Encounters with extraterrestrials have abounded in popular culture for decades now. Whether friendly or malicious; whether on screens small or large, or through the pages of novels or the levels of video games, the idea of fateful contact with aliens is something many people have had in the backs of their heads for their whole life. According to one character in "Armada," Ernest Cline's new novel, that's no coincidence.
Narrator Zack Lightman lives with his mother in Beaverton, Ore. In his late father's notes, he discovers a theory that the prevalence of aliens in culture is designed to prime the population for the eventual revelation of the existence of extraterrestrial life: a potential conspiracy that allows Cline to knowingly riff on a number of familiar tropes once spaceships begin to menace Earth.
Cline's previous novel, "Ready Player One," displayed a similar awareness of its genre and of geek culture. Here, that's heightened even further: Zack is the science-fiction-obsessed son of science-fiction-obsessed parents. The scenes of him bantering with his friends (around such topics as whether Bilbo Baggins' sword, Sting, is preferable to Thor's hammer, Mjolnir) helps bolster the tone even further.
Zack and his friends are fond of a video game, also called "Armada," in which they pilot drones to fend off attacks on Earth by sinister squid-like creatures. Soon enough, aliens have made their presence known in the real world, and Zack is recruited by a secretive agency to help defend the planet. But the earlier intimations of conspiracies lead Zack to question all that he's been told.
The plot of "Armada" is knowingly archetypal, but there are some very specific moments that mark it as a product of this day and age, including the emphasis on drone warfare.
There are plenty of cameos from or nods to real-world figures as well, from Neil deGrasse Tyson to James Cameron to John Williams. But it rarely does so to excess. Some of that is due to Cline having thought through the premise in interesting ways, including one character pondering the difference between how fighters and gamers view problems.
Late in the novel, a bit of dialogue references the film "Galaxy Quest," another work that sent up certain tropes even as it embraced what made them popular. (See also: John Scalzi's "Redshirts.") In the end, what makes "Armada" most compelling isn't its twistier-than-expected plot; instead, it's the balance between concept and consequence.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.