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My wife and I watch "Hell's Kitchen," a reality TV show in which restaurant line cooks from across the country are (effectively, although voluntarily) kidnapped and held incommunicado on a Los Angeles sound stage, where they are forced to participate in a series of absurdist cooking challenges. They also serve as staff in a surrealistic restaurant where they serve Beef Wellington and halibut to D-list Hollywood celebrities. On every episode, someone orders the scallop appetizer, and the poor hapless cook assigned to prepare the scallops botches it up, making them either undercooked or overcooked. And every(!) single(!) time(!), Gordon Ramsay, predictable as the sunrise, throws a fit.

So my wife and I sit back on our sofa and ask, "Have none of these people watched the show?" If I were ever picked to be on the program, I would have mastered every nuance of scallop-cooking in order to escape the wrath of Chef Ramsay. But every single season, contestants make this and other mistakes because they haven't seen the show.

Zack Lightman, the hero and narrator of Ernest Cline's ARMADA, has seen “Hell’s Kitchen.” He has seen all the shows (“Star Trek,” “Firefly”) and all the movies (Star Wars, The Last Starfighter), read all the books (ENDER’S GAME) and played all the tabletop role-playing games. (It is no coincidence that one of the evil alien ships is shaped like a 10-sided gaming die.) He also has played all the video games, including "Armada," a space-battle simulation, and a related ground-battle game.

"Cline's task is to weave a fairly conventional man-versus-aliens story with the sci-fi canon of the last 40 years.... The one true outstanding feature of the book is that it is self-aware."

The last two there are most important, because they are the recruitment films for a shadowy government conspiracy, which is using them to train thousands of work-shy millennials in the intricacies of piloting drone interceptors and hulking battle mechs against wave upon wave of alien invaders. This shadow government conspiracy has been busy over the last 30 years constructing an untold number of drone aircraft in advance of the alien forces. This is accomplished by what sci-fi authors refer to as "handwaving," which is distracting the reader so as to obscure the utter impossibility of the thing. (Anyone who has followed the decades-long progress of the "joint strike fighter" will recognize the ridiculousness of how such a thing could ever be done, much less in total secrecy.)

As the aliens arrive, Lightman goes from a going-nowhere high school senior to being a highly coveted space jockey. The shadowy government conspiracy whisks him out of his boring, bully-ridden suburban high school, plops him in a secret Midwestern military base, and puts him in the virtual cockpit of a drone fighter in the middle of the biggest air-ground battle since Okinawa.

Cline's task is to weave a fairly conventional man-versus-aliens story with the sci-fi canon of the last 40 years. This emerges largely as fanservice. There is quite a bit of fanservice in ARMADA, such as the bit when Zack steps aboard the secret moon base and expects it to be designed like the Clavius base in 2001: A Space Odyssey; of course, it is. If huge chunks of the book seem to be taken from other science fiction literature, there's a reason for that. (Cline even borrows the manic pixie dream girl from his own splendid debut, READY PLAYER ONE.) The result is a novel that will be cherished by its natural fan base but will be almost incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't know what the Konami Code is.

Even its most ardent defenders will have to admit that ARMADA is cobbled together from a mass of spare parts that don't always mesh well together. It seems as though the book is a genre-savvy novelization of someone else's generic Hollywood screenplay. For all of Cline's dexterity in presenting the video game space battles, there are big chunks of exposition here that the reader has to chew through, as well as the seemingly endless presentation of the backstories of tertiary characters that might as well be big neon signs that say SPACE ALIENS KILL ME NOW.

The one true outstanding feature of the book is that it is self-aware. And as everyone who reads a lot of science fiction knows, self-awareness is a curse. ARMADA is a perfectly commendable science fiction adventure that ultimately knows too much about its genre and itself to shed its native cynicism and reach the transcendent enlightenment that so often comes with blowing up the big alien mothership in the last reel.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on July 17, 2015

by Ernest Cline

  • Publication Date: April 12, 2016
  • Genres: Adventure, Fiction, Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • ISBN-10: 0804137277
  • ISBN-13: 9780804137270