Armada, by Ernest Cline

ArmadaNote: If you are super excited about reading this book, go read it and then come back here. It’s a very spoilable book and I don’t want to ruin your adventure!

So. A couple years back the husband and I listened to Ready Player One on a road trip and liked it quite a bit, and then earlier this year my book club read it and the discussion got me excited about it all over again. So when I had a chance to read Armada, I jumped right on it, and it became my featured reading for a recent plane journey. Tellingly, although I didn’t finish the book on the trip out, I was perfectly content to wait until the return flight to crack it open and finish it.

Armada opens with our main character, Zack Lightman, seeing something that he couldn’t be seeing: a giant warship from his favorite video game zooming around outside his school. Zack thinks he might be going crazy like his father was before he died, his father being convinced that the government was using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion. But of course, just as Zack convinces himself that everything will be fine if he just lays off the video games for a while, it turns out that, well, the government has been using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion, and that Zack’s prowess at those games is getting him recruited into the military to fight an invasion starting in, oh, hours.

And that’s a peachy keen plot, as plots go, and I certainly found myself eager to get to the next page and find out what would happen next. But the style and characters? Oof, I just could not even.

The biggest problem that I had with the book is that it knows that it’s ripping off The Last Starfighter and every other movie or book with the same plot, and it tells you that it knows that it’s ripping them off, and so you think it’s going to neatly subvert the tropes and failings of those stories but it just… doesn’t. Everything that you think is going to happen in this book happens, and any time a character is like, “This thing that is happening is very predictable” you can rest assured that it will remain so. Which, okay, that’s unpredictable in and of itself, so points to you, Ernie Cline, but goodness it is boring.

Also boring are the characters, pulled directly from stock and dropped in this novel. Nerdy video gamer protagonist? Check. Nerdy video gamer best friends? Check. Nerdy video-game-store owner who hates his customers? Check. Loving single mother? Check. Uber-nerd computer hacker? Check. Mission-focused general? Check. The one unpredictable thing in the whole book is that the author actually respects his female characters, all two of them, giving them the same agency he gives the dudes (admittedly, not much) and leaving out any potential damsel-in-distress scenes.

So, I mean, I liked it. I enjoyed the reading experience and I liked the suspense of wondering how things would play out. But I hated the way it actually did play out, and if throwing my Kindle across an airplane wasn’t such a terrible idea in so many ways, it might have actually happened. Part of me wants to go back and try it again (it’s not a terribly long book) and see how I so badly managed to miss whatever the point of the book was, but the rest of me is like, no, life is too short, so I’m going to need those of you who have read and loved and/or gotten this book to tell me where I went wrong!

Recommendation: For fans of video games, Ernie Cline, and books that are only plot.

Rating: 6/10

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Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneAfter finishing up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened on our insanely long road trip, we clearly needed something a bit longer itself to fill the rest of our driving time. I had actually had this book loaded into my iTunes for about a year, having planned to listen to it on some other road trip that I guess never happened, but when Carl claimed in early December to be the last person to have read it, I was like, shoot, I’d better get on that.

And… it was pretty good? Scott and I decided early on in the audio, read surprisingly delightfully by Wil Wheaton (I will definitely listen to books read by him again!), that neither of us would have gotten past the first few pages of this on our own. Listening to it together, on the other hand, made for some delightful snarking at Cline’s love of lists and also some bonus understanding when only one of us was laughing at some pop culture reference.

Those references are probably why I wasn’t over the moon about the book, actually. Scott and I were both born in the mid-80s, right around the time period that this book is kind of frozen in (let me get to that in a second). So although I had at least some knowledge of most of the pop culture of the decade, and lots of knowledge of others (WarGames, I love you!), I didn’t have the deeper understanding of someone who is actually old enough to remember the mid-80s.

As to the story proper… okay. It takes place in a future world where Second Life never existed because it was invented as something called OASIS first. OASIS is way better, with fancy virtual reality technology that lets you actually move yourself around the virtual world with, like, your feet and stuff, and also OASIS has incredible market share to the point where its world and currency are thriving while the “real” world falls apart and has things like neighborhoods made entirely of vertical stacks of mobile homes. Classy, that.

Our protagonist, Wade in real life and Parzival in the OASIS, is part of a giant and complicated 1980s-themed scavenger hunt, basically, started by the guy who created the OASIS on the occasion of his death and the prize of which is like a billionty-twelve dollars and ownership of the guy’s company. Wade, who lives in one of those aforementioned stacks, is very interested in the money and is also super interested in the guy and the company and is therefore the first person to find the very first part of the scavenger hunt.

The story basically goes along from there as your classic quest story, with adventures and setbacks and evil enemies and all that, and that part is really fantastic. Especially toward the end of the book, once all the background has been exposited and all that’s left is to finish the scavenger hunt, the story is really engaging and I was like, OMG what is going to happen next? But it’s the whole first half or so of the novel, and some bits and pieces afterward, where Cline is setting up the universe and letting all of us non-80s folk know about the pop culture we’re about to find ourselves immersed in and also where he just apparently could not figure out how to show rather than tell, that the story feels kind of loooooong and booooring. And, really, I like a good list or run-on sentence as much as the next person, but it turns out that if you read them aloud in your narrator voice they are… not nearly as fun as you might hope. Blast.

So for as much as I enjoyed listening to Wil Wheaton read me this story, I might actually recommend eyes-reading this one so that when Cline gets bogged down in 80s minutiae you can just skip right ahead to the next exciting bit, or doing like I did and listening with a friend so that you can talk over the narration about what the heck is even going on in this crazy universe.

But do read it, because the parts that are good are pretty fantastic.

Recommendation: Best read by actual or self-taught nerd children of the 80s, also people who like quests and/or Wil Wheaton.

Rating: 8/10