RogerBW's Blog

Armada, Ernest Cline 16 August 2017

2015 science fiction. Zack Lightman is a dreamer and geek with anger management problems. But his video gaming skills are going to be needed to fight off a real alien invasion. Spoilers.

The basic idea here is straight from The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game, but audaciously expanded: since the 1970s, there's been a massive conspiracy attempting to prepare the people of Earth to resist alien invasion, by feeding alien-fighting messages into video games and popular culture in general. (And alien-befriending messages too, which makes perfect sense because um.) The culmination of this is a massively multiplayer first-person cross-platform space shooter called Armada, and its earthbound cousin Terra Firma, which are direct simulations of the operation of the fleet of combat drones that the secret Earth Defense Alliance has been building. And Zack is one of the top-rated players in Armada

The real problem here is one of tone. Is this meant to be whizz-bang space action, or something more thoughtful? A subplot that Cline points out early on is that the alien invasion plan doesn't make sense, and he goes even further, putting this in the mouth of one of the characters:

"Does any of this feel like something that could happen in real life to you? Or do events seem to be unfolding the way they would in a story, or a movie? Perfectly timed for dramatic effect?"

and indeed that's key to the eventual resolution, but my thought was, well, you've just gone in a matter of minutes from despised video-game geek to respected pilot, your Dad didn't die in an embarrassing way but is a secret military hero, and a hot new girlfriend has just fallen into your lap. I've read more interesting wish-fulfilment fantasies, and large chunks of this book show their Young Adult scaffolding all too clearly, especially Zack's relationship with the shade, and then the actuality, of his father. (And particularly in the way said father dies at the climax, in a way that Cline tries to make heroic but which just comes over as a pointless sacrifice to Make Zack Grow As A Person.)

Yes, Dad has been believed to be dead for most of Zack's seventeen years, and his not-really-memory accounts for the way that, just as in Ready Player One, our young hero is obsessed with 1980s pop culture and describes everything (yes, everything) with reference to it – which doesn't explain why his friends apparently do too. In the earlier book that was moderately amusing. Here it feels dreary, and like an attempt to borrow the emotional weight that other, better, writers and filmmakers have built up without doing any of the actual work. If you're the sort of person who saw the trailer for The Force Awakens and thought "hey, Han Solo will be in this, that's wonderful in and of itself whatever they do with the character" then this is may be a book for you. Even when Zack first sees the hangar of space fighters, he can't manage to manifest any feelings of his own:

In that moment, I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-Wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica's flight deck. Ender Wiggin arriving at Battle School. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.

But this wasn't a fantasy. I wasn't Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Ender Wiggin or anyone else. This was real life. My life.

Cline still seems to be of the view that people who recognise SF references are rare and special, rather than noticing that big SF properties have become mainstream and their merchandising nearly as much so: thinking someone is a "kindred spirit" because they have a flask that looks like R2-D2 might have worked in the 1990s, but it really doesn't now.

Zack doesn't help matters by being fairly thoroughly unsympathetic: he's dismissive of his few friends (even the one who's actually worked out exactly what's going on when Zack is still busy whining), absorbed in his own problems, and prone to outbursts of temper whenever he hears something he doesn't like. The other characters are cardboard; new hot girlfriend is a pure fantasy figure (she's into the 80s too, for absolutely no reason that's ever mentioned), and the friends argue endlessly about which superhero could beat which other. Meh.

Oh, by the way, it's a really big conspiracy:

Everything I'd ever been told or taught about the state of the world had been a lie. I'd grown up believing that despite our aspirations, humans were still just a bunch of bipedal apes, divided into arbitrary tribes that were constantly at war over their ruined planet's dwindling natural resources. I'd always assumed that our future would end up looking more like Mad Max than Star Trek. But now I was forced to see our rampant fossil fuel consumption—and our seeming disregard for its effect on our already-changing climate—in an entirely new light. We hadn't used up all of our oil and ravaged our planet in a mindless pursuit of consumerism, but in preparation for a dark day that most of us hadn't even known was coming.

and later

You're looking at the real reason for the recent global financial crisis—all of human civilization's technology, industry, and natural resources have been leveraged to the hilt in our effort to ensure that we have the firepower necessary to repel the invaders' superior numbers and advanced weaponry.

To me that's gone over the edge from "barely-sustainable but amusing fantasy" into "rampant paranoia".

The actual tech rather falls down too. Has Cline ever actually played a multiplayer combat game or MMO on a public server? There are lots of good players, but there are even more idiots who think it's funny to attack their own side or go off doing their own thing rather than sticking to what little tactics can be planned. And this is apparently the best possible way to do the job.

The drones are controlled by a quantum communicator that eliminates light-speed lag (somehow). OK. There's a special alien superweapon, the disrupter [sic], which blocks all quantum communication on and immediately around a planet, if and only if both ends of the link are inside the disrupter's area of effect. (It also blocks all radio, but apparently not light, because um.) If you can't think of a way round that within a few seconds… apparently you're Ernest Cline, because his answer is to build an utterly pointless moonbase mostly so that Our Hero can travel to it and see The Grim Reality Of War.

Oh, and the disrupter craft is shaped like a dodecahedron, we're told repeatedly:

"That's one of our nicknames for a Disrupter now," Shin said, nodding at the spinning black dodecahedron on the screen. "A Black Betty. Or a 'ten-sider.'"

Oh dear.

The aliens have sent probing attacks every 399 days, when Europa (Jupiter) and Earth are closest. But if you have tech that can cross the distance in a matter of sixteen hours (needing a constant 77-gravity boost which nobody seems to notice or care about), planetary alignment really doesn't matter.

Then there's just casual sloppiness, like repeated phrases (the curse of writing with a word processor and then not reading through the final version), and elementary errors of number:

He pulled himself down the corridor, until he reached a charging dock where five dormant ATHIDs were stored. He opened up the maintenance access panels one at a time and entered a long code on each one, and then all four of them powered up.

Oh, the pop culture references include music, and one of Dad's mix tapes is terribly significant. Which might have worked better if there hadn't been a wildly popular film with that theme which came out the year before this book. Futurama did this better in Anthology of Interest II in 2002: "All right. It's Saturday night. I have no date, a two-litre bottle of Shasta, and my all-Rush mixtape. Let's rock."

It's all desperately predictable: just assume the most clichéd possible resolution, and that's what you'll get. Or just don't waste your time.

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