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For decades, the holy grail of many military innovators has been “perfect sensing, perfect strike” capability. If you could identify and destroy any target on the face of the Earth, the logic goes, how could you possibly lose? Recent history has not been kind of this belief, because the dynamics that matter most in war lie within the individual human soul. They are beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated military hardware. I spent a lot of time pondering the question: what if a country really could develop perfect sensing and perfect strike capability, but still lose?

I put my vision into a short story titled “The Wasp Keepers”, which appears in the magnificent new War Stories anthology edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates.

I’ll be honest: other than the usual classics (like The Forever War, Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, and Old Man’s War), I don’t read much military science fiction. That’s largely because so much of the genre doesn’t fit my experience of war. I have spent my military career navigating the shadowy, ambiguous world of “war among the people”, so I can’t relate to interstellar ships re-enacting the Age of Sail, futuristic WWII platoons fighting conventional battles, or Cold War-style superpower confrontations. With War Stories, the editors deliberately sought to break the mold and expand the genre, by telling war stories that are about more than just soldiers and battles. I was excited when Andrew and Jaym first articulated their vision and fervently hoped to get published in the anthology. The very fact they accepted my story says something about their unique perspective; “The Wasp Keepers” is about a Syrian civilian mother.

You can buy the War Stories ebook DRM-free here and preorder the trade paperback here. You can also find my military SF novel The Lords of Harambee here.

I’ve always been a geek at heart, and I also try to keep one eye on cyber issues because they’re so important to national security.  So lately I’ve been reading numerous books about networking, computer hacking, and hacktivism.

One of the most intriguing books in this collection is We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency by Parmy Olson.  Despite a string of 1-star reviews on Amazon by disgruntled Anonymous members (all curiously posted within a two-day spread shortly after the book’s publication), I thought the book was absolutely riveting.  It is a tour through the digital underground: the IRC chat rooms where attacks are planned and botnets are controlled, message boards where virtual flash mobs are born, and the dark basements where socially alienated teenagers become world-famous hackers.  The exploits themselves are fascinating: social engineering and exploitation, network penetration, data theft, d0xing, denial of service attacks, and many more.  For a nonfiction book, it has plenty of suspense.  I was constantly looking forward to learning what the next attack would be, and enjoyed the progressive revelation of the identities of Anonymous and LulzSec leaders–a subject about which I knew nothing.

The book is also fascinating from a national security and defense standpoint.  It forced me to do some deep thinking about how networks and headless organizations conduct themselves, and how to fight them.  Here are a few of my observations, with the caveat that they are based mostly on this one book.

The author challenges the idea that Anonymous has a powerful hive mind.  In the author’s view, the spread of this belief is one of Anonymous’ greatest feats of social engineering.  In actuality, Anonymous is a brand under which almost anyone can rally, and which has been subject to bitter infighting, splits, and even FBI informing by key members.  Any apparent hive intelligence is less the result of the crowds, and more a result of key leaders or teams within Anonymous.  For example, although hundreds of people participated in some key DDoS attacks, nearly all the computing firepower came from one or two botnet owners.

Following from this, even decentralized networks need leaders.  It’s hard to get anything done otherwise.  It’s interesting that after a period of creative anarchy, some key members of Anonymous broke off to form their own hacking group, LulzSec, which was smaller, more structured, and more disciplined.  Without this kind of centralized structure, groups are mostly limited to lone wolf or one-off attacks.

The very atmosphere of paranoia and anonymity is easy to exploit.  In a virtual environment where nobody knows your real identity, it’s easy for white hat hackers and government officials to roam freely.  The hackers know this, so groups are constantly jumping between communication networks and methods and new, tighter circles of trust are constantly being established and re-established.  As circles slowly expand and trust erodes, new circles form again.  It isn’t easy for groups to function like this.

The author highlights the extent to which core Anonymous hackers manipulated eager wannabes.  During large DDoS attacks, for example, core members encouraged Anons to use free, downloadable software that would allow them to participate in the attacks.  However, they downplayed the legal dangers and didn’t do much to help these less technologically adept recruits mask their identities.  The fun and games were over when the FBI knocked down their doors with arrest warrants.

I had no idea how banal and sordid Anonymous’ beginnings were.  The media plays up the “hacktivist” and libertarian spirit of Anonymous, so I was surprised to hear about the organization’s beginnings on 4chan–within subcommunities that essentially celebrated depravity as a means of escaping boredom.  That included everything from taunting pedophiles, to exploiting and blackmailing young women into sending nude pictures, to swapping photos of appalling violence.  When a new generation of members wanted to steer the hive efforts towards moral or civic goals, they were treated with disdain.  When LulzSec was born, it deliberately rejected crusading and focused on hacking/exploiting for the mere thrill of it.

It’s hard for decentralized organizations to have a coherent vision and mission.  Different individuals and subcommunities came to anonymous with different goals, and these subcommunities could fight bitterly over what they were trying to achieve.  As stated above, libertarian hacktivists collided with those who just hacked to lift themselves out of despair and boredom.

We should be careful when we claim, “it takes a network to fight a network.”  That’s true, but in the defense world, we should only go so far in trying to emulate decentralized networks.  They are fluid and responsive, but they also have severe handicaps.  We should seek hybrid models that allow rapid information sharing and decision-making, but still have strong executive “deciders” who can steer the organization towards a common purpose.

It only takes one mistake to blow your cover.  The Internet is designed in such a way that masking your identity is relatively easy, and a savvy hacker can count on anonymity.  For these reasons, attribution of attacks can be extremely difficult.  However, virtually everything on the net is logged and stored somewhere for future reference, and it only takes the tiniest slip to permanently expose your identity.  In the case of Sabu, one of the core members of LulzSec, a single logon to IRC without his anonymizing software momentarily exposed his IP address. That’s all it took.  So for persistent hackers, it seems like it’s just a matter of time.  Everybody is going to screw up sooner or later.

What you’d expect: many Anons are socially alienated young males living in their mother’s house.  Not all of them, but enough that we can make some hypotheses about why people join groups like Anonymous.  For some it’s really about libertarian ideals and the commitment to the free flow of information, but for others it’s probably not.

Finally, I constantly found myself comparing Anonymous to al-Qa’ida and other jihadi groups.  Not because they pose the same level of threat, but because so many of the organizational dynamics appear to be similar.

I love a good post-apocalyptic novel.  The Road shook this young father to the core, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the world destroyed countless times over in various ways: alien invasions, plagueescaped biological weapons, economic ruin, gamma ray bursts, and nuclear weapons, just to name a few.  The breakdown of society is a favorite theme in my own writing as well.  My novel The Lords of Harambee is about a peacekeeping operation on a hellish world torn apart by economic ruin and genocide, and my current work-in-progress is about the rapid dissolution of an empire.  It isn’t the ruin I necessarily enjoy; it’s watching human beings stripped down to their essential nature, then fighting to survive and to build something new and good.

So I’ll never shy away from a promising post-apocalyptic novel, but when I downloaded the Audible version of The Grapes of Wrath, that was hardly what I was expecting.  I had fallen in love with East of Eden a couple years ago, and was looking for an equally powerful experience.  I had read “The Grapes of Wrath” in High School and despised it, but I’ve spent my adult years rediscovering and falling in love with many of those books I’d been too young to appreciate.  So when I returned to this novel, I had some idea of what was in store.  However, I was deeply surprised, midway through the book, when I realized I was listening to one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

This is a beautiful and compassionate book, and the Audible version is phenomenal.  Despite a huge cast of characters, the narrator brings each of the main characters to life with a diverse range of believable voices, and does an excellent job managing the many secondary characters. I couldn’t wait to get into the car at the end of each workday, so I could listen to another segment.  But make no mistake: this novel is also brutal.  In the Audible version, the listener has more than 21 hours to witness the tragic dissolution of the Joad family.  By the end, I just wanted it to be over.  I didn’t remember much about the book from High School, but I did remember how it ended, and I knew it wasn’t well.

There are no alien invasions or stray asteroids, but this is John Steinbeck’s apocalypse.  It is nothing less than the destruction of America, and the members of the Joad family are the classic post-apocalyptic survivors, inching their way across a tortured landscape in search of a better future.  Merciless corporations, a runaway financial system, and weak or oppressive government institutions have conspired to make life unbearable for the average American.  While the upper crust of society grows impossibly rich, the masses eek out miserable lives, simply trying to survive.  Many of them don’t, and we watch their downfall in painful slow motion.

Steinbeck’s critique of capitalism might be overstated.  After all, the 20th century was not exactly a race to the bottom, and our lives today are substantially better today thanks to the innovation made possible by a capitalist system.

However, Steinbeck’s devastated world looks uncomfortably familiar today, at a time when something is so clearly broken in American society.  We live in an era when wealth disparity is growing rapidly, and when neither capitalism nor the American government serves the common interest.  The middle class is disappearing, and the masses struggle to stay afloat in the face of the new economic and political reality: crushing debt, unaffordable higher education, disappearing jobs, dysfunctional governance, totalitarian surveillance, unjust legal systems, and dwindling government services.  Thankfully most of us aren’t reduced to the misery and desperation of Steinbeck’s world, but the novel is haunting and familiar for those of us who are worried about where our country is headed.

With all that said, Steinbeck makes one significant deviation from most post-apocalyptic novels.  In the majority of these novels, humanity descends into Mad Max barbarism; every man is for himself, and every stranger is a likely enemy.  Many of today’s survivalists, who anticipate a rapid collapse of society, hoard food and ammo so they can ride out the end of the world in fortified isolation.  But as John Robb pointed out in a blog post I’ve since lost track of, collapsing societies don’t always turn every man against the others; in most cases, neighbors band together to survive.  As national institutions crumble, local ones become essential.  Read the news about Syria, and you’ll read stories about neighborhoods forming local councils to tackle urgent problems and women smuggling medicine into besieged communities.  Anyone who has visited a war zone will testify to these remarkable stories of compassion and bravery.  This is how human beings ride out the end of the world: with every act of terror or tyranny matched by an act of courage or kindness.

“The Grapes of Wrath” illustrates this beautifully.  Despite the horrific world that Steinbeck has created, the weary, destitute refugees show extraordinary generosity to one another.  No man survives at another’s expense.  Every last crust of bread is shared, every favor returned.  At one point Ma says, “I’m learin’ one thing good…If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”  The contrast between rich and poor in the novel is striking, and perhaps exaggerated–but it also rings true, just as Orwell’s treatment of poverty did for me.  Steinbeck succeeded in unsettling this reader’s conscience.

So when you’re planning for the end of the world, don’t limit yourself to stockpiling ammo.  Consider the possibilities for cooperation, generosity, and kindness despite the terror.  And if you’ve had all of the Zombie fiction that you can possibly handle, consider a less orthodox interpretation of the Apocalypse.  Steinbeck’s slow unraveling of American civilization will make you stop and think, and it will absolutely make you feel.

Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims is an important addition to the cultural conversation about Islam in America. I follow this conversation with interest, because as a graduate student in Jordan, I wrote my master’s thesis about different narratives about Islam in the United States. In particular, I focused on the relationship between language and power. I read dozens of books from across the spectrum, from Islam’s most ardent defenders to its most vitriolic critics. My research confirmed by sense that so much of the debate about Islam isn’t fully honest. It is less concerned with debating meaningful issues than with attempting to dominate the debate and squelch dissent. In general, I find this to be true of both “Islamophobes” and “apologists.”

This book fits within my overall sense of the debate. It is an apologetic work, dedicated to defending Muslims by destroying the credibility of Islam’s fiercest opponents. The author offers a relentless exposé of the sheer ugliness of individuals like Pamella Gellar, who profit from and take a perverse delight in hatemongering. This critique is important and necessary. Although I believe many Americans have legitimate concerns about Islam, at some point I have to call a spade a spade: many of the individuals who get involved in this debate are hateful, ignorant bigots. Lean exposes some of them, as well as the financial incentives undergirding their little empire. That is the book’s main strength.

But the book suffers from the same deficiency that so many other apologetic works do; it doesn’t engage at all with legitimate questions or concerns that non-Muslims have about Islam. To cite just one example, Lean tells us how terrible it is that Islamophobic organizations distribute material claiming that Muhammad slept with a nine year-old. However, he never engages with the fact that this tidbit is actually true, according to early Islamic sources. Nor does he engage with problematic aspects of shariah codified in classical Islamic jurisprudence. He writes off concerns about Islamic organizations in the US, despite extensive documentation that many of these groups grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Islamophobic industry” blows many of these things out of proportion, and I think honest analysis would dissipate many fears, but I don’t find approaches like Lean’s particularly helpful. Pamella Gellar and Robert Spencer may be hatemongers, but they are so successful because their work finds traction among average Americans who see things in Islam that legitimately concern them. Blowing off those concerns will not help things; what this debate needs is more patient, honest discussion about these critical issues. Perhaps Lean would argue that such discussion is beyond the scope of his book, but if he really wants to disarm the Islamophobes, this is where the conversation must go.

Lean’s book does a service in exposing the worst aspects of the Islamophobic industry, but I fear it will only speak to an audience that already agrees with him. Those who have sincere questions or concerns about Islam will find little to satisfy them, and will need to look elsewhere for answers.

For most of us, life is a constant work in progress.  As I wrote in my post about New Year’s resolutions, we typically see a gap between who we are and who we want to be.  For many of us, that includes not just ourselves but our life situation.  We are constantly looking for ways to make our careers more fulfilling, to pursue our passions, to give more time to our families and friends.  As we get older, that can be increasingly challenging.  We get busier in our careers and our time dries up.  As our families grow and our expenses rises, we become more dependent on our jobs and less willing to make disruptive changes.  Life takes on an inertia of its own.

I am wrestling with that right now.  I love serving in the Air Force and am committed to my military career, but I have wide-ranging interests and passions that extend beyond my day job.  The irony is that many of these passions, like foreign languages and regional studies, are intimately linked to my vision of officership and service to the country–but have virtually nothing to do with my day job.  Even reading and writing novels, which on the surface might seem disconnected from military service, is essential; it is through fiction that much of my deepest thinking and personal engagement with world affairs has developed.  But because these things are all outside my daily job, the only time I can allocate to them is what I can scrape together outside of work, and those few hours largely belong to my family.

I have bookcases all over my house, but the one immediately beside my desk is given to current projects–the ones I’m most passionate about.  Here is an impromptu picture taken this morning:

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

On the top shelf are the religious and political classics I return to time and again–some of which I’ve read cover-to-cover, and some of which I need to spend more time with.  Beside them are several DVD series that I want to watch, to expand my knowledge of history.  The second shelf is devoted to Arabic and Turkish.  I spent much of the last year learning Turkish, but after a planned trip to Turkey was canceled because of work requirements, I was pretty crushed and stopped studying; I also felt like I was losing my Arabic, because I didn’t have sufficient time to do both.  Even now that I’m focusing on Arabic again, I’m struggling to find time to work through any of these resources.  The third shelf consists of books I want to read or am currently reading; I am halfway through many of them, but set them down when I got busy.  On the right are books about the Mongols and ancient Persian empires, which are research for my next novel.  Stacked in front of them are reference books for a nonfiction book I am trying to write about Islam.  The stacked DVDs are a Turkish TV series dubbed in Syrian Arabic, for language practice.  Finally, the fourth shelf is my writing library.  The two books that are pulled and turned sideways are about nonfiction writing and book proposal writing, also for my planned Islam book.

This all might look audacious to someone who thinks I should simply focus on my job.  But for someone who is dual-hatted as a Middle East Regional Affairs Specialist and seeks higher-level government service in the future, the bookshelf does make a kind of sense: slow, steady growth in relevant languages, the study of politics and culture and military science, and the ability to translate my knowledge into writing for the benefit of others.  Unfortunately, achieving any of this is maddeningly difficult.

I’m not sure why I’m sharing this.  Maybe nobody cares, but then again, maybe everybody else can relate and we can at least bond over the cruelty of time.

On the other hand, I have a lot to be thankful for.  I’m so grateful I was chosen for the Olmsted scholar program, when I did have abundant time to pursue these passions.  As we enter an age of budget cuts and downsizing, I hope the DOD realizes how important these programs are–and what a tremendous education investment is.  And as much as I love my current C-17 squadron, I’m looking forward to attending SAASS this summer.  I can’t believe they’re going to pay me to read books for a year.

The first time I heard of Gene Sharp was during the early weeks of the Arab Spring, when the masses were filling Tahrir Square in Cairo.  I heard about how-to pamphlets going viral among the demonstrators, written by an obscure writer in his mid-80s who had never really found a home within formal academia.  Writing out of his basement and a minimal organization known as the Albert Einstein Institute, Gene Sharp had somehow earned a reputation as the “father of nonviolent revolution” and inspired nonviolent activists from Burma to Egypt.  He’d even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and is now the subject of a documentary called How to Start a Revolution.  Once I knew who he was, his name cropped up repeatedly.  On one occasion, a military strategist with COIN experience in the Philippines recommended studying his work.

Most of Sharp’s work is available for free on the Albert Einstein Institute website, so I loaded up my iPad before my most recent C-17 mission and spent my crew rests engaged with titles like From Dictatorship to Democracy, Self-Liberation, and There are Realistic Alternatives.

Taken together, Sharp’s body of work is based on a simple premise: dictators only function because frightened, demoralized people believe in the dictator’s power and grant their consent.  If they remove their consent, even the most brutal authoritarian regime will weaken and possibly even crumble.  Using violence against such a regime–whether direct or indirect–is dangerous, because it attacks the regime’s strength and is likely to end in violent tragedy for the revolutionaries.  Even if the revolutionaries find victory, the power distribution in the country remains the same and there is a risk of continued authoritarianism under the new government.

Nonviolent action is far more likely to bear fruit, Sharp writes, because it attacks the regime’s vulnerabilities and simultaneously sows the seeds for the thriving civil society and democratic mindset that will hopefully lead to better governance once the dictatorship ends.  Much of Sharp’s work is practical, helping would-be revolutionaries analyze their unique circumstances, plan strategy, and choose appropriate tactics and methods to enable those strategies.  He often references a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action.

Skeptics of nonviolent action need to understand something: Sharp’s nonviolence is not about cowering, spineless submission to tyranny.  It is not about “negotiating” deals with dictators and calling the resulting absence of bloodshed “peace.”  It is not about turning the other cheek.  Sharp’s nonviolence is about deliberate, courageous, and defiant effort to exercise power and undermine the pillars of a dictatorial regime.  Such nonviolent action is hard and exceptionally dangerous, and will probably be met with brutal repression.  Nonetheless, it can transform societies and governments.

It is fascinating reading Sharp’s work two years into the Arab Spring, because there is so much evidence to consider when evaluating his theory.  On the whole, Sharp’s theory seems to fit the facts quite well, with a couple notable exceptions.  I’ll comment on just a few points.

First, nonviolent action is indeed capable of leveraging tremendous power against a regime’s vulnerabilities.  Nonviolence can even be more powerful than violence.  The initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which culminated in the hasty departure of both dictators, seem to confirm Sharp’s overall thesis.  Nonviolent action collapsed both regimes within weeks; I dread to consider what revolutionary violence would have led to. One might argue that Egypt would never have “flipped” without the backing of the Army, but this doesn’t necessarily contradict Sharp’s thesis.  He often notes the importance of institutions like the police and Army, and urges revolutionary strategists to consider ways to bring elements of these organizations to their side.  Also, the role of the Egyptian Army  illustrates Sharp’s point that a dictator depends on the consent of his people for survival; if that consent is withdrawn, the regime has nothing.

Second, strategy is essential.  Sharp laments that most revolutionaries and democratic activists have no grasp of strategy and no long-term plan for their actions, and warns that isolated use of nonviolent action will seldom bring real change.  I can’t think of a better example than Jordan, where a vast array of activists have engaged in countless demonstrations, sit-ins, grassroots campaigns, and online efforts.  These efforts–while often admirable–are characterized by a lack of higher organization and strategy, weak cooperation or outright conflict between groups, ambiguous goals, and a lack of sustainment and follow-through.  The result is frustration, burn-out, and a demoralizing failure to achieve tangible gains.

Third, nonviolent strategy must incorporate steps to prepare the society for what’s to come after the dictator departs.  To successfully transform from a dictatorship to a democracy, Sharp writes, a country’s power distribution must change.  People must feel empowered to speak and contribute to their future.  A lack of adequate planning is likely to result in the hijacking of power by a small group, perhaps even a group that didn’t play a central role in the nonviolent campaign.  It’s hard to think of a better example than the current situation in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fourth, it is very dangerous for nonviolent strategists to count on foreign assistance.  Sharp argues that there are no guarantees a foreign power will intervene on behalf of nonviolent activists, and even if they do, that intervention could lead to a host of new problems.  Although Syrian revolutionaries are not waging a nonviolent campaign at this point, it’s perhaps worth mentioning here, because the Syrian effort has depended from the beginning on foreign assistance that has failed to materialize.

If anything from the past two years appears to undermine Sharp’s work, it is the examples of Libya and Syria.  Qaddafi and Assad took a lesson from Ben Ali and Mubarak: if you want to survive, don’t capitulate when consent is withdrawn from your rule.  Instead, respond with savage violence.  That strategy seemed to work, and it ultimately took violent foreign intervention to end Qaddafi’s rule.  In Syria, initial efforts at nonviolent action were met with so much violence that the situation devolved into civil war.  I am still reflecting on what these examples mean for Sharp’s work; is it possible to imagine alternative histories, in which sustained nonviolent action would have worked despite the level of violent suppression?  Or is there a threshold at which nonviolent resistance is destined to fail?

Such questions deserve more scholarly attention, and I hope to find more good writing on the subject.  However, despite such questions, Gene Sharp’s work is important and needs to be read by anyone who cares about democratic activism or about strategy in general.

A kind of glory

November 20, 2012 — Leave a comment
This is one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Chapter 13 of Steinbeck’s magnificent East of Eden.  I share it now because I am going to be writing about it in a series of coming posts.  It deserves to be read in its entirety, not skimmed.  When the day comes that I get out of the Air Force, this will be why.


SOMETIMES A KIND OF GLORY lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men. 

I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused. 

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man. 

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken. And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. 

And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

What dystopias tell us

October 28, 2012 — 3 Comments
I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Science Fiction has everything to do with tackling the problems of the contemporary world; if David Betz at Kings of War can blog about Judge Dredd, then I guess I’m in good company.

Seriously, though, I enjoyed the post… which considers how much dystopias can teach us about the contemporary world.  In addition to holding up a mirror to contemporary problems, Betz writes that a dystopian story like Dredd can help us understand why desperate people in anarchic environments might invite even the harshest guardians of justice–like the Taliban.

I’ve read a lot of discussion lately about the current obsession with dystopias.  Somehow, our culture haas migrated from C.S. Lewis’ vision of “a fawn carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood” to teen dystopias where children murder each other.

That’s a pretty remarkable shift if you stop to think about it, and it has people talking.  Consider this article by James Pinkerton comparing the sunny optimism of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the despair of Blade Runner.  Or this brilliant article by Brian Phillips, which understands Star Trek: The Next Generation in the context of America’s post-Cold War optimism.  Amy Sundberg asks if science fiction has gotten too depressing.  For SF author Neal Stephenson, the answer is yes; he has actually created a new project called Hieroglyph to rally SF authors into writing more optimistic fiction.

As someone who is immersed in the problems of the contemporary world, I have to admit that I find the tilt toward dystopia somewhat refreshing.  I like uplifting stories and believe that one role of fiction is to call us toward higher and better lives, but I also expect serious fiction to grapple with the reality of the human condition.  Unfortunately, too much golden age SF oversold the future; authors and their devotees believed that technology and progress could bring something akin to religious salvation.  Arthur C. Clarke envisioned that 2001 might bring the next stage of mankind’s evolution; instead, we got September 11th.

In my view, modern dystopian authors have simply rediscovered what Thucydides told us almost 2500 years ago.

I am re-reading Robert Fagles’ masterful translation of The Iliad, and felt chills when I encountered this passage in Book II.  It is especially powerful if you consider that Zeus is not merely an ancient god, but stands in for all the forces from on high that act upon individual soldiers in the battlefield–the fog and friction of war, chance, senseless chaos, the vagaries of policy handed down from distant leaders halfway across the globe.  King Agamemnon is speaking to his weary men:
Zeus is a harsh, cruel god.  He vowed to me long ago,
he bowed his head that I should never embark for home
till I had brought the walls of Ilium crashing down.
But now, I see, he only plotted brutal treachery:
now he commands me back to Argos in disgrace,
whole regiments of my men destroyed in battle.
So it must please his overweening heart, who knows?
Father Zeus has lopped the crowns of a thousand cities,
true, and Zeus will lop still more–his power is too great.
What humiliation!  Even for generations still to come,
to learn that Achaean armies so strong, so vast,
fought a futile war… We are still fighting it,
no end in sight, and battling forces we outnumber–
by far.
And now nine years of almighty Zeus have marched by,
our ship timbers rot and the cables snap and fray
and across the sea our wives and helpless children
wait in the halls, wait for our return … And we?
Our work drags on, unfinished as always, hopeless–
the labor of war that brought us here to Troy.
Even more interestingly, this passage is part of King Agamemnon’s speech testing his soldiers by asking them to give up and sail for home.  He hopes they will not do so; despite the long and futile years of war, he wants to make one more assault and win a decisive victory.  Ultimately the Achaeans do go on to take Troy, but perhaps there is more truth in Agamemnon’s deceptive speech than he wanted to admit.  Victory came, but at a price that few ever imagined they would have to pay.
P.S. If you like The Iliad as much as I do, read Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay
There are few authors I appreciate more than George Orwell.  Not only was he a skilled storyteller, he wrote fiction that quite literally changed the world.  In Animal Farm and 1984 he demonstrated that fiction can do more to influence how people view themselves and their society than any quantity of scholarship. I liked 1984 so much that I jumped at the chance to buy a facsimile of his rough draft–a typewritten manuscript buried under Orwell’s scrawled notes and vigorous scratch-outs–not realizing that it was the size of an altar Bible.  It is a cumbersome treasure.

So when I was recently looking for something “literary” to read, I settled on one of Orwell’s lesser-read works, Down and Out in Paris and London, which chronicles Orwell’s time slumming in the two great cities. Orwell wants to show us what it is like to be poor, and for that reason it remains an important book today; many of us need to be told, myself included.  Those who have never been poor nevertheless have strong opinions about poverty and the poor, and could benefit from stepping into Orwell’s world for a few hours.  This is a world populated by the working poor, who slave away like mules to make just enough of a living that they don’t starve.  It is a world of poverty traps, in which the hardest workers are so crushed by the demands of survival that they have neither the time nor the energy to rise to anything better. And it is a world where the sneering condescension of the wealthy is a constant, where the worst is assumed of the poor, where poverty itself is viewed as both a great sin and a toxic disease.

Orwell is a master of squeamish details, and his gritty descriptions of urban Paris will make even the most seasoned travelers think twice about where they dine and sleep.  Despite that, and despite the heavy topic, this is not a dreary book; it is actually surprisingly funny, populated by a colorful fraternity of cheerful, endearing, and frequently absurd characters.  With few earthly possessions, all they have are their hopes and aspirations: for better work, for love, or even just for the next cigarette.  Their heroic and comic efforts to obtain these things are the essence of the book’s loose plot.

Why the book matters to Building Peace: Economic inequality is one of the major drivers of social unrest and even violence, both in the U.S. and abroad.  With the euro zone in chaos and the U.S. economy tumbling towards a cliff, we can expect inequality to worsen.  Both rich and poor are quick to stereotype the other, and the causes and consequences of poverty lie at the heart of partisan debates.  For all these reasons, it is worthwhile allowing Orwell to show us what poverty was like in his own day–and perhaps provide some insights into poverty today.