Last Sunday, we took our fortnightly trek to the local English Library to get books for the boys. And sitting on the new arrivals shelf was a copy of Ernest Cline's second novel, Armada.
You may remember his first book, Ready Player One, which came out back in 2011. It's a dystopian sci-fi novel in which a vast virtual reality network is awash in 70's, 80's and 90's nerd culture, and players who can figure out the nerdiest of the nerdiest references hidden in the game can gain vast fortune and power within the game. It's not Shakespeare. But it is a lot of fun to read, tells an exciting adventure quest in the VR and a political/economic thriller in meatspace. And yes, the story revolves around constant references to all your favorite RPGs (Tomb of Horrors plays an important part in the story), movies (Star Wars/Trek, LotR, etc.), TV shows, video games, music, breakfast cereals (with prizes in the box), etc. If you're in your 40's like me, it's all the stuff we grew up on used as the keys to a massive online treasure hunt.
When Armada came out last year, though, several friends read it and said it wasn't nearly as good. And online reviews like this one at Slate.com (which I read at the time) savaged the book. So I didn't pick it up when it was new. But hey, here it was on the stacks, just in. So, I checked it out and gave it a read, mostly on my commutes or after the boys were in bed at night over the past week. And since my gaming session didn't happen last night, I finished it.
Now, is it as good as Ready Player One? No, it's not. That's true. RPO was an upbeat book, despite the dark turns now and then. Armada is a more pessimistic book. So it's not as fun of a read. And since the main draw of RPO was how fun it was to read, I can see why some people are upset by this sophomore effort by Cline. And reviewers like the one at Slate savage the book for again being mostly just a nostalgia wank-fest with little substance.
BUT... the thing is, the book wasn't actually terrible. If Cline had published this book first, then brought out Ready Player One, people would have likely said Armada is good, RPO is great. Instead, we got the better book first, so the second looks like a pile of suck (or at best meh) to many readers.
Now, Armada's plot is contrived and derivative, but it was done that way on purpose. It's The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game and whatever other story about kid good at video games using games or the skills learned playing games to fight real aliens. But there's a twist, and it's related to the pessimistic tone of the novel. I don't want to spoil it, but the Epilogue turns the "happy ending" on its ear, and makes the book something a little different from the media that inspired it.
Now, the Slate review does make some good points. The 18-year-old protagonist, Zack Lightman, seems awash in the 80's references of his father (and the author), but has absolutely NO cultural references to stuff in his own lifetime other than one reference to the MCU movies. Now, when I was a high school kid in the late 80's and early 90's, I was mostly listening to music from the 60's and 70's (Jimi and the Doors and CCR and Zep and so on), but I was also listening to current rock music as well. I watched TOS and TNG. I ate up old 50's and 60's sci fi movies when I could find them (no cable TV for us out in the country back then), but mostly I was watching contemporary movies. I'd find Zack's encyclopedic knowledge of his father's favorite old media much more believable if it was mixed in with media actual teenagers are consuming these days. Ernie should have done a bit more research for this one.
In Ready Player One, the obsession with all of the nostalgic stuff for us middle-aged readers made sense. The programmer who built the OASIS (the VR network) was an uber-nerd, and when he died he left a message to the world saying that his inheritance would go to the player who could solve his uber-nerd challenge. Since Wade Watts, the protagonist, grew up in this dystopian future (where we can guess there isn't a lot of new pop culture getting spread around because of the pervasiveness of the OASIS and the general shitty level of life outside it) and knew all about the Easter Egg quest. So he had a legitimate reason to be immersed in nostalgic nerd culture, and so were most other gamers who wanted to find the Easter Egg. Yes, it may be a ridiculous premise, but it is consistent. So we can suspend disbelief and go with it.
It's harder to do that in Armada.
So, that's one point against it. The constant nerdy references are a bit out of place, but apparently this is Cline's fictional wheelhouse, and I have to say I wish I'd been less afraid of embracing my geekiness when I was studying creative writing. I could have put out similar stuff, but I was trying hard to be all "serious" and "literary" but that's a discussion for another day.
Back to Armada. This is getting longer than I intended, so I'll wrap it up.
The saving grace of Armada is its consistent tone. Ready Player One had some grim moments, but it was for the most part a positive story. It also had much lower stakes. The fate of the VR realm was at stake, but that was it. It's like a nerdy version of battling whatever anti-net neutrality bill Congress is debating this year. In Armada, the fate of the world is at stake. Now, while that constrains the protagonist (choosing not to save the world is never an option) and is something we've all seen before, most "save the world" stories end with a very optimistic ending. This one doesn't.
But you need to give the book a fair reading (that Slate reviewer seems to have skimmed parts of it, and maybe skipped the Epilogue entirely? There are several places where he gets details wrong...yes, that's very nerdy of me to pick on the nerdy details, but hey, there it is). And you need to consider the tone of the story as you read it, and how that change in tone affects the meaning of the existential crisis for humanity presented in the book.
Bottom line? It's worth reading, even if it's not as good as Ready Player One (and really, that's a hard book to beat in the nostalgic nerd culture fiction genre).