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by Ernest Cline
Crown, Hardcover, $26, 368 pp
Published July, 2015

What a disappointment.

Cline’s follow-up to his 2011 paean to ’80s pop culture, Ready Player One, attempts to recreate that novel’s snarky celebration of geekdom and falls flat. Ready Player One felt new. Armada is just rehashing the same tricks to increasingly diminishing returns.

Plucky teenage hero obsessed with the ’80s? Check! Zack Lightman is a hardcore gamer who is one of the best in the world at the spaceship simulator “Armada.” His father died when he was still a baby, so he attempts to reconnect with his father’s life by obsessing over the things his father loved — you guessed it: ’80s pop culture. So, despite being 18 in the year 2017, his favorite band is Queen and he has movies like Say Anything memorized.

When a spaceship lands in the parking lot of his school, however, he finds out that “Armada” isn’t just a game, it is a training and recruiting tool for a worldwide space force, operating in secret against an invading alien menace. And Zack’s prowess qualifies him to be an elite officer in the fleet!

It’s Ender’s Game. Or The Last Starfighter. Zack even snarks about the comparisons — the existence of that book and movie (along with every other sci-fi book, movie and video game from the past 50 years) is part of a global conspiracy to make society comfortable with the idea of an alien invasion.

And through this world Zack blithely goes, defeating the aliens and saving humanity, all the while quoting Star Wars and “Leeroy Jenkins!” while listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures.

Playing spot the reference was kind of fun in Ready Player One, although Cline has a tendency to make his reference then expound upon it, like Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. It’s almost like he’s measuring your rank in fandom and looking down on you. There is a definite air of superiority to his pop culture asides, like this celebration of the movie Iron Eagle.

The hero of   Iron Eagle   is an Air Force brat named Doug Masters who learns to pilot an F-16 by cutting class to sneak into the base flight simulator—really just an incredibly expensive videogame. Doug is a natural pilot, but only if he’s rocking out to his favorite tunes. When his dad gets shot down overseas and taken captive, Doug steals two F-16s and flies over to rescue him, with a little help from Lou Gossett Jr., his Walkman, Twisted Sister, and Queen.

The result was a cinematic masterpiece—although sadly, it appeared to be recognized as such by me alone.

But the pop culture references are all that hold Armada together. The plot is predictable and paper-thin with little to no tension or surprises.

The same thing could be said about Ready Player One, honestly, but that at least had heart.

Armada has a gaping plot hole instead.

And this is my biggest beef with the novel. Ignoring the implausibility of a 21st Century millennial whose only cultural touchstones are 30 years old, his father is portrayed as being 19 when he died in the year 2000. That would mean he was born in 1980 or 1981.

But he is also an expert at Activision games for the Atari 2600, so good that he was able to send in photos of his high scores and get special award patches from Activision (another one of Cline’s “see how much I know about video games” moments.)

Activision stopped making Atari games in 1983.

So he was either the most talented video-gaming toddler, or he was the subject of intense mockery because he was playing an Atari 2600 when all of his friends were playing NES, or, more likely, Sega Genesis (he would have been about 12 when that system came out).

I don’t buy that one bit.

It’s fine that Cline loves the ‘80s (his promo shots often have him lounging on the hood of his DeLorean). It’s fine that he wants to share that love. It’s even fine that he gets an air of superiority when he writes about his obsessions; I can act that way myself.

But jeez, if you want to write about someone growing up and loving the ’80s, set the book at a time when it is actually plausible. ~~ Michael Senft

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