Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
Science fiction may not have war figured out any more than our politicians do, but visions of the future of war in current YA and film can be both eerily prescient and filled with ominous warnings for a not-so-distant-future. I recently got my hands on an ARC of S.J. Kincaid’s upcoming YA novel Insignia, which starts with World War Three already in progress. It gets going with a fitting apocalypse-predicting quote from Albert Einstein: “I know not with what weapons World War Three will be fought, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones” while defying such predictions by imagining a new era of mostly automated combat—fought by teenagers with the reflexes to control these technologies. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition to consider. Will our next world war look more like a videogame than the brutal combat of the present?
With rumblings in politics across the globe, the notion of World War Three and its potential aftermath is seeping into popular culture as part of our ongoing obsession with apocalypse. In 2012, such speculation is appropriately timely: but as we look at the weapons we have in a world where computational power of untold potential fits into the palm of our hand it’s hard to tell what direction the final blast might come from even as we experience everything through a lens of interconnectedness that can both make the suffering of others more real and yet more remote, one of many texts or images filling a Twitter feed.
Insignia follows a teenage gamer, Tom, whose skills get him a place plugged into the network of the Intrasolar Forces fighting a war between the Indo-American Alliance and the Russia-China Alliance. These Gibson-esque, corporate-minded government conglomerates use fighting on other planets to decide their conflicts at home. The idea is reminiscent of the Orwellian concept of war as a way to keep society in continual order, and a tech-savvy update of Ender’s Game’s use of video game interfaces to fight aliens.
The idea of children and teenagers as the soldiers of the future is not too surprising when a hardcore teenage gamer is already “trained” on games such as America’s Army. The teen warrior is hitting books and cinema in a big way right now, with The Hunger Games film about to put Katniss in an even-bigger spotlight on the “lo-tech” side, and the Ender’s Game movie adaptation getting the greenlight (again, but this time maybe for real). Ender’s Game had been written off as unfilmable, or at the very least unmarketable, thanks not to the giant war against aliens but instead to scenes of vicious brutality between children that would be hard to fit in a PG13 rating—a strange double-standard that itself reflects our mental line between “virtual” or bloodless war and physical conflict.
A more subtle thread woven through Insignia, and the very concept of virtual violence, is the impact of these technologies and conflicts on our humanity. While today we’re looking at the possibility of head-mounted displays and virtually enhanced contact lenses as the foreshadowing of technology more deeply integrated with our physical bodies, sci-fi is looking ahead to the total integration of these systems and Tom and his fellow warriors are part of that future. After all, as fast as the reflexes of a good gamer might be, a computer’s calculations are ultimately faster. The combination of a teenager’s mental flexibility and a machine’s speed and networking hold both the promise and threat of the cyborg, and Kincaid explores some of the consequences of this type of self-transformation. Coming of age alongside the technology we have already is hard (just look at a teenager’s Facebook profile—yes, any teenager’s—for proof), but future-tech could add even more drama.
Even as I appreciate the idea of a war fought outside the realm of civilian casualties, there’s something perpetually disturbing about the idea of a war fought via computers. The tension between traditional warfare (of the blood and guts variety) and a more “civilized” form of combat is very much like the classic if corny Star Trek: Original Series episode “A Taste of Armageddon:”
The distancing of people from conflict in this episode of Star Trek is not unlike the remoteness Insignia and other works of science fiction are pushing. If war becomes so abstracted, with the smiling figureheads of digitally-enhanced teenage warriors the only visible part of a silent but high-stakes infrastructure, what about those who have to live with the consequences? The model of war in Star Trek benefits the owners of property the most—no infrastructure is ever destroyed, no potential profit is ever lost, just as in the corporate-driven future Kincaid envisions. In that sense, there’s a horrific realism to this future that we are already living, where much of the “plugged-in” society is immune from any physical consequences of war while others fight desperate battles in places where real infrastructure was often never there to begin with.
Kincaid’s Insignia is definitely worth a read if these questions of future war in our quickly-evolving society are of interest to you—and it’s part of an important genre in YA that is essentially post-cyberpunk, re-imagining the nanotech networked futures that in the 80s really seemed to be far away. In a world where so much that we take for granted is the stuff of far-fetched science fiction works past, it’s not hard to believe that such stories might hold some truth about where we’re heading from here.