Armada Is Fucking Terrible

Ernie Cline’s novel Armada dropped last week with an enormous publicity campaign that’s sure to get this book selling exceptionally well. Cline has been riding high on his debut novel, Ready Player One, an Easter-egg infused novel that hit the nerd sweet spot with a hefty dose of references and nostalgia. The problem with Armada is that it’s absolutely, fucking terrible.

The plot is basic. A spacecraft drops by the school of one high school gamer, Zack Lightman, and tells him what absolutely every gamer wants to hear: Aliens are about to attack Earth and a secret military organization has shepherded video games, movies, novels and television shows to help attune humanity into fighting back against the alien invaders. On top of all that, Lightman’s one of the top gamers in the world, and that because of his scores in Armada, he’s one of the last best hopes for humanity. He’s brought to a secret base on the Moon, where he meets his long-lost (and presumed dead) father, who’s helping to oversee the counter attack.

I enjoyed Ready Player One quite a bit: it was a fun read that had some neat recursive things going for it: it was a book about a video game that relied on the tropes and conventions of real-world video game history, and it worked well enough. Armada is a pretty far cry away from this, going through a story that’s essentially a rehash of Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter. Hardly a sentence goes by without Cline dropping a reference to something from the 1980s, and as it becomes more cringe-worthy, it feels as though Cline is simply stuck in the past, unable or unwilling to grow beyond geek-man-child stage and reenter the present.

This bothers me a great deal. The decade was responsible for an incredible surge of creative properties, but it isn’t the only decade when it comes to science fiction or fantasy; you’d never guess it from the endless references. Geeks have always been interested in shibboleth, sorting out who belongs and who doesn’t in nerd circles. Cline, throughout Ready Player One and Armada, drops references to everything from films to television to games to the occasional novel, and seems to be establishing a sort of precedent: if you don’t recognize these sacred tomes, you don’t belong. If you haven’t put in the hours that Zack Lightman and Wade Watts have in establishing their own geek cred, you’re not a ‘true’ geek worthy of the title.

There’s been a bunch of stories that have been incredibly popular that seem to do this sort of listing: Cline’s novels, for one, but also shows such as The Big Bang Theory, is essentially lightly-improvised lines of dialogue strung together with a whole bunch of ‘in the know’ references to any number of geek things. The obsession with checking off the boxes and making a set of qualifications to weed out outsiders isn’t anything new to the science fiction or fantasy circles, but it’s tiring to see after such a long history.

There’s the story of a geek guy meeting a geek girl, where he interrupts her when she expresses an interest in Star Wars or Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica and interrogates her on the minutia of the world. I’ve seen it happen before (hell, I’ve probably done it myself), and it’s just flat out not good for any sort of community. There’s the personal stories of that one lone geek at high school who gets picked on or slammed into a locker for carrying around a Star Wars novel, D&D Manual or Magic: The Gathering Cards, and how the stories that they read carried them through those dark times. Never mind that High School isn’t some sort of fantasy quest to be metaphorically endured, I sometimes wonder about the widespread validity of those stories, or if it’s just a story that we tell ourselves as part of our collective nerd mythology. As books like this and shows such as The Big Bang Theory have demonstrated (not to mention my hometown, where you can spot shirts of Superman, Flash and Green Lantern on the local rednecks) Geek stories appeal to just about everyone, especially now. I think it says more about the high school kid with problems getting along with his classmates and less to do with the kid who blew through Ender’s Game for the tenth time.

Within this archetype story, we always complain that we wished that there were more people who were into Star Wars, D&D and McCaffrey’s Pern novels, but when it comes to the end of the day, we seem to filter out the people who we don’t perceive as being good enough, unless their interests and backgrounds line up perfectly with our own. I’ve seen many people get worked up over the quality of other costumers at conventions and how they’ve only jumped on some sort of bandwagon because science fiction and fantasy movies dominate the box office.

Some people might be attracted to it because it’s popular and because they saw a film/book/game that looked cool with plenty of people watching/reading/playing it. But so what? Why do you need to be born in the mid-1970s to properly appreciate standing in line for Star Wars or ET? Are you really less of a fan of The Lord of the Rings if you saw the films in the theaters and rushed to the store to pick up the books because you enjoyed it so much? Personally, I want as many people as possible to read/watch/enjoy science fiction and fantasy, so that we can have a richer community of fellow nerds.

This isn’t a good book on a story side, by any stretch of the imagination. Where Ready Player One was entertaining and goofy, this just got tedious and annoying to read. The references had a point in the story – it was a hunt for Easter eggs. Here, they’re just annoying and don’t really serve any point other than to establish, over and over again, that Lightman (read: Cline) is a nerdy kid. We get that from the first couple of pages. Armada feels very much like Cline trying to find some way to make a nerdy adolescent existence mean something greater than it really is. But in doing so, he sets out to define what exactly a geek is, and that vision is limited only to the references he lists off, which is a pretty limiting list of things: science fiction / fantasy did some pretty cool things in the 1990s/2000s, but you would hardly guess it from what Cline/His characters list off.

I really despise this manufactured image of a geek-man-child and related stories, as much as I’m made uncomfortable by the people who rush to fill the role. Armada is a book that rushes to fill that role, and in doing so, it ignores just about everything that makes a book readable: likable characters, a plot that makes sense (seriously, the ending is a pretty spectacular failure), and good supporting characters and elements that support the story rather than prop it up. When it isn’t cringe-worthy to read, it’s Picard-facepalm worthy when it comes to actually being a good story. Any novel that ends with (SPOILERS) something completely out of left field along the lines of ‘and then the aliens came and cured cancer, entered us into an intergalactic hegemony and then everyone lived happily ever after the end’, you’ve got a serious fucking problem. Maybe Cline is doing something more clever – subverting the tropes of video games to pull out a satirical work of fiction that makes us think differently about the genre. If that’s the case, you’d never guess under the weight of its failure of characters and story.

This is wish-fulfillment fiction, through and through, from the situation Lightman finds himself in to the few constructed, idealized women who appear in the book. Wish fulfillment isn’t necessarily bad: what person playing a video game hasn’t wanted to save the world? But how many people use it to define their existence? Lightman, in saving the world, has his many hours validated. He even puts in a scene at the end where his accomplishments are acknowledged by the high school bully who beat up on him!

Armada would work perfectly if there was some recursive thing about it that made all the references make sense. There’s been plenty of books / movies like this that went heavy on the nostalgia: John Scalzi’s Redshirts comes to mind, along with Austin Grossman’s fantastic novel You or even movies like Galaxy Quest. But the thing that made those books / movies excellent aren’t in Armada: it’s just an annoying, tedious read that made me want to throw the book across the room when I finished it.

Lev Grossman: The Full Interview

Last month, Phoenix Books of Burlington asked me to take part in their first ‘interview-style’ event with Lev Grossman, and they’ve just put the entirety of the interview up on the web for you to watch. This was a lot of fun to take part in. I’m a huge fan of the Magicians trilogy, and getting to interview Grossman about them was a lot of fun.

Enjoy!

The Pioneering Clare Winger Harris

I have a short post up this week at Kirkus Reviews. I’ve been looking at writing more about some of the women who wrote in the genre, and came across one, Clare Winger Harris, who seems to have been one of the earliest, at least under her own name. There’s not much out there about her, but she proves to be a really interesting subject.

Go read The Pioneering Clare Winger Harris over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources

  • Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950, by Mike Ashley. Ashley’s books are excellent. A bit pedantic, but great sources for this era of science fiction history. There’s some good information here.
  • Partners in Wonder: Women and the birth of science fiction, 1926-1965 by Eric Leif Davin. There’s some weird complications with this book, but it’s overall a good source to work from. This has some good information on Harris and her career.

Online

  • Clare Winger Harris. This site has a lot of information about Harris. There’s no sources, but I’ve seen enough cross-connections with other places that make me think that it’s accurate.
  • Harris, Clare Winger. The SFE has a succinct, useful post.

News, Reviews and Querying

So, here’s a bit of news: I’m now the Weekend Editor of io9! I’ve been writing off and on for the site for a number of years, but this will be a bit different: I’ll be running the show on Saturdays and Sundays, featuring a wide range of fun science fiction, fantasy, news and science stuff. I’ve been on the job for the past two weekends, and I’ve been loving it so far! I’m still going to be writing for places such as Barnes and Noble and Kirkus Reviews.

Because of this, I’m making some changes in how I consider books for review. I still don’t review unsolicited stuff here, but I do consider it for places like B&N, io9 and other places. If you want me to look at a book, e-mail me at andrew[dot]liptak[at]io9[dot]com. If it interests me, I’ll be in touch.

The Not-So-Typical Adventures of Lois McMaster Bujold

The idea of genre is a helpful and annoying one: people like to identify where things fit, particularly on bookshelves, but they don’t want to be constrained by it. As we’ve seen over the course of this column, science fiction’s character has vastly changed in the centuries of its existence, transforming and splitting into its own little factions over time.

Science Fiction history tends to focus on the transition between Golden Age SF and New Wave SF, but it doesn’t really seem to examine how truly complicated the situation was moving into the 1980s and 1990s, where science fiction became an even broader definition than ever before, encompassing new works that were different than what came before.

Particularly, one gets the impression that the New Wave gave way to Cyberpunk and that was it: the truth is more complicated. While it left a large impression, older forms were undergoing their own transformations at the same time. One notable author to look at this with is Lois McMaster Bujold.

Go read The Not-So-Typical Adventures of Lois McMaster Bujold over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

Interestingly, The SF Encyclopedia noted that while Bujold has become a highly popular author, there’s not much written about her. That’ll change later this fall with a dedicated entry in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series issued by the University of Illinois Press. In the meantime, I found few entries in my usual references.

Evolution of a Space Epic: James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse

Over on Barnes and Noble’s SciFi & Fantasy blog, I’ve got one of the biggest articles I’ve ever written: the Evolution of James S.A. Corey’s series, The Expanse. This has been in the works for several months now, and it’s really exciting to see it hit the light of day.

This article covers the entire background of where The Expanse came from. It started as an MMO pitch, became an RPG, then a book, then a series, and now, a television show. In March, I visited the television set, and since then, I’ve been researching, interviewing and writing.

This was a helluva lot of fun to write about, and I’m looking forward to the television show. After all of this, I’m convinced that the show will be a big one, and one that’ll be returning SyFy to its roots in a grand way.

Read the entire article here. It’s a long read: 10k+ words.

Sources.

I’m not going to annotate these sources, but here’s the list of interviews and articles I drew quotes from. In the article, where an interview isn’t linked, it’s one that I conducted myself.

2007:

2008:

2009:

2010:

2011:

2012:

2013:

2014:

2015:

  • Syfy orders ‘The Expanse’ series based on ‘Leviathan Wakes’ (think ‘Game of Thrones’ in space):
  • http://www.ew.com/article/2014/04/11/syfy-the-expanse
  • Interview with Ben Cook
  • Interview with Steven Strait
  • Interview with Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham
  • Interview with Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby
  • Interview with Liza Williams
  • Interview with Raja Doake
  • Interview with Daniel Docui

There’s a ton of people to thank for their help here. In no particular order, the following people were instrumental in making this come to life:

  • Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham
  • Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby
  • Ben Cook
  • Steven Strait
  • Maureen Granados
  • Liza Williams
  • Raja Doake
  • Joel Cunningham
  • Karen Tyrell
  • Daniel Docui
  • Ellen Wright, Will Hinton, and Alex Lencicki.

John Wyndham and the Global Expansion of Science Fiction

One of my favorite activities is to browse through used bookstores to see what turns up. I don’t buy a lot of new science fiction novels anymore: It’s worked out so that most of the books I want to read come to me for reviews (although I still buy my share of new books, usually from several of Vermont’s fantastic indie bookstores), but there’s something cool about an older paperback. One such recent purchase was a pair of John Wyndham novels, The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes. They’re gorgeous Penguin editions with some outstanding cover art.

One of the larger debates in science fiction that’s raged on for decades concerns the definition of the genre. What constitutes science fiction? There’s tons of definitions out there, but there’s also arguments which attempt to exclude books. I’ve had people complain about some of my Buzzfeed lists of new books, saying that there’s too much ‘literary’ inclusions. Certainly, recent books such as The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and California by Edan Lepucki have their feet in both sides of the argument: authors inspired by genre fiction, but whose works are broadly appealing to mainstream audiences.

Throughout my column with Kirkus Reviews (and a major topic for the book that it’s turning into), I’ve been fascinated by the way science fiction has adapted over time, and how, in an increasingly technological world, elements that used to be confined to genre novels have bleed into mainstream works. Certainly, thrillers from authors like Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy would have been the stuff of genre fiction in 1939, and there’s certainly plenty of mainstream fiction novels that deal with genre-like material simply because it’s become relevant in this day and age.

I think much of the angst over this comes not from content, but the sense of betrayal for a closed-knit community, for branching out of the genre and into larger, more profitable waters. Science Fiction is fairly insular, with a churning melting pot of science fiction fans and professionals working in close proximity to one another, often from a very early age. Organized fandom is probably not too dissimilar to a cult or religious group, with their own idols, worships and rituals, and where any attempt to modernize or drastically change the makeup is met with open hostility.

Science Fiction has left the community: major films like Star Wars broke those doors open years ago, and if the increasing popularity of shows like Arrow, or The Big Bang Theory, events like San Diego Comic Con or film franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe are any indication, they’re not closing anytime soon. Going back to the 1930s/1950s, there’s already cracks in the exterior, and John Wyndham proved to be an interesting author to look at when it came to jumping from the science fiction world to that of a larger, mainstream audience.

Go read John Wyndham and the Global Expansion of Science Fiction over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

Print:

  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950-1970, Mike Ashley. Ashley has a dedicated couple of pages looking at Wyndham, particularly when it came to the start of British Fandom.
  • Martians, Morlocks and Moon Landings: How British Science Fiction Conquered the World, Jamie Austin. This is a book that recently arrived for me, and they talk quite a bit about Wyndham and his famous work.
    Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, edited by Richard Bleiler. There’s an excellent biographical thumbnail of Harris in this book.
  • Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction, Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz is someone to always take with a grain of salt, but he includes an interesting piece on Wyndham and his works. It’s interesting to see his opinions on Harris’s stories, as opposed to other genre critics.
  • The Way the Future Was: A Memoir, Frederic Pohl. Pohl mentions Wyndham’s sale of Triffids and how it was a landmark sale.
  • Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham / Edmund Morris. Edmund Morris provides an excellent contextual introduction in this 2003 edition of the novel.

Online:

  • John Wyndham & H G Wells, Christopher Priest. Priest has some interesting things to say about Wyndham and Wells.
  • Wyndham, John. The SFE has a good overview of Harris’s career and his place in genre history.

Destination: Mars

So, I have a nonfiction piece up on Clarkesworld Magazine, one of the best science fiction magazines out there. This post covers a topic that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now: how Mars was discovered, but also how as we learned more about it, our stories changed.

This is one of the distinguishing features of science fiction, I think. Looking over the genre’s entire body of literature, you can see how authors have updated their depictions of a place in near-real time. The stories put together by authors like Wells and Bradbury are radically different than that of Robinson and Weir.

Moreover, this subject is a really interesting way to see how scientific innovation, research and discovery actively and directly impact the arts world. Authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Andy Weir were reading the latest research to come from probes and scientists.

When it comes to defining science fiction, many people point to a common definition: ‘Science Fiction is fiction that cannot exist without a scientific component.’ I think that an alternative should be considered: that science fiction literature is a genre that would never have existed without various scientific and industrial revolutions, and which directly comments on said impact of such revolutions.

Read Destination Mars over on Clarkesworld Magazine.

The Very Amusing Douglas Adams

I remember the moment very clearly: I was with my friend Erica at a writer’s conference in 2001, when we learned that Douglas Adams had passed away. It was the first time I was really struck that an author I enjoyed would no longer write something, and we both commiserated over the book that really really loved: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I read this book a number of times over the years, and I’ve always been struck at how *funny* it is. It’s remained so in that time, and one of the things I was later surprised at was how the book came to be. It’s alternatively been a radio show, audio drama, novel, television series and movie, and remained ridiculously popular throughout the whole time. I’ll even admit that I enjoyed the filmed version.

Go read The Very Amusing Douglas Adams over on Kirkus Reviews:

Sources:

  • The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide: Complete and Unabridged by Douglas Adams. I don’t know what happened to my original paperback copy, but my wife owns the omnibus edition, which has a very good introduction by Adams, which provides some good details about how the story came to be.
  • Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion by Neil Gaiman. Interestingly, Neil Gaiman wrote a guide to Hitchhiker’s Guide. This isn’t a great source most of the time: Gaiman assumes that you’ve read other texts, such as Webb’s biography, and there’s a weird apologetic “This has been covered elsewhere” attitude throughout some of it, but there’s some interesting details that come out about the creative process.
  • Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams by Nick Webb. Nick Webb, who originally commission the novel, wrote the official biography after Adams’ death, and it’s full of details, interesting facts about Adams’ life.

Review: The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, by Mary Pilon

For me, the best types of history books are the one that look at something that seems innocuous, but turns out to be a small part in a much larger story. Mary Pilon’s history The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game is one such book, and it’s an excellent look at the history of the board game Monopoly and how its history is murkier than one would ever expect. The board game you likely played as a family has a long, fascinating and exciting story behind it, and a story that ties into tax philosophy and business practices from major game maker Parker Brothers.

The commonly recounted history of the game goes like this: one man, Charles Darrow, unemployed during the Great Depression, went into his basement to make up a game to keep his family entertained through the dark times the country was going through. He emerged with Monopoly, and ended up selling it to Parker Brothers. He gets paid, Parker Brother has a hit on their hands, and the country gains a beloved pastime.

That’s not the full story, however. Pilon recounts the story of Lizzie Maggie, an advocate for a single-tax system and feminist activist who came up with the game’s immediate forerunner, The Landlord Game, patented it and continued on her way. Interestingly, the game was one that sought to demonstrate how rent created wealth inequality. Over the following years, the game and numerous imitators sprang up across the Northeastern United States, particularly in Quaker communities. From the early 1900s, the game was a popular pastime.

In the 1930s, Darrow was introduced to the game, and after some tinkering, he sold the game to Parker Brothers, passing it off as his own creation. The company didn’t look too deeply into Darrow’s story, and pushed his own creation narrative on the public, and it slowly became accepted fact as the game’s popularity skyrocketed.

This is a story of intellectual property, and Pilon deftly picks up the story with an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, who had created a game titled Anti-Monopoly. His game touched off years of litigation between himself and Parker Brothers, who had aggressively defended their product and its trademark. In the course of his work to try and save his own game, Anspach uncovered much of the hidden history of the game to support his legal argument that Monopoly had been widely known to the general public.

Pilon goes through the history of Monopoly’s predecessors to help with the main objective of the book: looking at how Parker Brothers took the game over, repackaged it and maintained a firm hold on the game, warding off any potential competitor through litigation: ironically, creating a monopoly of their own. Parker Brothers doesn’t come off well here, and this is where the book feels like it could have been a bit better. A disclaimer in the back of the book notes that Parker Brothers refused interviews, which is a shame: there’s an interesting story from their side about how they created a national past time, especially when you begin to consider how important they are to the board gaming industry. Some of the more interesting parts of the books are the insights into the formation of Parker Brothers.

Additionally, the last half of the book is wholly focused on the trial and legal issues: it makes for an interesting David and Goliath story, but I guess I was hoping for a bit more. Parker Brothers has exploded the game in the last couple of decades, from publishing licensed versions of Monopoly (I have a copy of the Star Wars version at home), to the games companies like McDonalds and Shaws have run year after year: there’s nary a mention here, which would have been interesting to see.

Regardless, The Monopolists does what most good, readable (read: Non-academic) nonfiction titles do: they present an interesting and exciting story that plays out well and serves to look at the much larger picture surrounding it. Here, we see a bit of the social fabric of the United States at the end of the 1800s and well into the 1900s. For me, fondly remembering the endless games I played with my siblings, it’s an interesting read that imparts some new trivia and context for those many hours we spent passing go and collecting $200.