For more than five years—basically since I started living alone—there is a set window of time during which I can watch horror movies: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, and during the week never (unless I feel like some Freddy Krueger before breakfast). Because even as I settle into the throes of adulthood, I am still easily scared. I hate peeking under my bed, or behind the shower curtain, and closing my mirrored medicine cabinet still makes my heart flutter. All of which I credit to a childhood spent watching wildly inappropriate B horror movies rented from the kind of video store that had an adult section. When Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer brought the horror genre back into the mainstream in the late ‘9os, I didn’t know whether to be more excited about my favorite genre’s budding popularity, or Skeet Ulrich.
Scream creator Wes Craven’s death this week is no small loss for scary cinema, and has me reflecting on what it was about Scream that catapulted a silly slasher flick into worldwide popularity. Despite a very of-the-moment cast (did I mention Skeet Ulrich?) and genius mask work, Scream’s true strength was in its wink at the fourth wall—the veil between fiction and reality that has to exist lest we start wondering why everyone in horror movies acts like they’ve never seen one before. Don’t go up the stairs! Don’t look for that laughing child! TURN AROUND!! Scream took cinematic self-awareness to the next level, as its main characters often preempted their own murders with diatribes on the inherent ridiculousness of horror movie tropes. “It was a tactic that made even Scream’s most cliche moments feel ironic and sophisticated,” I wrote in Newsweek.
Blending a fictional universe with the real one—where we’ve all long since learned about closing medicine cabinet doors—is one of the harder things to do in novel-world, particularly with the kind of acuity that lets us undo the suspension of disbelief necessary to watch a horror flick in the first place. But in that realm, the realm of fourth-wall breakers, Ernest Cline is king. His first novel, Ready Player One (review here) followed a poor teenager in a shitty 2044 who ends up on an epic adventure by virtue of his skill at a massive online multi-player game, OASIS. The game’s creator, an enigmatic (and deceased) billionaire, built OASIS around the ’80s pop culture references that dominated his own childhood—movies, music, comic books, video games, you name it—a grasp of which is needed to unlock new levels. RPO is a fun, engaging and imaginative novel—Spielberg is directing the movie adaptation—but it’s also the kind of book you want to read with Wikipedia open in one tab and your Netflix list in the other.
Armada, Cline’s latest novel, is set closer to the here and now. Zack Lightman, a video game nerd with a particular affinity for multi-player alien invasion game Armada, is suffering through high school with a chip on his shoulder afforded him by the sudden death of his father when Zack was less than a year old. Everything is predictably mundane and angsty until one day Zack sees a UFO flying outside of his school, or an FO since it looks an awful lot like the enemy’s ships in Armada. From the classroom to the moon and back, Zack soon enters a whirlwind interplanetary adventure that draws on all his knowledge of his favorite space invasion game, as well as decades of pop culture’s ubiquitous obsession with space and aliens.
Armada relies just as heavily on ’80s and video game (and ’80s video game) references as its predecessor, but added here to Cline’s encyclopedic knowledge (of what some would argue is a decade best forgotten) is his equally comprehensive accounting of space’s storied presence in our imaginations. Truly, galaxies far far away are a cultural obsession whose canon of media is so wide in scope and platform that only the dual suns of Star Wars and Star Trek can anchor its orbit. In Armada, Cline seems to take pleasure in shrugging off the idea that the victims of an IRL alien invasion wouldn’t first and foremost discuss the various ways in which said invasion seems like fictional alien invasions of yore. In other words, when Congress someday debates the merits of sending a five-note audio welcome wagon to greet extraterrestrial visitors, you can bet at least one senator is going to bring up Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “That’s what Armada is,” Cline told The Verge last year. “If an alien invasion happened today, we’d be aware of all that and reference all of this pop culture like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and we would have expectations of how an alien invasion would go.”
But there’s also something uniquely meta about the way Cline executes this science fiction nostalgia play. Because in the age of ubiquitous technology—interconnected computers, phones, tablets, games, etc.—it becomes increasingly difficult to capture human life in a way that is both emotional and vulnerable but also available to an audience. Watching John Cusack hold a boombox over his head in Say Anything is palpable, tangible—watching him Facebook-stalk Diane until she changed her relationship status would be less so.
And yet Cline is writing about old culture in the context of the new. Ready Player One’s Wade Watts is a gamer in a future so engaged with technology that people go to school and conduct business in OASIS. Entire apartment buildings exist for people who spend more or less all their time jacked into the game. In Armada, Zack is an equally voracious gamer, though in a capacity more recognizable to 2015, and particularly to fans of blockbuster games like Call of Duty and Halo. (Indeed, the idea that these games encourage gamers to think favorably of real-life war is at the heart of Armada.) Which is all to say that there’s something extra fun about Cline writing novels set in a fictional future that make use of the actual past to comment on the actual future, all without being either too grandiose or too cheesy.
Fans of Ready Player One will find no surprises in Armada, which I mean as an enormous compliment. RPO set the bar high, and Cline’s latest is exactly what you want it to be, the perfect dose of adventure for that long train ride or late-night insomnia or (in my case) overnight transatlantic flight. People should be talking about Ernest Cline more; they will be. Mark my words—I’ve seen the future.
AUTHOR: Ernest Cline
PAGES: 368 pages
ALSO WROTE: Ready Player One
SORTA LIKE: Ender’s Game meets Independence Day
FIRST LINE: “I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.”