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Written by: Ernest Cline
Published by: Crown

Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One was an instant classic. A coming of age story set in the near future chock full of references to movies, music and video games from the eighties. It was a novelized nerdgasm for middle aged geeks and a damn fine story to boot. I’ve been looking forward to his follow up novel Armada since I found out about it, but not without some trepidation. Armada’s blurb on the preorder page left no doubt that he was going back to the well with another coming of age story set in the near future chock full of references to movies, music and video games from the eighties. Could Cline avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? Could he pull the rabbit out of the hat a second time? Could he put the lighting back in the bottle again? And the answer is a resounding “yeah, sorta”.

Armada tells the story of Zack Lightman. A teenager with anger issues whose only real talent is for video games, specifically Armada. During the day he is a typical bored out of his skull high school senior and by nights and weekends one of the highest ranked pilots for the imaginary Earth Defense Force, the EDF, the only thing standing between Earth and the imaginary Sobrukai. Squid like Alien invaders from Tau Ceti bent on the eventual destruction of Earth. Fighting for the survival of Earth in various EDF drones he has clawed his way to the top of the Armada leaderboards. Things become surreal for Zack though when gazing out the window during class one day he sees something zipping around in the sky. Something that moves in ways physics, as we understand it, says it shouldn’t be able to move. Something that at the same time is eerily familiar. When Zack realizes his is staring at a Sobrukai Glaive, one of the drone fighters he has been blasting away every night for the last several years he begins to doubt his sanity.

It’s not as if he doesn’t have what he believes to be reasons. Zack has been raised by his mother since his father died in an on the job accident when he was ten months old. In an effort to get to know his dead father Zack had been digging through a treasure trove of his dead Father’s things, movies, books and music that his Father had been into as a teenager and young man. One disturbing thing he had found was one of his Dad’s old journals where his father had speculated with the intensity of someone not entirely stable that there was a government conspiracy to cover up the existence of aliens and that the government was using science fiction books and movies to accustom the population to the existence of said aliens. Perhaps even more shocking was that his Dad believed that the government was using video games to indoctrinate and possibly train people to fight the aliens. Now Zack was presented with evidence that he was headed down the same rabbit hole as his Father was before he died. The idea that his father may have been right didn’t immediately come to him.

Armada shares a lot of the same DNA with Ready Player One. It’s a coming of age story and it’s filled with nostalgic references to geek culture but there are huge differences as well. While Ready Player One has a leisurely pace allowing you to soak up the dystopian near future and really settle into the characters Armada barrels through the narrative like an out of control freight train. You never get a chance to take a breath, the characters don’t either. That’s part of the tension of the story. Zack never gets to fully process information that’s presented to him and is forced over and over to make decisions which out the opportunity to fully reason out his options. Another big difference is the story structure. Ready Player One is a more contemporary story, where Armada follows beat for beat the classic hero’s journey even if it does hit the beats at a break neck pace.

That brings up one of the issues with Armada. Since it is so obviously following the classic hero’s journey motif it makes it difficult to not map the story out as you are reading it and predict the fate for certain characters and other plot points. At least for me though that is countered with a deep resonance with the story. Once you strip out the details this is a story that has been told so many times and in so many ways it is a part of us. It’s like wrapping yourself up on a chilly morning in your favorite blanket. It’s just comforting. Another difference between the two is in how skillfully Ready Player One and Armada weave in the pop culture references. Ready Player One managed to make nostalgia integral to the story. Armada tries but it just doesn’t integrate all of the movie and music references as well. Sure the video game stuff fits in perfectly but many of the music references especially seem a little forced.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two though is the moral and ethical choices that are forced on the protagonists. Right and wrong were pretty clear in Ready Player One, there wasn’t a great ethical dilemma facing the protagonists. It was a case of survive and beat the obvious bad guys. Zack doesn’t get off so easy in Armada. It’s not as obvious who the true bad guys are and how to deal with them. This is something that Zack has to wrestle with. I’ve read through Armada twice now and I still go back and forth wondering whether he made the right choice or not, or the more I think about it I find myself understanding that it’s not so much maybe about whether he made the right or wrong decisions but would I have made those decisions given the same information.

When I add everything up I find an interesting result. As a novel Armada doesn’t quite make it to the same level as Ready Player One, but I’m still thinking about Zack and his decisions. And just so you don’t think it’s because I’ve read Armada now twice in a month, I read Ready Player One again in between the Armada readings. I know I’m splitting hairs here but Ready Player One may be a better novel but Armada might be a better story. Regardless Armada is a novel definitely worth reading and thank you Ernest Cline for giving us a new world and new characters to get to know. Not that I wouldn’t have gobbled up a straight sequel to Ready Player One, but I’m glad you took a chance and gave us something entirely new.