If you’ve ever worked anywhere and had to sit through annual performance reviews, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve heard it called the “sandwich” approach, and it’s where the reviewer opens by saying good things about you, then tells you where you failed to meet expectations in the middle—the meat in this rather disgusting sandwich—and then closes by saying more good things about you. It is never a satisfying experience, and you never get the raise you wanted to get.
With my professed disdain for this approach, you’re going to wonder why, in a bit, I’m beginning this review of Ernest Cline’s novel Armada by telling you that I have a lot of respect for the author. In fact, I think he would be a cool guy to hang out with. He’s one of us.
By “us,” I mean he’s a geek, a nerd, a fanboy, a gamer. His love of cheesy ’80s movies and video games permeates his work. I just found out that he wrote the screenplay for the movie Fanboys, which I had enjoyed long before I knew his name. Throw in the fact that he once wrote a script for a Buckaroo Banzai sequel (available at ernestcline.com) and that he owns a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and it’s obvious why I think he’d be the type of guy I’d love to drink root beer floats with.
I also loved his debut novel Ready Player One. I first read about it in the pages of Game Informer magazine, where it was listed as a Young Adult novel. I loved the book from first page to last, with its healthy heaping of dystopian future science-fiction and pop culture/gamer nostalgia. I wasn’t surprised when the novel was optioned for the movies by Steven Spielberg, since nostalgia for his early movies was also a big part of the story. This was a great story and Cline proved himself a great storyteller; I recommend this book to everyone.
Now, about Armada.
The novel itself acknowledges the influence of The Last Starfighter, an ’80s science-fiction movie about a video game-playing kid recruited to fight aliens, upon its own plot, which is about a video game-playing kid recruited to fight aliens. I can’t recall if it acknowledged the influence of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, but that’s in there, too. So, major critique right off the bat: not a very original plot. There is also a good dose of Iron Eagle in there, also referred to in the book. It’s all very meta.
The novel starts off with a bang, capturing my attention when Zack Lightman sees a UFO that looks like an alien spaceship from his favorite video game. Soon, Zack is recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance, which has been training drone pilots through video games for years, as well as influencing public opinion through movies and other popular media. There’s also a subplot about Zack’s dead father who [uh, SPOILER ALERT] isn’t really dead. And Zack and a bunch of other chosen folk have to defend the Earth from a massive alien invasion.
Sounds like exciting stuff, doesn’t it? And I’m sure it will be even more exciting visually when it hits the big screen. The novel was immediately optioned for the movies for a reported seven-figure deal. Once again, I’m happy for Cline. He deserves success.
However, the novel isn’t very good, ultimately. Call it the sophomore slump, maybe. It doesn’t even begin to live up to his first novel, although that may not be a fair comparison. It’s certainly as well-written, I would say. Cline knows how to put sentences together. Where it falls short for me is the story itself.
Besides being too familiar a story, the novel itself feels too padded. The action of the novel takes place over just a few days time. The actual plot points feel more suited for a short story or, at most, a novella. There’s a writer’s trick where the action is slowed to a near crawl, like movie slo-mo, by heaping on the detail and remarking upon every sensory input the viewpoint character experiences. This is effective during climactic action scenes. Very effective when done sparingly. At times, it feels like this entire novel is written this way. And, frankly, its exhausting. Not enough happens in Armada to justify its length.
Aside from that, the ending, which I won’t spoil for you here, is a bit of a letdown, although it is telegraphed so early that it won’t surprise you at all. So, disappointing and unsurprising. I’m not sure how well that will translate to the screen. I doubt I will be going to the theater to watch it anyway.
In short, this novel failed to meet my expectations.
Now, if I were truly doing the “sandwich” approach in this review, I would say good things about Ernest Cline again. I’m not going to, except to say that I meant everything I said about him before.
Don’t bother to read this book. Just join me in hoping that his next one is better.