Armada by Ernest Cline – A Comparative Review
Yesterday I wrote a review of Armada by Ernest Cline, the hard to describe alien-invasion book set with a full pop-culture background of alien invasion. Because of all the pop culture references, it’s a difficult story to judge on its own merits. Even worse, as you can see from just about any version of its cover or all over its page on Amazon, this is the second book from the guy who brought us Ready Player One.
So the most obvious comparisons are between Armada and Ready Player One. They are both chock full of nostalgia and pop culture and use all of that to very specific, plot-relevant purpose. I know I at least was left asking which one of these two was better – more on that below!
However, even while I listened to the audio book of Armada, I was finishing up reading Childhood’s End by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Though the book itself is not referenced in Armada, Clarke is and they are both absolutely alien invasion stories. So while there’s a lot of pop culture I could compare Armada to, I’m going to go with Childhood’s End because I was reading them at the same time.
And finally, how about a recent comparison? How about Mass Effect? I think there’s some parallels there, although the comparison is back story for Mass Effect, but the whole plot for Armada!
Hopefully between these three I can try to get at a better explanation of what and how Armada is what it is and does what it does. More spoilers than yesterday, so if you’re looking to go light on those, check out that review!
Ready Player One – the Obvious Comparison
Especially since I turned around and listened to Ready Player One right after Armada, I have to say… it’s just not as good. As to why, however, I think that takes some explanation.
Ready Player One was really good. It captured the nostalgic feeling of pop culture, of the things we grew up with, of the games and movies and music and all of that. It’s set in our future, but the pop culture in question is our past – mainly 80’s. So you have a reading audience who feels that nostalgia. But then, it’s history for the characters in the story, and they are experiencing the nostalgia not as their own, but through another character – Halliday – who leaves his estate on the line for whoever can crack his puzzles by knowing all his favorite things the best.
That means that nostalgia is both important to the story, and it is analyzed by the story. Explored and shown from different angles. And we get to experience characters who encountered these things new to them, and who have differing opinions on whether they were good, bad, or important parts of history.
So the surface level response to that is the feeling that Armada is formulaic, which is unfortunate. But it might feel better coming from another author, instead of comparing to the previous novel. In Armada, there’s a really specific subset of popular culture that is important – the alien invasion story, and the space-faring science fiction to come out since about the time of Star Wars.
It doesn’t help that, if we want to talk about the history of cinema and science fiction post-Star Wars, there’s Jodorowsky’s Dune to consider.
So the era moves a bit, to the 70’s more. And even though video games are important, the first novel was far more about gaming, and this one far more about science fiction. But still, variations on a theme still feel like a formula…
But it’s deeper than that, in terms of the comparison. For one thing, the inclusion of the pop culture means something very different. In Ready Player One, the pop culture is both like a textbook to be learned, and a reality to be experienced. In Armada, the pop culture is a government conspiracy to condition the human race to the idea that the aliens are coming. In Ready Player One, the pop culture evokes wonder, joy, and nostalgia. In Armada, the pop culture evokes paranoia, anger, and fear.
In Ready Player One, the stakes are individual, they’re personal. The main character chooses the life of adventure with a specific goal in mind, and it’s hard work. He progresses and develops over time. He levels up. He takes risks. And there are others around him, with similar goals and with their own issues in life, their own progression and attitudes.
As I mentioned yesterday, Armada happens really quickly – like 48 hours maybe? Total? The stakes are the world and all of humanity. So as a book, it hits way harder emotionally, with the high stakes and high costs involved. However, there’s not a lot of time for the characters to develop, to be fleshed out, and in some ways that’s a product of that timeframe. It’s not believable for them to develop much in a short time. They had to develop in advance – indeed, that’s the point of all the pop culture stuff, to get humanity ready to react at a moment’s notice to an alien invasion. And the main character, Zack, doesn’t choose to save the planet – he is our hero’s journey guy, thrust into the role of savior.
So while those story elements and choices all work and make sense, they lead to a much less powerfulstory than Ready Player One. Armada, instead, is more like one of the pop culture science fiction stories that it references – and it’s ironic that it’s not the book being adapted into a movie, as it would translate really simply onto the screen, I think.
One final note, since I brought up the love interest Lex and how she is not a well developed character. While that is partially just a stand-alone statement, it is also something of a comparison to Artemis in Ready Player One, who while she has some similar elements to Lex, is a much better developed character. Again, that could be a product of time more than anything, as there’s not much time for Zack to get to know Lex – and for that reason, I kind of wish Lex had come along, or had somehow been a larger part of the story. However, Artemis is prominent sometimes in her absence in Ready Player One, looming large in the narrator’s mind. So maybe there’s a similar problem at work.
Childhood’s End – the Pop Culture Comparison
It makes sense to compare Armada to at least one classic science fiction title, since decades of science fiction get wrapped up in the government conspiracy that Cline created for the novel. Well, either Cline created it, or just observed it…
Actually, not all alien invasion stories are about a big space war, and that’s something I picked up from Childhood’s End. No, these are the peaceful aliens come to share goodwill and advanced technology. They still impose their rules and purposes on humanity, but there’s no fight we can put up: they outmatch us so completely. They stamp out nations, war, religion, but hey, life is easy with no more scarcity or sickness.
Like a lot of classic science fiction, what Clarke is writing for is this idea – the idea of all problems in life suddenly being solved (through the most expeditious method – suddenly solved by alien intervention). Therefore, the main point is that humanity loses all drive, ambition, and ingenuity at that point – and then what’s the point in living?
Long stretches of time pass, we meet different characters throughout the eras, and the old ones are basically gone. It’s far more about the time-jump exposition, the world changes and effects of what’s happening in the plot. The plot and characters are secondary.
Armada, meanwhile, is way, way more modern. And the modern science fiction is more cinematic, has far more focus on the plot, on the characters. This is part of what makes the book enjoyable, but it doesn’t delve nearly so far into “ideas” territory as classic science fiction does. There is a section at the end jumping ahead to show how things change a bit… but a lot of the potential changes are left as the unknown of the future – not highlighted as the point of the book, like it is in Childhood’s End.
If you really wanted another classic science fiction comparison to Armada, that would be Ender’s Game, since in both it’s a gifted game-playing youth who, through the power of video games, defeats the aliens. Oh, and the government conspiracy to cover the truth of it up. Yeah… Cline definitely draws attention to the parallel with Ender’s Game. He had to, it’s so apparent.
Mass Effect – the Contemporary Comparison
Part of the point of Armada is that more and better and more accurate alien invasion stories have been coming out up to the present, although the most recent ones in the book are all fictional (as in, invented for the book). But I thought of another comparison to the book, from a recent science fiction story: the video game series Mass Effect.
Most especially, in the history of the game (so not a part that you actually play in the game), there was a First Contact War when humanity first encountered aliens. It was mostly a misunderstanding, and it turned out that there was more than one alien species represented on the other end of things. Humanity ends up joining an alliance of peaceful alien species. It is in that galactic political situation that you begin the game.
How about some deeper spoilers after this?
Because it’s more than just Mass Effect that includes a peaceful alien alliance at the end of a first contact war. That’s what ends up happening in Armada, as well. The whole invasion – the lives lost, the danger it posed – was all a test of humanity to see how they would respond. They came in peace, but they did so via war.
So that means, here’s three science fiction alien invasion stories about the aliens coming in peace: Armada, Childhood’s End, and Mass Effect. So as much as Armada builds the narrative of the alien invasion stories that prepare us for the inevitable war, there’s also the thought that they might come in peace.
But that narrative of war, of misunderstanding and lack of ability to communicate, leaves us thinking still that there would probably be war. That encountering aliens is just a dangerous proposition.
So I gave Armada a 7 yesterday, and I think on its own, as a book, it’s probably somewhere like that. I still enjoy Cline’s writing, and as a meta-commentary on the entire sub-genre of alien invasion science fiction, it’s pretty good. That feeling that maybe it’s building to something.
But in comparison to other things, the book is just not up to the level. It’s an entirely passable science fiction novel, but kind of an average one, not a lasting, memorable, or ground-breaking one.
Which unfortunately is probably what people are expecting, as they go into a book which advertises that it’s from the guy who brought us Ready Player One. Because that was a book that gave this amazing vision of a world in ruin, that is living instead in a virtual utopia. They’re both incredibly similar, and incredibly different books.
At this point… what are your thoughts? About alien invasion science fiction, or Cline’s work, or anything else I’ve mentioned. Conversation in the comments below!