I really loved Cline’s Ready Player One, but I had some reservations about his latest release, Armada. As opposed to writing a sequel, which wouldn’t have made much sense, I think Cline decided to try to cram everything people loved about it into another standalone. The closest analogy I can make would be Pretty Woman and The Runaway Bride. Or basically every Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie.
Armada is trying, maybe a little too hard, to recapture the magic of Ready Player One by repeating a lot of the same elements. A slew of 80s pop culture references, a snarky teen protagonist surrounded by an Amblin-esque crew of fellow nerds-at-arms, and an epic quest hindered by inept-yet-still-menacing adults.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure it really succeeds.
What’s missing? The sense of over-the-top, batshit-crazy, teenage-wish-fulfillment fun. Without that, despite a much less dystopian initial setting than RP1, Armada ends up a much darker and more depressing book.
Even the moments where we’re supposed to be oohing and aahing in gleeful nostalgia end up painted black by the unrelentingly grim premise. No matter what teen protagonist Zack Lightman does, Cline refuses to let any real glimmer of hope shine through. Even if any of the various plans to rescue humanity from the alien menace succeed, massive numbers of Earth’s population are going to die. Oh, and we’ve probably run the planet out of resources in an interplanetary arms race for nothing.
Ernest Cline is clearly a huge fan of 80s sci-fi and space opera. I’m hoping Armada is just his Empire Strikes Back, a bleak middle chapter to be followed by a more optimistic finale. Ready Player One was a nostalgic guilty pleasure. For me at least, Armada was a lot of guilt, and not much pleasure.