Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Armada, by Ernest Cline

This week I'm taking a look at Armada, by Ernest Cline which is very unabashedly a reinterpretation or, I guess reimagining would be more appropriate, of The Last Starfighter, a classic 80's science-fiction film. For people who haven't seen The Last Starfighter, I recommend watching it because I remember it as rather enjoyable. But to provide a brief summary here: the plot of The Last Starfighter is that a video game is utilized by a group of aliens as a covert training and recruitment device to find candidates to become Starfighters, who will protect the galaxy. Alex Rogan, an ordinary human teenager living in a trailer park manages to beat the game and gets recruited, eventually saving the day. It's a pretty standard condensed hero's journey, but serviceable.

Armada follows the same basic premise, although with a dash of Ender's Game thrown in. A popular video game called Armada is actually a training tool by the Earth Defense Alliance to train and recruit potential pilots to help repel an alien invasion, and the game has been used to control drones before in actual battles with aliens. Zack Lightman, an ordinary high school student who plays Armada obsessively and is ranked 6th in the entire world, begins seeing alien spacecraft in the sky outside school. He initially dismisses it as a hallucination but is eventually recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance to join the war effort. It seems the aliens are finally preparing for a final all-out assault and humanity will soon be engaged in a final, epic battle for survival.

If the story was just that, I'd honestly think this book would be okay. It takes some long-existing ideas and combines them. I'd say it doesn't really do anything that hasn't been done before in some shape or form, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a serviceable science-fiction story with a hero's journey arc. It's a formula that's worked before and probably will continue to work well into the future.

The problem I have is that Zack Lightman is a character I desperately wanted to punch in the face repeatedly and honestly isn't a protagonist I like terribly much. The reason is because he comes across, especially in the first third of the book or so, as a spoiled brat. Okay, yes, he grew up without his father who died in an explosive accident when he was just a baby, and growing up with just his mom was tough. But he has so many other benefits that any time I hear him complain about anything it sounds like typical teenage whining without realizing how well off they actually are.

I'm actually going to do some comparison to Alex Rogan, the protagonist from Last Starfighter, because the book itself invites the comparison and we have two fairly similar situations. Alex, as I mentioned, lives in a trailer park, which carries the connotation of soul-crushing poverty in America. Zack, however, lives in an actual honest-to-goodness house with his mom so that's advantage number one. Secondly, Alex is desperately trying to get into college so that he can get a step up and try to escape the trap of poverty associated with where he lives, only to get rejected. Zack, who is two months away from graduation mind you, hasn't even bothered to apply to any colleges and isn't really looking into going to college. This is despite the fact his mother has, over the years, saved up enough for him to be able to go to almost any school he wanted and get a Bachelor's and his mother begging him to go to college. The only thing keeping Zack from going to college is his own lack of motivation.

On top of that Zack has an extremely cushy after-school job. Instead of bagging groceries or flipping burgers or any of a dozen other soul-crushing minimum wage jobs countless teenagers have had to do, Zack works in a gaming arcade. A gaming arcade run by an eccentric millionaire who runs the store as a hobby at a loss, rather than as an actual business. As a result Zack spends, in his own words, about 10% of the time actually doing work and the remaining 90% of the time goofing off. As I haven't watched The Last Starfighter in forever, I can't remember if Alex had a job or not, but I'm damn sure it involved far more actual work rather than getting paid to hang out and play video games. And Zack certainly spends an inordinate amount of time playing video games, admitting he's let his GPA drop a full point because of the time he's dedicated to playing Armada.

So honestly, I just want to punch Zack in the face every time he starts whining about how hard his life is. Because it really isn't. He isn't some down-on-his-luck protagonist who's trying to get by but just can't seem to get a lucky break. He's a spoiled kid who's got plenty of support and encouragement and opportunities, and is squandering them to sit on his butt and play video games. I mean, fortunately playing video games is exactly the skill needed to save the day, but there are plenty of other people who are good at video games so it hardly makes Zack special.

And so Zack's what makes me not like the book. The fact that he's a protagonist I simply cannot stand makes me dislike other things that happen in the book. For example, there's Alexis, the obligatory girl for the protagonist to meet, fall in love with, and get as a sort of bonus after saving the day at the end of the story. It's a trope that's existed since before time itself and you see it coming a mile away because you know how the story goes. (There are extreme problems with this trope in general, but if I go into them this will stop being about this book so we'll save it for another time.) So I'm sitting here, listening to Wil Wheaton read this book, and I can see it coming a mile away. And I can't help but think, ''No, Zack, you don't deserve the hot, nerdy goth girl. You haven't earned it!'' Is this annoyingly petty of me? Yes. Very much so. But it shows how much I'm annoyed with the main character.

And then Zack messes up. This is another trope that's been around for forever and it might have a name but right now I can't think of what it'd be called so we'll just go with No Consequences for Heroes. Basically we have our designated hero who does something they shouldn't. In military settings they usually disobey a direct order and the result is that something bad happens. In the case of Armada, Zack chases an enemy drone into a hangar and ends up destroying a stockpile of about five hundred drones, which are badly needed for the coming war with the aliens. Now, normally Zack would be facing a court martial and probably get booted out of the EAD, or possibly even executed depending on how serious the authority figures would be feeling. But since Zack is our designated hero, even though he's made a horrible mistake and should suffer some sort of consequence for his actions, he just gets off with a warning. Again, this has been used before in plenty of other texts, Harry Potter springs to mind, but since I don't like the main character it annoys me far more than it should.

Oh, and did I mention Zack describing his own mother as ''smoking hot''? Because that's a thing that happens too. I certainly didn't want to hear him say that because it's creepy as hell, but it's there. He admits to having a bit of an Oedipus Complex. If you didn't have reason enough to hate him.

So what's the result for me? I probably would have thought this book was okay. The plot isn't terribly new or ground-breaking and almost formulaic at points, but that's okay. It works, and that doesn't mean formulas can't be enjoyable. However, because Zack comes across as a spoiled teenager without an ounce of motivation in his body who just wants to spend the rest of his life slacking off and playing video games, I don't really have any sympathy for his problems. Life in suburban Oregon is boring and you wish you could be somewhere else? Well maybe if you applied yourself and got into college, rather than playing video games every night, then you might be finding a new and exciting way out of here. Most of the problems Zack has are his own damn fault and I just have no sympathy for him as a result. And in a protagonist-driven story that's a critical weakness which leaves me with relative distaste for this book.

- Kalpar

No comments:

Post a Comment