Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One, stars a high school boy obsessed with dated pop culture whose video game skills make him a hero with the help of his buddies and a friendly Dungeons & Dragons-playing adult. That concept tapped into the hearts of nostalgic geeks, making the work of science fiction into a bestseller with a Steven Spielberg film in the works. For his second novel, Cline decided to do nearly the exact same thing. He shifts the focus from ’80s pop culture to 20th century science fiction and makes the conflict about an alien invasion rather than an Easter egg hunt set inside the world’s most successful multiplayer game, but the stories are so note-for-note similar it’s depressing, especially since each note in Armada is played worse than it was in Ready Player One.
Set just in a few years in the future, Armada follows Zack Lightman, a high school senior who’s one of the world’s best players of the eponymous video game. It turns out that this video game was invented by a secret military organization to train humans to use a drone army to stave off an invasion from Europa, a fact they reveal to the general public only after having players launch a genocidal mission to nuke the icy moon. If this seems like a fusion between Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter it’s because within the world of Armada those works, and nearly every other film, video game, or book involving an alien invasion since the ’70s, were part of a massive propaganda effort to mentally prepare Earth’s populace to go to war with extraterrestrials.
This could have been a great setup to mock science-fiction tropes, but Cline instead plays them straight. The planet’s governments band together to fight the invasion but only white, American males are the really important figures in this story. Cline used his supporting cast in Ready Player One to explore the way people present themselves online and the complexities of family, body image, and gender, but here the only facts he feels necessary to relay about the other players Lightman fights with are their names, place of origin, and sexual orientation. Every supposedly heroic sacrifice made during the book’s many battles feels meaningless because it’s hard to connect with such thin characters.
Like Ready Player One, Armada is jam-packed with geeky references. They serve as shibboleths among the characters, used to establish their cred. This made a lot more sense in Ready Player One, where the plot revolved around people studying a very specific pop culture lexicon, but here it just adds to the sense that the characters lack definition. No one ever fails to get a reference, no matter their relative age or nationality. A Chinese player who speaks little English quotes They Live before rushing into battle. Lightman’s mom imitates Gandalf to keep him from retreating to his room. If just once someone had admitted to not having read Dune or seen Aliens it could have been a great opportunity to show the characters being excited to share something they are passionate about. The promise of sitting down to watch a movie together when the aliens stop attacking would have been far more poignant than the date Lightman plans with the book’s obligatory hot hacker chick.
Then there’s the problem of Armada’s ridiculous plot. Lightman points out the flaws in the alien invasion strategy the way someone might dissect the plot of a science-fiction story: The Europans built a fleet capable of eradicating humanity, but then waited to launch it for decades. Humans were able to easily capture and back-engineer alien tech. The alien drones move in predictable patterns easily emulated by a video game. But for an author so focused on critiquing the flaws of science-fiction blockbusters, Cline has a remarkable lack of self-awareness about the holes in his own narrative. The book lacks surprises or satisfying twists, sending Lightman on a largely conflict-free hero’s journey like Luke Skywalker if Darth Vader was an awesome guy who was really sorry about missing out on his son’s childhood and now just wants to hang out and help him fulfill his destiny. There’s never any doubt that the forces of geeky goodness will be victorious against the faceless aliens and a cutthroat military leader whose cardinal sin is that he hasn’t watched enough science fiction to realize he’s in an episode of Star Trek instead of Independence Day.
Plenty of the references and geeky arguments in Armada are hilarious, from Star Wars-themed insults to debates about the relative merits of fantasy weapons. But put against such a lackluster backdrop, they can’t drive the novel the way they did in Ready Player One. Instead they make Armada feel even more like a failed attempt to recapture the cleverness of Cline’s debut.