Ready Player One Presents: Ender’s Last Starfighter: a WarGames Novel — A Review of Armada by Ernest Cline

ArmadaIf I had to summarize what my review of this book was, then read the title of the article.  Thanks for stopping by!

For those of you that want something more in-depth, let me see if I can summarize up things nicely.  There is a risk of spoilers, so go into this knowing something might be otherwise ruined for you.  I will try to keep it at a minimum.

Armada is Ernest Cline’s second book, following up Ready Player One.  I will be discussing this here, but I plan on giving a full review of that book at some point in the very near future.  Let me be clear on this, when I was introduced to that book, I instantly fell in love with it and its characters.  I have listened to the audiobook 20+ times since owning it.  So I eagerly awaited this one, just because I wanted to see what the creator of RPO had to offer this time.   If you read the last book, then you automatically know that you’re going to get a healthy serving of nostalgia wrapped in a story that feels like it was directed by an 80s director looking to capture that feel in a very modern story. That’s the charm of Ernest Cline’s work.

The Premise: Zack Lightman is a high school student in Oregon.  Before Zack’s first birthday, his father is killed in an explosion at his workplace.  Due to the nature of the job, this becomes a source of much teasing by fellow classmates.  This fuels Zack’s temper, which we find out can become rather volatile when he feels pressed.

Zack’s latest problem starts at the very beginning of the book as he looks out the window of his classroom.  There, he sees a space craft that resembles an enemy fighter craft from his favorite video game, Armada.  He starts to be believe that he’s going off the deep end, much like what he’s come to believe of his own father.   What he finds out is that he’s not insane, nor was his father.   The truth is that the Earth Defense Alliance, the good guys from the  game, are real and have been using games to test the worthiness of pilots against a group of aliens on the Jupiter moon of Europa.

After Zack is collected by the EDA from his school, the longest day of his life is put into high gear as the aliens will be invading Earth in no time.  He and a number of other gamers have a little over 8 hours to digest this new truth about the world they thought they knew, and then prepare to fight back an invasion before they destroy humanity once and for all.

The Good:  The feel of this book has a great deal of what made Ready Player One successful.  As I said before, I get a feeling of nostalgia from the very outset of the book.  It has a great amount of references for anyone who knows this stuff to geek out on, while still maintaining a story.   I will warn you now, this is something that’s also going to be put in the bad category as well.

This story feels like a progression movie.  What I mean by that is if you watch something such as National Lampoon’s Animal House, then watch PCU, and follow it up with Accepted, those movies follow a certain progression of college life in 3 separate generations.  Like the kids of the Animal House guys grew up to go to PCU, and the children of the PCU kids made their own college in Accepted.   Armada feels like this is where WarGames or Last Starfighter progressed to.  More the latter than the former, but don’t discount the former’s importance. The Ender’s Game element is more for what Zack grows into.  He’s the kid, he’s the one that even in his screw ups, finds a way to make big things happen for the positive anyway.  This is the child of those concepts brought to a time when people have a want to see them.  In a world where these concepts are done, and mostly badly, it’s nice to see one that actually reminds me of the fun I had with this when I was a kid.

Another great part for me is that Zack reminds me of people I know, and has definite elements of me in there.  He’s a fully fledged character, not an empty shell that I see so many of these days.   The writers get afraid to put too much into a main character, because they hope you’ll place yourself within that part.   The problem with that is you lose an entire potential storyline with a character who’s personality may take off into directions you weren’t expecting.  To me, it’s writing yourself in a corner.  Much like Parzival from RPO, Zack has qualities that make me hang in there to see where they will resolve. He could be my friend, we have similar enough backgrounds that he and his friends could’ve been sitting in my living room talking about whatever springs to mind.

For audiobook listeners, they get a win in Wil Wheaton reading the book.   I think, above all, that was one of the biggest things I was hoping for, because his enthusiasm for the material the last time around was so strong that it would’ve been wrong to get anyone else.  He’s been everywhere for several years now, bringing the geek culture to the masses, and thank Crom for him.   If Ernest Cline puts out a book, and he’s not on the audio, I will wait until he’s available for re-recording to hear it.  It’s a double act thing, and I’m certain that they both see it.  Okay, maybe not in those terms, but they certainly understand the chemistry that’s been struck here.

The Bad:  I said nostalgia would make a return here, and I wasn’t kidding.   The nostalgia factor here is impressive.  It makes me want to pull out my old consoles, watch the movies that are referenced here, and even re-read Ender’s Game (well, listen to it again at any rate.)   That’s never a bad thing, but what I feel is bad is that there is an inundation with it.   It’s not just the old material of the 80s that we’re being reminded of, it’s his first novel too.   The set up has enough similarity to it.   I know all of these things are good, I want to know why this is just as good.  Can this book stand next to its predecessor and the reference material that it uses?  I see enough in it that I think it makes for a good second outing, without reaching the status that the first one did.   Ready Player One speaks to an age.  This one speaks to those old film buffs that wanted to see an updated, tried and true concept from the same guy who did RPO.   I won’t bust his chops too hard on that front, but as much as I love the video games, comic book references, and movies, I’d love to see what he would do away from those things.   I give him credit for trying to pull back on some of it, like Zack’s two friends talking about comic characters who wield swords, and most notably they don’t bring Wonder Woman back up in that conversation (for my friend who was telling me all about it after he heard it).    The problem there is, I wanted to hear the end of the conversation, use it as some running gag throughout, or something.  I had almost hoped that it would be like the Ladyhawke references from RPO, in that there was something that would happen where this tidbit about characters who could wield Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer for those few that might not yet know) or could carry a sword would come back into play.  It was just a geek conversation that lead nowhere.   I know they aren’t all supposed to, but to bring it back up a little later to just abruptly end it, seemed like we could’ve gone without it.   I can also see where in broad strokes, you might claim that Zack was worthy of Mjolnir by the resolution, because he makes a decision that effects the entire world.   It also sounded like that if anyone else had come to that conclusion, they could have made the same decision.  However, this is Zack’s book and that means he gets the ultimate save here.

Another part that bugged me was the entire “all in one day” storyline.  Yeah, I get what’s happening there.   The fight has been going on for decades, and even the Armada players have been involved, but it feels like we’re going to get introduced to a group we’re never going to fully get to love as characters.    Zack gets picked up at school by the EDA, he’s at a base, he’s on the moon, he’ s back on Earth, he’s heading out to space again.   I’ve had RPG’s that have jumped far less.   It makes for an action packed adventure, and I’m all for that ride, but the book started slowly telling us why Zack was a problem kid and that his dad had the possibility of being half whacked, to this kid being a hero and one of the last hopes for humanity.   The difference between this and RPO is that Parzival gave us the run down of his world through short bursts as we needed them.  Armada is a slow walk through Zack’s life and his mother’s wish for him to not waste it for a starter, then goes into a break-neck pace with a countdown clock.  Don’t get me wrong, I get that things can happen in a day.   The enemy is coming, no time to catch everyone up to speed as much as they’d like.   I’ve seen Wrath of Khan.   The crew aboard Enterprise  were training a few hours ago, and then they’re in a fight with a fellow Federation ship that has targeted  all the major systems.  They have to survive and fight back.  It happens within a short span of time that we can see, but it’s paced well.   When Armada gets going it feels like someone took a Red Bull, dumped in a a package of Pixie Stix, blended it with a Mountain Dew: Code Red, and handed it to a hyperactive kid.    Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it certainly felt like that to me.

The Overall:  I really don’t have much to say here, that wasn’t said back there.   I guess the reiteration I want to make here is that it’s fun, predictable in many places, but full of heart.   If you’re looking for this to be what RPO was, I believe you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.  That’s not this book.   It reads like it was ready to go to camera at any moment, a redo of concepts in the age of the remake. What I can say for that is that at least it does it well.    No one else could have told this story with half the grace.  I truly hope Ernest Cline’s next outing will be far more original.  If he decided to keep working within a fandom, I hope it’s possibly one that he’s not touched on within these first two books.  Having said that, I’m hard pressed at the moment to think of one he didn’t manage to bring up.   This man is a competent writer who knows his stuff,  Armada is proof of that.   It just needed a more pacing, and less reference.