In the world of videogames, there’s a certain inevitability that any successful game will get a sequel. It’s why Mario has appeared in over 200 of them (if you include ports, remarks and compilations) and the Final Fantasy series is in double-digits.
Having found fame with his videogame-obsessed debut Ready Player One, we can’t help but think the industry’s worst habit has rubbed off on author Ernest Cline. Armada is not a direct sequel, but certainly mine(crafts) the same source material. While Ready Player One was a thriller set in a futuristic virtual reality MMORPG, is about a gamer who discovers that his favourite space shooter is a simulator for a real-life alien invasion.
The book’s narrator is teenager Zack Lightman, whose name is only outdone by that of his father’s: Xavier Ulysses Lightman. Unfortunately, Xavier died aged 19 when Zack was still a newborn during a freak explosion at a sewage plant. In an attempt to connect with the man he never knew, Zack has embraced all his father’s hobbies: watching his old VHS tapes, listening to Van Halen and playing retro videogames.
But when Zack spots a UFO outside his classroom window, our hero is forced to confront a secret from his father’s past he would rather forget. Before he died, Xavier wrote a deranged diary full of outlandish conspiracies about Men in Black monitoring arcade game scores. When Zack realises that the spaceship is identical to one in his favourite game – the titular Armada – he worries that he’s suffering from similar delusions as his father.
However, he is not left in doubt about his mental health for long. A secret organisation called the Earth Defense Alliance enlists him to fight off an alien invasion, piloting a fleet of drone spaceships, vindicating his father’s crackpot theories and providing an opportunity for this young slacker to save the world. The rest is utter wish fulfilment for gamers everywhere.
Of course, any geek worth his Level 90 WOW avatar and stick-on Vulcan ears knows this is a far from original plotline. This includes Cline, who before becoming a novelist wrote Fanboys, a movie about Star Wars fans on a pilgrimage to visit Skywalker Ranch.
He litters Armada with shout-outs to The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, Galaxy Quest and other stories about fictional aliens that turned out to be real. In fact, the ultimate solution to saving humanity in Armada boils down to our hero’s understanding of sci-fi tropes.
Unfortunately, Armada fails to level up. The first two parts, depicting Zack’s recruitment and the first wave of the invasion, provide action thrills with a knowing wink to the audience. However, for all its ‘meta’ references, the final act delivers a by-the-book conclusion that leaves us wondering how self-aware Cline really is.
With an emphasis on father-and-son relationships and coming of age, we would recommend Armada to adolescent readers, but grown-up geeks may want to look elsewhere.