According to TVTropes.org, lampshade hanging is:
is the writers’ trick of dealing with any element of the story that threatens the audience’s Willing Suspension of Disbelief, whether a very implausible plot development, or a particularly blatant use of a trope, by calling attention to it and simply moving on.
If you know what lampshade hanging is, then you know what Ernest Cline’s Armada is all about. After all, the basic premise is that a misfit teenager who spends all of his time playing video games discovers that he has actually been in training to fly a star fighter into a real-world space battle. From that point on, basically everything that doesn’t make sense or stretches reader credulity ends up being converted from a bug into a feature. This book is, in a lot of ways, one big inversion of everything in the alien invasion subgenre that doesn’t make sense.
And so instead of trying to differentiate from The Last Starfighter, Cline doubles down and cites it by name. And then also cites basically every major science fiction film and video game franchise in existence as part of a single, vast conspiracy.
The surprising thing is how well it works. Lots of reviews ding Armada for playing too hard on nostalgia, but I don’t think that’s really fair. Sure, the book name checks an awful lot of beloved franchises (and also 1980s rock), but I wasn’t into those games or music (or a lot of the movies), so there wasn’t much nostalgia for me at all. I about the iconic role of video game arcades, but they weren’t actually a part of my life.
What’s more, Cline also does a good job of taking his premise and committing to it 100%. And when it doesn’t quite make sense—when there’s the fundamental problem of explaining why an alien species powerful enough to travel interstellar distances would actually be roughly on-par with human technology—well, that’s part of the plot. A big part.
The style of writing reminds me of the most successful self-published books out there, like Hugh Howey (Wool), Andy Weir (The Martian), and maybe even Larry Correia (Monster Hunter International). There’s something refreshingly earnest and unrefined about all of their work. There’s total commitment to the central premise in each of these books, and the purity of that commitment and the earnestness with which it is pursued combined to cover a host of minor flaws. The books feel fresh in a way that a lot of traditionally published works—even accomplished ones—do not.
But for me, Cline did not stick the landing. There were too major flaws. The first is that—after dancing on the edge of cliché for so long—at the end Cline falls right in. And not in a kind of ironic, self-aware, meta kind of way but in the old-fashioned, “this idea has been done a few too many times already” kind of way.
What’s more, Cline also kills off a character who was supposed to be dead at the start of the book. This does not go well, and converts one of the book’s key emotional scenes into farce. He’s dead. So sad. No, wait! He’s alive after all! All the feels! Oh, wait, here we go. He’s gonna die again. Yup, he’s really quite thoroughly dead this time. You do not want to forcefully remind your readers of Monty Python skits when you’re gunning for that pivotal moment of heroic self-sacrifice.
Sometimes a book can be too clever or precious, and based on the description of Armada that’s probably what you’d expect. In the end, however, it comes up short of greatness because of a cleverness deficit rather than a surplus.