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Armada by Ernest Cline

Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?

By anyone’s standards Ready Player One was pretty damn successful, and rightly so. I’d imagine trying to follow that up must have been one hell of a job, and I expect the pressure alone must have been almost crippling. Anything that comes after a book that big was always going to be the literary equivalent of ‘that difficult 2nd album’. Ernest Cline has taken the bull by the horns and is back with his second novel. The big question is – does it deliver, or is it a dud?

Zack Lightman is an everyman character. He’s average in just about every conceivable way. He doesn’t excel in school, has some unresolved anger management issues due to the untimely death of his father, and longs for something to break the monotony in his life. It comes as a bit of a surprise however, when that something turns out to be an alien invasion with the potential to destroy life as we know it. Can a computer geek really be the best hope for the entire planet? I liked Zack immediately. He is exactly what you would expect from a teenager; sometimes angry at the whole world, and then a split second later cripplingly insecure. I’m getting on a bit now, but that sounds vaguely like what being a teenager was like for me. Admittedly I never, to my knowledge, had an alien invasion to contend with. Zack is forced to face all of his issues head on in the most spectacular baptism of fire you are ever likely to read. I can’t imagine I’d fare any better than him, probably far worse if I’m honest.

I expect that there will be inevitable comparisons between Armada and Ready Player One. Both books use nineteen eighties references as key plot points. I’ll be honest, I adored Ready Player One. I’m a man child of a certain age and the subtle, and not so subtle, nods to the media I devoured in my childhood were an absolute joy. I am already excited at the prospect of Cline’s debut novel making the leap to the big screen. It will hardly be a surprise then when I tell you that Armada pushes many of the same emotive buttons. If you’ve ever seen Top Gun, Star Wars*, The Last Starfighter or Iron Eagle then the combat scenes alone will feel comfortably frenetic and familiar. You’ll also no doubt hear the strains of Freddie Mercury while you read along.

Cline is obviously a fan of the action and science fiction of the era, and he is all about referencing it whenever he is given the opportunity. I’d imagine that Armada will be literary marmite to many. That’s a lie, I know it is already dividing opinion. I don’t really think there is much in the way of middle ground. You’ll either love this book or loathe it. Personally, I’m a raging sentimentalist so it worked for me on just about every level. My only complaint is that, with the exception of Zack, most of the characters get pretty short shrift. Not a massive problem I suppose, but it would have been nice to see Zack’s friends and family developed further. These are the people he is fighting for after all.  

I suppose the real question is who should be reading Armada? That’s an easy one. There are three simple tests you can carry out to determine if this is the book for you.

(1) From a full on geek perspective does the day between May 3rd and May 5th hold any special significance?

(2) Is the following quote even vaguely familiar?

Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.

(3) Have you ever called someone, or been called, – Maverick, Goose or Iceman?

If you can answer positively to any or all of these questions then the resounding answer to the question is YOU. You are the person who should be reading Armada.  

Perhaps not quite as revelatory as Ready Player One, Armada still does a good job of peppering the narrative with a plethora of geeky references, and it contains more action than you can shake a big pointy stick at. On top of that, there is a nice coming of age story and a top notch soundtrack to boot. Works for me.

Armada is published by Century and is available from 16th July. If you are looking for full throttle science fiction entertainment with a nice nostalgic video game vibe then look no further.

*If you haven’t seen Star Wars then I’ll safely assume you are not of this Earth. Welcome to the planet, please don’t destroy us (at least not until the new slate of Star Wars movies have been released).


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