Armada Chapter 2: This Chapter Is About Videogames, Not The Spaceship We Just Saw

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?

didn't see anything

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.

pulp fiction wallet

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.

aerosmith-1 aerosmith-2 aerosmith-3

(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.

"I can't wait to play the next 'man holding weapons facing away from the camera' game!"
Although “kind of the same thing over and over” isn’t groundbreaking criticism for anything involving video games, really.

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”.

star wars han rolls eyes

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?

Mario = just a footnote in the early video game industry, I guess
Mario = just a footnote in the early video game industry, apparently

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.



  1. Andreas Reply

    Hey, stop dissing the sameness of videogames. Grumpy-dude-with-weapons-seen-from-the-back is a very important genre nowadays. Can’t wait until they finally reimagine Tetris that way.

    So, in what year is this book set? A vaguely defined “now” relating to 2015 when it was published? I really wonder how some arcade games from the late 80ies (Polybius IS an actual gaming urban legend, by the way) could be used by the military for something that is very obviously worldwide stealth anti-alien combat training, if they … well … were never seen after the late 80ies.

    Maybe the book does some “ancient knowledge” plotline. “Now that you have mastered Counterstrike and Call of Duty, you are ready to learn the ancient art of Phaëton as taught by our mystical forebears …” (40 year old gamer dude comes in: “Sup.”) “… and you will be told the mystical secrets hidden in the first Star Wars movie!” – “But I always thought the secrets were in the second movie with that force-cave!” – “You were wrong! Star Wars has never been about jedis and that crap. That was just a disguise to stop alien spies which attack our world from noticing the subliminal X-wing pilot lessons!” – “Oh no, what an unexpected plot twist!”

  2. Anne Reply

    Zack Lightman sounds like the kind of rip-off toy they would make to compete against Buzz Lightyear, with a name just close enough to confuse poor grandparents looking for birthday gifts for their grandchildren.

    That Star Wars reference is formulated really weird. I can’t figure out who it is aimed at. People who know Star Wars know who Luke Skywalker is, so the ‘a young Jedi-in-training named’ part seems unnecessary. But people who don’t know about Star Wars have no clue what a Jedi is, so they can’t do anything with this information either. Unless there are people who have only seen the prequels (do they exists?), they might find this useful. Some writers should avoid any pop-cultural references unless they actually know how to use them.

  3. Utsutsu Reply

    I feel really confused about the forced pop culture references/metaphors. Like, the whole Luke thing – that’s the sort of thing an author with no idea how to write characterization would use (*coughhackCASTcoughwheeze*). But then right after, Cline writes actually decent characterization about Zack missing his dad, so… Did he just desperately cling onto his schtick from Ready Player One? Because at least there, the references made sense, in that they were the focal point of the mysteries in the plot. Here the references are basically unnecessary, at least in the way they’ve been used so far. I feel like the Luke comparison could have found a place in the chapter if it was included *after* the whole Star Wars conspiracy thing. At least then there would be a better connection. Or, hey, we know Zack’s the Chosen One, because duh, so why not hold off until that reveal to make a Luke comparison? The way it’s written now Zack just seems like an incredibly useless psychic (I was thinking about Luke Skywalker and then Star Wars was mentioned by my crazy dad bah-wuhhh????)
    I just feel that this book has a lot of potential if it cooled it with reference metaphors. I mean, the focal point seems to be a made-up game already, so why shoehorn an obnoxious amount of titles in there?
    In any case, the best that can be said is that the hilarious structure of that Star Wars reference could be fantastic for a case of “What if other books were written this way?” So that’s one positive.

    • matthewjulius Post authorReply

      Oh man, I started doing a “what if other books were written this way” for that line, but realized I’d be doing that for every chapter this book

  4. bookbaron Reply

    It would have been better if they started the story with him finding the disturbing notebook. Even better if he lost his father recently and not in the distant past, and then started uncovering all this creepy stuff about him. And then zack starts seeing things too, worrying he’s got whatever his father had.

    I mean, I’d read that.

    Nix the nonsensical Star Wars reference cause that was shameful.


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