Wednesday, November 16, 2016


by Ernest Cline
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the follow-up to his debut novel Ready Player One, video-game maven and 1980s pop-culture fanatic Ernest Cline delivers a story that fulfills the deepest, darkest wish of every kid who ever made it onto the "Top Scores" screen of an alien-invader-blasting arcade game. It also fulfills the deepest, darkest wish of Zach Lightman, a high school senior from the Portland suburb of Beaverton, Oregon, whose father died at age 19 in an explosion at the local wastewater treatment plant. Among the relics he inherited from the father he never knew are an obsession with movies, books, and games about space invaders, and a secretly embarrassing journal of conspiracy theories suggesting all these films and games are part of a top-secret plan to prepare the world for real close encounters of the nerd kind.

His feelings about his dad's last notebook begin to change, however, when Zach looks out the window of his math classroom one day and sees an alien spacecraft, straight out of his favorite E.T.-slaying computer game, zoom past. At first, he thinks he must be going insane. It is isn't long, though, before he realizes there have been similar sightings around the world. In one incredible day, Zach learns that much of what he has been told all his life was a lie, and the aliens are real, as is their threat to wipe out the human race. And now, most improbable of all, he is among the very few top-scoring players of the companion games Terra Firma and Armada on whom the hopes of mankind depend.

Both games, made by a company called Chaos Terrain, feature realistic graphics and fighting tactics for an alien-invasion scenario in which both sides of the conflict are fought by remote-controlled, unmanned drones. Terra Firma, as the name suggests, spotlights the ground war between humanoid robots and drones shaped like spiders, centipedes, and insects. Armada focuses on the aerospace war, where pilots control their craft from virtual cockpits inside shielded bunkers deep underground. This allows ace pilots like Zach to take control of fresh drones as their previous mounts are shot out from under them. But when Zach and several of his fellow Top 10 Armada players are assembled on the far side of the moon to face the first wave of a massive, and probably unstoppable, tide of mechanized death, he must come to terms with finding his long-lost father, only to lose him again; falling in love with a girl with whom he may never have a chance to kiss a second time; and, most challenging of all, the realization that he must fight against both sides of the war to ensure the survival of the human race.

This is a thrilling, funny, suspenseful, emotionally satisfying romp through the pop culture of the last generation or two, with plenty of explosions and other surprises to keep it lively. When I checked it out of the library before a long road trip, one of the local librarians saw what I was borrowing and enthused about how much fun she had reading it. It didn't hurt that the audiobook edition was read by Wil Wheaton, of "Shut up, Wesley!" fame. Although the main character's narrating voice often did sound a lot like Star Trek's Wesley Crusher, the big surprise was how many of the other characters had convincingly distinctive voices and accents. It became evident Wheaton has more voice-acting talent than I would have expected. This was the perfect book for him to read, and he was the perfect reader for it.

Cline is also a poet, the screenwriter of the film Fanboys, and the author of a non-fiction book titled The Importance of Being Ernest. If the four-year gap between Ready Player One and this book is anything to go by, we should expect something new from him by about 2019. I wonder, though. Will he really keep us waiting that long?

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