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Armada by Ernest Cline

Armada by Ernest Cline

Armada is published out in paperback from Arrow, from 11th February 2016

ERNIE CLINE is best known for creating the cult film Fanboys, about a group of Star Wars fans on a pilgrimage to George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. His work has been covered in numerous national publications and all over the internet.

Armada – one of the most popular videogames in the world.

Zack Lightman spends all of his spare time playing it, fighting a fictional alien race that wants to destroy the world. As a huge sci-fi fan, Zack finds the game’s storyline somewhat cliché… that is until he discovers it’s based on fact: the aliens really exist and they really want to destroy Earth. He soon finds himself recruited by a special organisation – the Earth Defense Alliance – and must begin to fight for something more than a place on the leaderboards.

It is often said that the best novels are those that don’t waste any time – the ones that grip the reader from the very first line. Armada does this better than perhaps any other book I’ve read. Just look at the novel’s very first sentence: ‘I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted a flying saucer.’ How many books do you know that introduce a UFO in the first sentence?

Armada is a novel that feels compressed in the best possible way. It’s always moving forward, and never lingers on one moment for too long. Ernest Cline burns through plot at a refreshingly fast pace, managing to fit a few novels’ worth of material into just under 400 pages. Many big sci-fi authors, such as China Miéville, allow their stories to move along at a slow pace, indulging in long descriptions and detours… Cline is focused primarily on plot, and that’s great.

One of the ways the author achieves this is through an expert use of sci-fi references. One thing that bugs me about most sci-fi stories, is that they seem to exist in a vacuum: for example, we never see the Doctor make a reference to Star Trek. Armada, however, embraces the science fiction that came before it, referencing everything from E.T. to Pacific Rim. Cline uses these references to streamline the plot, effectively using pop culture as shorthand. For example, when Zack feels conflicted about an important decision, he imagines talking to Yoda and the Emperor from Star Wars as a way of weighing up what the right thing to do is.

Embracing science fiction like this seems like something that shouldn’t work, but it really does. Cline acknowledges the books, films, TV shows and games that inspired Armada, even tying some of them into the plot. When the author references something, there’s usually a point to it – rarely does he mention something just to show off what he knows. Cline’s knowledge of science fiction also allows him to subvert the reader’s expectations quite frequently. Though I could sometimes tell when a twist was coming up, it was rarely the twist that I expected.

This book is a love-letter to the science fiction genre. In a longer novel the repeated references might become grating, but Armada is just the right length. It’s a concentrated shot of sci-fi nerdery that’s definitely worth experiencing.

Elliott Simpson