Reading List: Ernie Cline's Armada Fucking Sucks

Gatekeeping and Nerd Culture

Thank you for signing up for Reading List! This newsletter is a regular column on the world of science fiction and fantasy. If you like what you read, please consider signing up as a paid subscriber and sharing this newsletter with a friend.

Some interesting news just dropped: Ernie Cline is finally publishing his sequel to his blockbuster book Ready Player One. Ready Player Two (ugh) is set to hit stores on November 24th, and needless to say, I have some mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I enjoyed Ready Player One a great deal: it’s a book that’s probably as responsible for the ongoing nerd renaissance, and goes hand in hand with the popularity of San Diego Comic-Con, and The Big Bang Theory. It’s a fun story on its face, and there’s part of me that likes going “hey, I get that reference.”

On the other hand, it’s a book that has some extremely regressive thoughts about gender and race, which my friend Laura Hudson summed up nicely a couple of years ago on The Verge. Hopefully, Cline has learned a bit or taken some of the criticism to heart about the book, and we’ll get something that’s a bit better this time around. I don’t have high hopes, but we’ll find out come November.

With this news, I thought back to my original review of Cline’s second novel, Armada, which … isn’t good, to say the least. I got an immediate, visceral response back from folks on Twitter when I posted the link, and I figured it was a good time to dust it off and republish it here.

I’ve lightly edited it from when it was first published in 2015.

Ernie Cline's novel Armada dropped last week with an enormous publicity campaign that's sure to get this book selling exceptionally well. Since 2011, Cline has been riding high on the popularity of his debut novel, Ready Player One, an Easter-egg infused novel that hit the nerd sweet spot with a hefty dose of references and nostalgia. On its face, this looks like it would be an ideal followup. The problem with Armada is that it's absolutely, fucking terrible.

The plot is basic. A spacecraft drops by the school of one high school gamer, Zack Lightman, and he’s told what absolutely every gamer wants to hear: aliens are about to attack Earth and a secret military organization has shepherded video games, movies, novels and television shows to help attune humanity into fighting back against the alien invaders. Lightman's one of the top gamers in the world, and that because of his scores in a video game called Armada, he's one of the last best hopes for humanity. He's brought to a secret base on the Moon, where he meets his long-presumed dead father, who's helping to oversee the counterattack.

I enjoyed Ready Player One quite a bit when I first read it: it was a fun book that had some neat things going for it: it was a book about a video game that relied on the tropes and conventions of real-world video game history, and it worked well enough. Armada is a pretty far cry away from this, going through a story that's essentially a rehash of Ender's GameThe Last Starfighter, and Stargate: Universe. Hardly a sentence goes by without Cline dropping a reference to something from the 1980s, and as it becomes more cringe-worthy, it feels as though Cline is simply stuck in the past, unable or unwilling to grow beyond geek-man-child stage and reenter the present.

This bothers me a great deal. The decade was responsible for an incredible surge of creative properties, but it isn't the only decade when it comes to science fiction or fantasy storytelling; you'd never guess it from the endless references. Geeks have always been interested in the shibboleth, sorting out who belongs and who doesn't in nerd circles. Cline, throughout Ready Player One and Armada, drops references to everything from films to television to games to the occasional novel, and seems to be establishing a sort of precedent: if you don't recognize these sacred tomes, you don't belong. If you haven't put in the hours that Zack Lightman and Wade Watts have in establishing their own geek cred, you're not a 'true' geek worthy of the title.

Where Ready Player One was entertaining and goofy, Armada is tedious and annoying. The references had a point in Ready Player One - it was a hunt for Easter eggs. In Armada, they don’t really serve any point other than to establish, over and over again, that Lightman (read: Cline) is a nerdy kid. We get that from the first couple of pages. Armada feels very much like Cline trying to find some way to make a nerdy adolescent existence mean something greater than it really is. But in doing so, he sets out to define what exactly a geek is, and that vision is limited only to the references he lists off, which is a pretty limiting list of things: science fiction / fantasy did some pretty cool things in the 1990s/2000s, but there has certainly been equally compelling works in the years since, and from a much wider range of creators when it comes to gender identity and race.

There have been a bunch of stories that have been incredibly popular that seem to do this sort of listing: Cline's novels, for one, but also shows such as The Big Bang Theory, is essentially lightly-improvised lines of dialogue strung together with a whole bunch of 'in the know' references to any number of geek things. The obsession with checking off the boxes and making a set of qualifications to weed out outsiders isn't anything new to the science fiction or fantasy circles, but it's tiring to see after such a long history.

There's the story of a geek guy meeting a geek girl, where he interrupts her when she expresses an interest in Star Wars or Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica and interrogates her on the minutia of the world. I've seen it happen before (hell, I've done it myself, to my regret), and it's just flat out not good for any sort of community. There's the personal stories of that one lone geek at high school who gets picked on or slammed into a locker for carrying around a Star Wars novel, D&D Manual or Magic: The Gathering cards, and how the stories that they read carried them through those dark times. Never mind that High School isn't some sort of fantasy quest to be metaphorically endured, I sometimes wonder about the widespread validity of those stories, or if it’s just a story that we tell ourselves as part of our collective nerd mythology. I think it says more about the high school kid with problems getting along with his classmates and less to do with the kid who blew through Ender's Game for the tenth time.

As books like Armada and shows such as The Big Bang Theory have demonstrated “Geek” stories appeal to just about everyone, especially now — just walking down my streets here, see shirts emblazoned with the Batman, Flash, or Green Lantern logo on people who are decidedly not your stereotypical nerd.

Within this archetype story, we always complain that we wished that there were more people who were into Star Wars, D&D and McCaffrey's Pern novels, but when it comes to the end of the day, we seem to filter out the people who we don't perceive as being good enough, unless their interests and backgrounds line up perfectly with our own. I've seen many people get worked up over the quality of other costumers at conventions and how they've only jumped on some sort of bandwagon because science fiction and fantasy movies dominate the box office.

Some people might be attracted to it because it's popular and because they saw a film/book/game that looked cool with plenty of people watching/reading/playing it. But so what? Why do you need to be born in the mid-1970s to properly appreciate standing in line for Star Wars or ET? Are you really less of a fan of The Lord of the Rings if you saw the films in the theaters and rushed to the store to pick up the books because you enjoyed it so much? Personally, I want as many people as possible to read/watch/enjoy science fiction and fantasy, so that we can have a richer community of fellow nerds.

I really despise this manufactured image of a geek-man-child and related stories, as much as I'm made uncomfortable by the people who rush to fill the role. Armada is a book that rushes to fill that role, and in doing so, it ignores just about everything that makes a book readable: likable characters, a plot that makes sense (seriously, the ending is a pretty spectacular failure), and good supporting characters and elements that support the story rather than prop it up.

When it isn't cringe-worthy to read, it's Picard-facepalm worthy when it comes to actually being a good story. Any novel that ends with (spoilers) something completely out of left field along the lines of 'and then the aliens came and cured cancer, entered us into an intergalactic hegemony and then everyone lived happily ever after the end', you've got a serious fucking problem.

This is wish-fulfillment fiction, through and through, from the situation Lightman finds himself in to the few constructed, idealized women who appear in the book. Wish fulfillment isn't necessarily bad: what person playing a video game hasn't wanted to save the world? But how many people use it to define their existence? Lightman, in saving the world, has his many hours validated. He even puts in a scene at the end where his accomplishments are acknowledged by the high school bully who beat up on him!

Armada would work perfectly if there was some recursive thing about it that made all the references make sense. There's been plenty of books / movies like this that went heavy on the nostalgia: John Scalzi's Redshirts comes to mind, along with Austin Grossman's fantastic novel You or even movies like Galaxy Quest. But the thing that made those books / movies excellent aren’t in Armada: it's just an annoying, tedious read that made me want to throw the book across the room when I finished it.

This came out five years ago, and I’ll stand by it: Armada remains one of the few books that I really wanted to throw across the room while I read it.

In the last five-six years, the SF/F world has really been working to reckon with inclusion and what makes for a healthy community. It didn’t help that this book came right on the heels of the Gamergate and Sad Puppies controversy, two movements that foretold the cycles of online abuse from angry white men on the internet. At their hearts, both movements were about preserving an idea of what being a fan was that really didn’t exist: one in which only the straight, white man was important, and in which women and other gender identities, people of color, and people with disabilities don’t have a voice.

Cline’s Armada doesn’t necessarily feel malicious in its portrayal of its portrayal of the nerd world, but it’s supportive of that viewpoint and mindset. It cashed in Cline’s interest and fascination with the things (a selective batch of those things, mind) that bind us nerds together with a pile of words that had nothing of interest to say about them, other than to point out that they existed. It’s a good cautionary tale against reading only for comfort and to challenge yourself by reading widely.

But it’s been half a decade since it’s come out, and the world has utterly changed — it doesn’t feel like five years, it feels like fifteen. Hopefully, Cline has been paying attention to what the world looks like, and Ready Player Two will play with some of those changes, rather than look like another Armada.

As always, thanks for reading! I’ve got another letter in the works for later this week or next (probably next — I don’t want to overload your inbox!) with some thoughts about podcasting and some books I’ve finished recently.