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Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

Errnest Cline’s Armada harkens back to 1980s teen sci-fi. In the early 80s fear began to strike parents everywhere that their children’s minds were going to turn to mush playing video games. Arcades were everywhere as well as home gaming systems like Atari. Instead of reading or playing outside, kids would sit in front of their televisions for hours. If they did go outside it was just to ride their bikes down to the local arcade or bowling alley to spend their quarters. While the adults fretted, writers and film makers took a different approach to the new phenomenon. What if these games were doing something good, not just for the kids but for all of society?

Movies like War Games, The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Tron told stories of video game savvy kids (or young adults in the case of Tron) saving the planet from alien invasions or averting nuclear annihilation. Really it was the rise of geek culture that has fully taken hold today. Computer geeks aren’t wimps, they’re heroes!

Cline revisits these themes in Armada, but unfortunately he doesn’t do all that much with the genre. I wasn’t in any way expecting another Ready Player One. If I want that I can just go read it again. But I was hoping for just as engaging of a story, and I didn’t find it here.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t totally dislike it, but I did have a couple of main problems with it. Like Ready Player One there’s a lot of Generation X 80s nostalgia in Armada so it’s hard to compare them a little bit. The nostalgia in Ready Player One had a point to it. In that story an aging Gen X designer added it all to his virtual reality world so he could continuously relive his childhood and teen years. That same nostalgia was forced upon the future generations to the point that they didn’t even seem to create their own music, movies, or other artistic works.

In Armada, which doesn’t take place in the future like Ready Player One does, 17-year-old Zack Lightman has an unhealthy obsession with his deceased father’s stash of ‘80s memorabilia. That’s fine for that character, however everyone he knows seems to have the same dedication to all things ‘80s for no particular reason. It’s not all that plausible that all teens would know every obscure reference to ‘80s pop culture.

However, one of my biggest issues with Armada is the inclusion of Carl Sagan being in on the massive alien cover up. Sagan being in on a government conspiracy to hide the existence of aliens basically renders all of his work pointless and a lie. Sagan also isn’t here to comment on his inclusion in this book, so I was disappointed in his inclusion in this story.

Overall, I found the story to be kind of predictable. I was hoping the twist that had been hinted at pretty much the whole time (and is the same twist used in a couple of the aforementioned movies and books) would turn out to be something different, but it wasn’t. Armada isn’t a hard book to get through – at least the audio version narrated by Wil Wheaton isn’t. I loved Wheaton’s reading of Ready Player One, he was perfect for it (and it was meta!), and he does a good job with this as well (I really need to talk about John Scalzi soon). If you’re going to check out Armada I recommend going the audio book route – for Wheaton’s take on it if nothing else.

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

ready-player-one-coverReady Player One by Ernest Cline is a 2011 dystopian sci-fi novel set in the not so distant year of 2044. I’m a little sorry I missed this one when it first came out, but better late then never. The great thing about art is you can enjoy it any time. It does’t have to be new. Because I spend a lot of time driving I grabbed to audio book, which is narrated by Wil Wheaton.

That’s actually one of the reasons I decided to check this book out. I’ve enjoyed Wheaton’s delivery of several John Scalzi novels and thought this one sounded interesting. The other reason it caught my eye right now is that it’s currently in production to be a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg. Along with its dystopian, ’80s nostalgia, virtual reality premise, these were factors I couldn’t pass up.

I can hardly think of a better person to read for the audio version of Ready Player One than Wil Wheaton. The material is tailor made for his geek image that he has cultivated so well on social media and his blog wilwheaton.net. His reading even becomes meta at one point.

Wheaton’s reading is enthusiastic and I like the way he tries to distinguish the characters by using different vocal styles for them – of course now that I know Simon Pegg has been cast as Ogden Morrow in the Steven Spielberg film adaptation I had a hard time hearing Wheaton’s booming voice while picturing Pegg.

For the most part I loved Ready Player One. I loved the futuristic world that’s stuck in the past. I also the idea that gaming, avatars, living online, and “real life” have all become meshed together so that one is hardly distinguishable from the other.

Wade Watts is a fairly typical loner anti-hero. He’s a frustrated teen with nothing in his life besides the virtual world of the Oasis. He lives in “the stacks” with his disinterested aunt and longs for a way out. The world has been in permanent recession since the turn of the century.

Wade is on a quest to find an Easter egg that, recently deceased, Oasis creator James Halliday has hidden somewhere in his virtual world. The finder of such egg is set to inherit Halliday’s billions. That’s where the ’80s nostalgia comes in. Halliday was a proud member of the Gen-X generation and  immersed himself in childhood nostalgia. The secret of the hidden egg lies somewhere in a sea of old Atari games, Rush songs, and Blake Lewis films among other Gen-X touchstones.

The youth have become so obsessed with the entertainment Halliday’s youth that they don’t seem to have have built anything of t heir own. So what becomes of a society that’s built on futuristic technology that’s stuck in a virtual reality past? A huge identity crisis. People can be anything they want in the Oasis, but are nothing outside of it.

Ready Player One as one of those books that I never really wanted to end. Granted I loved the nostalgic references, but I also found this futuristic society fascinating, although as I keep seeing ads for virtual reality goggles I can only wonder how close we will actually get to this.

We all know how boring it can be to watch someone else play a video game, but Cline makes his video game world exciting. You never quite know where things are going to end up. I thought the big battle at the end wasn’t quite as exhilarating as the earlier sections, but overall the story wrapped up nicely. This is one of my favorite new discoveries in a long time.

Now Reading: The Fireman by Joe Hill

I’m so excited that my copy of The Fireman arrived in the mail this week! I’ve been a little behind on my reading lately, but this book is getting me back on track. I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a year.

The FiremanI only just started it, but I love it already. The virus that’s taking over the world is pretty scary. It causes people to spontaneously combust. I’m looking forward to seeing where this book is going. At 747 pages it might take me a while.

I’m also listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows audio book. I’ve been going through the whole Harry Potter series on audio and I love it. Jim Dale does such an excellent job with the narration. That’ll be a blog post for later once I finish this book.

For a while I tried to avoid reading one book and listening to another, but I really don’t have a problem with it. I listen while I’m driving, at the gym, or doing things around the house and I usually read at night. I can get through a lot more books that way. I just need to try to keep up with the blogging.

Now Reading: Finders Keepers by Stephen King

About half way through Finders Keepers by Stephen King it occurred Finder Keepers Stephen King coverto me that it’s a bit macabre for an author to depict a fictional author being brutally murdered by an obsessed fan. Not that King is any strange to the macabre label. In fact I’m pretty sure that’s where I first learned the meaning of the word.

But usually King writes about more fantastical horrors than something that could easily happen to him or anyone else. But that makes the scene all the more chilling.

Finders Keepers is the follow to King’s 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes. I haven’t written about Mr. Mercedes yet, but I totally loved it. Both are crime novels and there isn’t anything supernatural about either of them.  They are also not horror, but I do think King’s knack for the twisted and horrific is a great complement to the crime genre.

I’m into the final act of Finders Keepers right now – right at the point where it’s getting harder and harder to put down.

Reading List: The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick

The Nerdist Way by Chris HardwickI’m not sure what made me pick up Chris Hardwick’s 2011 book The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life) on a whim a few weeks ago. Up until a few years ago, I knew Hardwick as the guy who hosted the MTV show Singled Out and that was back in the mid-90s (and now I feel kinda old). Having missed things like the PBS show Wired Science and something called Shipmates, except for catching him in Terminator 3, he was off my radar until he popped up on The Soup to promote his own show Web Soup. That wasn’t long before this book came out, but I had no idea it existed. I’m sorry I didn’t find it sooner because it’s really good.

The Nerdist Way is part memoir and part self-help. Hardwick chronicles his difficulties after his success on Singled Out. For a period of several years Hardwick let his life spiral out of control, saw his career go nowhere, and developed a drinking problem. What’s cool about this book is how honest he is about his mistakes. Most of us don’t like to remind ourselves about where we screwed up, let alone tell the whole world about it. In addition to detailing where he went wrong, Hardwick is very attuned to how he turned his life around and that’s where the self-help aspect of this book comes in.

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