July 21, 2015 | The Crew
I had a conversation with a friend the other night about his wife’s laundry list of problems with America—rampant consumer culture, disconnection from the land, inability to live harmoniously in diverse communities, Walmart, etc. He agreed with her on most points, and so did I, and because I believe literature is a wonderful way to recontextualize our woes, to find other perspectives, I recommended they read The Lords of Middle Dark, the first book in Jack Chalker’s Rings of the Master series. It takes place a couple-thousand years in the future, in which humanity had created Master System, a giant and infinitely complex computer with a single function: ensure humanity’s survival, whatever the cost. When it realized humanity was far too fond of technologies that harness incredible energy to galaxy-crushing potential, Master System decimated the human population and sent us back to a computer-monitored dark age. In the Americas, you have far-flung tribes living in teepees, in China you have feudal lords and fireworks, in England you have druids and misty hills, etc. I explained this to my friend, suggesting that perhaps The Lords of Middle Dark could offer some perspective in dealing with the modern world—namely that we have the good fortune of not running around in loin cloths, forever at the mercy of indifferent nature.
But I know that they’ll never read it, because only me and about 30 other people have ever heard of Jack Chalker, much less read him. The same is true for bajillions of science fiction authors. The thing is, they’re just not accessible.
I really like old science fiction. Like Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory, I can’t walk by a beat-up copy of an Arthur C. Clarke or a Robert Heinlein without buying it. And the reason I like those books so much is because they tackle some pretty intense social problems that other books don’t, or can’t.
When I taught Freshman English, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was a mainstay of my syllabus, and more than any Classic or long-form social commentary, it got students talking about their station in life, the point of suffering, what a perfect world would look like, and, most importantly of all, if they would stay in Omelas or walk away. You should read it, too.
Where “Omelas” requires us to think about our day-to-day lives, how our privilege effects us and others, Armada fits in with a different camp of sci-fi, the big-picture question of how the rest of the universe would regard us if ever we were to meet them. The Day the Earth Stood Still did this, forcing us to think about nuclear armament. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (soon to be a miniseries) shows us we can be better than we are, but we’ll have to (SPOILER ALERT) give up our physical bodies and submit to a multi-colored uber-consciousness to do it. Ender’s Game makes us feel bad for the bad guys.
In fact, Armada shares a lot with Ender’s Game—mysterious enemy, instantaneous communication, an old hero everybody though was dead, kids fighting for humanity’s survival—only here the kids know what they’re doing. Poor Ender didn’t have a clue he was committing genocide, and he worked real hard in the succeeding books to make up for it.
What sets Armada apart from all the other socially conscious science fiction tales of future mankind’s survival is its accessibility. Only a small-but-devoted clump of hardcore nerds will gobble up a Vernor Vinge novel about the scary ramifications of artificial intelligence. But when Ernest Cline peppers a story with Xbox controllers and Queen songs, a lot more people are willing to wade through the descriptions of drone schematics and inertia-cancelling technology.
As a sci-fi guy, Armada falls a little short. It uses that old Humanity is a Danger to Itself and Also the Galaxy trope without doing anything especially new with it. In all those stories, and in Armada, we’re left wondering how to deal with our own savage selves.
But when I think of the millions of non-scif-fi people who will read this and come out of it with new thoughts about our place in the universe and humanity’s oft under-utilized capacity for empathy, I think the guy’s onto something. So yes, Arthur C. Clarke and Ben Bova and Frank Herbert and Cordwainer Smith will remain overwhelmingly inaccessible even though the ideas and moral quandaries are hugely—perhaps critically—valuable. But empathy is perhaps the most impressive evolutionary tool we have. It deserves some attention. Even if it’s packaged with outdated nerd-culture references.
It’s a better book than Ready Player One. Maybe it’s less fun, but it seems to me Ernest Cline learned a lot in the few years between writing that and this. Namely that lasting characters require substance. Something more than “She was cool and troubled.” And maybe that’s where Ernest Cline wins over those old masters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It’s next to impossible for the average reader to connect with Cordwainer Smith’s protagonist in “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” in which a Faster-Than-Light pilot has to be neurologically wired to a cat who is tricked into seeing inter-dimensional dragons as giant rats thereby activating its impressive defense reflexes, in turn saving spacefaring humans from being stranded in a dimension between dimensions. Phew.
Armada’s appeal isn’t just in the fun pop-culture references. It manages to give us believable characters. When you see these people take action against the impending alien apocalypse rather than crumple in defeat, you know you’d do the same. Or at least you like to think so. Hardcore science fiction keeps the reader at bay, rarely if ever letting the them put themselves in the hero’s unenviable shoes. Ernest Cline invites us in.