Armada is the thing pulled from its festering corpse.

 

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