The fourth installment of Lyda Morehouse's cyberpunk Armageddon, Apocalypse Array picks up ten years after Messiah Node left off, reuniting readers with a compelling cast of mortal and celestial characters. From the computer wizard Mouse and the transgendered Angel of Death to artificial intelligences whose entire existences play out on the Web, each soul in this universe is engaged in the timeless struggle to achieve safety, a social niche, companionship, and peace of mind. This is no easy task in an era where governments require citizens to practice an approved religion if they want Web access, where gays, lesbians, and the genderqueer are routinely packed off to re-education camps, and where out-of-control nanoviruses are turning the great cities of humankind to glass while filling them with half-wild mutants.
As the book opens, Emmaline MacNaughten has embraced her chosen role as the Anti-Christ. After a big church wedding to Sammael Morningstar—otherwise known as Lucifer—she embarks on a series of bold initiatives intended to bring end-of-the-world prophecies to fruition. A formidable celebrity couple, she and Morningstar live under constant surveillance, and he unexpectedly finds himself more than a little annoyed with Emmaline's attention-hogging ways. He is, after all, the one and only Lucifer, ancient and powerful, a celestial being who's very unused to being upstaged.
Underneath the media's spotlight, Emmaline busies herself with the projects of branding everyone on Earth with the "Mark of Satan" (she takes this to mean access to the Web) and developing a VR Game that she hopes will forestall the Rapture. Meanwhile, Morningstar decides to go looking for any pesky messiahs who might throw a spiritual monkey-wrench into their plans. This search leads him to New York, and to a 16-year-old girl whose father just happens to be the Archangel Michael.
At the same time, in VR, one of the world's two artificially intelligent entities is going through hard times and identity crises. Dragon has been downsized—literally—reduced from a virtual giantess to a toy-sized entity. As the Web she lives in becomes cluttered with inexplicable hunks of data and Dragon shrinks, she finds she must make some hard choices about her loyalties to the yakuza who created her.
Apocalypse Array is the latest part of an exhilarating and complicated series—a brew of VR adventure, post-disaster science fiction, and, of course, religious-themed fantasy. That God and his Host exist is beyond doubt. There is no ambiguity: archangels like Michael and Morningstar are exactly the heavenly creatures they seem to be. A chosen few humans know their secret: Mouse, Michael's lover Deirdre and their daughter, Amariah, and, of course, Emmaline. Each of these clued-in humans has every reason to believe the end may be nigh. For those in the know, the question isn't if the apocalyptic prophecies of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity will come true...it's when.
For an author to pull this off while still maintaining a viable world is quite a feat. Morehouse gives herself room to work through the use of two major devices. First, she takes her time, developing her characters fully and measuring out the final war between Good and Evil at a delightfully steady pace. Second, she never quite commits to tipping Earth into the abyss, instead exploiting the ambiguous nature of prophecy. If something comes to pass in cyberspace, does it count as a prediction fulfilled? If not, then the End might just be a mirage. If a purported Anti-Christ is doing genuinely good works as a PR exercise, is she really on the side of darkness, capable of igniting the final war between Good and Evil?
In creating this fantastic and multi-layered world, Morehouse provides herself with a microscope for examining subjects of global importance: the role of religion in governments across the world, the nature of political oppression in times of social crisis, and appropriate and inappropriate responses to terrorism. She shows religious institutions being driven by politics and political ones being driven by religion, thus revealing both structures as flawed human inventions. (Not surprisingly, the archangels stay well clear of such organizations.)
Science fiction has a long tradition of stories that are sometimes—perhaps incorrectly—labeled as 'post-apocalyptic.' Most are portrayals of dystopias, ruined societies resulting from wars or other devastation, books that show the aftermath of an incomplete end of the world. What Morehouse is doing is rarer, showing a possible end of everything and everyone as it plays out. Apocalypse Array and its predecessors are not entirely alone in this tradition, of course: Connie Willis in particular has peered into the abyss with short works like "Last of the Winnebagos" and "Daisy, in the Sun." More similar in tone, though utterly secular in content, is Jack Womack's take on a possible politically-driven apocalypse in Random Acts of Senseless Violence.
Despite differences in approach, the authors noted above can be said to agree on a few basics. Like Morehouse, Willis and Womack both make the argument that when governments choose to restrict the personal freedoms of their citizens, especially in response to a crisis, they are likely to exacerbate the problem, or at the very least fail to solve it.
Few authors, though, have infused a doomsday scenario with the predictions of the Last Days that have been kicking around for so many centuries. Morehouse boldly asks readers to consider what it might be like if God is not only out there, but actually planning to wipe humanity out one day. As millions of people believe this to be nothing more than literal truth, it is at once obvious material for exploration in fiction and dangerously explosive.
It is important to note that there are plenty of "world in danger" scenarios in the SF canon: action-adventure novels, often space operas, where the stakes of the conflict are raised by putting a planet in danger. This can often be a bit of a cheat, especially in universes where there are plenty of other worlds or colonies where humanity can continue to thrive, and where the potential victims of the carnage are anonymous populations the heroine of the book has to save. Not so with Morehouse's Armageddon series: Earth is all there is, all her characters are at equal risk, and each of them fully engages reader sympathy, not least because so many of them are passionately in love. Even knowing that they could be living through the final days, the characters seem like real people as they struggle with fully developed lives-in-progress lives equipped with responsibilities, romantic crushes, with jobs and kids and bills to pay. Like anyone, their day-to-day reality serves as a distraction from the unsettling potential doom lurking in the future.
The riffs Morehouse plays on the theme of love become richer with each novel in this series. A thorny love triangle developed between Michael, Deirdre, and Mouse works its way into the open in Apocalypse Array. As Mouse embarks on the obviously insane task of romancing someone whose heart is lost to an archangel, his transmutation from a criminal to a person of substance is poignant and unexpectedly sexy. Meanwhile, a dark mirror is held up to this messy relationship in the marriage between Emmaline and Morningstar, the evil but apparently flawless power-couple whose goals seem perfectly in sync—at least when the cameras are on them.
Not all the bonds are romantic, of course. Parent-child love, in various peculiar forms, also gets plenty of play. Dragon must decide if her affection for her creator outweighs her own dreams and desires. With an angel for a father, Amariah has an extra-hefty load of parent-related baggage. In an interesting contrast, Mouse has become all but estranged from his artificially intelligent creation, Page.
Apocalypse Array and its predecessors are thought-provoking and delicious, mixing a satisfying adventure with intriguing characterization and a stand-out setting. The fantastic content as represented by the angels and prophecies may not appeal to the tastes of SF purists, but it is smoothly integrated into this futuristic tableau—the world convinces, and it's one that is very worthy of exploration.