Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

[Note: I received an advance reader edition of this book]

In the vernacular of professional wrestling, there is the concept of the “cheap pop”. A cheap pop is when the face or “good guy” character gets an easy reaction from the crowd for not doing all that much. Often, this is done by name-dropping the city where they are currently performing. When the wrestler says something like “Nothing is going to make me happier than beating you up here in the great city of Philadelphia!” the Philadelphia crowd goes nuts. The fans get their ego stroked a bit because an object of their esteem is saying something nice about their city and by extension, something nice about them, which makes them feel good. It is a “pop” in that it is a favorable crowd reaction, but it is “cheap” in that the performer didn’t really have to do anything to earn it.

Cheap pops come in many forms. Many wrestlers are known to have catch phrases that the crowd can say along with the performer which makes them feel like a part of the show: “If you smell what the Rock is cooking”, “Whatcha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you?” “That’s the bottom line because Stone Cold `said so”. The performer doesn’t have to do anything creative to get the reaction, it is just something that serves as a means to bring the crowd into the experience without doing something difficult and dangerous like actually performing or telling a story.

Ernest Cline’s Armada is a follow-up to his 2011 nostalgia-laced Willy Wonka meets It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World-esque mystery adventure Ready Player One. Ready Player One had flaws but it was largely enjoyable based on the pacing and unraveling mystery of the story.

In Armada, Cline name drops The Last Starfighter and Ender’s Game early to give a wink and a nod to the audience that he knows he is just largely rehashing old ground, but he’s in on the joke and so are you now as well. Armada plods along largely content with fulfilling the promise on the book jacket. The first act sticks around for far too long. If Lightman would just read the damn book jacket, he could be clued in on the plot before the midpoint of the book. If you are looking for a story with subtext and mystery, as was at least mildly present in Ready Player One, you will be disappointed. There is one major twist that happens three-quarters of the way through the book, but it is heavily foreshadowed and so the reader just kind of shrugs and continues with the TitanFall fan-fiction.

Unfortunately, it seems Cline puts more work into connecting with the reader via cheap pops than he does by connecting with the reader through engaging plot or characters that have to overcome any kind of adversity or internal conflict.

Armada is laden with cheap pops. I refuse to count, but I would estimate that there is at least one pop-culture reference per page. Some are subtle; others not so much. There is nothing wrong with references and nostalgia if it furthers some other goal in the story, but in Armada (and to a lesser extent Ready Player One), it serves only as an attempt for the author to build a character or scene without any real character- or world-building.

I know plenty of folks who speak in the nerd lingo, but no one drops constant references to external things in such a forced way like the characters in this book. While reading, I was reminded of this Hawaii Five-O scene with horribly obvious product placement. However, Cline isn’t getting paid by his reference antecedents in the book. He just does it to prove nerd gravitas. That’s with the best intentions applied, of course. With the worst intentions, he provides this non-stop pop culture nonsense to distract from a vacuous, already done-before story with evenly spaced dopamine drip drip drips from things the readers remember and love. “Oh hey, He’s listening to Rush’s Moving Pictures album? I loved that!”

It may seem pedantic to rail on the use of pop culture references, but to me it devalues what makes the references powerful in the first place. Leeroy Jenkins was a funny web video from the mid-2000s. I can still go back, watch it, and laugh. But a reference to Leeroy Jenkins provides nothing new except a reminder that something else was fun and good. Unless the thing making the reference has something new to add, then it just becomes like a recursive Xerox copy, getting more and more faded with each iteration. After a while, you are left with “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” that is so overused that the marrow has long been sucked dry from the bone and you never want to see or hear about it ever again. By the way, there’s an All Your Base reference on Page 89.

At the end of the day, Armada is inoffensive but largely a waste of time, much like a good deal of the pop culture it lovingly cuddles up to.