The Short Version: Zack Lightman much prefers the videogame worlds he lives in as opposed to the real world but when he sees an actual flying saucer straight out of said videogames, he starts to wonder if he’s losing it. Turns out, that videogame was a training simulator – because the alien invasion is real. And it’s coming today. And Zach just joined up to fight for Earth.
The Review: Ready Player One came out of nowhere, it seemed. It was like nobody knew that a book written by a geek for other geeks could be accessible to everyone – or, perhaps more accurately, nobody stopped to realize that we’re all geeks at the end of the day. I mean, Jurassic World just smashed box office records and let’s not even try to predict how much money the new Star Wars film will rake in – plus Katniss Everdeen and the Avengers? Come on: we’re a bunch of geeks and we know it. And I like to think that Ready Player One has had something to do with more folks embracing their inner geek.
And if you judge by Ernie Cline’s signing line at BEA, a whole lot of folks have embraced their inner geek. It was one of, if not the most intense and epic lines of the convention – and one of the most diverse to boot. So expectations are high, as is the excitement level. It’s like the trailers have all come out and now we’re just waiting and hoping the thing doesn’t suck.
Well I’m happy to report: the thing doesn’t suck. Not even in the slightest. This is exactly the literary summer blockbuster you’re hoping it’s going to be: geeky, funny, action-packed, intelligent, and (most importantly) a whole lot of frakking fun. And talking in movie terms, it really is (or at least should be if there’s any justice in the world) a blockbuster. Everything in it feels enormous and everything is timed for maximum enjoyment. Hell, the soundtrack alone is going to fuel so many reading marathons/gaming marathons/summer drives with the top down. But I’ll get to that.
The action kicks off right away, with our main character (Zack Lightman, an excellent name meant to be added to the sci-fi canon immediately) spotting a flying saucer outside his classroom window. Except it’s not just any flying saucer: it looks exactly like something out of the incredibly popular game that Zack also happens to be incredibly good at called “Armada”. Not surprisingly, this makes him wig out a little bit – but Cline does a wonderful job making it not your ordinary/expected sort of wig-out. Instead, he layers in some teenage uncertainty and allows the moment that ordinarily would spark the fuse of the novel to instead provide some immediate character building. We get a sense of who Zack is, what his life is like, and taking that time is important – because once the plot really does kick in, it’s off like hyperdrive and you’ve just gotta hang on for the ride.
The jacket copy explains a bit of the big question surrounding the novel and while I don’t want to go too much farther into revealing it, it’s one of the novel’s biggest successes so it’s worth discussing. As in Ready Player One, Cline knows his audience – and he knows that his characters are just like his readers: they’ve read the books, seen the movies, listened to the stories. A videogame that trains kids for warfare? Sounds a bit Ender’s Game. The revelation about where the aliens are coming from? I won’t give it away but you’ll know it immediately and think “hey, wait a second…”
And Cline uses this to his advantage, by turning all of it – everything from Star Wars to “Cosmos” to the original ATARI – into a part of the story. He relies on the reader’s knowledge of at least some level of geek culture in order to bolster the universe he’s laying out before us. In lesser hands, it would seem like bad shortcutting, but here it seems like the smartest and coolest conspiracy theory that Mulder never thought of.
Blockbusters do sometimes make sacrifices for their awesomeness, though, and Armada is no exception. There’s a good amount of emotional stuff that occurs throughout, involving Zack’s family as well as his friends and the people he meets during the course of the novel. And war does make people move it along a bit faster than they might ordinarily, when it comes to courtship or big reveals or things like that. But I have to say that I felt like Zack’s emotional arc in the back half of the novel was pushed somewhat to the back seat to make way for the larger plot stuff. The relationship aspects are important to the plot, but they felt like they were there because of the plot at times. As with most summer blockbusters, you can probably guess where certain plotlines are going to go… and it’s absolutely okay that they do, in fact, go there – but there was a bit more of a rush in the latter pages than the first half of the book led me to expect.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I mean, we don’t walk out of blockbusters saying “hey, I really loved the emotional development in the third act.” No, we walk out talking about the jokes or the action sequences or the cool twist on an old theme – and that’s what you’re going to be talking about after you read Armada. If the bigger scope of the novel means there’s a little less of the deep character building that we saw in Ready Player One, that’s okay; Cline is still writing an old school, ass-kicking rock-n-roll sci-fi adventure and he’s doing it with heart and a wink and a laugh. It’s a glorious combination of some of the most lasting sci-fi pop culture moments of the last 40ish years – and Cline pulls off the death-defying feat of paying homage to all of them while adding a brand new one to the list. Get your popcorn, sit in the sun, and have a blast with this one.