Well, that took significantly longer to read than Ernest Cline’s beloved debut.
Taking place in the present day rather than 2045, this is the story of Zackary Lightman, a teen from Yawnsville, or Beaverton, Oregon. He spends his days trying to avoid getting his reputation expanded at school as a temper fuelled danger, by trying to avoid any interaction with bully Douglas Knotcher. He’s close to whacking him with a tire iron, though. At home he lives with his ancient beagle Muffit and his independent brave single mother Pamela. Apparently when Zack was a baby his father, a sewage treatment worker, died in an accident caused by one of the machines, and they got enough inheritance money to properly survive, not enough that his mother doesn’t have to work her nursing job but enough to not worry about some expenses. He also has a part-time job at a rundown nostalgic video game store called Starbase Ace, where he and his boss spend a lot more time playing Armada and fighting alien drones than advertising and keeping up with trends. Apparently his boss Ray won a lottery so money’s not a big issue for him either.
But one day at school, Zack notices, just outside his school window, a spaceship flying close to the ground like a helicopter, exactly like the ones from the game, but he’s the only one who sees it before it vanishes. The next day that same ship ends up landing right on the front lawn of his high school, with people in the uncannily same uniforms as the game too, revealing this whole time, the aliens in the video game are real and for decades they’ve secretly been crafting technology years in advance of ours to destroy us. We find out, in our world of shooter games and stories about aliens from another planet taking over, it has all been part of a secret ploy to make us ready for this exact threat. Now Zack, and all the other top ten players of the game who have also been selected as soldiers, will have to do what they do best; play the game, except with knowledge failing would actually mean Game Over, for them, and the entire world. No presh.
There’s nothing wrong with the concept. Actually, the concept’s pretty attractive. The idea we got Star Wars and Close Encounters and War of the Worlds and the giant trend of science fiction afterward, especially in the department of aliens-from-space shoot-em-up video games, was not just because of good box office sales but to train the human race to battle a secret enemy? I wouldn’t go so far as to say a main reason for the 2008 crash was because of the aliens, or the Europans (name of the enemies, like Europeans but without the second ‘e’ if you weren’t paying attention) but that is honestly an idea that the big time video game nerds will love. That is, if they have the patience to get through the whole book.
Cline’s Ready Player One was not perfect, perhaps a little overly heavy with all the nostalgia references. But thanks to the effectively contemptuous organization racing against the heroes and the fun pace, this was far from ruining the book. If anything, it made the adventure and ride feel edgier than your usual science trek. And when Wade Watts plays the video games, the threat of what losing could mean and the fact there’s always a new game to play and they don’t take up too much of the book made them exciting. But Armada’s sadly a different story. About half of the book’s first act is Zack (and his boss) enjoying themselves with the game, for fun, without knowing about the threat or of anything, and we get it is supposed to introduce us to the game we know is going to be impactful, hence the book’s title, but without any antagonist to enjoy rooting against, without any big conflict, it’s just reading about other people plainly playing video games, leading to one of the weakest introductions to a book I’ve read in a fair while.
A strength of the book is almost all of the female characters (Debbie, Whoadie, Pamela and Lex) are warriors just as if not better than the male characters, including in video game combat. I especially liked Debbie. A player who is a mother of three teenage boys, who also works as a librarian and prays at dinner, but plays games with her sons after work, effectively enough to be a top tenner? Who knows how many more people are out there like her? Everyone else, especially Lex, is also independent and cool, a counteragent to the stereotype of girls not interested in going on the offence.
Some of Armada is exciting, and there are some surprises, plus a healthy suspicion about why the Europans do certain acts when they could’ve done an alternative that would’ve been more effective in fighting us Earthlings. But too much of it plays out like Ready Player One without any of the actual brand-new wonder that made me devour it and made so many people love it enough to merit a movie. Armada takes way too long to end up with an actual bad guy, with constant this-is-the-end-of-the-world speeches further dragging it and little necessity for the intricate details of the controllers of a game we’re never going to actually play. Armada’s strengths end up really highlighting its weaknesses. Before I started reading it, I’d heard from most readers it was a significant downgrade, as was Ready Player Two apparently, which I haven’t read yet. I’m sad to say they were right, and now my expectations for Player Two are significantly lowered.