Armada: Chapter 2
The first chapter of Armada had our main character leave school in the middle of class after seeing a spaceship outside his classroom window. So what if the second chapter was about… none of that?
[I peered] silently up at the attic window of our little ivy-colored brick house, thinking about the first time I’d gone up there to dig through my father’s old possessions.
So… not looking for the spaceship, then?
We have gone from “huh, there’s a spaceship outside the window” to “better go looking through my dad’s old things!” like this is perfectly logical sequence of events. This might make some since if dad was really into UFOs, but we’re about to learn that this isn’t the case at all.
You know, once we get Cline’s obligatory pop culture references out of the way.
I was thinking of a young Jedi-in-training named Luke Skywalker, looking into the mouth of that cave on Dagobah while Master Yoda told him about today’s activity lesson: Strong with the Dark Side of the Force that place is. In you must go, mofo.
Oh good, see, I had no understanding what an emotional undertaking going through his dead dad’s old things this was going to be until it was explained to me in terms of a Star Wars quote that had some out-of-character pseudo-profanity added to it for some reason. It’s like they always say on Doctor Who: timey-wimey, motherfucker! Which helps you understand my frustration with this kind of writing! Maybe.
We learn that Zack’s dad was named Xavier Ulysses Lightman (we’ve already got “Lightman” as a last name, so go big or go home) and that he died in an on-site accident working at the local wastewater treatment plant which we are told “supposedly wasn’t his fault” with all the subtlety of the sexual innuendo in an Aerosmith song, so place your bets now on how long until we learn otherwise.
(I realize there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy that this last joke was mostly a pop culture reference after I criticized Armada‘s pop culture references, but 1) I’m reviewing, not world-building, 2) my joke ultimately said more about something other than the thing I was referencing, whereas the focal point of Armada‘s Star Wars joke was more on Star Wars than Armada, and 3) Steven Tyler’s face makes me giggle.)
But there is some nice work here about Zack’s feelings about his father he never knew:
Growing up, I’d always told myself that was lucky. Because you can’t miss someone you don’t even remember.
But the truth was, I did miss him. And I’d attempted to fill the void created by his absence with data, by absorbing every scrap of information about him that I could. Sometimes, it felt like I was trying to earn the right to miss him with the same intensity my mom and his parents had always seemed to.
We learn that all of Zack’s dad’s things were moved up into the attic when he died, and he’s gone through all of it, which ranged from love letters between his parents when they were in high school to the same character details that appear in every Cline novel thus far:
I found the real stockpile [of games] on his old PC, which contained thousands of classic arcade and console videogame emulators and ROM files
I know that saying Ernest Cline is sort of a one-trick pony isn’t really groundbreaking criticism, but it’s hard to ignore that “has a computer with thousands of emulators and ROMs” is also one of the first things we learned about the main character of his other novel, Ready Player One.
Things start to get a little more interesting (and indicative of why the story is spending any time here at all when there’s a fucking spaceship outside) when Zack goes back to the most disturbing thing he found in his dad’s old stuff: a notebook with “PHAËTON” on the cover, filled with “the details of a global conspiracy my father believed he’d uncovered – a top-secret project involving all five branches of the US military, which he claimed were working in collusion with the entertainment and videogame industries”.
The further I read, the more disturbed I got. […] But now, the same thing that had happened to him was happening to me. Videogames were infecting my reality too. Had my father also experienced hallucinations?
Admittedly, this makes a more sense now why the story took us here instead of sending Zack after the spaceship. But it would have been nice to know that from the top, right? Because – I can’t stress this enough – it’s really weird to start a story with an unexplained spaceship sighting and then immediately go “well, enough about that“.
Also, unfortunately, this conspiracy is a little bogged down in details to be very interesting. And when I say “a little”, I mean there are pages just listing the release dates of science fiction movies and video games.
1966 – Star Trek premieres on NBC TV (airs from 9/8/66 – 6/3/69)
It is not immediately clear why any of this is important, since there are precious few entries where Zack’s dad goes into a little more detail.
1977— Star Wars is released on 5/25/77. Highest grossing movie in history. First wave of brainwashing in prep for invaders arrival?
1977— Close Encounters released. Used to program the populace not to fear their impending arrival?
1977— Atari 2600 video computer system released, placing a combat training simulator in millions of homes! Ships with the game COMBAT!
Except the vast majority of this list is just the year and the name of the thing. And it goes on for pages and pages.
I spent a few more minutes puzzling over the timeline
The release of the first Star Wars film in 1977 seemed to be the timeline’s focal point. My father had circled that entry several times and drawn a series of arrows linking it to at least a dozen other items
I’m sorry, if we’re ignoring a spaceship to take a look at this conspiracy theory that’s much more important to the story, I’m gonna need something just a little more compelling than “Star Wars was influential”.
After the timeline, the journal has descriptions of two arcade games – Polybius and Phaëton – which Zack’s dad claims were both only very briefly seen in public, have no record of copyright or manufacturer information, and that “‘Men in Black’ would download scores from the game each night”. Zack reveals that he’d researched these, and found that Polybius is a common urban legend, but was unable to find anything at all about Phaëton, which is also the one his dad noted he saw with his own eyes in 1989. Not that this adds much credibility:
Next to the arrow he wrote: “Umlaut conceals hidden data port plug for downloading scores!”
Why would there be a secret data port on the front? Why not put it in the back where no one would question it? How hidden could it be if they’d have to plug into the front of the machine? I have questions about Zack’s dad’s questions.
“The entire videogame industry is secretly under the control of the US military,” he wrote. “They may have even invented the videogame industry! WHY?”
So we’re just ignoring the non-Western videogame industry for this whole book, then, I’m guessing?
Zack’s dad concludes with his theory that the military or something else “is tracking and profiling all of the world’s highest-scoring videogamers”. Thankfully, Armada immediately points out one of its own shortcomings:
Of course, my father never actually got around to specifying exactly what he believed the military was going to recruit all of the world’s most gifted gamers to do.
Except we’re learning all of this military-video game conspiracy stuff after the novel has already introduced – and maybe I’ve mentioned this once or twice? – a motherfucking spaceship. That looks exactly like one from a videogame that Zack plays. So I think we know exactly what’s going to happen next. Obviously the plot of the novel wasn’t intended to be a grand reveal or anything, but it sure isn’t interested in being surprising, is it?
The chapter ends with Zack deciding he’s going to take a break from videogames for a while after that night’s special event in Armada. Oh, Zack. Somehow I have a feeling that the exact opposite is going to happen to you.
Because you saw a fucking videogame spaceship outside your window and ignored it.