James Erwin is not a household name. Neither is his nickname Prufrock451, but that name is well known to Warner Bros. and Reddit users. Now his first book hit shelves. It breathes new wind into Science Fiction.
It all began with a silly question on Reddit, the content aggregator website that covers pretty much any subject, from How to improve your life to a man chronicling his life with his brother in law, Igor. Three years ago, a man known then only as Prufrock451 answered a question on the subreddit known as AskReddit where users ask a random question that pops into their minds. This question was
Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?
Prufrock451’s answer was a short story where a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) disappears from Kabul and reappears in ancient Rome. The story that would be known as Rome Sweet Rome in time, got the attention of a Warner Bros. executive. It is now being turned into a movie. That’s how a technical writer and historian became a Hollywood name over the course of a lunchbreak.
When not working on Rome Sweet Rome James Erwin has worked on a book titled Acadia. It breathes much needed fresh wind into Science Fiction.
Space – Above and Beyond
Acadia is set in the near future. About 100 years, to be exact. While nation states basically stopped being of any importance and Earth is of even less importance other than the place we all come from, humanity – now organized in space faring organizations – is exploiting other planets and pushing the boundaries. With that comes a lot of new political intrigue such as one man who legally qualifies as a state and other things.
Add to that the fact that artificial intelligence has finally been achieved, so the computers in the novel are separate and distinct characters.
The novel tells the story of how the spaceship Acadia launched, the people and technology involved in said launch and the future history of our world.
A Herculean Task
Acadia is an ambitious book. Historian James Erwin basically takes history as it has happened up until today, picks up the threads and weaves his own version of what might have happened up until about 100 years in the future. Add to that all the usual things that a book needs and you get to this list of things that Erwin managed to get into his book.
- History of space travel 100 years into the future
- History of the Earth 100 years into the future
- History of computing 100 years into the future
- Characters both alive and dead and their backstories as well as their relations
- Side characters both alive and dead and their backstories as well as their relations
- A political plot
- A plot involving AI
- A personal journey of the main character
- Explanation of technology
- A few twists
James Erwin doesn’t fail any of these points. In fact, he draws a believable and realistic world where war has lost its points as it’s just a bunch of drones shooting at other robotic stuff, making war into something that is merely a question of money.
He gets exotic locales such as Biafra in Nigeria (it might be a secessionist state but is as of 2015 unrecognized, so it’s kind of complicated) believably right. But what Erwin really excels at is the thoughts of what he believes an Artificial Intelligence thinks like. Especially when it comes to the fact that an AI is not confined to one body. So frequently, we’re treated to the main AIs musing about their bodies that they’re currently inhabiting. There’s also their thoughts on creation as they can be proven without a doubt where they’re coming from.
The Big Problem
The book is not without its flaws. In fact, there’s one big flaw. As right as Erwin gets his history, there’s one thing that suffers from it: the plot. It’s confusing, all over the place and ultimately appears to lead nowhere.
None of the plot strands are particularly bad. In fact, they’re all good, but I can’t help but think that Erwin ended up cramming at least three books’ worth of plot into one book, making all the plot strands suffer. Some end as sudden as they have begun. Others pop up at random locations only to then go under the radar again a few pages later. What also lacks is the framing. Every book needs to establish its world, right? When dealing with space opera, this is usually an external shot of the spaceships, however briefly. Or in regular movies, this is an external shot of the building the actors find themselves in. There’s a number of examples here, but because we’re on the topic of Science Fiction, here’s a bit of Firefly, Joss Whedon‘s hit series that was sadly cancelled after only one season. In case you have not seen it, do go see it. You won’t regret it.
Ultimately, all this leads to one of the weirder endings I’ve ever read. Part of the ending is obvious as soon as readers realize that there’s so much stuff going on. But what ultimately happens is a bit of a let-down.
Until then, however, James Erwin’s Acadia is a welcome addition to the genre of science fiction. Because it’s challenging, critical of our current world without wagging its finger or hitting readers over the head with its message. As such, Acadia can be read as either a parable of a number of things or as a space opera, the choice is that of the reader, much like the best SciFi-works of the 20th and 21st Century have done.