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Review: In Ernest Cline’s Armada, geek culture dies in the vacuum of space

Title
Armada
Author
Ernest Cline
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Crown
Pages
355
Price
$32

Knowledge of trivia has never been more trivial. A movie about Ant-Man's exploits held the box office's top spot the past two weeks, and the full name of any Teen Titan is a short Google search away. What was once cherished by dorks and dweebs now belongs to the general public. Geek exoticism was just drying out when Ernest Cline's first book, New York Times bestseller Ready Player One, was published in 2011, and it only feels more drained in his new absurdly similar epic, Armada.

Ready Player One was a hybrid between Willy Wonka and The Last Starfighter. A near-future boy, Wade Watts, master of video games and 1980s sci-fi, was able to utilize his niche skills against an eccentric programmer's virtual wonderland. Armada is only The Last Starfighter. Again, a near-future boy, Zack Lightman, master of video games and 1980s sci-fi, uses his niche skills to save the Earth from an alien invasion.

Lightman is recruited to dogfight in a secret intergalactic war after spending years playing what turns out to be an aptitude test disguised as a video game. Because The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game exist in this universe, Lightman will often make comparisons to these works, but doesn't embellish beyond the mere coincidence. Cline loves his homages, but doesn't budge when it comes to doing anything stimulating with them.

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Reading an Ernest Cline book feels like being trapped in an elevator with someone who hums the Duck Tales theme and would love to tell you more about Green Lantern. One passage uses X-Men, Doctor Who, Terminator and Alien to describe Zack Lightman's mom, who is then described to be bangin' as well. Cline substitutes these pop culture references for a variety of things. He'll use them instead of $10 words, fine, but he'll also use them as the punchline and its leadup. Cline's gags are in-jokes from the nerd kingdom: Leeroy Jenkins, "the cake is a lie," "all your base" and the insults from Aliens recited by the cast, often followed by a smirk. When Lightman processes his world with allusions to Avatar, Edge of Tomorrow and Iron Eagle, it's hard to tell if we're reading a more vivid description of the setting or Cline's DVD collection.

These references are more than just seasoning. The story itself seems designed by these sources. Major turning points play out as neatly as a Saturday morning cartoon or The Karate Kid, with added swearing just to be edgy. You have your high school bullies, your Obi-Wan secret mentors, and your rough n' tumble dream girl who is as geeky, sexy and rock 'n' roll as Angelina Jolie in Hackers, a comparison I'm shocked Cline resisted amid drooling over the love interest's Tank Girl tattoo.

It's as convenient as junk food. If hearing "Super Nintendo Sega Genesis" in Biggie Smalls's Juicy gave you a rush, then Armada is non-stop dopamine. But it's just acknowledgment. There's no quirky deconstruction of beloved tropes, such as in John Scalzi's Trek-riff Redshirts, or a quest for the more elusive emotions of playing The Legend of Zelda, as in David Hellman and Tevis Thompson's recent graphic novel Second Quest. Here, Cline sees nostalgia as a verbatim device, because the reminder, the meme, seems exciting enough.

In Ready Player One, nostalgia was a lost language, required by Wade Watts to decipher a series of riddles. And that is how nerds often feel about their glossaries, a shared but shadowy code, their Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, if you will, which exemplifies and ostracizes them from everyone else. But the social media arenas in which many now participate is defined by this same code, every hour a race to see who can make the most clever comparison between breaking news and a John McTiernan movie. We don't live in the world of Revenge of the Nerds any more; any jock can enlighten you about The Avengers.

Geek know-how doesn't serve any similar purpose in Armada. At best, it maps the novel's grand conspiracy that Space Invaders and Star Wars were government propaganda for a coming alien war (which is strange, because interplanetary xenophobia was never my takeaway from A New Hope). Even though it isn't required, sycophant nostalgia is still fired by Cline as though it's an exclusive superpower, possessed by Zack Lightman and select others. Armada wishes for a world where geek junk, which Cline proudly has in droves, is special enough to save the galaxy.

Zack Kotzer is a writer in Toronto. His work on comics, video games and UFOs has appeared in The Atlantic, Vice and Kill Screen.

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