Ernest Cline’s second published novel isn’t a sequel to the critically acclaimed Ready Player One in any conventional sense, but it does share more than a few similarities. In both novels we see a zero become the hero. Video games are essential to the overall story, and nostalgia from pop culture is heavily referenced throughout. Armada is a much faster paced story than Ready Player One though, and much of its threads require more time to settle than they are actually allowed before the story moves along. In many ways Armada is a bigger book in scope than Ready Player One, but that’s a given only in the sense that it requires a far grander scope than its predecessor.
We get it, Ernie. You like video games. Like, a lot. I mentioned it above, but not only are video games essential to Armada, they’re the key to saving the day. And this is fine. It’s become Cline’s writing style to incorporate things he loves into the story. As a reader it would have been a disappointment of a second novel if he didn’t exude pop culture references on each page. Thankfully it wasn’t nearly as heavy as in Ready Player One. Instead, it was far more balanced alongside the more emotional turns the novel took us through.
Zack Lightman is a normal senior in high school, whose only real goal is to play video games and help run a local game shop. He’s one of the greatest gamers of his generation, ranking #6 in the world in Armada, an advanced near-future VR game about defending the earth from an alien invasions. His father was a video game geek back in the day, but died when Zack was only a babe. His mother was left to raise him alone. Zack’s entire life as he knows it is about to change, and it all begins when he sees a UFO outside his window at school; the same alien ship he is used to destroying nearly every day in the video game Armada.
The book never has a dull moment, something rare for any novel, but much of the big revelations can be guessed early on. Not all of them, no, but the novel leaves blatant clues as to the outcome of the novel’s twists and turns throughout it’s length, and it’s written in a way that you feel obligated to guess at them. My biggest disappointment on this front was the absence of any real consequence of the fabled Phaëton game that receives such an intriguing introduction early on. I was pleasantly surprised to discover an even cooler ending, once everything was said and done. Don’t worry, this isn’t a recreation of Ender’s Game – you’ll definitely assume it is at some point.
The book’s best aspect to me was its ability to make the frankly ridiculous seem credibly plausible. Although by no means is the near future world Zack lives in an ideal one, it’s one I wouldn’t mind. Ernest Cline’s ability to shake up the mundane, to place real, life-altering meaning into video games, was just such an awesome concept to me. Some of the imagery does get exhausting, particularly when describing some of the video game warfare, but even then Cline paints a vivid world.
Armada is an awesome book, but it doesn’t always ring as true as it probably should. The characters are only fleshed out enough that you feel you know them, but not enough to feel for them. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the writer of Ready Player One, but it doesn’t appear that he’s grown any as a writer. You could take any paragraph in this book and it wouldn’t feel entirely out of place in its predecessor. But again, that’s okay. Ernest Cline is the only writer who can truly deliver a novel with as much nostalgic adventure and absurd fun as this. Keep those novels coming. And let Wil Wheaton continue narrating. He does an excellent job.