Top critical review
So immersed in its genre that it is actually alienating (pun intended)
9 March 2017
Ernest Cline knows Armada is essentially the same thing as The Last Starfighter. He drops enough references to it to make sure we all know that Zack, at least, has seen it a thousand times. And, truth be told, it’s those references that really shoot this one down. There’s just no let up – Cline references just about everything sci-fi related your average (and your not-so average) fan of the genre could come up with, from exclamations of “Great Zod!”, to the constant comic book/fantasy movie related arguments between Zack’s best friends, to the allusions to Ender’s Game, to… well, just about everything. EVERYTHING. It is so constant that it’s hard to focus on anything else. If Ernest Cline hadn’t already been labelled as one of the go-to writers for fans of this genre, this would read like someone’s attempt to sound like a fan, a base attempt to appeal, by simply spouting out anything that sounds like it might be “nerdy” and hope that someone bites.
And herein lies the major problem with Armada. It is so immersed in its genre that it is actually alienating. (pun totally intended.)
Zack and his friends (and others in the book) become caricatures of gamers, and instead of honing in on specific interests, they’re simply interested in anything and everything that the stereotype of the gamer/nerd/geek/whatever might like and they do not stop talking about it. A story about white males with, initially at least, no girlfriends, spending an exorbitant amount of time playing video games and debating whether Sting is a better weapon than Mjolnir. Sound familiar? The only difference between what Cline has given us and what we might see in a bad teenage movie is that the nerds don’t always have girl problems, spots, and strong prescription glasses. No one is saying you can’t like all these things – I, for one, came pretty damn close – but they don’t permeate every single aspect of your existence the way Cline seems to paint it. There is passionate and then there is this.
I’m not even going to touch on the end-of-the-world-sex (in which they’re actually all genuinely attracted to each other – oh come on, just show it for the last ditch attempt at having fun that it is, Ernest, we’re okay with that!), the dream gamer girls that hook up with various gamer guys or, (exasperated sigh) punk princess Lex, because I’m likely to descend into a stuttering feminist mess, but suffice it to say: You should know what to expect when you walk into this inevitably problematic and male-dominated genre. Sad, but oh so true.
I will say that the in-game sequences are done quite well. They’re fun and fast paced for the most part, though the detail switches between the overbearing and the curiously absent – it’s hard sometimes to picture exactly what happened, either because too much has happened or, inversely, not enough. That being said, I’m not a real strategy gamer, like the characters in this book (more a “I am going to shoot everything and everyone!” kind of girl), so maybe that was more the type of gaming that I do than anything else.
But I am someone that goes in for story and I found that part lacking too. The concept is a solid one. We know this because it’s been done before (and better). But the execution in Armada is pretty poor. Perhaps it’s too short of a book to really have explored what was going on or to have developed the characters to a point where I actually cared what happened to them (instead of willing them to just stop quoting Firefly for 30 seconds). For instance, Zack’s dark side, the violent streak that’s alluded to two or three times, was never explored or even particularly relevant to the plot, only used as yet another way to link him to his father.
One of things that has always endeared a lot of fantasy and a lot of science fiction to me is that, action and adventure aside, there was always heart. And while there are attempts at this (presumably through the use of pop culture references in lieu of actual emotions) it’s still very lacking here. The characters were clearly designed to be the sort of people I could get along with. But it turns out that all we’d probably end up doing is having end-of-the-world-sex on the moon and then dying so that some guy can save the world. Again.
*Copy received from Blogging for Books program in exchange for review*