a mini-review of a DNF, Armada by Ernest Cline
Ah, the DNF. The Did Not Finish. The book blogger’s patented existential crisis, eternal quandary, and internal struggle. If I’m not feeling a book, how long before I can fairly set it aside? Ten pages? Twenty? Two hundred? And if I didn’t finish it, do I have to give it a review, when I’m only going to have negative things to say? And what if I received the book free from a publisher? They say they want an honest review … but do they, really?
For Armada, by Ernest Cline, I can at least say that I didn’t DNF this out of some violent repulsion to the material. I DNF’ed it because I just couldn’t read it anymore. (Nice, clean reasoning, right?)
There’s a whole Reddit thread complaining about Armada, r/books very first book club pick. A lot of people in that thread explained the problem with this book more succinctly than I can. Also, this review, Ernest Cline’s Armada – A Book Review & Comparison to Ready Player One goes wonderfully in depth. Basically, Armada an okay book that, at its best, is derivative and a little boring. At its worst, though, it’s badly written, trite, and a lot of us find it insulting that the author thinks he’s pandering to the ~geeky crowd~ by simply smothering us with pop culture references.
Oh, the pop culture references. They bloat the story, bog down the writing. Yes, there are aliens in Armada. Yes, there is a mystery, and action scenes, and a coming of age story about a boy who longs for adventure thrust into one headfirst. But you can barely see any of that through the fussy, noisy clutter of references. The Hobbit, Star Wars, Star Trek, every video game available for purchase in the 1980s — if it was nerd culture, it was probably given a mention in this book.
Here’s the thing. I love pop culture. I consume it voraciously. I’ve been involved in fandom since I was twelve (I’m in an exercise competition with the Harry Potter Alliance right now just because I want a medal with the words Harry Potter Alliance on it.) But, for some reason, I get really uncomfortable about pop culture references in books. Like, since I brought up Harry Potter (which I tend to do, a lot): I don’t like to think about that chapter of Harry Potter that references Dudley’s playstation. It makes me cringe. I don’t want characters in books texting or watching The Office or doing the things that I do. I like when books feel timeless, ageless, like I could pick it back up in ten years and it would read as fresh and wonderful as the first time I turned its pages. I think, for nostalgic purposes, we like to think of our pop culture favorites as eternal, but pop culture at its very essence is ever-changing and ephemeral. Books whose writing rely heavily on pop culture references feel dated before the ink even dries.
And it’s the nature of the pop culture reference deluge that made Armada a chore for me. I like when references are buried Easter Egg style, where something’s inherent nerdiness is hidden in allusions and metaphors and the occasional tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase. Armada isn’t too interested in that brand of literary subtlety. Its references are in your face, entertaining but insubstantial, sitting on the surface of the writing like sweet, colorful sprinkles on a very dry and bland piece of cake.
This writing reminds me of the kind of references-without-context nonsense that The Big Bang Theory thinks of as “nerd culture” — that assumption that every stereotypical “geek” has a working knowledge of every science fiction, fantasy, pop culture, and internet meme that’s happened over the last 20 years. (And remembers every detail of all these things and can come up with clever and pithy references at the drop of a hat in any and all situations.) It’s ridiculous and unbelievable, and I need more reason to relate to a character than “he also watched Star Wars.”
Anyway, it’s too bad. I love nerdy books. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, did a great job at representing fandom, social anxiety, and the idea of preferring fictional people over all these disappointingly real ones overpopulating our planet. And even though there were a lot of geeky references throughout Fangirl, there was a story with a genuine heart underneath it all. We read to know we’re not alone, as C.S. Lewis said, and I like finding nerdy books about nerdy people who care about books and video games and would love to get swept away in a fantastic, impossible adventure. But … I also like them to be well-written, and not read like a fourteen year old boy got ahold of a laptop and typed up his first fan fic.
But, like I said. I DNF’ed this book after only a couple chapters. I can’t really say much for the story, as I struggled to care for the characters from very early on. You should scroll through the Reddit thread and the review linked above if you’re interested (or if you enjoy watching people complain about books, which I, for some reason, really really do.) I haven’t read Ready Player One, Cline’s first book, but I’ve heard it was much better than Armada, so I might have to give it a shot. I’m not going to rate this book; let’s consider it an interest clash and leave it at that.
Whew. Glad to get that one out of the way. I hate being so vague and negative as to the actual plot, but I just couldn’t slog through enough of the book to get a good sense of what it was about. 😦 What’s the last book you DNF’ed? How long do you give yourself before you set a book aside? And, the biggest question: Do you like pop culture references in your writing, or do you shy away and hiss at them them like Dracula confronted by a string of garlic? (ooh, by the way, I’m reading Dracula right now for a book club and I LOVE IT SO MUCH. Can’t wait to review it. Also, I got an ARC of a book called The Z Murders, that’s another one I’m excited to tell you guys about. I PROMISE, I DO ENJOY READING BOOKS, NOT ALL MY REVIEWS WILL BE NEGATIVE!) Anyway, leave a comment, link me to your Armada reviews, complain about the last lackluster book you read, let’s talk!
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this honest review.