Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it multiple times and the first time I devoured it in a single sitting. So it goes without saying I was very excited about his follow-up, Armada. Unfortunately, while I think it’ll make a great movie, I was ultimately left disappointed.
In Ready Player One, Cline created a world that was both familiar yet wholly unique. Every chapter added to that world in imaginative ways and by the end you were blown away by the magnitude of what you’d just read. Armada is kind of the opposite. It’s about expert video gamer Zack Lightman who is recruited to defend Earth from an alien invasion based on his video game skills. Think The Last Starfighter with some modern twists; there’s more to it but really, if you take that plot to its logical conclusion, that’s basically the story.
Even with that simple set-up, Cline takes his time developing the plot of Armada. Things don’t really kick into gear for 85 pages and in that time, most of the focus is on setting up a fairly familiar world along with Zack’s internal struggle. Once Zack begins to unravel the mysteries, the pace definitely picks up and by the end, the book hums along beautifully. But in a story about a conspiracy where a video game is being used to recruit people to fight an alien invasion, any methodical pacing at all feels like a detriment to the content.
Along the way, Cline drops in his signature pop culture references whenever the situation calls for it. Some of them work, but some of them are immediately explained as if the reader of an Ernie Cline novel wouldn’t get an obvious Star Wars or Lord of the Rings reference. It’s a small thing but when the book is already moving slowly, even the smallest bit of patronizing can be very frustrating. This is an ultra nerdy book but at times, it feels like it doesn’t trust the reader.
Armada does, however, break from the familiar narrative conceit of The Last Starfighter. There are lots of twists along the way, both character- and plot-wise. The scope also ends up getting much bigger than you initially suspect. Still, many of those twists feel slightly telegraphed because you’re reading and thinking “There has to be more to this.” And, of course, there is.
Yet despite these shortcomings, Armada ends up being a mostly worthwhile read. Cline does a great job planting seeds early making for very satisfying payoffs. There are massive action sequences on land, air and in space. He constantly comes up with clever, believable links between our reality and the world of the book. Plus, Zack is a strong, sympathetic and relatable protagonist with plenty of colorful supporting characters around him. It just feels, when compared to Cline’s previous work, some of this is a bit derivative. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a summer book, but Cline himself has made us expect more.
Steven Spielberg is attached to direct a film version of Ready Player One and even he, the legend of legends, is going to have a hard time cracking a story and world that feels too big for even the biggest screen. Armada, on the other hand, feels perfectly suited for the cinema. The story itself takes place over just a few days, it focuses on just one major character, and all of the action is completely believable in a sci-fi way. That ticking-clock plot, central focus and cool but tangible visuals are all movie gold.
Still, everything that happens in 345 pages of Armada feels like something that would’ve happened in three chapters of Ready Player One. The immense detail and explanation adds to your understanding of the themes and character, but they also make an otherwise simple story feel bloated. It may eventually make a great movie but as book, Armada is a good read that doesn’t quite live up to expectations.