Armada Review: I skipped to the ending

I have picked up and put down Ernest Cline’s Armada more than a hundred times while attempting to read it over the last two weeks.

There was just something about book that made me feel frustrated as I read paragraph after paragraph, page after page, and chapter after struggling chapter.

Tonight as I fidgeted and fretted, I finally gave in and skipped ahead to read the ending.

It went about as I expected it to.

The world was saved, the protagonist got the girl, and the bully got his due by way of humbling amputation.

And right about now you’re probably firing up your keyboard to crucify me for not finishing the book, but if you hear me out I’ll explain why I stopped.

***

Zack Lightman is an 18-year-old high school student and he’s ready to graduate. His life in academics has been a mess mostly because he has a bad temper, and all he wants is to go home, keep on with his part-time job at a video game store, and play a video game called Armada.

Armada is a flight simulator that pits futuristic pilots against aliens called the Sobrukai. These aliens are invading and this massively multiplayer game brings together people from around the world to defend the planet; however, the threat of alien invasion is about to become real.

And on a typical Oregon day, Zack is sitting in math class and he looks out the window. What he sees astounds him. It’s a Glaive Fighter, one of the enemy ships from the game and it’s hovering in the sky.

Thinking he’s gone completely nuts, he bolts from class after picking a fight with a bully, talks to his hot mom at home, goes to work, plays some video games, reads his dead father’s journal about an alien conspiracy, and is then recruited into the Earth Defense Alliance by his former boss the next day.

It’s a super fast transition from his life as a student into his life as a Lieutenant in a secret united alliance of Earthling fighters who have known of the existence of aliens since the 1970’s.

When Zack was just an infant, his father died in an industrial accident. His father’s death has left Zack with a thousand questions about his late father as all he has of him is a collection of science fiction VHS tapes and a diary that makes him think his father might have been mentally unstable.

In the journal, his father raves about the connections between popular science fiction series like Star Wars and Star Trek, among many others, to a conspiracy that’s meant to prepare earthlings for a war against aliens.

Zack shares a lot in common with his father including a love of old science fiction that’s slightly annoying and an obsession with video games that makes me wonder what his grades are like.

And right from the start of the book I could tell what kind of person Zack Lightman was.

***

As a child of the 90s, I had a pretty specific experience growing up and there are certain similarities between me and Zack. We both like video games, we both like science fiction, and we can both quote stuff sometimes.

That’s really where the similarities stop mostly because Zack’s brain edges him closer toward someone between the ages of 30 to 35 years old.

I never went to arcades, I never saw the original Star Wars films in theatres, I don’t want to watch old science fiction movies on VHS tapes, and I don’t listen to Pink Floyd on a cassette mix tapes.

It’s a book that’s actually more appealing to older readers, not 16-year-olds who think owning Think Geek merchandise is cool.

And another huge problem is that uber-nerd Zack Lightman isn’t a likeable character.

Zack combines all of the worst parts of being a nerd and a video game player into someone who is almost perfect with only the conflicting feelings he has over his father’s death troubling him, and even then that gets solved.

He’s an uncomfortable character because he represents an ideal of nerd culture, but his grossness makes being a nerd awful. You think, does making references really make me seem like this much of an ass?

The reason why I’m harping on this is because Zack isn’t really a character.

Zack is a demographic.

***

Zack’s brain forces him to relate everything he sees to some kind of pop culture touchstone so the audience can picture what’s in front of him.

It’s being served a hamburger, fries, and coleslaw except there are little words beside each separate ingredient of the meal telling you where the ingredient is from. It’s interesting, but it also takes away from the taste.

Zack gives you a detailed account of everything he sees, but he’s unable to think for himself. This door was inspired by Aliens, the battle looked like a scene from Invaders, and so on. What this style of storytelling amounts to is a whole lot of telling and not a heck of a lot of showing us what’s happening.

I realized Ray was saying my name about the same time I realized that everyone within my field of vision was now staring and pointing at me— including Knotcher and both Lennys. It was like that scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I cracked my knuckles, then press play on the best “ass-kicking track” on my father’s old Raid the Arcade mix. As the opening bass like of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” began to thud over my helmet’s built-in headphones, I felt myself begin to slip into the zone.

It was Carl Sagan … Sagan’s assured and familiar baritone imbued each word he spoke with the weight of cold, hard scientific fact — which was incredibly unsettling, because Sagan had been the driving forces in humanity’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence since the 1960s.

“So,” he went on, “humanity discovers this threatening message from an obviously nonhuman intelligence — placed in a spot where they knew humans would find it when our technology advanced to the stage where we were capable of sending probes to our outer solar system — sort of like the monolith buried on the moon in 2001?”

I nodded – not in agreement, but just to indicated I understood the reference.

And so on.

While the referencing in the book doesn’t become totally overwhelming, it does get really annoying after a while. Science fiction is about new things and new ideas not rehashing old ones for the sake of relating to your audience.

Imagine if you were reading a Ray Bradbury novel and suddenly Guy Montag starts to look at some pile of burned books and likens it back to that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indiana met Adolf Hitler.

“It was like” is a phrase that’s poisonous to Zack’s character. If you told him to describe a piece of pizza to you just as it was sitting on a plate without a reference to some stupid science fiction thing, you could probably see beads of sweat forming on his brow.

Zack’s character is just a series of 30-year-old references jammed into the body of an 18-year-old, which killed the story for me in more ways than one.

***

Overall, Armada is still a book I’d recommend giving a read.

Ernest Cline is great at telling a story through interesting characters and sometimes his references can be spot on, but his pop culture guns can’t replace a lack of true science fiction in his story.

This isn’t a book designed to satiate video gamer looking for something to read nor is it s a book meant for nerds looking for something that they can quote to friends.

Armada is a book about Zack Lightman’s journey to becoming an adult through adversity and war.

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2 thoughts on “Armada Review: I skipped to the ending

    • I thought the ending was pretty weak, but the dialogue between the characters was strong. I thought for a while that the twist was going to be Zack waking up from a coma or something.

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