Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

armada by ernest clineFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction
Length: 368 pages
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Date Released: July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

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?

My Review:

ready player one by ernest clineIf Ready Player One and The Last Starfighter had a love child, possibly with a little DNA donated from Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, you might end up with something like Armada.

Ready Player One is definitely one of the parents for this book. Not just because Ernest Cline wrote both, but because there are a starship load of similarities between the two stories.

Not that it’s a bad thing. I adored Ready Player One and loved all the source material for this book. But for those of us who have a long history with science fiction and fantasy, it’s pretty easy to spot the homages.

Like Ready Player One, Armada is a coming of age story about a young man who has to save the world using his geekery skills and dipping into his love of 1980s nerd culture.

220px-Last_starfighter_postIt’s possible that every SF fan has a secret, or not so secret, desire to discover that there is a way into the SF universes that they love. When Centauri recruits Alex in The Last Starfighter because Alex has achieved the record high score in the game, all too many of us wanted to go with him.

Having the game become real and take us into its world is a recurring theme in video game fanfiction, because it represents a dream come true for so many.

Armada takes that theme and mixes it with a bit of Independence Day, along with the often used theme in Star Trek that what we think the aliens want, or what we think we have to do to defend ourselves, may not be the correct answer after all.

The Human Division by John ScalziBoth Tanya Huff’s Valor series and the revelations in The Human Division of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series (and it also looks like this is part of the story in The End of All Things) also play with this theme. That who we think we’re fighting and why is not the real story.

To paraphrase Battlestar Galactica, “this has all happened before and it will all happen again.”

Like the heroes and heroines in so many of these stories, Zack finds out that so much of what he has believed about his world is not quite true. Including the death of his father in a sewage-treatment plant accident.

The video games that Zack and his friends are playing – Armada and Terra Firma – are training modules for the surprisingly real Earth Defense Alliance, and Zack’s high score makes him and elite recruit drone pilot. Of course, he is recruited just ahead of the impending invasion of Earth, and the truth that is suddenly out there has a very good chance of getting him killed and wiping out the Earth.

Unless Zack beats the game, and the test, in his own way. It is always better to ask forgiveness than permission. If you’re right, and lucky, you might not even need forgiveness.

Escape Rating B: I loved Armada, and pretty much read it in one glorious binge. That being said, I also have to say that it just isn’t nearly as good as Ready Player One. Ready Player One feels more original. It used its geek nostalgia as backdrop and inspiration, but the story was the quest.

In Armada, the sources that inspired the story also help predict the story a bit too much. For those of us who love SF, there’s a lot to love in Armada, but we have also seen or read this story, or one very much like it, before.

It does pull at the heart. Zack’s relationship with his single-mom, and the depth of his relationships with his friends, is guaranteed to get most readers in the feels. And anyone who isn’t gotten, I’d wonder whether they have any feels. On that other hand, Zack’s love interest feels pretty much like a geek-boy fantasy. She’s pretty AND she can kick ass in video games. She definitely shares a bit too much DNA with Aech in Ready Player One.

This is Zack’s coming of age story. He starts the morning as a senior in high school, and ends the day saving the world through his love of video games. But also, and most importantly, with his brains and his heart and not just his amazing hand/eye coordination.

One of the best things about Armada is the way that Zack is able to embody the “sensawunder” that the best SF inspires in so many of us. His eyes are opened and the world is so much more fantastic than he ever imagined it could be – and he gets to be a part of it, and help save it, and grow up.

In spite of its flaws, Zack’s story is like a dream come true for all of us who are still waiting for Scotty to beam us up.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

11 for 2011: Best reads of the year

2011 is coming to a close. It’s time to pause and reflect on the year that is ending.

There’s a lovely quote from Garrison Keillor, “A book is a present that you can open again and again.” There’s a corollary in this house about “not if the cat is sitting on it” but the principle still applies. The good stories from this year will still be good next year. Some of them may even have sequels!

These were my favorites of the year. At least when I narrow the list down to 11 and only 11. And even then I fudged a bit. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (reviewed 12/1/11). This book had everything it could possibly need. There’s a quest. There’s a love story. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s an homage to videogaming. There are pop-culture references to every cult classic of science fiction and fantasy literature imaginable. There’s an evil empire to be conquered. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Omnitopia: Dawn by Diane Duane (reviewed 4/22/11). On the surface, Omnitopia and Ready Player One have a lot in common. Thankfully, there is more than meets the eye. Omnitopia takes place in the here and now, or very close to it. The world has not yet gone down the dystopian road that Wade and his friends are looking back at in Ready Player One. On the other hand, any resemblance the reader might see between Worlds of Warcraft mixed with Facebook and Omnitopia, or between Omnitopia Corp and Apple, may not entirely be the reader’s imagination. Howsomever, Omnitopia Dawn also has some very neat things to say about artificial intelligence in science fiction. If you liked Ready Player One, just read Omnitopia: Dawn. Now!

The Iron Knight (reviewed 10/26/11) was the book that Julie Kagawa did not intend to write. She was done with Meghan, her story was over. Meghan is the Iron Queen, but what she has achieved is not a traditional happily-ever-after. Victory came at a price. Real victories always do. Meghan’s acceptance of her responsibility means that she must rule alone. Ash is a Winter Prince, and Meghan’s Iron Realm is fatal to his kind. The Iron Knight is Ash’s journey to become human, or at least to obtain a soul, so that he can join his love in her Iron Realm. It is an amazing journey of mythic proportions.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (reviewed 10/18/11) is a story that absolutely shouldn’t work. The fact that it not only works, but works incredibly well, still leaves me gasping in delight. Dearly, Departed is the first, best, and so far only YA post-apocalypse steampunk zombie romance I’ve ever read. I never thought a zombie romance could possible work, period. This one not only works, it’s fun. There’s a sequel coming, Dearly, Beloved. I just wish I knew when.

Debris by Jo Anderton (reviewed 09/29/11) is the first book of The Veiled World Trilogy. It’s also Anderton’s first novel, a fact that absolutely amazed me when I read the book. Debris is science fiction with a fantasy “feel” to it, a book where things that are scientifically based seem magical to most of the population. But the story is about one woman’s fall from grace, and her discovery that her new place in society is where she was meant to be all along.

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (reviewed 09/19/11). If you love mysteries, and you are not familiar with Louise Penny’s work, get thee to a bookstore, or download her first Chief Inspector Gamache mystery, Still Life, to your ereader this instant. Louise Penny has been nominated for (and frequently won) just about every mystery award for the books in this series since she started in 2005. Find out why.

I love Sherlock Holmes pastiches. (This is not a digression, I will reach the point). I have read all Laurie R. King’s Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell books, some more than once. I almost listed Pirate King (reviewed 9/9/11), this year’s Holmes/Russell book instead of Trick. But Pirate King was froth, and Penny never is. A regular contributor to Letters of Mary, the mailing list for fans of the Holmes/Russell books, recommended the Louise Penny books. I am forever grateful.

The Elantra Series by Michelle Sagara (review forthcoming). I confess I’m 2/3rds of the way through Cast in Ruin right now. I’ve tried describing this series, and the best I can come up with is an urban fantasy series set in a high fantasy world. I absolutely love it. It’s the characters that make this series. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is clearly drawn and their personality is delineated in a way that makes them interesting. There are people you wouldn’t want to meet, but they definitely are distinctive. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in spots, even when it’s very much gallows humor. I’m driving my husband crazy because I keep laughing at the dialog, and I can’t explain what’s so funny. I would love to have drinks with Kaylin. I’d even buy. But the Elantra series is not humor. Like most urban fantasy, it’s very snarky. But the stories themselves have a crime, or now, a very big problem that needs solving, and Kaylin is at the center of it. Whether she wants to be or not.

If you are keeping score somewhere, or just want the reading order, it’s Cast in Moonlight (part of Harvest Moon), Cast in Shadow, Cast in Courtlight, Cast in Secret, Cast in Fury, Cast in Silence, Cast in Chaos, and Cast in Ruin.

The Ancient Blades Trilogy by David Chandler consists of Den of Thieves (reviewed 7/27/11), A Thief in the Night (reviewed 10/7/11) and Honor Among Thieves (reviewed 12/21/11). This was good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery. Which means the so-called hero is the thief and not the knight-errant. And every character you meet has a hidden agenda and that no one, absolutely no one, is any better than they ought to be. But the ending, oh the ending will absolutely leave you stunned.

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher (reviewed 7/29/11) is 2011’s entry in one of my absolute all time favorite series, The Dresden Files. And I saw Jim Butcher in person at one of the Atlanta Barnes & Noble stores. Ghost Story represents a very big change in the Dresden Files universe, where Harry Dresden starts growing into those extremely large boots he’s been stomping around in all these years. If you love urban fantasy, read Dresden.

Turn It Up by Inez Kelley (reviewed 8/10/11 and listed here) is one of the best takes on the “friends into lovers” trope that I have ever read. Period. Also, I’m an absolute sucker for smart people and witty dialogue, and this book is a gem. “Dr. Hot and the Honeypot” pretty much talk each other into a relationship, and into bed, while they give out sassy advice over the airwaves on their very suggestive and extremely successful sexual advice radio show.

My last book is a two-fer. Break Out (reviewed 8/4/11) and Deadly Pursuit (reviewed 12/6/11) by Nina Croft are the first two books in her Blood Hunter series, and I sincerely hope there are more. This is paranormal science fiction romance. Like Dearly, Departed, this concept should not work. But it absolutely does. And it gets better the longer it goes on. If you have an urban fantasy world in the 20th century, what would happen if that alternate history continued into space? Where do the vamps and the werewolves go? They go into space with everyone else, of course. And you end up with Ms. Croft’s Blood Hunter universe, which I loved. But you have to read both books. The first book just isn’t long enough for the world building. The second one rocks.

I stopped at 11 (well 11-ish) because this is the 2011 list. I could have gone on. And on. And on. My best ebook romances list was published on Library Journal earlier in the month. LJ has a ton of other “best” lists for your reading pleasure. Or for the detriment of your TBR pile.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a veritable tour de force of storytelling. This dystopian near-future novel is absolutely fantastic science fiction of the cyberpunk school, but it is also an intense commentary on modern society, with more than a dash of nostalgia and a slap upside the head, for anyone, absolutely anyone, who spends their life looking back at their “glory days” instead of living their real life in the now. A lesson that does not just apply to geeks and video gamers.

James Halliday was dead, to begin with. So this is not his story. But it is. Because Ready Player One is about the fight for the world he created, and the company he left behind. And James Halliday left himself as the ghost in his own machine. Until someone solves the ultimate riddle in the ultimate quest, and proves themselves worthy of becoming his heir.

Wade Watts is just one of many players in the OASIS in 2044, when every player receives Halliday’s last message. And Wade embarks on that ultimate quest. Not in pursuit of worldly glory, but because the real world seriously sucks, and the OASIS and the quest for Halliday’s ultimate “Easter Egg” is the only good thing Wade and a whole lot of other people, have.

What is the OASIS? Think of Facebook and World of Warcraft and Everquest and Second Life and every massively multi-player and multi-user everything you’ve ever heard of on serious steroids. And why does the Wade’s real world suck? We can see it from here. If we make all the wrong decisions about everything, like global warming actually happening, and the recession not ever going away and unemployment going up instead of down and the global economies getting worse…well, we could easily end up in the world of Ready Player One. Unfortunately it isn’t much of an imaginative stretch.

But the story is about the quest. Halliday left instructions. And tied them up very tightly, with lots of lawyers. James Halliday loved the 1980s. (Beats me why, the fashion sense was absolutely horrendous.) However, that was when video games got their start, and when Halliday went to high school. And before the world started going to hell in the proverbial handcart. He was obsessed. Halliday buried three keys inside the world of the OASIS, and whoever found those three keys, and the gates that they opened, and solved the riddles they unlocked, would inherit his company, Gregarious Solutions, which was worth mega-billions.

The race was on. It took five years to find the first key. Wade Watts, in the person of his avatar, Parzifal, was the first. Along the way, Wade made friends with another gate hunter, or ‘gunter’ known as ‘Aech’ (i.e., just the letter ‘H’). They never met in person, only in chat rooms on the OASIS. Wade developed a major crush on a female gunter blogger named ‘Art3mis’ — well, he hoped she was female. On the OASIS, a person could be anyone, or anything. And Wade grew up. When Halliday died, he was just a kid; by the time he found the gate, he was a senior in High School. OASIS High School, of course. Even school was on OASIS.

And that was part of what Wade and his friends were fighting to protect. Gregarious Solutions offered OASIS education free, and OASIS access free to anyone. There were paid add-ons, but basic access was free, and it was the only escape from the decaying world outside. Everyone conducted their business and their pleasure in the OASIS. But naturally, there was an evil empire, trying to win Halliday’s contest in order to take it over and turn every transaction into profit. Once Wade found the first key and cleared the first gate, he became a target.

Wade’s quest, and his fight to keep the OASIS out of the hands of the evil ‘Sixers’, proceeds at a breakneck pace. The story is not just a quest story, but a thriller, also a marvelous coming-of-age story and absolutely a love story.

Escape Rating A+: First, this is simply a terrific story. There is a tremendous amount going on, and it is all fun and it keeps going at the speed of the fastest roller-coaster imaginable. There is a nostalgic aspect for anyone who even remembers the 1980s or 1990s, because every video game, TV show and movie gets mentioned at least once. But that’s only part of the fun.

This is a quest story. It’s not really about the video game, although that part was very cool. It’s about saving OASIS. It’s about solving the puzzle so that the world is saved from the big, bad evil dudes. And they are very, very evil.

It’s also about second chances. Halliday made himself a ghost in his own machine. He programmed his avatar in so he can speak with his ‘heir’. On the one hand, he makes sure that whoever picks up the reins is versed in the same minutiae that he was. On the other hand, the advice he gives about not living totally inside the computer is very good advice. Which Wade takes to heart.

I listened to this book. The performance was by Wil Wheaton. I would have to also give the performance an A+ rating. Because the book contained a lot of references to the 1980s and 90s, Wheaton was a perfect choice for the reader. There is a reference in the text to the actor being voted in as OASIS user representative, and my husband and I both wondered how many ‘spit takes’ that had taken, but he was the right choice for that reason. In this alternate future. Wheaton so would have filled that role! The book contains a tremendous number of footnotes with citations for all the references,  in the audio, those work better. Wheaton read them as asides, and they flowed in seamlessly. We took a longer way home to be sure we’d finish the book before we got to the house, he was that good!