Starship Captains Do It On Impulse (Unfortunately)
By Ernest Cline
“My whole life, I felt like I was destined to do something important, but I was only ever good at videogames…” So speaks Xavier Ulysses Lightman in a lost missive to his son Zack, the hero of Ernest Cline’s new paean to 1980s culture and button-mashing, Armada. The statement is a classic teenage tautology if there was one; dying at the age of nineteen, Xavier hadn’t yet entered the adult world, where he might have learned that police departments and baseball teams are actually willing to pay someone with mental acuity and superior hand/eye coordination.
Sadly, Xavier dies in an explosion at a water treatment plant, leaving his young bride Pamela to raise the infant Zack alone. She’s devastated, but manages to box up Xavier’s prized collection of science fiction movies, video and table-top games, music cassettes, and journals. There’s also Xavier’s 1989 Dodge Omni, which Zack now drives as a high school senior in Beaverton, Oregon.
As Armada opens, Zack spies a UFO outside his classroom window. More specifically, he sees a Glaive Fighter from the aerial-combat game to which he’s sacrificed his grades and girlfriend, also called Armada. This leads him to consult his father’s boxed possessions, including the journals that outline a government conspiracy to use pop culture—both hits like Star Wars and Ender’s Game, and misses like The Last Starfighter—to prepare the world for an actual alien invasion.
Cline’s 2011 debut, Ready Player One, also merged videogames with real world intrigue, becoming a cult phenomenon so resonant that Steven Spielberg agreed to direct the film. The narrative gushes like newly-struck oil with film and gamer trivia, yet isn’t so slippery that readers can’t hold fast to its inventive plot and 16-bit poobahs.
I was a high school senior in 1999, the same age as Xavier when he died in what one of Zack’s classmates calls a “shit-factory explosion.” Books like Ready Player One and Armada are aimed directly at the nostalgic sweet-spot of those who grew up with President Reagan’s voice in the background as they played with Transformers on the living room floor. The era retains an undeniable magic—as all eras do, particularly in the minds shaped by them—that I can revisit by listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures (1981) or watching James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). But these are subtle, private shifts in time. They are by nature transient and a bit elegiac. What Cline describes in Armada, by creating a protagonist who immerses himself in the trappings of a dead father he never knew, is much more full-throttle. Zack lives, as yacht rocker Kenny Loggins might say, in a nostalgic Danger Zone.
Summoning the past so that it surrounds the reader, rewiring all the senses verbally, is a furious challenge for the best of writers; David Mitchell returns us to a blustery, aching 1980s in his 2006 masterpiece Black Swan Green. Bret Easton Ellis captures the decade’s nightmarish excess in his 1991 thriller American Psycho. However, the question that Armada raises on nearly every page is whether or not Cline intends to transport us anywhere. Zack certainly lives in the 80s, compulsively listening to dad’s Raid the Arcade mixtape (which includes plenty of Queen, and cringe-inducing cuts from the Top Gun soundtrack), but Cline’s narrative often makes readers feel like they’ve been cornered in a bookstore by the guy whose Dorito-fueled yammering counts as his moment of Daily Human Contact. Here’s Zack, on the cinematic introduction that begins every game of Armada, mentioning the squid-like Sobrukai aliens and their battle against the Earth Defense Alliance:
The gray translucent-skinned creature was shown floating in its dark underwater lair, its tentacles splayed out behind it, addressing the camera in its grating native language, which sounded sort of like a whale’s song, if the whale in question was into death metal…
“We are the Sobrukai,” it said. “And we declare your pitiful species to be unworthy of survival. You shall therefore be eradicated—”
There was more to the overlord’s message, but I hit the space bar to skip over it. I remembered the highlights. These malevolent unfeeling inkfish had traveled twelve light-years across interstellar space to wipe out humanity and then knock down all of our pizza huts, so that they could seize our rare blue jewel of a world as their own. It was my mission to use my baller videogame skills to stop them. Boo-yah. Press FIRE to continue.
Here and in countless passages elsewhere, Zack either sounds bored or is boring. And as the novel’s target audience, an adult who’s wide reading experience has taught him to crave layered, energetic prose, I can’t help wonder if Armada wasn’t Cline’s first try at a novel, pulled from a bottom drawer and not-so-deftly polished.
Or perhaps thirty-somethings aren’t Cline’s main audience? If he’d prefer the disposable income of teens, let’s watch the pop-savant bridge the decades and lift his mono-plotted adventure into a spectacle at least as memorable as…Flight of the Navigator (1986).
Zack, perfectly enough, works after school in a videogame store called Starbase Ace, where he pals around with owner and fellow gaming addict Ray. His boss is obsessed with the game Terra Firma, the ground-war counterpart to Armada, both produced by the company Chaos Terrain. A third of the way through the book, once we learn that the Earth Defense Alliance is real (and Cline has fully imported the plot of The Last Starfighter into his novel), Zack and Ray have a conversation about Star Wars—not the generations-spanning empire of merchandise, but the film that started it all:
“Star Wars was one of the first movie projects the EDA helped finance, because their think tanks told them its unique subject matter could help the war effort. George Lucas never even found out about it. He always thought Alan Ladd Jr. deserved all the credit for green-lighting Star Wars, but in reality, the EDA put up a large chunk of the budget through a bogus network of film and television financing companies that could never be traced back to—”
“Hold on. You’re telling me that Star Wars was secretly financed by the Earth Defense Alliance to serve as anti-alien propaganda?”
He nodded. “That’s a gross oversimplification, but yeah—more or less.”
Calling Star Wars “anti-alien propaganda” goes well beyond helping to grease Cline’s plot—it makes me doubt that he’s actually seen the films. Yoda, Chewie, and the Ewoks, among hundreds of others, are part of the Cool Factor that endears children to the franchise in the first place. The villains in Star Wars, Mr. Cline, are human space fascists.
While this is the worst of the eye-crossing gaffes Cline perpetrates, his meta commentary is thoroughly grinding. At one point, Armada is described as nothing but a potent mix of ideas swiped from the best combat videogames because, “This plagiaristic, Frankenstein-like development strategy proved wildly successful.” And yet I doubt that Armada the game thumps its chest about its influences as obnoxiously as the book does. Moreover, Cline seems utterly deaf to the possibility that Orson Scott Card’s 1985 Ender’s Game—which he has impotently attempted to strip-mine—is a classic because it’s a self-contained cultural entity. The novel is about a boy raised to master battle simulators during a war against insect-like aliens, and while reading it, you witness character development and become emotionally invested in the outcome. You do not, as Cline’s most devoted teen audiences will be forced to, switch from a tablet’s reading app to Google so you can learn who Candace Bergen is.
In Armada—the actual war in the book, not the game—Bergen lends her voice to the sound profile in his drone battle simulator, just like she did in the 1984 film 2010, playing SAL 9000. Pretty baller reference, huh? Except that by the time you read it, Cline has knee-jerk shouted at the 80s 6,548,763 times. These references not only fail to conjure the era in any effective or attractive way, but they also undermine Cline’s attempts at actual writing. Here, as Zack leaves the Earth in a EDA shuttle, we’re supposed to care because he
stared down at the radiant blue-white sphere that was home to everything and everyone I loved and scanned the gaps in the swirling cloud layer until I located the western coastline of North America, then followed it until I spotted the familiar inlet of Portland, just barely visible. I realized then just how far away I already was from home. And it was getting farther and farther away every second.
Quick, which movie is this from? If it’s supposed to come from the Dagobah of Cline’s own imagination, such a realm is truly a swamp of white rice and cardboard. And it’s a shame, since Cline’s love for science fiction and the 80s feels genuine. His love for writing and adding something uniquely personal to the genre? “Game over, man!” or something.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.