Armada by Ernest Cline (book review).

July 17, 2015 | By | Reply More

‘Armada’ is the latest novel from author Ernest Cline, writer of the phenomenally popular ‘Ready Player One’, a book that Steven Spielberg will be directing as a film. If that isn’t impressive enough Ernest Cline is also Jive Bunny Just let that image settle in your head before progressing, if you don’t know who they are click the link: You’ll the need the knowledge at the end of the review. Ready to proceed? Press Play to Start.


Zack Lightman is a bright if bored sixteen year-old kid who can’t wait for High School to end. He spends his free time playing ‘Armada’, a flight simulator MMO that sees players take on wave after wave of alien attacks, flying in combat spacecraft. While he may not excel at school, he’s one of the best players of ‘Armada’ in the world. He also thinks a great deal about his late father, another gaming enthusiast, who died in 2000 when Zack was still an infant.

One afternoon, he is staring out of the window during his maths lesson when he spots a flying saucer. Not just any UFO, but a craft from ‘Armada’ the game he has been playing. The sighting brings back troubled memories for Zack. Firstly, as a younger student, he inflicted a particularly brutal attack on a school bully, during which he blanked out and when the UFO appears he is compelled to deal with the same bully again. Secondly, his father had kept a journal on an alien conspiracy theory of his concerning the military, movies and computer games.

When Zack once again decides to defend himself against an attack from his high school arch-enemy, he is interrupted by the arrival of one of the fighters from ‘Armada’ landing on the school playing fields. In a matter of moments, Zack Lightman is told that he is to be recruited into the Earth Defence Alliance and that the world stands on the brink of alien invasion.

What follows is a punchy, goofy yet gripping story about how a group of gamers just might be able to save the Earth. As Zack’s world turns upside down, he not only has to cope with the knowledge that the safety of the Earth is on his shoulders but also what it means to deal with the responsibilities of growing-up.

If this sounds all too familiar, you would be absolutely right. This is, after all, the plot of ‘Iron Eagle’, ‘The Last Starfighter’ and ‘Ender’s Game’, something that the book gleefully acknowledges. The question then becomes one of why would you read this? Why would Universal have already paid a seven-figure sum for the rights to this book when it’s seemingly devoid of originality?

There are two reasons. Firstly, Cline writes in such a likeable, effortless way, it makes for compelling reading. The novel comes entirely from Zack’s perspective and he’s a good guy, smart but, like all teens, full of doubts and fears, even going as far as to mention the ‘Oedipal torment’ of having an attractive mom. He has nerdy friends and goes through the first, slightly awkward steps of getting a girlfriend. ‘Armada’ therefore works as a coming of age story as well as a sci-fi blockbuster. Cline has made you root for the protagonist.

The second reason is that Cline has been completely unafraid to pepper the book with as many references to SF pop culture that you can think of. From ‘Space Invaders’ to ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Flight Of The Navigator’ to ‘Aliens’ to ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ it is all here. Even the good Doctor gets a mention (though interestingly ‘Doctor Who’ is the show Zack’s mom watches as, in the USA, ‘Doctor Who’ is a show for adults). These references actually then form a part of the story when it is explained that the emergence of SF culture from the early 1970s, with ‘Star Wars’ as the catalyst, has been preparing the world’s population for the existence of aliens and the forthcoming invasion. This theory was the sort of thing that used to emerge in Timothy Good’s UFO conspiracy books or was mentioned by Mulder in ‘The X-Files’ which, yes, also gets referenced.

‘Armada’ is a book utterly designed for me, a man in my mid-thirties, with my own son, who grew up with ‘Star Wars’ and the SF pop culture that went with it. It presses all of my buttons, knows that I will enjoy every quote, allusion and direct reference while reminding me that it was OK to grow-up and still enjoy this stuff. It has been constructed for ‘Generation Star Wars’, no longer the wisecracking geeks depicted in Cline’s movie ‘Fanboys’ (he wrote the screenplay), but now as husbands and fathers with responsibilities.

There’s a problem with this, though, the constant appropriation of material. Almost everything the characters say, especially when fighting with the enemy, is a quote. There is very little that is original there. The enjoyment is a superficial one. I’d compare it to the sitcom ‘Spaced’ where you enjoyed all the movie references if you spotted them, but really the pleasure of the show was derived from the characters, from hoping Tim and Daisy would admit their feelings and fall in love. I’ll spare us all the indignity of discussing ‘The Big Bang Theory’ here.

‘Armada’ does succeed in finding that character-driven feeling, as the emotional threads of the book did pull together and engage me. So there was at least enough love for the characters from me to keep me going, even though I might wince at a reference to ‘Galaxy Quest’. I did read all of ‘Armada’ in one day and find it hard to deny that it is a page-turner. You get swept up in it.

Is Ernest Cline an author? Of course, he’s written one hugely successful novel in ‘Ready Player One’ and I have no doubt ‘Armada’ will be equally huge. He’s also a DJ though or an early hip-hop or house artist. He’s playing all the records you’ve loved over the years and remixing them into a tune you’re familiar with, if that’s not enough, he’s directly sampling the other records you love and peppering his track with those samples. You might enjoy the music and even dance, but afterwards you may feel a little hollow. Therefore: Ernest Cline is Jive Bunny.

John Rivers

June 2015

(pub: Century/Penguin/Random House. 345 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78089-304-4)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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