At last, Ernest Cline, best-selling author of Ready Player One, has released his second novel, Armada. RPO was so fun to read, and so perfectly constructed, that its follow-up was bound to be disappointing. And darn it, it is. The main thought I had all through Armada was, “Gee, Ready Player One was so good…”
Ready Player One took the geek world by storm in 2011. Chances are excellent that if you’re here, reading Sequart, you love not only comics but also science fiction, prog rock, gaming in all forms, and/or fantasy; this is the galaxy where we find our bliss. RPO focused particularly on pop-cultural treasures of the 80s: Rush and Duran Duran albums, John Hughes movies, Wargames, Tempest, the Zork text-only computer games, Pac-Man, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Nintendo, Black Dragon. I, born in 1964 and a teenager/young adult through the 80s, am the Platonically perfect audience for RPO.
Cline’s story is set in 2044, in a plausibly dystopian near future. Pollution, overcrowding, poverty, and climate change have continued another few decades on their current trajectories, and the results are ugly. Most Americans live miserably in trailer stacks like the one pictured here.
An overarching, universally used virtual reality program called the OASIS provides both entertainment and more practical services: all manner of immersive videogames, of course, but also virtual settings for most schools, offices, and other worksites. In short, 2044 is much like 2011, only more so. Real life is ugly, and/so the OASIS makes it bearable.
Reclusive James Halliday, brilliant and eccentric inventor of the OASIS, combines the tech-related money of a Bill Gates, the inventiveness of a Steve Jobs, and the gee-whiz love for popular culture of a George Lucas. He has promised his entire fortune to anyone who can find his puzzles on the OASIS and solve them. An entire generation of “gunters”—“Easter egg hunters””gunters”—correctly presume that the clues are hidden in the pop-cultural artifacts from the 1980s that Halliday loves dearly. So RPO’s characters immerse themselves in 80s culture, thereby immersing us readers with them. Both the setting and the competition motivate this focus. Eighties nostalgia proves integral to the plot, necessary, fitting.
In Armada, Cline provides even more pop-culture references, not limited by decade. Here the plot is set roughly in the present, and it revolves around alien-invasion scenarios specifically, so every even tangentially related example you can think of receives mention: all the various versions of War of the Worlds, the various Star Trek TV series and movies, Star Wars episodes 1-6, The Last Starfighter, Independence Day, the X-Files, and oh so many videogames. The title Armada refers to a fictional space combat simulator enjoyed, MMO-style, by millions around the world. Additional millions enjoy its predecessor, which simulates human-alien ground combat. Our hero Zack Lightman boasts the #6 Armada world ranking, though (because?) he’s an eighteen-year-old videogame addict. His mother plays Armada, and World of Warcraft, when she can, when she’s not working. Zack’s father had been killed when Zack was just an infant, but during his short life he’d racked up many many hours obsessing over assorted now-vintage sci-fi videogames, novels, shows, and movies. Zack inherits both his obsessions and the artifacts themselves.
Not only are the pop-culture references more inclusive in scope, they’re also more frequent. I didn’t count the full number, because frankly that’s a lot of boring labor, but there must surely be about double the pop-culture reference count per page. Twice someone quotes Obi-Wan Kenobi during a farewell scene: “The Force will be with you. Always.” One character’s dying words manage to echo Duke Nukem, The Wrath of Khan (itself recalling Moby-Dick), and Galaxy Quest (itself recalling Star Trek: The Next Generation and other works):
“Come get some!” I heard [X] shouting, his voice strangely gleeful. I could hear the sound of him rapidly firing his QComm’s wrist laser. “Who wants some? From hell’s heart I stab at thee, assholes! By Grabthar’s hammer, you shall—”
This multilayered, multi-work quotation begins to indicate the ultimately unsatisfying quality of all this intertextuality. One Twitter user summed it up in < 140 characters thus:
Reading Armada, you can’t help thinking how much effort it would take to throw so many references into the book. You imagine Cline strategizing: “Hmm, people really liked that stuff in Ready Player One; let’s give ‘em even more!” In RPO the plot demanded it; in Armada it feels considerably more gratuitous.
This suspicion is enhanced by the “unstable” status of many of the references. To explain: consider The X-Files, one of Armada’s major touchstones. (I can say without spoiling anything that, for example, one important clue is hidden behind an “I Want to Believe” poster that, Cline unnecessarily reminds us, is exactly like Fox Mulder’s.) The X-Files messes with viewers all the time. We finally receive “proof” that–“A-ha! Alien abduction has actually been happening all along!” Then, we’re yanked back; we experience a forcible “remove,” a revelation that the clear picture which had been so painstakingly assembled is actually not the whole picture. So now: “A-ha! You thought it was alien abduction—but that was just to draw attention away from the real plot, which is government genetic manipulation of innocent citizens!” And so on. Every time the full picture comes together, we’re forced to reinterpret everything that came before in light of new information. Interpretation is never done; there’s always another remove.
I submit that watching a show like that, or in Armada’s case reading a book like that, is at first fun but ultimately frustrating. The first couple removes, or twists, my jaw drops: “Wow, you really got me! I did not see that coming!” Then I start to feel like a) the removes never end, which means b) the writers/showrunners are making this s**t up as they go along, and consequently c) I’m being jerked around a lot and it’s not fun any more. If you watched Lost through to the end, I’m willing to make a substantial bet that you felt this way at its conclusion.
Again, Armada works like this: build build build REMOVE! Build build build REMOVE! I’m going to include a few details now to show how this works. If you don’t want to see any spoilers, just skip over this short section beginning and ending with a row of $$$$s.
The book begins with the premise that Zack Lightman’s dad was a huge sci-fi fan with a deranged theory. Smart guy—too bad he was crazy.
But wait! His theory wasn’t deranged at all: he really did put together what’s happening with alien-human contact, preparations for war, and an invasion of earth. He was totally right!
So Zack didn’t hallucinate that alien scout ship right out of Armada—it was really there! Right outside his window at school!
Because: that videogame Zack is really good at? It’s real, accurate training (just like in The Last Starfighter, which is duly and frequently mentioned), so Zack is a real-world ace combat pilot!
But wait! That human-alien war? It starts today! Here comes an “Earth Defense Alliance” ship to take Zack away to fight!
But wait! Turns out, Zack’s dad is actually alive, and a general in this war! He’s also—ta-da!—the #1-ranked Armada pilot in the world!
But wait! He has a theory, which the other EDA officers scoff at, that the aliens are up to something else, and the coming war is unnecessary and suicidal!
But wait! And so forth…
When a plot keeps jerking the audience through removes like this, it ultimately has only two alternatives. One is to just go on with the removes forever. This of course isn’t viable: books have to end; TV and movie series can’t continue indefinitely (Star Wars and Star Trek notwithstanding). The other is to wrap up the story tidily—to assert that here is the end of the story and the interpretation. But when the whole rest of the plot has proved itself fundamentally unstable and incomplete—when as audience members we’ve perforce developed a habit of refusing to jump to interpretive conclusions—frankly, it’s just hard to buy into a new, imposed stability. It feels artificial, cheap, and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, that describes Armada.
Armada does end, so clearly it doesn’t employ the first alternative. You can probably guess at the particulars of the “happily ever after” without my spoiling them. Ready Player One ended happily ever after too, but in that case, the plot demanded it: puzzle-clue-solution-done. In Armada, there’s finally just one remove too many. It’s worth reading, but it’s not Ready Player One. If I could do it over, I’d just go reread the latter instead.