I read Ernest Cline's debut novel, Ready Player One, a couple of years ago, and I loved the holy fuck out of it. It was fun, inventive, and wallpapered with 80s trivia, quotes, and references that actually pertained to the story and played a huge part in the outcome of the tale (ie. NOT Family Guy random references with no purpose). These 80s citations covered music, TV, and movies trivia, video games lost to time, and a fully-acted-out, playable version of the movie War Games. Shit was fun.
Anyway, after finishing RPO, I found myself very much looking forward to Cline's sophomore effort. I was interested in seeing if he was a one-trick pony or if he had other stories in his head that had nothing at all to do with the greatest decade of all time (the 1980s, of course). Then, last year, I found out that he was working on his second book, a novel called Armada. I knew it had something to do with video games, but that was it. So I patiently waited, read all the comments made by seething anti-fanboys out there on the web (about how Cline was a hack and how this Armada would suck Fatty McGee's balls, and I read all the grammatically incorrect vile and unreasonably angry thoughts about Cline's writing and his mother that I could stand), put it all aside, and then, on its release date, got a copy of the new audiobook (read again by Wil Wheaton), and then gave it a listen in order to decide for myself.
Here are my thoughts now, after finishing up Armada: Cline got lucky with Ready Player One, and he really is just a one trick monkey (that trick: having a knowledge of 1980s pop culture), and that Armada is a giant, steaming pile of monkey poo, after said monkey ate too many bananas and berries and got the runs something fierce.
Armada is pretty much nothing more than a mix of Ready Player One, The Last Starfighter, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But it's not a good mix of these great things; it's like taking a Rembrandt, a Van Gogh, and the first cave painting ever made, and cutting out (or scraping off) different parts of each, and then super-glueing them all back together on one canvas and calling it a new work of art. No, it is most certainly not. Armada seems to think it is a new and unique tale for combining what are now cliche elements of sci-fi storytelling into one giant mishmash of been-there & seen-that, only it's just a giant shit in the face of the reader.
For those still interested, I'll tell you what Cline's extremely predictable Armada is all about. Lord knows why you care anymore, but I've got time and nothing else to write about this week.
Things start off with the main character (a teenager named Zack Lightman.... I cringed just typing that, so from now on I'll just call him "Dickface") daydreaming while looking out the window in his boring old high school class, when all of a sudden he thinks he sees a spaceship fly by in the distance... A spaceship straight out of his all-time favorite video game, Armada (a massively multiplayer online alien invasion game that Dickface is [SURPRISE!] the 6th greatest player in the world at).
It turns out that the spaceship is real, as is the situation behind the plot of the Armada game: aliens have been building a giant invasion fleet of war ships out by Jupiter, and they plan to attack and destroy Earth because they're evil and douchey. It turns out that the world's powers know about this threat, and have combined their resources, built a star-fleet of their own by reverse-engineering a crashed alien vessel, and began training the gamers of the world to fly these fighter craft by making a super awesome video game about everything.
Trust me, it doesn't sound half as bad when I quickly explain this garbage as opposed to reading it or hearing it read aloud in Cline's way of writing (which as of this book means repeating the ever-living shit out of all the plot points that we need to pay attention to because they MIGHT mean something later.... Hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge... Subtleness is not his strong suit).
Back to the story now. So Dickface is recruited by the Earth Space Federation Force (or whatever it's called) the next day before school starts (just before he's about to stick up for himself against a school bully and his cronies because Dickface be tough and just and super awesome, yo! And even though it's not relevant to the plot at all, Dickface banged that hot redhead who sits behind him in homeroom... Yeah, Dickface is the coolest mothafucka on the whole damn planet!) by way of a giant shuttlecraft landing in the middle of the school parking lot, and taking him away to a secret underground bunker for a briefing of the extra-terrestrial situation with other top players from around the world.
While Dickface is learning that the alien threat is real, and that these ETs are about to send 3 giant waves of billions of fighter drones our way to annihilate Earth, he still has time (and his full wits about him) to mack on the hottest gamer gurl he's ever seen at Earth Space Force HQ, get her to jailbreak his newly acquired Space iPhone so that he can do anything with it (think of it like his own personal Sonic Screwdriver that can also make galaxy-wide phone calls), and figure out that the aliens' plan "makes no sense." Everybody else who's been recruited (mostly just kids and a ton of unbathed neckbeard losers) is shitting bricks over finding out that not only are there real hostile aliens out there, but that they're coming to shove something like 6-billion warcraft down our collective throats and MURDER us all... But not Dickface. He's too smart and cool and awesome. He knows what's going down... And he'll state over and over that the aliens' plan and goals make no sense 50,000 times, so don't worry if you miss it the first 300 hundred or so instances.
Dickface and his new super-hot girlfriend then help to defend the super secret Earth Space Force base from an alien sneak attack, and Dickface becomes the best pilot in the battle because he's so fucking awesome, but then he fucks up (it's not his fault really.... Really!) and causes the destruction of a couple hundred, very expensive, Earth drone fighters... But this is forgiven because he's too super fuckin' hotshot awesooooooooome, and it never really matters in the rest of the story. But I digress...
Soon Dickface is assigned to the super secret, way cool Moon Base Alpha on the far side of the Moon with the rest of the top 10 civilian fighter pilots of the Armada game. It is on the Moon that our "hero" meets *GASP!!!* his dead father! Oh, did I mention that Dickface was raised by his single (and super fucking hawt [by his own words]) mom because his super awesome gamer dad died in an explosion when he was a baby? Whatevs... Anyway, Daddy Dickface isn't dead. He was actually recruited by the Earth Asshole Space Department 17 years prior to the start of the story, and never allowed to let his young, hot, gorgeous, sexy wife know that he wasn't dead (or join him on the Moon) because SPACE REASONS.
So Dickface and Daddy Dickface get to know each other in the few remaining hours before the invasion of the 6-billion a-hole aliens. Dickface gets all "angry youth" on his pops, Daddy Dickface gets sad, then defensive, and then they both forgive and forget because the "plot" needs to progress.
Oh, and it turns out that Daddy Dickface (who, of COURSE, is the GREATEST Armada player in the whole wide world!) found out something important about the aliens... Well, it's more of a hunch, but he believes that the attacking aliens don't really want to destroy humanity. He thinks it's all just a test... An intergalactic Punk'd, if you will. His evidence is flimsy, but we're led to believe he's 100% right because he simply HAS TO BE!
So soon the aliens arrive, and they start slaughtering hundreds of millions of innocent people and blowing up cities, but Dickface and Daddy Dickface hold them off long enough in order to talk to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking (I'm not making this up... And Wil Wheaton does an amazing Stephen Hawking "voice" on the audiobook FYI) and decide that the only way for mankind to survive is to show the aliens that we can be civil, and we're not all war-mongering dickless fiends. They then go back to Earth and combine their super video game powers to attack the Earth Space Voltron Force's final mega-weapon before it can blow up the Jovian moon that the aliens are using as their headquarters.
Before they do this though, Daddy Dickface bones his super sexy, hot, hot, HOAT wife (who of course never got over him), and then he sacrifices himself to give his son (along with all his son's loser friends) the chance to destroy the Earth's final weapon. Dickface succeeds, and even takes down the one Armada pilot he was never able to defeat in the game because he's THE BEST at EVERYTHING! And it turns out that Daddy Dickface was right all along (the aliens were just testing us to see if we were nice enough to join their big intergalactic dance party).
So, hundreds of millions are dead, Dickface is now distrustful of the aliens because of this ludicrous test (I think this is Cline's shitty way of writing off this awful ending as something like "Yeah, it, um, doesn't make sense.... See, Dickface is wary of how everything went down too... So.... Like.... Yeah. You and he think alike......... I'm a good writer."), Dickface's mom has another baby that she has to raise on her own 'cause her husband is dead (again), and Dickface and his friends are super awesome celebrities now and everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you're part of a team!
Oh, oops! There were spoilers above!
*Siiiiiigh* So the story was really dumb, and you can see how it's going to end halfway through, but what ELSE did I detest about it? I'm glad you asked!
I hated all the forced references to 80s pop culture. Yeah, I loved them in RPO when they actually fit into the plot and they were novel and fun, but in Armada they're simply forced. There's no way that every character in this thing (from teenagers to middle-aged moms from Minnesota to actual non-English-speaking Chinese men) would be fully knowledgeable of 80s rock, 80s video games, and all other aspects of 80s pop culture to the point where the only references and quotes ever made in this book are about 80s crap! The book takes place in 2018, and our protagonist is 17 or 18 years old, yet he and his friends only mention movies and comics and music from a decade that was dead and gone over ten years before any of them were even conceived. There is one point where the characters are about to engage the enemy for the first time in space, and the Chinese non-English-speaking guy quotes "Rowdy" Roddy Piper from They Live... It just made me cringe in disbelief and lameness, along with when Dickface starts blasting Queen's "One Vision" (or any of a dozen other specifically-referenced 80s hits) whilst fighting alien bogeys in outer space.
I knew that RPO wasn't high-end art when I read it, and I knew the pop culture citations were a bit over-the-top at times, but here, in Armada, Cline uses the light touch of a sledgehammer to a cow's skull to point out "I KNOW 80s STUFFS! YAAAAAAAAY!" I honestly think that Cline thinks that he's "cool" because he knows the names of old video games and movies. Hell, in like the second chapter of this thing all he does is list off popular sci-fi movies, TV shows, and video games that came out in the 70s through the 80s for what equates to Wil Wheaton simply reading off one after another for about 10 minutes of audiobook time. There's no deftness to it here... It's just like a retarded teenager barging into the crowded room when his parents are having a dinner party and shouting to everybody in the house "I just made a poopy! Then I flushed it! Yaaaaaaay!" Yes, that's a great accomplishment, Mongo Jr., only you forgot to wipe before putting your pants back on.
This was the dumbest "Alien First Contact" storyline that I have ever even heard of, and thanks to living over 300 different timelines due to my own time-travel experiences, I've witnessed over 50 First Contacts personally, and one involved a squadron of alien ships that looked like giant flying rubber ducks.
I am just simply confused as to how a writer can be so inept at subtlety. Not once during the course of this sci-fi enriched tale was I surprised when something occurred. His foreshadowing capabilities are just as lacking. Cline will tell the reader "something about the aliens' strategy made it seem like nonsense.. Like this was just a test for us humans," or "my father died in an explosion when I was a baby, and my incredibly gorgeous, young, hot mother was not even allowed to see the remains of whatever body was left," a dozen or so times each, leaving the reader with no doubt at all that the alien invasion was not a real attack, and also that the main character's father was indeed still alive, and probably recruited to fight the alien forces off back when he was supposedly killed, leaving no real body behind to identify.
Beyond these few examples lie hundreds more, and a lack of what real space fighting is all about. Cline makes a point of stating that the dogfights and battles in space are better off waged using drone fighters, completely ignoring the fact that by flying manned fighters, pilots gain fractions of a second of response time (losing which can easily lead to defeat, any way you slice it), and by training babies from 6-months old to sit in an actual pilot's seat, and grow up with their own personal fighter, you teach them how to die like real men and women, without soiling their britches in the face of death. Yes, when you have unlimited drones to launch at an enemy you can keep sending them out one after another as each wave gets obliterated; as one drone pilot's craft gets destroyed, he can switch to a new one... But then he doesn't care if the drone lives or dies, since he has no real attachment to it, or any stake in it at all. Any time our defense forces tried to use remote controlled ships they found that the idiot pilots were just trying to outdo each other with loop-d-loop acrobatics, or stupid suicide runs that led to nothing but billions of space credits lost on destroyed drones.
Ready Player One was a piece of shit. The story was lame, and it was pretty much just a masturbatory glut of 80s nostalgia and the ultimate "I can be king!" kind of loser daydreaming wish-fulfillment that people like the Rossman thrive on. Not only does the guy get the ultimate "rule the universe" prize in the end, but he wins a girl too. Yay for feminism...
Armada is fucking worse. SO much worse. There's not even an attempt at anything original here, and it's as if the author thought "Hey, people liked when I mentioned things from the 80s in my last book! I'll just do that again here! It'll be like minting my own money!" I so hope he's wrong. I hope that this book bombs and they don't buy the movie rights. This guy is a hack who can't come up with a plot point on his own. Nothing in this story is original and everything is ripped off from other greater works. No, it's not "in homage" to those other works, it's all played up like it's Cline's own ideas here. I don't think he even knows that he didn't invent the 80s and everything that came with it.
Oh, and in the end, our loser of a "hero" saves the day, and the Earth, and wins a girl. Even though this guy is as dorky and wimpy as he is, somehow he's able to sweep a hard-core gamer/coder woman, who's much older than his 17 years-old sunken-chest age, off her feet. Oh, and did I mention that this loser kid with the most loser name ever has the hottest mom in the history of hot moms.... Is this even a fantasy of basement dwellers? Why does this author keep referencing how beautiful his mom is? That's so disturbing.
Anyway, everything that can be wrong with this book is wrong with it. I hated it. I wish book burning was a thing so that we could incinerate every last copy of this garbage.