Review: Armada

Armada

Armada
nuclear missilenuclear missile

Two nuclear missiles
(2 out of 4 rating)

I read Armada as part of my search for a 2015-published novel worthy of a Planetary Awards nomination. I place it third out of the five traditionally-published novels I read. If Armada had been indie-published, I also would have placed it squarely in the middle of that category.

The first half (or more) of the book is a modernized version of The Last Starfighter, while the ending reads like any of a dozen Star Trek episodes. The sci-fi and gaming-related parts of the story flow well, but there’s too much ‘conflict with the school bully’ and ‘puppy-dog romance’ content for me. Armada is crammed full of 1970s-1990s geek/pop culture references, and though I’m in the right age group and subculture to identify them, they didn’t rescue the story for me. If you’re into 1980s pop culture, the general online consensus is that the author’s first science fiction novel, Ready Player One, is a much better book.

Armada’s premise is that online videogames were secretly designed as training simulators to prepare gamers to fly real-world combat drones. The drones’ purpose is to fight off an alien invasion force which is kept secret by the world’s governments. I needed more explanation – why would governments keep the invasion secret? Governments love to control their citizens’ lives, and what better excuse than an alien invasion? (I’m surprised real-world governments haven’t gotten together to fake one.) Also, limiting serious training to hardcore gamers put Earth at risk. Maybe Tom Brady and Donald Trump would have been the best space-fighter-drone pilots ever, but since they didn’t know an invasion was coming, they didn’t play video games.

It wouldn’t have taken much effort to write a more reasonable scenario. What if the earth-defense preparations needed to be kept secret to keep the aliens from moving up the invasion timetable? What if the defense preparations were being run by a second alien group, which didn’t want to be exposed? What if the defense preparations were being run by a crazy trillionaire with a pathological hatred of governments? Those are just off the top of my head, but each is better than no explanation, which is what the book gives us.

In the story’s climax, the hero decides (based on almost no information) that the aliens will end their invasion if he destroys the most powerful human ship, which is approaching the alien forward base. Of course he does so, which leads to peace and the humans being invited to join the galactic community. Kumbaya

The aliens could just as well have been looking for military allies, and wiped out humanity when it didn’t demonstrate desperate enough resistance, or the aliens could have been horrified that a human would attack his own ship in the middle of a fight for survival, and wiped us out on principle. Those are scenarios using human thought processes; who knows what an alien mind might have thought? Once again, something could have been written to make the character’s actions seem rational, but the book gives us nothing.

I recently had some premise issues with another book, Rath’s Deception, but it was easy to ignore those issues and nominate it as best self-published novel of 2015 for the Planetary Awards. Maybe something about the rest of its plot, writing style, or the main character made me forget about any flaws. Maybe it was easier to imagine a desperate inner-city teen grasping at straws than to accept Armada’s problems. It’s possible the faster pace of Rath’s story just didn’t leave me time to wonder about the premise.

My takeaway message for authors: put yourself in the shoes of your character/government/alien race, then ask yourself “why am I doing this?” If you need them to do something to drive the plot in a certain direction, don’t just have them do it, put something in the story that gives them a reason to do it.

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11 comments

  1. I have heard about though not read the book, mostly via snark podcasts and the like. It does seem simultaneously to be the sort of thing that would incredibly annoy me to read, and also that people who kind-of know me would figure I must love. I’m kind of relieved it showed up far enough away from my birthday that it’s probably not going to end up sent my way.

    1. You might be annoyed at the way some of the 80s references were shoehorned in, among other things. I’ll probably read Ready Player One at some point – at least the 80s references should feel more natural, since the setting is a virtual world based on the 80s. I wonder what was so cool about the 80s that it would deserve a virtual world?

  2. That is sage advice at the end. If you can’t explain why your characters do something, if they only do it to further the plot, then you have a problem.

    1. Let’s hope more authors will take that into account.

  3. It would seem that the culture references are the lesser problem here, with a story that sounds a little derivative: “The Last Starfighter” you quoted and “Ender’s Game” being the most obvious choices. But what I can’t understand is the reasoning (?) behind the main character’s ultimate action, because from where I stand it makes no sense….

    1. There was a brief section where the character reviewed some footage of earlier invasion waves, and saw that the aliens were always leaving an opening for the humans to hit the aliens and win the battle. The leap from there to “let’s destroy our own ship and stop fighting” doesn’t make any sense. Sure, it’s one possible thing the aliens could have wanted, but there are dozens of other possibilities.

      1. Indeed, and more than a leap it seems like a blind stumble… 🙂

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