Meta, in case you’re not familiar with the term, refers to being self-referential within a story. Deadpool, for example, is a comic book character knows he is in a comic book, and even has conversations with his own narration. The Scream franchise is specifically about people who already know the rules of slasher movies, trying to survive a murderer imitating slasher movies. Being meta in a story can be handled delicately, or with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
I don’t have a problem with meta in writing. In fact, the four novels I’ve published all have meta elements to them, with one having it as its central theme. But this month’s novel proves that too much meta, or delivering too much of it in the wrong way, can hurt your story.
Armada was written by Earnest Cline, who wrote another popular meta-themed novel, Ready Player One, which will be released as a big budget movie in 2018.
I really wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did.
If you’ve ever seen The Last Starfighter, you’ll get the gist of the plot right away. Young talented kid who’s a wiz at video games learns that said games are actually a means of training people to fight an impending interplanetary war. Along the way, he learns how this war has been building secretly since the computer age, and there is more going on than initially meets the eye. A great many gamers who love space sims (like me) have had their own Last Starfighter fantasies, so you can imagine I was instantly invested in the concept.
Zack, our hero, is thankfully not your stereotypical geek who is picked on at school. He has a temper problem, and had gotten in trouble for it more than once (though he’s not a bully). He’s not on the bottom rung of the social ladder, nor is he at the top. He’s relatable enough, and his conversations with his friends usually come out as naturally as they would when you’re having a conversation with your own geeky friends.
The problem, however, is that this book simply cannot stop making pop culture references for a single page. I felt like I was being quizzed throughout the novel. There were beats where there was clearly some kind of reference being made I was expected to understand, but I happened to miss that movie, book, or game, and as a result missed the joke.
But even so, anyone who grew up in the 80s onward is going to nod their head and chuckle at a lot of the references. The main failing of this self-referential humor and awareness is that it overindulges in it, and as a result drains away from the verisimilitude and excitement that is supposed to be building up.
We can’t take it seriously, because it never takes itself seriously.
This is only worsened by points in the novel that feel cringe worthy to me, such as the budding romance between Zack and a hotshot hacker/grunt. It doesn’t come across as real, but like a teen’s idle fantasy about the kind of rebellious bad girl he’d like to meet.
It’s because of moments like this that I ended up assuming this would turn out to be some kind of Matrix simulation, and the story would end without anyone getting killed, but that’s not the case. The problem is, when we get to the point where we realize the stakes are high, it’s hard to actually care about the lives of the people who are in danger. In fact, you keep expecting another shoe to drop and find out there is some other kind of fake-out about to happen. One particular character’s death feels inevitable due to the conventions of story cliché, but when it happens there is no weight to it. It doesn’t feel earned. And that’s unfortunate.
And this isn’t helped by the fact that there are various logic holes in the story that are a mile wide. Some are explained by the story’s finale, but if you go on for a hundred pages pointing out how various video game and science fiction clichés don’t make sense, only to then have the story explain why there’s a point to all of that, it doesn’t completely excuse it. You’ve kind of figured out the general shape of things early on and the payoff doesn’t deliver as much as it should.
Other plot holes however, aren’t covered by this umbrella. Even when it is, the use of humor to point out obvious plot holes feels more like a way of excusing them than explaining.
When editing for other authors I’ve often pointed out that the more humor you have in a story, the more you can stray from reality and get away with it. But there are limits, and this book stretches them to the breaking point.
Ultimately I left this book feeling entertained, but disappointed. It reads like a Young Adult novel, yet the references in it are clearly aimed at an older audience than that. It’s not a bad book by any stretch. It just could have been so much better.
I will say this about the audiobook version: Wil Wheaton is a very good voice actor, shifting effortlessly between characters, and he does a mean Yoda impression.
BONUS: Interested in living out your own Last Starfighter/Han Solo/Malcolm Reynolds fantasy? I suggest playing Elite Dangerous, preferably in Virtual Reality 😉