Armada by Ernest Cline (2015) Review With 372 pages in notes

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“Armada” by Ernest Cline (2015) with “372 Pages We Will Never Get Back”: 4 out of 10: “Armada” by Ernest Cline follows Zack Lightman, a high school senior known for getting into trouble. He is also one of the top players of the video game Armada, a combat flight simulation where players defend Earth from extraterrestrial invaders. One day, Zack sees a ship resembling a Sobrukai Glaive from Armada outside his classroom window. This leads him to look through his late father Xavier’s notebooks about a conspiracy theory linking pop culture films, novels, and video games about alien invasions to real-life events.

At the video game shop where Zack works part time, his boss, Ray, gives him a new controller for Armada as an early graduation gift. Zack tries it out on a new special mission involving an attack on the aliens’ home planet with a weapon called the Icebreaker, but the Earth team fails.

The next morning, while fighting a bully at school, a shuttlecraft with the Earth Defense Alliance (EDA) logo lands. Ray, who is one of the passengers, invites Zack to a top-secret military facility in Nebraska. There, Zack falls in love with Alexis “Lex” Larkin, a recruit who plays a similar game called Terra Forma. Zack learns the EDA is real and that the aliens from Europa (dubbed Sobrukai in the game) are planning an invasion. The EDA has been using Armada to train skilled drone pilots to defend Earth. The Europans plan a full-scale attack in less than eight hours.

The Nebraska base is attacked by a scouting party, and Zack disobeys orders by chasing down an invading ship, which self-destructs and destroys several EDA drones. Though scolded by Admiral Archibald Vance, Zack and top Armada players, Whoadie, Debbie, Chen, and Milo are deployed to Moon Base Alpha. There, Zack discovers his father Xavier, who had faked his death, is an EDA general.

The Good

The Good: Since Armada is Ernest Cline’s follow up to his best-selling juggernaut debut novel “Ready Player One”. Let’s start with what Armada does better.

Armada has better female characters than “Ready Player One”. Now that is might seem like damning with faint praise since Ready Player One’s love interest Art3mis was a horrible person who tortured our hero Wade Watson.

But setting aside the low bar of the pudgy, port stained, geek girl going all bi-polar. I genuinely liked the main female characters in Armada.

We have our heroes really hot mom (that is the way Zack describes her, don’t look at me) who seems like a surprisingly well-rounded character who just wants to see her son leave the house and start his own life. And we have another Manic Pixie love interest “Lex” who somehow overcomes the horrible meet cute and turns in a solid supporting role.

Though Armada is also chock full of eighties trivia down to a contextless list of movies and video games that are read by Wil Wheaton, who is back for the audiobook. Wil reads the list at a good pace for a mind numbing five minutes and fifty seconds (372 pages featuring Mike Nelson and Conor Lastowka timed it). At least this time the movie and game references are more relatable (No 1970s only in Japan Anime) and are themed somewhat. (No one is watching every episode of Family Ties in this book).

Both Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter are named dropped multiple times in Armada, which is helpful if you want to know where Cline wholesale took his plot from. (Though he borrows Michael Ironside’s eye patched sergeant from Starship Troopers and somehow forgets to mention that movie so your mileage may vary)

Cline also does a good job with the action scenes. Like any praise for Cline, however, there is a caveat. There are shocking few action scenes in the book. Honestly, it takes about eighty percent of the book for the characters to stop having Zoom meetings and getting on with the plot at hand.

The Bad

The Bad: Ernest Cline cannot tell time. This was an issue in Ready Player One where his hero Wade Watts managed to read every book written, play and master every video game, watch every movie and TV show made to the point of memorization. All this in about three years while going to school.

The events in Armada apparently take place over one or maybe two days. With the distances travelled and the actions taken. This is clearly impossible. If Cline were to write a novel about World War II, he would have Paris fall during breakfast, Stalingrad fall at lunch, D-day occur at tea time and Berlin occupied around 9pm.

It is not just days that Cline has trouble with. He is constantly stating something takes seven seconds when clearly the actions described would take significantly longer. It is as if Cline is unaware how short seven seconds is?

The Ugly

The Ugly: Repeat after me. “Get on with it”. Get used to that phrase because you will yell it at the book. It takes forever for the plot to get going. Just when you think something exciting is going to happen, it is a forty-five minute chapter with Carl Sagan giving yet another lore dump.

This would not be a problem if the characters were not so shallow and honestly insulting the reader. We have characters suddenly become gay potheads because of plot. We have mothers of three from the Midwest spending two chapters sounding like Marge Gunderson from Fargo suddenly deciding that an hour before an alien attack is the time to get freaky. I am sure we all remember the wild orgy on the Higgins Boat in “Saving Private Ryan”, yes? Kind of like that.

You can see my notes below for more, but I cannot do justice on how all over the place the characters are. And since per Cline time they have only known each other for a few hours, the entire enterprise seems silly.

The main character, Zack Lightman, starts out pretty solid in the first few chapters and then falls apart in front of our eyes till he is even less likable that Ready Player One’s Wade Watts.

Similar to that character arc for Zach, the plot starts out interesting and then becomes sillier and stupider as the story goes on till you have Nixon nuking swastikas that appeared on a moon. This is not nearly as entertaining as it sounds.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: Disappointing, boring, and surprisingly simple. Armada is just not that good a story and despite some green shoots in places, is not told terribly well either.

Random Notes from reading Plus 372 Pages Podcast

372 Pages: Well, we start with a pretty full introductory podcast. Mike and Connor clearly really enjoyed doing the previous one and are eager to take on a new Clineian challenge.

We have fanfic or real, which is quite the challenge since neither has cracked open the book. To add injury to insult, there seems to be no actual fanfiction for Armada, which the boys point out shows the disdain for the novel.

Much is made of the outrageous praise of Ready Player One (Leaving aside the fact it appears on many a teenager’s reading list from high school nowadays) The boys point out that while the critics were falling over themselves in praise for Ready Player One, they have taken a much harsher lens to Armada. Conor reads reviews as Mike tries to guess which novel it was for. It becomes clear from both the reviews and the brief excerpt from the “Fanfic or Real” challenge that this book is not just more of the same but could be even more video game and trivia focused than the previous one.

Like men sentenced to hard labor, Mike and Conor approach their self imposed death sentence with a song in thier heart and a call to other to join them up to chapter 3 is the first assignment.

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Chapter one. In my review of Ready Player One (Which as of this writing, I have not published or finished writing); I praised Ernest Cline for doing a great job both starting and finishing his book. And while there are an awful lot of warning flags flying proudly in Armada, Cline does a superb job setting up our protagonist with father issues, worries about his sanity, an alien invasion only he saw, and anger management issues.

In addition, our protagonist is more relatable than fat loser Wade Wilson. Zach is not a virgin. He intimidates bullies. He drives a car. In other words, he is your standard eighties high school senior. That Cline is writing this protagonist for 2013 is something we best ignore for a moment.

While Mike and Conor above were unfamiliar with The Last Starfighter, I am not and my spidey sense is telling me Cline “borrowed” that plot since the alien spaceships our hero saw were out of a popular video game. Of course, this could be a 372 page look into a young mans descent into schizophrenia… but my money is on the video game was a test to recruit earth pilots bullshit.

The book is not painful with one issue so far. Now first I am pretty solid on eighties geekdom. And while “Ready Player One” was digging out Japanese robot serials from the seventies that about four people have heard of (as well as text adventure games that were not Zork) the references in Armada are all recognizable. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of them. We have best friends arguing the best weapon in fiction: Some sword from Lord of the Rings used by Hobbits (Sting?) and Thor’s hammer (Mjölnir). For the record, my answer would be Death Star, but what do I know?

The book even starts with a quote from the programmer for Defender. “The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games. – Eugene Jarvis”. Of course Defender came out in 1981. Computers have become slightly more useful since then.

What is the point of starting the book with that quote is my real question. It seems like a giant flashing warning sign. One I cannot ignore.

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Chapter 2 is all about the father. On audio, it is thirty minutes long. It is a long thirty minutes. In Armada, our hero’s dad died around the time he was born. If this sounds familiar, Cline used the same set-up for Ready Player One. In Armada he doubles down because dad apparently uncovered a vast conspiracy while playing in an arcade as opposed to dying during a liquor store hold-up.

The conspiracy is the video game industry was created by the military to train young people as fighters for the upcoming alien invasion. If you are saying to yourself, hey that plot sounds familiar, don’t worry. Both Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter are named dropped in this chapter multiple times. There are a lot of names dropping. In fact, a very good chunk of the chapter is just the character listing names of video games, books, and movies involved in this conspiracy in chronological order. (He still misses a few obvious ones like 1980’s Alien and mentions a couple that certainly does not fit the pattern (They Live).

The list takes a long time and makes a lot of dubious claims. I have played the Atari 2600 Combat and I can assure you it is no more a military simulator used to train young people than BurgerTime is a restaurant simulator.

Now, in this endless chapter that stops the story in its tracks, I have two notes. Ernest Cline is not a terrible writer. He just writes about very boring things with no stakes. His writing in this chapter is actually fine. I challenge any writer to make dozens of pages of a son going through long-dead father’s conspiracy theory journal about the military using video games to train soldiers sound exciting. And yes, I am making you list of forty games with no context and explain the plot and defend the movie Iron Eagle.

The other thing is there is a gem of a good idea that I fear Mr. Cline will not expand in a good way. There are talks of secret arcade games put in local arcades that can drive the players mad. The government keeps track of the high scores and sees which players go on killing sprees or commit suicide.

This is brilliant, but to make this work A: the book would have to take place when Arcades existed, such as the late eighties. And B the father would have to be the main character and C there would not have to be a mainstream online only space shooter called Armada, which clearly by the title alone and the viewing of one of its spacecraft, IRL will rejoin the plot.

Perhaps someone (even myself) will take up the mantle and write an eighties novel about government conspiracies and games designed to create psychological trauma. Alas, this is not that book. Shame.

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Chapter 3 is our hero at his “job” hanging out part time with his buddy, an older forty-something who is living the dream of owning a used game store.

Mr. Cline emphasises that the store owner does not make money. (He made it rich in the dot.com bubble) and he pays too much for used games, then turns around and sells them at a loss. I mean, I remember businesses like this growing up. Some Wall Street executive would pay for his wife’s storefront where little black dresses or antiques are sold. I doubt those businesses were anything but a tax right off and to keep the misses happy.

Hell, even in my town we have a few gaming, comic book and used bookstores that easily could be borderline this (Though none are really known for their low prices.) So from this point of view, Cline is accurate, but his doubling down on the guy making money makes no sense. He could sell the used games for twice what he paid for them and still be losing his shirt. (Later on in the chapter, his store gets a dozen or more $500 speciality controllers for the Armada game. Whom he is supposed to sell these to is never addressed and why the manufacture would send a tiny used game store in Beaverton, Oregon so many of a new product a month before official launch is also as of this reading a mystery.

Plus, $500 is way too low of a price for a VR rig with a helmet and fancy flight controls. (I almost bought the Steel Battalion controller back in the early aughts. and that bad boy was not VR and close to this price. )

We also get a very detailed description of the Armada game as well as its ground based counterpart. The company that made both games included all the major developers. (Including Gabe Newell and Lord Richard???) The vision being a VR MMO… two things that have bankrupted more gaming companies in the last five years than almost anything else. (It would have been hilarious if the big idea was a game based on the obscure film Battle Royale. But alas, it wasn’t. Hit and a miss for Cline)

It isn’t all swings and misses. As awful as the subject matter is (and how the game seems just an arcade version of XCOM) there are some positive highlights. There is an actual game scene that is action oriented, which is like a cool fresh drink among the finances and background stories of a nonexistent video game company. The writing is not all that bad. Just the subject matter being written about. I still like this guy more than Wade. And he has a superb point. Why didn’t Star Wars use drones? Why fly your own fighters? Of course, modern Star Wars films such as The Last Jedi have given us B-17 bomber runs, so apparently it can get worse.

While not torture, Armada has not really gone anywhere. Cline is doing a lot of background and exposition dump for the first three chapters. To what end, I am unclear.

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372 Pages: So it is the first proper show on Armada titled appropriately “What have we done?”. If there is a main theme that is a takeaway from the first three chapters. It is noting that nothing actually happens. Kid in classroom see UFO, Kid goes home and reads father’s journal trying to convince himself he is not insane, Kid goes to work at local video game store.

What amazes both Mike and Conor is the sheer amount of unnecessary detail of the three chapters. The one part of the three chapters I found a touch entertaining, the description of the battle for Newark. The boys point out is a description of someone watching someone else playing and losing at a video game.

They timed (and played a snippet) of poor Will Wheaton reading that list of movies and video games with some sort of space themes and it was five minutes and fifty seconds long. Good God, as one who is listening to the audiobook, I felt that. Listening to the snippet, I can hear the tiredness in Will Wheaton’s voice.

Plenty of readers wrote in to talk about the ridiculous list of video game designers that Cline clumsily put on the page.

The boys have a solution for the lack of fanfic for Armada. They are asking readers to send in some samples to try to fool them. I expect some excellent fanfic or real coming up. Overall, it is an excellent podcast by the boys though thier enthusiasm was clearly drained by the first three chapters. As they point out in “Ready Player One” things happened in the first fifty pages. I mean, a lot of the things were nonsensical, but they were things happening. This does so far seem the weaker entry.

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Chapters 4 and 5: Get… On… with… It…

Okay, seriously, I like this Lightman character a lot more than Wade Watts from Ready Player One. (Have I mentioned that I feel like I have mentioned that) he is multidimensional and despite having the same (if not worse) issues with absent dead father, he seems better put together? But good lord, the plot is killing me.

Ernest Cline seriously needs to ask himself why would anyone care. He should ask himself this when Wade is reading off the names of the top ten pilots. Or describing some minutiae that has nothing to do with the story.

Cline still does the endless call outs to eighties and nineties trivia but to his credit, he has mostly avoided the habit of saying the thing and then explaining where the thing was from. He is just down to saying the thing. Still, hardly a paragraph goes by without a Star Wars or Aliens reference.

There is a game character of the wizened old general with battle scars and an eyepatch, which is clearly Michael Ironside as Jean Rasczak in “Starship Troopers”. So clearly that I don’t know if Cline avoids telling us this out of restraint or embarrassment. He lifted the entire character from the movie.

Plot wise we and introduced to Lightman’s mom. Miss Lightman. Apparently, she is hot, which is a strange thing for her son to be telling us. She also clearly wants him out of the house. (College, army, she doesn’t care.) The character thinks it is because he reminds her of his dead father she is still in love with. I am not sure I am giving Cline way too much credit here, but I sense an unreliable narrator. She clearly wants him out so she can move on with her life. She wants to get her freak on and it is hard to do with a son that is always home.

Besides being beautiful, the mom is also a bit of a geek and is bordering on a bit of a Mary Sue.

We also get the background on the bully. Will Cline use the bully to appear at a surprising moment at the most inopportune time as King deftly did to his protagonist in ‘Salem’s Lot. I don’t have high hopes.

And now we have the game Armada and a new mission called the Doolittle Mission (Golf clap). Where the earthlings take the war back to the home planet. It is a suicide run people. That is where Cline drags the story to a glacial pace, describing the game in detail. The bad guys have this new weapon, the disrupter, that could cause drones to not be able to be used. I sense foreshadowing. I hope it is foreshadowing.

Look, we are five chapters in and the only action scenes (In the broadest sense) are memories of a junior high school fight. A video game involving robots attacking Newark and the intro screen to a mission in space using tropes and characters from Starship troopers.

Outside of this, we have had some character building and a lot of very, very useless trivia. Even a murder mystery would have killed off at least one person by now. This is a Sci-fi action book, and I have seen more action going Costco shopping.

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Well, we have arrived at Section 2. And what a journey. A journey that could have been two chapters if I was being generous. Well, the last two chapters of section one are basically two parts. The first part is a blow by blow description of a dogfight in a video game. Even a real dogfight would have been stretching it with such descriptions. Cline is also falling into bad habits from Ready Player One. He has started to do the “The item looked/sounded/tasted/felt like the name of semi-popular pop reference” here crutch.

He also has a boring and predictable playlist. His character listens to Queen’s number one hits album. What no “Violent Femmes”? No “Madonna”? No “10cc”???? I know “Guardians of the Galaxy” has the same trope which it uses to great effect, but in reality I would like to make two points.

Guardians of the Galaxy” has better taste in music. It is more intertwined with the plot. Hell, even Saints Row 4 does this trope better with “What Is Love” by Haddaway playing during the escape sequence from the Zin invasion ship.

You know, if Armada ends up having the same plot as Saints Row IV, I will be surprised and delighted.

I have said above that at least Lightman is a better protagonist than Wade Watts from “Ready Player One”… well, that thesis is under attack. Lightman is a whiny bitch that falls apart when not playing a video game and his focus on his missing father is understandable in moments and context just like it would for anyone, but seriously, he needs to get over it big time. It isn’t very relatable at this point and is boring.

So The Earth Defence Force, attempting to make the local news I suppose, flies a spaceship onto the front lawn of the High School and recruits Lightman. And who would have guessed it, the Funyun munching video game store owner was actually a field agent for the Earth Defense Force to monitor Lightman over the last six years because he was so good at video games?

Does any of this make sense? Good Lord no. It makes whatever the opposite of sense is. I mean, the EDF would probably like to keep the identity of its best pilots out of the papers. Probably does not want to introduce alien invasions to the general public in such a way. And why Lightman needed a field agent watching him is beyond me?

Lightman is in highschool. Offer a free scholarship to video game camp if you want top see him firsthand. You acting like he is fucking Harry Potter over here.

Two other demerits. The conspiracy was real (The government funded Star Wars) The book ignores the endless flying saucers invade earth movies from the fifties…. And a character uses the phrase “Call to Action” without irony in the book. Well, we shall see now that we have actual aliens to fight if the book can come out of the lethargic start and plot nosedive it is currently in. It is headed to fuck off territory at light speed as we speak.

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372 Pages: Clocking in at a little over an hour and a half, the boys surprisingly have a lot to say about the previous three chapters. We are treated to a hidden Hollywood outtake of the new Armada adaptation from Mike, Kevin and Bill, which is a funny concept but is a little too crude and a little too long for its own good.

I am glad I am not the only one who found our protagonist incredibly whiny and noticed Clines writing falling into old traps.

The fan contributed fanfic is a big hit and I hope to hear more in future episodes. Overall, a solid episode for a book that has been, as both the boys and I have pointed out, a slog.

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I am starting to see a pattern here. First, as contrived and ridiculous as this meet cute with the older woman pixie girl is. As an example, her family also listened to the same Snoopy and the Red Baron album at Christmas. The pixie girl also points out how much money he must be earning gaming being number six in the world. Which is a strange thing for Cline to point out since he apparently forgot to put that part of the plot in earlier.

Despite the characterizations and the fact in real life none of this would ever happen, he actually writes it well enough not to make me poke my eyes out. In fact, though little happened during the last two chapters, I actually liked them. There is an actual cliffhanger (or at least teaser) at the end of the chapter that makes me want to read more. A first for Cline in this book. Bravo.

I know better than to have high hopes, but at least the narrative and the characters are moving in the right direction. Still an overall slog so far, however. There is plenty more digging still to do.

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The cliffhanger at the last chapter promised an exciting and shocking presentation. The cliffhanger was a lie. What we get instead in the history of the aliens of Europa (Jupiter’s moon) as narrated by Carl Sagan. Which means that since I am listening to the audiobook, I get to hear poor Will Wheaton attempt his best Carl Sagan impression.

Look, I like Carl Sagan but he is not my go to for exciting, shocking, or dramatic. As for the story, the aliens of Europa built a giant swastika and when we investigate they claimed we violated thier religion and this means war. Nothing else and no additional communication. I like the idea we are at war with Europa. It is close enough to have a touch of realism about it. It solves one of the bigger issues with aliens invade stories, mainly where did they come from and why would they travel such a distance?

There is the basis of a good yarn here. If Ernest Cline would like to get us out of the endless character exposition dump and into the yarn itself, that would be appreciated. Oh, and we have another cliffhanger. An even more exciting story awaits? Perhaps they will get Mr. Rogers to narrate this one..

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Well, it turns out the leader of the Earth forces is the same guy from the video game. I don’t know why our guy is surprised. On the plus side, our pixie love interest lex is definitely down for a good time. (Though she may be a touch drunk) but she is still in Manic Pixie mode. She is a serious upgrade from “Ready Player One’s” fat chick with a birthmark and a personality to match.

Our hero seems a lesser upgrade, but the jury is still out. He seems a bit of an asshole… he is an 18-year-old teenage boy, so that tracks. What doesn’t track is the battle scenes? In the big picture, it is an okay battle. Cline sets the stakes at an appropriate level and the forces are overwhelming but not unrealistic to fight. No, I am afraid the issue is our guy is first out of the hanger facing a hundred Glaves and none of them seem to take the time too well; you know, blast him out of the sky.

One lone glave fighter survives the fight and heads down a tunnel towards the heart of the base. The admiral gives orders not to pursue and our hot-headed teenager ignores these orders on the first day of battle because he knows better than everyone else. The result is a disaster that may have killed hundreds of his fellow troops.

I give credit to Cline for creating a redemption arc for his hot shot character. I mean it is a bit “Over Macho Grande” And I have little hope that Cline takes a realistic or dramatic route as this chapter ends. The good news is Zach is on the way to the ass chewing to end all ass chewings.

One thing Cline does yet again is allow his author notes to bleed into his text. Our hero keeps talking about how none of the story makes sense, the enemies make no sense, and asking why to they shoot and act like stormtroopers.

You know these two chapters should have been chapters 2 and 3 not chapters 11 and 12. Cline sets up Lightman with a couple of character flaws. Father issues, anger management issues, no preparing for a future that is fast approaching (Hot mom wants him out of the house). Now we have a new and pretty major character flaw. Why is it being introduced so late in the game? Why not hint at it earlier in the book rather than the flaws that have not as of yet come into play? What were we doing spinning our wheels for the first ten chapters of the book after all, if we would not utilize what little that was said?

I mean, I agree with Lightman’s own doubts and criticism of his own story. But I am curious if such observations will have a payoff… This is Cline, so I don’t have high hopes. Hell, I am still waiting for the payoff of the ridiculously hot mom from chapter three.

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(372 Pages report) Man, they spent an hour and half and didn’t mention the one thing that really bothered me… (Which, for the record, is our love interest liking the same relatively obscure Snoopy and the Red Baron Christmas album as our protagonist.)

We have all the fun sections, listener mail, dumb sentence of the week, etc. We have a leaked film clip of the new Armada movie rehearsals where they tried out various comic reactions to the news that the earth was being invaded. Fanfic or real was solid this outing thanks to both some fine fanfic written by the listeners as well as bluntly the actual quote from the book used (Featuring Neil Degrass Tyson and Stephen William Hawking whom apparently will show up in a later chapter in yet another exciting, nail biting, Zoom call.)

Conor pushed his book a smidge. He also pointed out they have a new hell of a rig t-shirts for sale featuring an inflatable cow. He confessed they had, at the time of the broadcast, managed to sell exactly zero shirts. Mike suggested people were still gathering thier orders together (What size would Grandma wear?)

They point out a Clineian failure of his writing. I did not notice the way he takes his character out of his own space to comment on his own actions. Well, that is a little awkward to explain. I thought to myself as I was typing an explanation. That kind of thing. The “I found myself laughing uncontrollably” third person reference in first person POV. Apparently, Cline does this almost as much as Conner references the Simpsons.

They also speculate that Cline may have borrowed from the George Takei 1994 film Oblivion that has been featured on RiffTrax (Spoiler alert he didn’t). The discussion of how one’s opinion about George Takei will radically change after watching the film and how Bill described it as a crime against acting provided much mirth. I found myself sensibly chuckling during my walk.

A long (An hour and half) podcast that really didn’t seem to cover much in depth. But overall, an excellent listen. Mike brings up Plato’s Cave and Conor Sideshow Bob… It is an interesting mix.

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Only one chapter on the walk today because chapter 14 is a forty-five minute monster coming up. Well, Lightman barely gets an ass chewing for disobeying orders and blowing up the base. No one was killed and his father is not dead and is the general of the moon base where he Zach is now headed.

So Lightman is a Nepo baby and his dad loves him and Dad is the best Armada player ever. And please gag me with a spoon here… This is insufferable fan fiction. Seriously.

The other thing of note is Lightman and his girl kiss goodbye. I stand by my theory that she is a much better love interest than Arial, or whatever her name was in Ready Player One. Though that is a bit of damning with faint praise.

So the question is will Lightman tell his father how hot his mom still is? And what would have happened if she moved on like Helen Hunt in Cast Away. But silly me, that would have caused drama and tension and emotions and Cline can’t have those in his Mary Sue space opera.

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Well, Lightman is going to the moon to see his father. Chapter 14 is 45 minutes long. Do you think it is that long because of the touching or perhaps dramatic reunion between father and son or is it that long because Cline introduces four hilarious stereotypes for a forty-five minute shuttle ride? Yeah, I think we all know it is column B.

You know what, pour one out for Will Wheaton. He had to do in this chapter alone. A Duluth Minnesota house wife, A fat atheist Philly gamer. A sixteen-year-old black girl from the 9th ward in New Orleans, a Chinese guy who speaks limited and halting English and the Stephen Hawking computer voice.

If Wheaton didn’t drink earlier in the book, he started when he got to chapter 14 and if he already drank; he got a sponsor after it was done. I am not saying Will Wheaton did a great job. He didn’t but good Lord who could with those stereotypes and that dialogue. Mel Blanc and Michael Winslow would have thrown in the towel halfway through.

Why does Cline not want his story to start? Seriously, it’s as if he is afraid of the actual alien attack so he is delaying for time. What should have been a three-page introduction and shuttle ride goes on forever. With Shakespeare and Bible quotes and endless Chinese translations? What is he doing? Creating anticipation? Dude, the book is halfway through. At this point, I have to assume the aliens are defeated by a software virus from an apple computer or perhaps liquid water. Because you are not leaving nearly enough room for our heroes to defeat the armada (you know the billions of alien drones you named your book after.)

Anyway, shouts of “Get on with It” from the Python fans aside the chapter is truly groan worthy. Not that there is anything particularly groan worthy on its own (there is but bear with me) It is a death of a thousand cuts… with some being much deeper than others.

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I know that I have been saying that Lightman is a better character and less irritating and juvenile than Ready Player One’s Wade Watts. Well, Cline must have overheard me and taken that claim as some sort of perverse challenge.

Lightman is simply insufferable in meeting his dead father. Leaving aside that we are less than five hours from all out war and we are headed to a last stand briefing. Even if this was a fucking fishing trip on some Wisconsin weekend lake trip, the talk and actions would be over the top. Look, I get it. He has mixed emotions; he has pain; he is immature. His father is no prize, but seriously Cline, this is the protagonist of your book, a book that I expect will have a hero rather than a whiney victim. So why make him so unlikable?

You know what also what is with the over the top film references again. No one can sweat in this fucking book without a Total Recall needle drop. Then the book has the audacity to claim the base “stole” many of its designs from classic sci-fi movies. I can think of a book that also stole from many classic sci-fi movies. Rhymes with enchilada.

Then we have Lightman sitting in a hanger with a bunch of drones fantasizing about Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Again five hours till the attack.

Ugh, this book is worse than Ready Player One. I was all about giving it the benefit of some doubt, but Cline managed a protagonist, even less appealing than one who shaves his body and fucks a sex doll. So bravo I guess?

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Me: This book cannot get more stupid. Cline: Oh yeah, hold my Diet Mountain Dew…

So once again I saw a 35 minute chapter and thought, hey I guess we are going to get into the battle now. Nope. No, we meet the entire crew of the moonbase. It does not take long since it is just two other guys, a black brit named Limey and an Asian. The three of them run the entire moon base.

Seriously Cline? You expect me to believe a moon base is run by fewer people than a shift at a rural fire station? And you also expect me to believe they have all these musical instruments for thier Van Halen cover band and they spend most nights in a D and D campaign.

I have a question for you Cline. The same question that was asked in Blazing Saddles after they built the replica of Rock Ridge. (See Cline, you are not the only one who can use pointless movie references.) What is this moon base missing? I mean, you have two majors and a general. But what else might a moonbase have? People? Yeah, that is it. Seriously, these three idiots are all the people stationed on the moon.

I am not even going to point out there is no woman on the moon. I mean, even submariners go into port every once in a while. And now we have sent a shuttle up with these five jabronis bringing the entire moonbase to eight people. To fight the Armada. Also included in the shuttle were cases of everyone’s favorite snacks and a five course meal because of course that was included.

A USAF air wing has about 3,000 active duty officers and enlisted, and anywhere from 400 to 800 civil service employees. But a Space Force space wing during wartime is eight people….

I cannot even describe how stupid this sounds. And I cannot emphasise this enough. It is not even the stupidest thing in this chapter.

We get a play-by-play on how a manned mech defeated the aliens disruptor in seven seconds from an author who clearly does not know how long seven seconds is. Not to mention the aliens can send their red rays into the moon’s (and earth’s) core top power up through the magnetic field which would require a serious physics lesson to even to be possible. And if they can do this, they certainly would not be attacking us with easy to destroy drones.

But I am overthinking this. I am certainly overthinking it more than the author did. Oh, and Lightman is still an unlovable jerk of a protagonist. And I hate everyone in the book. And am now officially on team Europa.

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372 Pages: Wow, the boys bit off more than they can chew. They seem overwhelmed by the sheer badness. The large number of chapters they choose for this broadcast has them overwhelmed at first. But being professionals, they sit down and eat one meal at a time.

Not everything is a hit. Thier reworking of an audiobook version of To Kill a Mockingbird with obscure eighties movie references falls flat as the obvious joke is obvious. There is a reference that Armada is a version of Flight of the Navigator. Like Mike (and unlike Conner) I have never seen the film either, barely heard of it and only have the slightest idea what it is about.

I find this strange because honestly I would think the main reference for the book is a combination of 1984’s The Last Starfighter with Robert Preston and the novel or maybe even movie Ender’s Game (Which was in theaters with Harrison Ford while Armada was written)

All three of these properties are, of course, named dropped in Armada. Everything is name dropped in Armada from Space Invaders to Iron Eagle.

The boys also question whether Armada had an editor. Thier initial claim that no sane editor would allow two blatant Star Wars references in subsequent paragraphs is unconvincing. I am sure the editor was in the pocket of Big Cline. However, thier diagramming of a chapter that explained that the power lines broke like Godzilla is some pretty solid evidence no editor was allowed. It is such an awkward mistake and such an easy fix. That I really wonder how such an obvious mistake in the subject (Which honestly is so easy to do as an author) was missed by both the editor and beta readers of the novel.

Keep in mind this all takes place with only the first chapter assigned to this reading. We still have quite a journey ahead of us in this podcast episode.

I now realise I read one chapter too many. Which is a bit of a shame because I was really looking forward to the boys’ views on that train wreck introduction of both Lightmans to each other. But they spend so much time on the bizarre performative atheism and cheap stereotypes and weirdly poor out of body writing on the introduction and shuttle flight crew that they would have been well over two hours had they included that last chapter.

I think because I was distracted by Wil Wheaton’s attempts at doing all the voices; I downplayed how silly all the characters were. Mike makes a superb point. Think of the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan as they head to Omaha Beach. Tom Hanks is too nervous to open his canteen while people around him throw up out of fear. Now we have these five idiots headed for a similar fate, and they are wildly cracking jokes and going on bizarre tangents.

While I may not agree with all thier exact points and I think they are sometimes a little too critical with their literary criticism of a pop kids’ book, they are not wrong. Cline’s faults as a writer are on full display here and there are places where the boys may even go too easy on him. Or they just choose to rant about something else than I did. Honestly, there was enough material here for a five-hour podcast.

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Another chapter, another delay before anything happens. We have the Thanksgiving dinner that is so ridiculous under the circumstances and considering the location that it takes one out of the story. Oh, and our main character is still a jerk.

To state the obvious, a large formal dinner is strange behavior for eight people about to go into battle in a few hours. This is not done ironically. The three musketeers that are trapped in space before our pilots arrived are engaged in an age old argument about the alien’s tactics and intent. The British guy’s theory is that the plot makes no sense and is full of holes. Our hero’s father has a theory so radical it cannot be said and the Asian guy believes the company line.

The Asian guy also points out that such arguments a mere hours before battle in front of green recruits are probably a bad idea. And whatever the good things one can say about such discussions, he has an excellent point. I mean, I think the story is also filled with plot holes, but Cline is not as clever as he thinks to point that out.

In the midst of all of this, of course, our hero acts like a petulant child. He later storms off and reads some letters his father wrote and watches a video he recently produced regarding his radical theory and our hero helpfully tells us he looked and acted like Brad Pitt from 12 Monkeys because Cline apparently is still using that crutch even if he cannot find an eighties movie to fit the bill.

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The Aliens are still five hours from invading last we checked. In the meantime, we have had a Thanksgiving dinner, an argument, a trip to an outside observatory, and now Lightman’s father’s opinion of what is going on. (It is a test). And yet the countdown clock seems not to have moved.

Cline apparently had his Wheaties for this chapter because he is dropping sci-fi movie references like a champ. Seriously, it is at least half the pointless dialogue between father and son. I mean, I am a bit numb to the endless Star Wars references at this point and yet here he is going deep here with Day of the Triffids and individual episodes of Twilight Zone. No, not that one. We have references to the eighties Twilight TV series, which I didn’t think there was a person living on earth who can remember an episode of that long forgotten series.

All that talk is to espouse that the aliens are watching our broadcasts and sending us a TikTok mashup of what they see. It is speculated that the aliens may not be able to tell the difference between news footage and fictional shows. Somehow neither character manages to mention Galaxy Quest which would have been an actual relevant reference. Probably because Cline shamelessly borrowed this twist from the movie and didn’t want to highlight it.

Honestly, if the aliens were attacking because they had seen our broadcasts of “Real Housewives” and “Keeping up with the Kardashians”, all would be forgiven and I would be inclined to recommend the book. But apparently they are seeing if we go all Close Encounters instead of Independence Day on them.

Bluntly, the story makes little sense. At one point, the characters speculate the aliens want to see if humans will sacrifice themselves in real life like they do in the movies. The news is filled with humans sacrificing themselves from monks setting themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War to the kamikaze pilots of WW2 to suicide bombers and 9/11 highjackers. Plenty of examples for the aliens to ponder.

Still, we are what 18 chapters in and get my voice is getting hoarse from a combination at moaning at the needless geek references and shouting get on with it at the book. At this point, I am solidly on team squid.

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372 Pages: The boys spend a serious amount of time on these chapters above. And it is interesting that they pick up very different things that I do while the overall theme stays consistent. We agree on the bizarre behaviour of the characters just five hours to zero hour and the endless (even for Cline) pop culture references.

Fanfic or real is a particular highlight this week as both dumb sentences got burned during the conversation. In an hour and half, it is amazing the Mike and Conor do not begin to exhaust the layers of stupid in those chapters. They did shine a light on different corners than I did and for that, I am grateful,

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So Imagine you writing the script for Saving Private Ryan and in the script for the first two hours Tom Hanks and guys are training in England and still on the Landing boats. This 35 minute chapter covers about three hours before the battle. We have a couple basically all the recruits hooking up for sex except our hero. Since there were only two women, two of the recruits get stoned while listening to Pink Floyd and have gay sex.

You would think that will all the pages utilized towards them, these would be well-drawn characters. I honestly can’t figure out the matches. Philly stoner is gay? I think the underaged black orphan from New Orleans hooked up with the Chinese guy? I have no idea whose cock the middle-aged woman with three sons from the Midwest was sucking.

Cline just points out the people who hooked up with no rhyme or reason. Nothing to establish that two of the characters were gay or that the midwestern Jesús mother suddenly wanted to get freaky. I mean, huh? Again, Saving Private Ryan really dropped the ball with the lack of sex on the landing boat before the battle.

And why is the government growing pot on the moon? Look, I have smoked pot before. Pot can make you think you are doing better at something involving motor skills than you actually are. But I can assure you it is the last thing you want in a war situation. I can guarantee you the Nazi squid aliens are going old school with amphetamines.

We have more son and father bonding and he eventually calls his mom. Cline manages not to milk the scenes as one would hope and it falls flat. And the gay Philly guy who now sounds like Harvey Fierstein in my head canon has a “funny” argument with his ethnic Philly mom in a scene that would not have been out of place with Fierstein’s actual act.

Last as I write this, the Scorpion’s Rock You Like a Hurricane is playing on my Spotify playlist. Our hero and his object of lust share playlists. They are uninspired, with hers being Pat Benatar and Heart heavy while his classic playlist features the song I am now listening to. God do I have the same music taste as Lightman? I need to rethink my life.

In my defense, the song that played before this was 1992’s James Brown is Dead by LA Style. I may have eighties hair bands on my playlist, but the entire list does not resemble a “Now That’s What I Call Music!” collection in the bargain bin at Target.

Armada, by the way, has spent more time with the music playlists than establishing the “romances” that apparently bloomed in the last two hours.

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You know when Cline puts away the endless pop culture references and navel gazing and actually moves the story forward; he is not half bad. Much as in Ready Player One when Cline tells actual action and story, he is not fantastic but he is at least serviceable. In this chapter, we have a battle against aliens, a destruction on a moon base, personal sacrifice and heroic running away. I am almost impressed. I fear we will be back to barely written characters trading Star Wars references within by the next chapter, but for now, I will enjoy what is put in front of me.

A decent collection of action scenes with actual movement and consequences.

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Back to Back chapters of action chapters. Honestly 372 pages is going to have thier work cut out for them in the next episode. Not that these last two chapters were particularly good, mind you. But they were not as eye tearing out awful as the previous chapters… scratch that… the rest of the book has been.

While previous chapters provided almost too much choice in terms of things to criticise, these chapters seem to have put aside the pop culture references (mostly) and the navel gazing aside.

It is as if Cline looked at his word count and realised he ought to get the story going so he can end the book. All that praise aside, Cline really did himself few favors with poorly sketched side characters and a teenage boy main character who is obnoxious and self centered even by teenage boy standards.

We lose a couple of the new side characters. Cline once again proves beyond any reasonable doubt he does not know how long seven seconds are. And we really need a Jessse Ventura style character to come in and state. “I don’t got time for Angst and self reflection”

Still, we have a tunnel escape out of the moon while being attacked by robots and a “space” battle over Antarctica, so for a change interesting things are happening in the book to characters we are with not just being told offscreen. And despite paper thin characters, irritating characters and Clines inability to tell time (This whole story is apparently supposed to take one day from school this morning to now.) At least things that are interesting are happening.

Still that Cline magic seeps through when our main character says it was the first time he had seen his father cry it would have had more impact if he had known his father more than six hours and his father was some sort of Stoic gent than someone who cries when he roles a one on a twenty sided die playing D and D.

Next up the penultimate episode of 372 pages regarding this classic work.

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372 Pages: The podcast runs longer than I thought it would. Part of that reason is the first twenty minutes are a self promotion for the upcoming live event with Mike’s podcast partner from Like Trees Walking David Berge. I looked it up because I had recalled Mike had an issue with a Podcast partner going off the rails back in 2020, but that turned out to be Earthworm Jim creator Doug TenNapel. Which Mike understandably distanced himself from.

Anyway, outside of a well deserved skewering of Mancow, there is little to interest in these promotional pieces. Then we get to the book.

A pleasant episode with excellent segments. They point out that Cline seems to be under the misunderstanding that his Chinese character is Japanese. While I noticed this in the kamikaze reference, they noticed it in an overt Godzilla reference. So that is at least two examples.

There is a healthy debate whether the various Shakespeare and other classic literature quotes (From hell’s heart i stab at thee) are actually quoted Cline knows from the source material or if he is just quoting various Star Trek movies. Mike is pretty good on this, but honestly the only Shakespeare or Melville quotes Conor knows are from the Simpsons, so a bit of glass houses on his part.

They have fun with the chapter where everyone gets stoned and has sex and they mention again Cline’s inability to understand time, though it does not seem to bother them as much as myself. What bothers them hilariously is Cline accidentally claiming the entire drug war was part of the plot to defeat the aliens.

Mike and Conor often find things I missed and they bring the laughs in a relaxed manner. I like the asides. The mocking of people from Philadelphia and Mancow. The Fan Fiction was excellent, as was the boring sentence of the week. The Secret footage bit was the usual quality but overall a good episode. Certainly good enough to make me power through to the end of the book.

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Okay, so we have chapters 22 and 23, with 22 being a long one. Some decent action scenes with Lightman Jr in his spaceship underwater finding his dad’s escape pod and then flying him and his dad back to a war torn and burning Portland. Which might result from the alien invasion. But this being Portland, it is not clear.

And then they land… Okay, first of all, Dad is still high off his pain medications. Maybe it was the performance by Wil Wheaton, but I found the Dad surprisingly funny and entertaining.

A couple of notes before I get my diatribe on. First, some things have not aged well. Describing a zoom call and how it works actually probably read better when the book was published than it does now, as we use them at work every day. Cline has no concept of time evidence file gets a lot thicker. I was going to doc him for having Senior Lightman’s dog still be alive to greet him after 18 years, but I think it is a beagle and they do have pretty decent lifespans, so at least it is possible.

You know what is not possible. Everything in this entire book taking place over what eight hours/ ten? I mean seriously…

Also, Junior Lightman’s reaction to the knowledge his newly reunited parents had sex with the end of the world coming helps cement him as one of the worst protagonists ever. Seriously, I know he is a somewhat dim teenager, but spending 300 pages with the same and hearing his every stray thought is more than this reader can bear.

The real problem is that we have stopped the world building and the action to go back into talk mode like much of the first 80 percent of the book. Look in most novels this would be hardly a deal breaker but just in these chapters talk mode had an American Pie joke, A Brady Bunch song and name dropping celebrity astrophysicists in the same hilarious and somewhat offensive way that game designers were name dropped earlier in the novel. Seemingly about as much care was given in choosing them this time as well.

Last, besides the obvious time problem the entire novel has and protagonist problem, Armada has some serious plot problems. So the big reveal is Nixon tried to nuke the moon Europa. That all this info is kept secret from the generals and advisory boards, which is bizarre since why again would they keep any of this secret from thier own top brass??? (I can understand not making it public)

The fact Nixon tried to nuke the swastika is the reason that the Moon people have been giving us technology and throwing the fight so far makes… um no sense whatsoever. And not just in a “that is not how the Brady Bunch song goes” kind of way.

Anyway, the book is almost done and I can safely state that unless everyone dies horribly as a result of our protagonist misjudged actions I see almost no way for Armada to redeem itself now.

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The very last thing in Armada is a fucking list of songs. The Rock the Arcade or whatever playlist. This is certainly Clines attempt to make sure any fraction of Goodwill is snuffed out. The ending is stupid. Is it as stupid as I thought it would be? No, actually it is stupider. There are some pleasant touches. We get to meet the bully from the first chapter, now missing three limbs and having done some growing up in the last (Checks notes) 36 hours. (In all fairness, this meeting is a year later, but still you could have missed this war if you slept in. It was over so quickly.)

Heroic sacrifices are made, wives are knocked up, underwritten characters do heroic things while I strain to remember who they are. You get the drift. Armada does not “pull it out” at the end as much as seal the mediocrity with a chef’s kiss. Our main character seems slightly less insufferable in the “a year later” chapters, but we are grading on a curve here, people.

This was a story that would have been trite and obvious for a Twilight Zone episode and Cline does little to juice it up. In fact, it basically is The Day the Earth Stood Still meets The Last Starfighter. In retrospect, it seems so old-fashioned and its characters so cardboard. The greatest problem is the chapters where something actually happens are few and far between and we are stuck with a truly unlikable protagonist who is surrounded by underdeveloped side characters.

Disappointing, boring, and surprisingly simple. Armada is just not that good a story and despite some green shoots in places, is not told terribly well either.

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372 Pages: The last 372 pages on Anthem is a long one at an hour and a half. Mike and Conor go off of on various tangents such as that time MLB made you pick the cameras to watch the live baseball games. How is this relevant? Well they picked up on a pet peeve I had that I did not discuss above mainly how they were watching the senior Lightman sacrifice himself in the tunnels with all the various security footage and apparent reaction shots and closeups as described by Cline in the scene? They went further than I did pointing out those reaction shots and then back to the father then back to the evil general and wondered if perhaps Woodie’s uncle who owns the bowling alley was a television events director in a previous life and had been recruited by the group to direct the footage with the dozen or so cameras.

In reality, this episode was one of Mike’s and Conor’s most productive for poking holes into Cline’s story. Everything from reports were coming right in when the alien spaceships had stopped battling all of a minute ago to the out of character reactions of The Mikes amid the fiery tragedy.

They seem more focused on Cline’s inability to tell time in this episode something I honestly thought they glossed over too much. They certainly did not gloss over the deus ex machina ending and wondered if Cline had a Ms Pac Man date with Harry Knowles or something and decided just to wrap this up.

Conor thought the book should have started at the ending when the interesting story was just beginning. Overall and excellent sharp episode and a great wrap up of why the book is such a disappointment and somewhat sloppy. Also, a note about Conor having a copy of the ARC shows that Cline actually added some flavor and heft to the still ridiculously quick ending.

Mike notes this is the sort of ending a 3rd graders eight page story would have not the ending from a major novelist. Conor also notes how in say King’s “The Stand”, King would take time telling stories on how the plague affected others. Something Cline with his POV on Jr. cannot do and in fact credulity is stretched with the security camera stuff with his dad in Red Rock.

And finally, the hacking stuff is so overplayed Conor gets to drag out his “A wizard did it” Simpson’s reference. It would be an episode of 372 pages with at least one baseball and one Simpson’s reference from Conor.

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