At one point in Armada, Ernest Cline’s latest novel, the protagonist Zachary Lightman gets brought to a secret military base run by the Earth Defense Alliance, which admits that it has been training the human race to fight aliens through videogames and other media and is now on the brink of war. But Zack has been recruited personally by the EDA because, as one of the officers and father figures tells him, he is special.
“To keep an eye on me? Why?” Zack asks.
“You possess a very rare and valuable talent, Zack,” his mentor Ray tells him. “The EDA has been tracking and profiling you ever since you first played a videogame online. That’s why I was assigned to watch over you, and to help facilitate your training.”
In both Armada and his previous work Ready Player One, Cline tells the story of nerds that end up saving the world because of the fact that they are nerds. Both Zack in the new novel and Wade in the former are misfits with a wide knowledge of 1980s pop culture, especially in videogames, who use those skills to become heroes. Whether it’s taking down a mega corporation or an entire alien fleet, the protagonists in Cline’s works are the same. They all embody the same 40-year-old Revenge of the Nerds / Weird Science archetypes that have been rehashed, recycled and spat out with little change for decades. They’re all forced to prove themselves to authority figures who belittle them. As it turns out, their skills are useful and they can change things. Thanks to their near-religious dedication to arcade games, for example, they are able to stop aliens that are replicating them, like in Pixels, or their hacking prowess is able to help stop a rogue computer set on nuclear destruction, like in War Games.
This character conflict isn’t inherently a bad one. It’s one about acceptance and uniqueness, how one’s gifts and interests are not less than any other. But it’s tired. Maybe it’s time we retire the traditional geek hero as seen in these works and think about a different approach. It’s not only boring. It’s insulting.
What’s infuriating about Cline’s novels is that they mistake references for character building. When a protagonist describes his mother as a “Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley” type, we learn more about that protagonist’s own pop cultural preferences than what his mother was actually like. The only way Zack seems capable of understanding his relationship to his mentor Ray is by calling him the Obi-Wan to his Luke Skywalker. Cline can’t go one page without dropping in references as a shortcut to actual descriptions and it only manages to come off as indifferent and lazy writing.
At some point in 2013, my roommate decided he was going to get everyone in our large apartment to read Ready Player One. He passed along the novel like a religious text, touting the name of Ernest Cline because the author understood nerds. The book had a lot of references, it was about a gamer. It celebrated gamer history. It was written by a guy who got it. It was great, he claimed, and he wanted to spread the gospel.
And it was… adequate. The world Cline had built—something reliant on technology to the point that other areas became mostly abandoned—was plausible, and the pop culture memorabilia on display at least factored into the plot. Wade Watts, a misanthropic teen that is able to best everyone in what is essentially a trivia contest, wasn’t that appealing as a protagonist, and the story points were predictable and dull. It was a standard hero’s journey with little character growth, but it was apparently made better by how it pointed out that Zork was a thing once.
Armada doesn’t do much with the premise, moving it from Earth to the Moon and changing little else. The protagonist is still a misfit with a rolodex of nerdy quotes and his journey from outcast to hero reveals little depth. Both Zack and Wade start and end their stories as the same people, except now they are content that authoritative bodies seem to accept their nerd reputations. They have risen from being oppressed victims to the ones in power.
Literature is filled with underdogs that get the chance to rise above their station (Aristotle wrote that the hero of a comedy should be lesser than the reader so that he is able to improve, for example. It’s nothing new). The protagonist in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, for instance, is a nerd that is thrust into simultaneously metaphorical and literal videogame boss battles. What separates Scott Pilgrim from the main characters in Cline’s novels, however, is the emphasis on traits and development. Over the course of the graphic novel series, Scott learns to stand up for himself, try and take control of his own life, and stop relying on others. His interests are important but they don’t completely define his character. By the end they’re incidental to the more fully-formed person Scott becomes. They’re not his entire identity. In Cline’s world, though, all that matters is what you like and what you can make reference to—that you be a “gamer,” a designation that shouldn’t be an identity but a simple description of what you do in your free time. Brandon Sheffield put it best when he described “gamers” as “someone who plays games, to the exclusion of all else” over at Gamasutra.
Patrick Lindsey stated in a recent Paste article that “videogames are often perceived as a subcultural domain of the Othered—an attitude that’s reinforced by the narrative of oppression that the ‘gamer’ identity adopts.” In stories like Armada, the protagonist is an outsider that needs to be understood, but they’re able to prove to society that games, technology, or whatever niche interest they have is important. You see this throughout the 1980s and 90s in films like Weird Science and Hackers. You see it even today with recent properties like Pixels, which, even more than Armada, is a story about gamers that learn nothing throughout their journeys because it’s the rest of the world that needs to learn from them.
In Armada, all Zack has is his interests. Everything ties back to them. Throughout the new novel, Cline puts Zack under a spotlight. Not only is he a nerd with a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of late 20th-century media, but he’s also a gamer, arguably the most important gamer. And it is due to this skillset that he is able to save the Earth from an extraterrestrial conflict. He’s a special kind of nerd in that he is relatable to you, the reader, who picked up Cline’s books after hearing on the Internet that he was a nerd himself. It’s an easy and lazy way to get the audience to connect, but they’re not connecting with the person Cline has created.
Zack is so unappealing because he is a hero throughout, he just has unfortunate circumstances that stifle his potential. When he makes mistakes, he gets rewarded. He gets to meet his father, who has been presumed dead for his entire life. He wins the heart of a generic goth, hacker girl because they have the same interests. He gets awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after connecting with the invader on Europa during the story’s climax. All because he played games. The book reads little more than the author living out a fantasy where being really good at videogames is okay.
But this isn’t a fantasy at all. It’s okay to like games. It’s okay to be a nerd. In fact, it’s more than okay. No longer is Dungeons & Dragons trying to convert kids to Satanism. Look at some of most popular licensed properties right now. Look at Marvel, DC, the prevalence of San Diego Comic-Con as a monolith. The two biggest films at the box office in 2015 so far are Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, a science fiction film and a superhero flick respectively, and the new Star Wars film hasn’t even come out yet. And you don’t have to be a straight white guy to do it! There are people with all kinds of backgrounds that come together to enjoy geekdom. If anything, oppression happens inside the geek community, not because of it.
To have a book like Armada in 2015, where being a nerd means being oppressed, where being the hero means proving that being into Star Wars is acceptable, where interests such as technology and science fiction need to be validated on a grand scale, is old-fashioned and counterproductive. The geek community is thriving, large, and growing, but pop culture references aren’t all that it is.
So no, I’m not going to end this with a Star Trek quote. I’m more than that. Cline should be, too.
Carli Velocci is a freelance writer in the Boston area. Besides working on her webzine Postmortem Mag, she can also be seen ranting at Kill Screen, Polygon, Paste, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.