Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review - Armada by Ernest Cline


**There may be mild spoilers ahead but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.**

Having never read Ernest Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, I seem to have approached his second book without the preconceived notions I’ve read in most other reviews whining that it was just a rehash. I got to enjoy the sci-fi/fantasy book, movie, TV show, and video game nostalgia of my childhood unfettered of expectations.

Armada, the story of a high school kid turned galactic hero, lets you know early on that it’s a mash-up of Ender’s Game, The Last Starfighter, and a few others. And yet it worked. Zack Lightman, the main protagonist of the story, was for me a refreshing change from the special snowflakes that seem to inhabit a lot of stories these days, all of the chosen ones destined for greatness from birth. Zack is one of many talented people capable of saving the day because they were trained to do so. He’s smart but not smarter than all the grown-ups around him. He has anger management issues. He disobeys orders. He’s an average teenager thrown into an extreme situation and responds as I’d expected the teens of today to react; with skepticism, sarcasm, and hidden awe. I especially enjoyed his relationship with his totally cool mom.

The biggest issue most have with Armada is the name-dropping, or as one reviewer called it, the “cheap pops” of all the 70s and 80s cultural references. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it until I got to the end, to see what direction Cline would go with the conclusion. In the end, they were more than just “an attempt at cleverness” as suggested by A.V. Club’s review. Or trying to be cool or flashing sci-fi “street cred.” I thoroughly enjoyed how the pop culture was part of the plot, how all of our years of consuming the culture were simply preparing the human race to not freak out when aliens do actually show up, like in the many scenes of panic in Independence Day (also referenced in Armada). Cline taps into the language of sci-fi pop culture. Not the obvious quotes that anyone could google, but the minutiae that only true fans obsess over with lines like:

When Zack is contemplating why an alien ship would be in his small town, he thinks, “If there was a bright center to the universe, I was on the planet it was farthest from. Please pass the blue milk, Aunt Beru.”

“And now, like my father before me, I was paying the price for my lack of vision.” In reference to Zack thinking about how he wasted his time playing video games to the point he though he was hallucinating them.

Those aren’t just quotes from Star Wars. They are an immersion into the story and reflecting it into real life as “nerd” culture does. We have our own language and he uses it well to tell this story, like when Zack’s best friends “the Mikes” are debating the merits of Bilbo’s sword Sting versus Thor’s Mjolnir. They are personally invested in the outcome. I also liked how Zack doesn’t blindly trust in how things ended. He has his father’s gift of skepticism in the face of a supposed Utopia.

While the characters all acted as you'd expect of gamers and sci-fi nerds, they were believable, likable, and very diverse in age, race, and gender. I’d definitely recommend this to any sci-fi fan and all of my sci-fi customers at Half Price Books. And I think I’ll need to read it more than once to pick up on things I might’ve missed the first go-round.

Oh, and I almost forgot one more thing. I’ve read several reviews about how it isn’t really a young adult novel because they wouldn’t necessarily get the references. That’s because it wasn’t written to be a YA novel. Just because the protagonist is eighteen does NOT mean it’s YA fiction. “Perks of Being a Wallflower” has a teenage protagonist but that isn’t YA either. It’s literature. You know, like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. 

**I did receive a copy of the book from Crown Publishers (Penguin/Random House) through the Blogging for Books program for an honest review.**

This review will also be posted on my Goodreads account.