November 17, 2015

A Writer Searching for his Depth: Earnest Cline's "Armada"

This book came out in the shadow of the long awaited new book by Harper Lee. Perhaps it is better that it did because much hope existed for Cline after the success of Ready Player One.

I like that first book, noting that Cline has an ear for action. What he misses is that both of those books were maybe a little heavy on the exposition. I had actually liked that first book so much that I preordered this book months in advance and received it on the release day. I read it quickly, and with each page I was madder and more disappointed. I had seen the headlines of some of the early reviews, but I didn’t want to read them because I didn’t want them to ruin the book for me. The headlines could be charitably be called “mixed”. I was getting madder because so much of this book rehashes so much of the first book.

There is so much focus on nerdy popular culture that it gets in the way of the story. And I say this as a member of who should be the target audience - early middle age, white, grew up with the technology and the culture. I didn’t write a review at that time because I was worried about throwing up a review that reflected my fresh hot anger at Cline and running head into an army of fanboys. The problem is that I’m writing this and thinking about the book and getting madder.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a cool conceit. The video games we have been raised with are actually training for the alien invasion. We’re using them to train the best to fight the … buggers. OK, so maybe it’s not wholly original but you can still read both The Forever War and Old Man’s War, right. But it’s also just copying himself. Instead of the games being a reflection of the world, they are the world. Big change - Jazzhands.

The real problem is that Cline doesn’t write characters well. It doesn’t have to be a character driven book, but caring about who they are and what they do and how their relationships develop are important to me. It's like my whole problem with Neil Stephenson: Cool world, what are you going to do about it. In Armada the main character *spoiler alert, yo* goes his whole life thinking his dad’s dead only to be reunited with him so that they can use their superior video game skills to defend earth. I felt nothing at the reunion scene. Such a disappointing use of the world he built.

In the end, the book (much like the previous one) is like a video game itself - a medium trying to find its depth despite the promise of what it can do. Video games are getting there. I hope Cline will too.