In a vacuum, I think this book gets four stars. In a vacuum, I think the general opinion for the book is that it’s an engaging story with fairly likable characters that pays homage to numerous classic and iconic science fiction stories from past decades: from Ender’s Game to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In a vacuum.
But this book doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the rich and dense atmosphere of Earth, this is the much anticipated follow-up to Ready Player One, which itself is one of the most exciting sci-fi worlds in recent memory. Given that context, the book falls kind of flat. It relies on the same charm, but lacks the novelty.
I think Cline is a good writer, and I think he has an interesting imagination with a rich understanding of pop culture to give his stories flavor. But the reliance on nerd culture, video games, and science fiction from the 70s and 80s seems more like a crutch than it does a stylistic choice. What made sense for Ready Player One comes off as more of an affectation now.
At the risk of getting lost in the weeds, here, I have a problem with our fixation on being self-referential. From fashion cycles repeating themselves (are we really going to bring back denim jackets? Is Zubaz next?), to resurrecting vinyl and VHS. What’s old is new again. This isn’t unique to the current era, but it seems to be our identifying characteristic. The problem is that, today, so much of what we consume, culturally, is funneled through a meat grinder specifically designed to regurgitate known products that are “safe.” Reboots, retcons, re-imaginings, and unasked for sequels are the norm. Where does this road end? What is going to re-emerge in 30 years if everything that’s popular now is just a replication of something that was popular on the fringe 30 years ago? Are the 80s going to see a third life? Are we going to long for the days when we enjoyed nostalgia?
It’s one thing for fashion to bring back a dated sense of what’s cool, but when every aspect of our culture is obsessed with looking backward, I worry that we’re going to get trapped in a timeloop.
Anyway, it could also be that my expectations were simply too high following his previous novel.
Don’t let me dissuade you from reading this, however. My broader cultural criticism aside, it was an enjoyable read. By the end of the book I was wanting it to not be over. I just wasn’t turning the pages quite as fast as I had been when I read his earlier work. If there is a follow-up to Armada, I’ll still eagerly pick it up and give it a read. I think this world is big enough to welcome further exploration, and Ernest Cline is the kind of writer who makes the adventure well worth the time. For now, at least, he’s still on my list of authors to follow.
Even if he can sometimes get carried away with the call-backs to 30 year-old cultural references.