You know, I’m not really a huge fan of the science fiction / fantasy genres. I’ve never really enjoyed reading those works and I’m not entirely sure why. I’m fairly a bit better with watching movies in those genres – they’re not my first choice, but I have enjoyed some.
As I said, I’m not entirely sure why I tend to draw back from sci-fi and fantasy. I suppose it may be because one of the things I love best about reading is immersing myself in the world of that book. It’s easier for me to do so when I can imagine myself in world and try
and imagine my own reactions. I guess there’s something about sci-fi and fantasy that feels artificial to me, and somewhat inhibits my enjoyment.
While I’m usually up to trying new things, I tend to be a bit apprehensive when it comes to literature. I usually go with things I know I love: the classics, historical fiction, literary fiction – Yes please! I’ve been branching out a little by taking on some YA in the past few years and this summer, I really wanted to start breaking out of my comfort zone.So, I decided to dip my toe into some sci-fi. I was sent a copy of Ernest Cline’s “Armada” by the publisher. What a perfect time to begin my experiment!
“Armada” centers around a teenager, Zack Lightman, who spends his life playing video games and thinking of the dead father he never had a chance to know. He encounters an alien spacecraft that’s straight out of a video game he plays every day – Armada – and comes to find out that Armada’s not just a game: it’s actually a training simulation designed to find train players to help defend Earth from an alien invasion.
“Armada” is a quick, breezy read. It’s 349 pages and I got through it in less than 24 hours total. I think I read about 2 hours the first day and then finished in about 4 or 5 hours the next day. This was my first experience with Cline, as I’ve not yet read his incredibly popular “Ready Player One” (it’s on my TBR list though!).
I essentially enjoyed “Armada”. The book is written in first person, so the narrative voice is obviously incredibly important. While some people won’t like Zack’s voice and will find him annoying, I actually really liked him. Yes, Zack can be a bit sullen, a bit brash and a bit cocky – but so are many eighteen year old guys. It’s also understandable, given how his father’s death affected him – Zack’s mother never got rid of his father’s belongings, so while Zack has grown up without his father’s physical presence, he has known something of his father. He’s watched his father’s old movies, played his video games, worn some of this clothing…that sort of loss has to affect someone. A little leeway can be given for their attitude.
“Armada” is incredibly heavy on pop culture references and I suspect that this will be a sticking point for a lot of readers. I think that some people will think that it was lazy of Cline to have Zack constantly referencing books, movies and video games, but I actually think it’s a smart thing to do. Given that they’ve not had much life experience, many teens do use pop culture references to explain things. It’s a simple explanation that can be understood by many. I myself did this as a youth and I still do it sometimes. I find that often, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I’m searching for a way to explain things and I think it’s reasonable that Zack, as immersed in video games and science fiction as he is, would do so, as well. To me, the constant pop culture references is a choice that makes sense and works well with the narrative voice of the novel. I do understand how some people will disagree.
The pop culture references also create a distinct problem — if you are unfamiliar with those references, you may have trouble with understanding the full context of the scene or dialogue. As I’ve said, I’m not really a sci-fi kind of person, but I found that I understood the vast majority of the references – I’d seen most of the films mentioned and I had either read or had a working knowledge of the books referenced. There’s nothing too incredibly obscure mentioned. However, if you have absolutely no knowledge of science fiction, you might have a problem and you will probably not enjoy it as much.
The tropes of sci-fi are alive and well in “Armada”. Readers will note a similarity to “Ender’s Game”. Some people may take that similarity and the reliance on pop culture to be a sign of sloppy, lazy writing or a lack of creatively. I don’t.
I think that’s simple to see that Cline is, and I say this with affection, a geek. He’s a geek who loves geekdom. I see “Armada” as an homage, a tipping of the hat to the sci-fi classics that came before it. Which is why I don’t (much) mind some of the things that would typically annoy me. The characters, other than Zack, are not exactly what you would call nuanced. His friends, the Mikes, are clueless but loveable allies who want to help our hero in any way they can. Vance is the official who’s good at the core, but doesn’t really understand the threat faced and won’t listen. Zack’s fellow pilots, Milo, Whoadie, Debbie and Chen complete the rag-tag team of misfits who are do their best to save Earth from destruction. Some even nobly sacrifice their lives for the cause. They aren’t complicated and I don’t think they’re meant to be. I think they’re meant to be the archetypes that we know and love.
I have more complicated feelings towards the ass kicking Lex, the love interest. From the moment she’s introduced, it’s obvious who she is and what she’s going to be. And it’s obvious that she and Zach are going to somehow fall in love (over the course of what’s basically a day) and end up together. She’s basically the sci-fi version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and there’s no real depth to her. That doesn’t make me happy, but looking at it from the perspective of a science fiction trope, it’s easier to swallow.
“Armada”, all in all, is predictable, if you know anything about science fiction. But, it’s such a fun and lovingly done homage to the genre, that it’s easy not to care that’s predictable. I had lots of fun reading it and I’m really glad I did.