This summer, the scent of Reagan-era movie franchises hangs heavy in the air. From “Mad Max: Fury Road” (minus Mel Gibson) to the throwback video-arcade pleasures of “Pixels,” it’s as if we never left our big hair, Billy Idol days behind us. In the words of “Ahnuld” Schwarzenegger in the rebooted “Terminator Genisys,” “I’ll be back.” He is. And so are the 1980s.
Also riding that trickle-down breeze of science-fiction nostalgia is the adventure yarn “Armada.”
Ernest Cline’s new novel is a virtual retread of his previous work, “Ready Player One.” That futuristic story featured a nerdy-savvy 17-year-old gamer boy whose quest to solve puzzles in an online gaming world hinged on knowledge of ancient pop culture. Same in “Armada”: Zach Lightman is a disaffected teen who’s spent his “entire life overdosing on uncut escapism, willingly allowing fantasy to become my reality.” Zach’s father died in a mysterious accident. Zach’s mother is an understanding and yes, hot, woman who knows when to hit all the right Gandalf and Yoda quotes in conversation with her son who, like Luke Skywalker, has “daddy issues.”
And, like Luke, Zach yearns to do something big.
Soon, he gets that chance. Daydreaming in class, he spies a spaceship from his favorite video game, Armada, whizzing through the skies. Before long, Zach is whisked along on a coming-of-age alien-invasion ride that cribs heavily from the plots of “Ender’s Game” and “The Last Starfighter.” Turns out the top-secret Earth Defense Alliance has known of the imminent attack for decades and has been training the resistance, clandestinely, via Armada, and before that, arcade games such as Galaga and Battlezone. As the real enemy arrives, millions of ordinary gamers are linked to real missions through their Xboxes and PlayStations. Top-ranked players like Zach are handpicked to play key roles in the war’s first salvos. But there’s something fishy — or squidy — about the tentacled Space Invaders’ tactics, which adhere too carefully to video game and movie scripts. Hmmm.
For sure, nerd guru Cline has got our Gen X pop-cultural subconscious covered. Zach supposedly knows so much about “Back to the Future’’ and bands like Rush and Heart because, like Luke, there’s B-side about what happened to Zach’s dad, a gamer nerd in his own day. Zach delves into his dad’s boxes of classic video games, Dungeons & Dragons tomes, and arena-rock mixtapes, scouring them like a Rosetta Stone for clues. The problem is, every interaction between characters is another excuse to ’80s-culture name drop. There’s no plausible reason why Zach’s buddies and fellow gamer-warriors should know the ins and outs of “Top Gun” and the “Star Trek’’ universe.
What begins as a rapid-fire in-joke for sci-fi geeks quickly becomes a tedious exercise in nostalgia and sci-fi cliché. Cline can’t have it both ways. In one breath he pokes fun at the tropes of the genre; in Zach’s own words, he’s “an intrepid young space hero about to embark on an epic adventure.” But the author then expects readers to take his dialogue seriously. “You possess a very rare and valuable talent, Zach,” our hero is told at one point. Later: “This isn’t about your father, Zach. Try to understand what’s happening — what’s at stake. The entire future of the human race.” Adding to the mess of this mash-up, Cline traffics in the worst sort of nerdy wish-fulfillment fantasy, giving Zach a sexy hacker love interest who drinks booze from an R2-D2 flask.
Does Zach get the girl, learn the secret of his father, and save the world?
Suffice it to say, any savvy YA-level reader can see the by-the-numbers plot twists coming a light-year, I mean, a parsec away (but probably will miss most of the allusions). Meanwhile, “Armada” will bore most 40- and 50-somethings otherwise lured by all the retro pop-culture detritus.
One thing Cline’s got right: His novel is screenplay-ready, and roughly the right heft to play out in two hours or less. In fact, “Ready Player One” is already destined for the big screen, courtesy of Steven Spielberg. It’s only a matter of time before the godfather of ’80s sci-fi helms an adaptation of “Armada” too. Then we’ll get to watch the ultimate self-referential nostalgia act: Spielberg directing a film based on a book that’s a tribute to his movies.
By Ernest Cline
Crown, 368 pp., $26