Armada: A tribute to Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Star Wars

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsArmada by Ernest Cline science fiction book reviewsArmada by Ernest Cline

Armada is the sophomore effort from Ernest Cline, who burst onto the SF scene with the wildly-popular Ready Player One, a fun-filled romp through 80s pop culture via a virtual reality game that managed to skillfully depict a dystopian future and also be a rollicking adventure and coming-of-age tale. The secret to Ready Player One’s success was that you could still enjoy it without catching every obscure geek reference, but many readers who grew up in the 80s absolutely loved it.

There’s an old adage about “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so it makes perfect sense for Ernest Cline to go back to the well for another bucketful of nerdy 80s gamer trivia and ladle on generous helpings of references to every alien-invasion video game and movie you’ve ever heard of, plus all the other ones you didn’t know (but the author is happy to tell you about). This time the references are heavily weighted towards space combat games, so we get an endless stream of descriptions of different fighter types, mechs, particle beams, disruptors, droids, dreadnoughts, etc. If you like that stuff, you’re in the right place. If not, you may need to look elsewhere.

The storyline itself heavily echoes the successful formula of Ready Player One. Our young protagonist Zack Lightman is a gaming geek high-schooler close to graduation who doesn’t have any concrete career plans but currently works at the local video game store. He is one of the top 10 players of Armada, a space-alien invasion combat game, and plays constantly with his buddies. He has been raised by a single mom, since his 19-year-old father died in an explosion at a waste treatment plant. One day, while daydreaming at school, he looks out the window to see an alien fighter ship similar to those of The Last Starfighter zipping around outside. Of course, nobody else sees it but Zack is sure it’s real…

Similar to Ready Player One, our protagonist is a kick-ass gamer who suddenly discovers his seemingly-useless skills are suddenly needed, in this case to save the world from an impending alien invasion. He is a high school nerd but has some close friends. One of his rival gamers turn out to be a cute Tank Girl gamer-chick who has lots of wise cracks but they eventually connect through shared respect for each other’s game skills and geek knowledge.

Though Armada follows the same basic formula as its predecessor, there are two major differences. First, it is set in the current world, which is far less interesting than the resource-depleted dystopian future of Ready Player One. Second, it does not feature the massive virtual reality world of OASIS that dominates the storyline of Ready Player One. Instead, the vast majority of Armada’s pages are devoted to how Zack Lightman and other hot-shot gamers are recruited into the EDA (Earth Defense Alliance) to fight the alien invaders (based on Jupiter’s moon Europa, a reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two), and their early training is a clear tribute to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

Zack and his fellow trainees are thrown straight into real combat (though they control their ships remotely so they can survive to fight again if their ships are destroyed). They find themselves outnumbered by the enemy and the situation looks dire. But humanity is not such a pushover, and Earth mobilizes its defenses for a massive space and land battle to repel the alien invasion. Just when you think you know exactly how this will play out, there are some inexplicable anomalies in the aliens’ strategy that only Zack and another character recognize, and it’s up to them to prevent humanity from making a fatal mistake…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOverall, Armada is an entertaining story for anyone who likes video games, 80’s trivia, alien invasions, extensive space and ground combat sequences, a wise-cracking teenager protagonist, and plucky gamer buddies. However, as the plot is heavily weighted towards combat game trivia, I think the target readership is far narrower than for Ready Player One, since that story is fun to read for anyone who grew up in the 80s, whereas you had to be a hard-core gamer to really appreciate all the details of Armada.

I’m sure most fans know that Steven Spielberg is slated to direct the film version of Ready Player One, and that the screenplay has been completed by Zack Penn, but there will be a lot of hurdles getting the rights to use the hundreds of references to movies, music, games, books, etc. In addition, there is the added challenge of translating the virtual reality of OASIS to the screen without losing the human story. In many ways, Armada is a book that would translate to film much more easily, and could be the ultimate mashup of Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens, Ender’s Game, etc.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to fan favorite Wil Wheaton (who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation), since he does an excellent job with the audiobook narration for Armada (ditto for Ready Player One). He is simply the perfect voice for a teenage gamer geek (I mean that as a compliment) — he imbues his characters with the proper reverence for every reference in Cline’s copious arsenal. They are an excellent team, and I had no idea Wil Wheaton actually had a small part in The Last Starfighter back in 1984! Now that’s what I call serious geek credibility.

~Stuart Starosta


Armada by Ernest Cline science fiction book reviewsThey say a writer should stick to what they know, but isn’t writing the same book twice taking the old adage a bit too far? Ready Player One was one of the standout science fiction novels of the past few years, so it’s natural that Ernest Cline should trust his previous formula. In Ready Player One we had the teenage protagonist who excelled at gaming. Oh hey, just like Armada. Then there was the wise-cracking hot gamer girl love interest… just like Armada. And then the race against time to complete the task that only the protagonist’s seemingly useless gaming skills and knowledge of 1980s trivia could win! Sort of exactly identical to… yeah, you get the picture.

Zack Lightman is your regular run-of-the-mill high school kid who’s about to graduate. One day, bored in class, he glances out of the window and sees a UFO that looks like it’s come straight out of The Last Starfighter. Thinking he’s going insane like his deceased father before him, Zack tries to persuade himself that he’s playing too many video games. He vows to stop — after one final challenge on the space shooting game, Armada. He turns up to school the next day only for a space shuttle belonging to the Earth Defence Alliance, an organisation that’s been using the game Armada to train young gamers in their fight against real aliens, to pick Zack up.

Said aliens come from Europa and are called Europans (or, as one character repeatedly keeps calling them, Europeans. This was, to Cline’s credit, a rare funny moment in Armada). Zack and a motley crew of gamers are recruited to save planet Earth. Enter the love interest, Lex. She is eerily reminiscent of the female protagonist from Ready Player One. As a character, she’s pretty two-dimensional and seems to be there purely as a projection of Cline’s own fantasies. He evidently likes his sassy gamer girls. Someone should point him in the direction of George R.R. Martin so he can see how a strong, convincing female character ought to be written.

There are various twists and turns that are on the whole pretty unsatisfactory just because you can see them coming a mile off. But it’s not poor plotting that let the book down. Whilst the pop culture references were prevalent in Ready Player One, they were, on the whole, unobtrusive and didn’t detract from what was essentially an excellent and original concept. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Armada. The prose is so thick with geek culture references it’s difficult to find the story line. Zack’s experiences are not described, merely compared to those of characters before him.

I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y- and X-Wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Ender Wiggin arriving at Battle School. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.

Younger readers are going to be alienated by these references, and older readers aren’t going to have the patience to wade through an entire book of trivia. I was so, so ready to like this book — especially as Ready Player One has been one of the best science fiction books I’d read in years — but it seems Cline is his own worst enemy. With a predecessor like Ready Player One, I can’t help feeling he should’ve written Armada first.

~Rachael McKenzie

Published on July 14, 2015. 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? At once gleefully embracing and brilliantly subverting science-fiction conventions as only Ernest Cline could, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming of age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one whose every page is infused with the pop-culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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RACHAEL “RAY” MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well — a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette — those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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13 comments

  1. Reading this review made me nostalgic for some good 1980s sci-fi cheesiness–I think I need to go re-watch The Last Starfighter!

  2. Jana, would you believe I somehow had never seen The Last Starfighter when I was a kid? So I watched it to prepare for reading Armada, and oh my god that may be the cheesiest SF film I have EVER seen. I can only imagine what I would have thought as a 9-year old, but then I did like Legend, Krull, Tron, Neverending Story, Princess Bride, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Star Trek, Ender’s Game (the book, which is still great), 2010: Odysessy Two, Buckaroo Banzai, Dune, etc. Okay, I guess I am a geek after all…

  3. So what I’m hearing is “Read Ready Player One, and then decide if you want to read Armada.” Which, since that’s what I was going to do anyway, sounds great to me!

    Also, apparently I need to see The Last Starfighter ASAP. Which I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen either :X Whoops.

  4. Stephen, that’s exactly right – read Ready Player One first! Armada is a little more gamer-oriented, but you can still enjoy it. I actually don’t think you need to see The Last Starfighter, since it was pretty terrible and Armada didn’t rely on the storyline nearly as much as I expected.

    • To be fair, I mostly say that so I have a clue what people are talking about, haha :D Though I also know my backlog is crazy big, so I’ll be lucky enough to find the time for Ready Player One. An old cheesy movie is significantly lower on the list, alas!

  5. It will be interesting to see what he does with his next one, if he’ll branch out, or continue mining the vein of 1980s pop culture.

    • I’d like to see him do something totally different. 1980s pop culture as it was experienced by white male nerds isn’t as rich a vein as people seem to think.

      • I just hope he has something else in the tank. Ready Player One was full of praise for 80s creativity, but didn’t seem to have much creative ambition of its own. It was pretty much pure cultural veneration, less “there was this great thing and this is what I want to do with it” and more just “there was this great thing… remember?”

  6. Wow, like totally harsh, dude! But, I can’t argue with the logic. For me, RPO was great because it combined 80s nerd trivia with a dystopian future America and a MMORPG that was different. But dipping right back into the 80s well was like getting backwash from your friend’s Tab soda. Just stale.

  7. I didn’t love RPO for exactly this reason: “Younger readers are going to be alienated by these references, and older readers aren’t going to have the patience to wade through an entire book of trivia.”

    The level of the writing seemed sophomoric which would be fine for a teenage audience loving the in-house references, but those of us around in the 80’s are in our 40s now and it seems a bit late for that. Plus, as a grown-up nerd girl, I think I’ve had enough stories (and real life experiences) about how we are viewed by our male counterparts. We are real people too, not just repositories for your expectations of female perfection!

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