At least no one can complain Ernest Cline wears his influences too lightly. Nerd culture pervades everything he does, from his screenplay for the movie Fanboys to his spoken-word routines. ("The Geek Wants Out," a rant from his hilarious free-download album Ultraman Is Airwolf, is a revealing highlight.) It especially pervades his 2011 best-selling debut novel, Ready Player One, in which the future of 2044 is stuck in the past: Thanks to a treasure hunt programmed by a 1980s-loving rich eccentric, Cline's favorite decades-old TV shows, movies, comics and so forth have become a worldwide preoccupation.
Cline doesn't build such an elaborate gimmick into his second novel, Armada, but the wall-to-wall pop-culture hat-tips are there anyway. And while they may give Cline's readership the same "I know that reference!" nostalgia buzz this time, they do too much of the heavy lifting, filling in where plot and character should go.
Protagonist Zack Lightman (even his name sounds like something from a 1980s video game-themed TV series) is an immense fan of an online alien-fighting aerospace game called Armada, where he's ranked among the top 10 players worldwide. Then a ship from the game mysteriously appears while he's in school. Turns out aliens are real, and Armada and its ground-based sister game Terra Firma are simulators designed to train players to operate drone attackers when the invaders arrive. As an ultra-elite Armada vet, Zack is entitled to special respect — though there are other reasons as well, which savvy genre readers will see coming from the first chapter onward. Much of the book consists of big, movie-friendly action, as Zack blows up alien ships and wonders why his world so closely resembles a video game.
Like Ready Player One,Armada takes a long time to get to this action. Cline starts with a massive exposition dump, weighted with plenty more pop-culture references. Zack's best friends are introduced fighting over the relative weapon merits of Thor's hammer Mjolnir vs. Bilbo Baggins' elvish blade Sting. Zack's mother plays World Of Warcraft and corners him for an after-school heart-to-heart by quoting Lord Of The Rings: "You shall not pass!" He works at a game store where his boss quotes Star Wars and names the shop computers after Buckaroo Banzai characters. Even Zack's long-gone father left him a set of inherited cultural references, in the form of mixtapes and VHS copies of favorite movies.
A major problem with Armada is that all these characters sound alike — that is, they're all versions of Cline. Regardless of age, nationality or walk of life, they all share the same fandoms. Even a Chinese Armada ace who speaks virtually no English goes into battle quoting They Live. Nearly all the characters have the same shallow, ebullient affect, and minimal distinguishing detail. And their lives all noticeably revolve around Zack: When he meets an extremely cool girl at his alien-fighting military induction, she's so impressed by his Iron Eagle-inspired Armada alias and ability to identify her Aliens-inspired tattoo that she immediately falls for him and spends the rest of the book serving as his near-magical long-distance hacker support.
None of this would be an issue if Cline had any larger point to make about the ubiquity of geek culture, or the way it connects people. Or, for that matter, if the references supplemented the plot, the way they did in Ready Player One. But this time around, the plot is almost entirely a reboot of The Last Starfighter with a dash of Ender's Game. Zack knows it, and mentions both stories, but his meta-awareness doesn't change the transparency of the lifts or the thinness of the novel.
Armada largely consists of battles strung together with quotes, in a hyperactive free-for-all that takes no unexpected twists until the final pages, just in time to set up the sequel. And it mostly services the transparent adolescent fantasy of a Chosen One kid whose seemingly nerdy, insular interests make him a hero with worldwide recognition and, as he puts it, a "super-hot mech driver" girlfriend. Armada's movie rights have already been sold, and it'll give special-effects artists plenty to put on-screen. But neither the book nor the film adaptation is likely to generate its own memorable quotes or pop-culture cachet. In an unrelieved world of echo-chambering Ernie Cline clones, creating something new isn't as important as celebrating everything old.
Tasha Robinson is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the former Senior Editor of The Dissolve.