The following essay discusses plot points of “Armada,” “Ready Player One,” and “Reamde.”
It was with some trepidation that I cracked open Ernest Cline’s latest novel, “Armada.” His previous bestseller, “Ready Player One,” was entertaining but aggressively empty of anything approaching substance. The story of a kid living in 2044 whose mastery of late 1970s, early 1980s nostalgia — Dungeons and Dragons and Rush, oh my — granted him untold riches and worldwide fame, “Ready Player One” was less a novel than a series of pop culture references glommed onto a thinly sketched out version of the monomyth.
“Armada” is the same, but more. Zack Lightman is a kid living just a few years from now whose mastery of the flight simulator Armada — flight missions and space battles and alien invaders, oh my — grants him worldwide fame after he leads the fight against an alien invasion that isn’t quite what it seems. An aficionado of ’80s cinema and video games, the cultural artifacts enjoyed by his beloved, long-dead father, Cline writes about Zack’s world almost entirely through the language of reference. This passage, in which Cline describes Zack’s first trip through a base on the dark side of the moon, is typical:
In that moment, I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-Wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Ender Wiggin arriving at Battle School. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.
If you aren’t familiar with the works referenced here, that stretch of writing is gibberish. The moon base is a “breathtaking site,” according to Zack. But what takes his breath away isn’t the architecture or the scope or the grandeur or the stars in the sky or the isolation. It’s the fact that it reminds him of things he’s seen on the TV before. It’s the insularity that’s breathtaking here, the inability to imagine the world through any lens other than the one he has spent his brief 18 years marinating in.
To use an expression Cline and his creation might grok, his writing resembles the metaphorical language employed by the alien captain in the classic “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Darmok.” But instead of lines like “Temba, his arms wide” or “Darmok and Jalad on the ocean,” Cline composes bon mots like this: “‘We call it the Thunderdome.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, because it has a dome. … And we fight inside it, just like Mad Max.’”
As Laura Hudson noted in a smart review of “Armada” for Slate, Cline’s book is a celebration of the gamer, a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the government develops a strain of weed to help video game addicts focus on their pixels and couch potatoes get to brag to their moms that they haven’t wasted their lives after all. “Armada” doesn’t help us understand our world or the works that populate it so much as wallow in nostalgia and self-reference, doling out high fives to those who get each nod to the past. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can write about the world of gaming with style and substance. Just look at Neal Stephenson’s 2011 opus “Reamde.”
Wholly summarizing “Reamde” — which runs more than 1,000 pages and weighs enough that holding it up to read for an hour qualifies as a modest workout — would consume my remaining allotment of words. Suffice it to say that it revolves, in part, around Richard Forthrast, the founder of a video game company that sells T’Rain, a World of Warcraft-style massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). T’Rain, in addition to being a fun video game, also serves as a sort of international money laundering hub used by Chinese “gold farmers” to scratch out a living by selling in-game goods to Westerners.
Forthrast’s niece, Zula — an Eritrean adopted by the Iowa-based Forthrast clan — works for Richard’s company in Seattle. Her boyfriend, Peter, is a freelance hacker who gets into trouble with the Russian mob; the criminals eventually take Zula, Peter, and a Hungarian hacker to a Chinese coastal city where Zula is abducted again, this time by a black, Welsh, Islamic terrorist named Abdallah Jones who happens to be living on top of a nest of Chinese T’Rain players who created a virus designed to scam money from people playing the MMORPG. The aforementioned black, Welsh, Islamic terrorist was being spied upon by an Asian, British, MI6 agent holed up across the street in China; she eventually teams up with one of the Russians and the American Richard to help free Zula from the terrorist’s clutches.
Stephenson uses T’Rain to help us consider the ramifications of an increasingly globalized world: Governments matter, but less than they used to in an age where money can be transferred instantly all over the world. It’s not unsurprising that an American, a Brit and a Russian would team up against a jihadi from Wales whose cohort of terrorist allies includes Afghan veterans and a white Westerner with terminal skin cancer looking for spiritual absolution. These two teams of opponents are held together not by ties of nationality but by ideology and blood. Simply put: They have different worldviews.
We see something similar at work in the discussions of the MMORPG, T’Rain. When Richard first designed the game, he hired a pair of authors to help craft the story of the world. The older author, a Tolkienesque language savant and Cambridge fellow, opted for a run-of-the-mill good vs. evil story. The younger author seems to chafe under this arbitrary distinction and subtly nudges the game’s players toward a distinction of their own making, leading to the spontaneous rise of “The Forces of Brightness” and the “Earthtone Coalition.” Instead of elves and dwarves and men teaming up against each other, as Forthrast and company originally intended the game to be played, those who dressed their characters in garishly bright costumes banded together against those who opted for the more “tasteful” wardrobe that characters in the game were originally clothed with.
This change in in-game behavior fascinates Richard and helps clue us in on one of the book’s key themes. “Forget everything you’re supposed to know about T’Rain,” Richard tells one of his underlings. “The races, the character classes, the history. Especially forget about the whole Good/Evil thing. Instead, just look at what is in the way of behavior and affiliations.”
The people of our world, like those who inhabit T’Rain, don’t really think of themselves as existing in bright-lined boundaries demarcating good and evil. They don’t one day say to themselves, “You know what? I’m joining Team Evil.” No, they tend to clump together based on affinities and identities and ideologies, based on their desire to protect innocent life or their adherence to the diktats of a higher power.
“Reamde” and T’Rain help us understand the world, help us make sense of our place in a globalized order. “Armada” and Armada, on the other hand, simply hope to convince us that those of us who have spent our lives voraciously consuming pop culture haven’t wasted the precious few years they’ve been given.