Ernest Cline made a big splash with his first novel, Ready Player One, which Spielberg is bringing to film. Cline returns with the same spirit--and a just-as-cinematic-worthy story--in Armada. Zack Lightman is just trying to survive his senior year in high school. He's a top-rated player on the popular game Armada, which consumes much of his time outside of school and his part-time job at the video game store. When not playing Armada, he enjoys the treasure trove left by his father, who died when Zack was a baby. The boxes of his father's old things contain music, movies, and, especially, video games he enjoyed.
At the bottom of one of those boxes of nerd culture artifacts, Zack discovered a journal, in which his father speculates that there is some connection between the video game industry, sci-fi movies, the government, and the military. When a spaceship that looks exactly like a ship on the Armada video game picks Zack up in front of his high school, he learns that his father's seemingly paranoid ravings were right on the money.
Those popular video games were not just video games. They were training simulations, preparing humans to fight the coming alien invasion. As one of the top gamers, Zack is a key recruit for the Earth Defense Alliance. He joins in the fight against an invasion that has been building for years, a desperate fight for the future of the human race.
Like Ready Player One, Armada draws on the world of video games and movies, especially sci-fi, and 80s pop culture. There were plenty of times when I paused my reading to Google a phrase or quote that I didn't recognize. Safe to say Cline is more immersed in nerd pop culture than I am. (There's also a character who quotes Shakespeare. I had to Google those lines, too.)
Armada feels brief and breezy. The story moves along at break-neck speed. Of course it does: Zack's going to school one day, and with hours he's fighting an alien attack at a secret military base. Armada draws explicitly from Ender's Game, Iron Eagle, The Last Starfighter, and other stories and movies. It does not, however, feel like Cline is recycling material. He writes with an original voice, capturing the teenage mind and nerd culture (I hope that phrase does not sound demeaning. I think Cline would be OK with it; he wrote the screenplay for a movie called Fanboys which epitomizes nerd culture. . . .)
Fans of Ready Player One, sci-fi movie lovers, and gamers will love Armada. But the appeal is certainly broader than that. Zack is the underdog, the unlikely hero, the every-teen who rises to the challenge and saves the day. Read it. Don't wait for the (hopefully inevitable) movie.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!