The Cleansing by Ben Eller. Fireside Publications, 2009. 292 pages
In Ben Eller’s science fiction novel, The Cleansing, (2020), progress in the next decade is a mixed blessing. Although significant advances have been made in areas such as astronomy, weapons design and computer science, mankind appears to have regressed in terms of moral and ethical development. Statistics indicate that crimes against children, drug addiction and poverty are increasing at an alarming rate; pollution and the unchecked abuse of the environment continue while a half-dozen wars smolder in the Middle East. International diplomacy founders in a pervasive atmosphere of cynicism, duplicity and covert activity. Worst of all, the general public languishes in a quagmire of callous indifference, pursuing shallow entertainment (karaoke, binge drinking and sitcoms) and instant gratification — intent on “amusing themselves to death.” Then, the “blue lights” arrive.
Initial sightings, reported by astronomers, describe the phenomenon as a kind of luminous mist that encircles the Earth, and it appears to have originated in “outer space. Although puzzled by this event, the public perceives the lights as non-threatening. Then, ‘THE SCRIPT” appears inexplicably (and instantly) on the governmental communications monitors in every country on Earth. The tersely worded message states, “Preservation of earth’s habitat and species requires the following:
• Cessation of wars and violence among Homo sapiens.
• Disabling the weapons of Homo sapiens conflict.
• Discontinuance of planet destruction and extinction of species.
• Cessation of the reproduction of Homo sapiens.
In the United States, an alarmed president convenes an emergency session of his cabinet and launches an investigation. Is this an ill-conceived prank, launched by college students or hackers? Eventually, two conclusions are readily apparent: (l) The four edicts in THE SCRIPT are not suggestions; they are “directives.” (2) THE SCRIPT did not originate in any country on our planet.
These conclusions are verified when hundreds of bronze spaceships arrive and land in the most remote and barren regions on the planet. The president establishes Homeland Security measures and struggles to control a divided cabinet that includes a morally corrupt, ambitious vice president and a growing number of hawkish military experts who cannot accept the fact that they are no longer in control of this country’s defense system.
Eller establishes and promotes a suspenseful atmosphere by rapid shifts in the novel’s points of view: From the “war room” in Washington to bleak battlefields in Kosovo or Iran where bewildered soldiers discover that their weapons refuse to fire; a saloon in Ten Sleep, Wyoming where customers are divided between following the unfolding events on CNN or joining the fun in the Karaoke Room; random reports of the instant disappearance of thousands of serial murderers, child molesters and psychotics — all gone in a flash of blue light.
Although we have had this fanciful confrontation before in numerous movies (“The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Encounters of the Third Kind”), this fact does not lessen the potential for dramatic tension in The Cleansing. One of mankind’s most dreaded (and most anticipated) encounters is imminent: emissaries of an “otherworldly power” have arrived and the innate merits and frailties of all of the Earth’s civilizations have been weighed — judgment is at hand.
Eller orchestrates the suspense with considerable skill as he moves toward an encounter between the invaders and Earth’s emissaries (who were selected by the aliens): a Tibetan monk, a blind 5-year-old boy from India and a 14-year-old girl from Detroit — all gifted with the ability to communicate by telepathy. Have the aliens come to stay? Will humanity by weighed and found wanting? Has the vice president succeeded in his search for a weapon that can be used against the invaders? And what about Zolef, the fanatic in Iraq who has developed a cunning weapon that will destroy the United States — one that is immune to the “blue light?” And finally, what are “Truens?”
The Cleansing suffers from two minor flaws. First, due to the author’s painstaking and exhaustive research, his narrative sometimes suffers from an excessive use of arcane jargon — especially acronyms. Occasionally, the novel’s suspense and tension falters, buried beneath HS, NIH, THADD, GPS, NEST, KH12, UAVS, SARA, ABS, SNN, SOG, MASH and etc. Finally, there is Josh Jones, the protagonist of The Cleansing. Josh is handsome, gifted and experienced in a diversity of fields, including hand-to-hand combat. He speaks four languages, is a former SEAL, excels in mathematics, computer programming and lovemaking. He is accustomed to keeping company with the privileged elite that includes the powerful, wealthy, the intelligent, and in terms of women, he tends to favor the well-endowed (mentally and physically). He is equally at home in graduate courses at Chapel Hill or in a slum hospital with Mother Theresa. His most memorable moment comes during the historic (and televised) encounter between the aliens and Earth’s emissaries in a remote desert in southern Arabia: Josh makes the mile-long walk to the site naked, thereby exposing his flawless physique to an adoring TV audience and demonstrating the fact that he “is not armed.” (I’m surprised that he didn’t levitate.) I found Josh’s exploits to be an irritating distraction. The Cleansing would have benefited from either his absence or a severe reduction in his gifts and accomplishments.
However, in spite of the acronyms and Josh’s posturing, the basic premise of The Cleansing still contains a thought-provoking dilemma. If some divine intermediary every brings our planet to the bar of justice, would we be found worthy of survival?
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Read reviews and other postings at his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)