by Norman Spinrad
THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS
by China Mieville
Random House, $25.00
DESERTS OF FIRE
edited by Douglas Lain,
Night Shade Books, $15.99
I am writing this toward the end of 2016, the fifteenth anniversary of the longest war in American history. Fandom and the show biz media at large is celebrating the fiftieth birthday of Star Trek and yet another Star Wars iteration has been released.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union before it fragmented, proclaimed that he was going to do a terrible thing to the United States; he was going to deprive America of an enemy. This year that unfortunate lack of an enemy militarily puissant enough to shore up the ever-growing American military budget has been solved with the Russian Federation as the heir of the evil Communist Empire and Vladimir Putin as the reincarnation of Joe Stalin.
What do all these seemingly disconnected bits of past, present, and future history have in common with each other, let alone with science fiction?
In a single word, which I have had to coin here because there did not exist a succinct one-word name for a complex phenomenon, wolockifcation.
Below is a bowdlerized list of words that I have been told are unprintable in their entirety in this magazine, unpleasant names for ethnic groups that I must refer to as best as I am allowed, because it is utterly necessary—a list of very politically incorrect words, not because I approve of them, but precisely because I thoroughly detest them. Precisely because, like it or not, and I don’t, you hear them spoken all the time.
In no particular historical order:
What do all these words mean? What do they have in common?
These, and worse, the so-called “N-word,” are epithets that Americans have slung onto wartime (declared or not) enemies.
Yes, Wolocks are a nonexistent ethnic identity I once invented to be the butt of all the ethnic jokes that can’t be told in public—they won’t be offended, because they don’t exist.
Why is such wolockification necessary and indeed perhaps even inevitable?
It has all too often been said as approval that some other human endeavor is “the moral equivalent of war.”
This is utter and utterly invidious bullshit.
There is only one moral equivalent of war.
War consists of the killing of wholesale lots of individual human beings by other individual human beings who would otherwise be denounced, arrested, charged, and convicted as murderers. Even the fancy collective international crime of so-called “crime against humanity,” necessary maybe, is an evasion of the real truth that every individual victim who has been killed by the action or command of another individual human being has been murdered. Any so-called “crime against humanity” is not a collective crime against a collective victim. It is a mass collection of individual crimes against individual victims.
Once it is pointed out, it is glaringly obvious.
Or not. War requires a means of allowing soldiers to avoid this glaringly obvious fact: wolockification of the enemy.
Soldiers have to kill people. If they were doing it out of wartime context, they would be guilty of murder. Not only found guilty of murder by courts of law but worse—unless they were psychopaths and didn’t have one—by their own consciences.
Are most soldiers moral monsters?
No, they are not.
Some wars are necessary, even morally necessary. Many murders of individuals must be committed by many individuals in order to prevent more and perhaps worse crimes against many more individual human beings. Fully morally conscious solders who accept this personally and knowingly are not doing evil in this kind of necessary war. They are accepting guilt for committing an evil deed on a personal level to prevent or redress a greater evil, the ultimate moral heroism.
But no army can wage a war with such extreme moral sophisticates. Nor mainly with murderous psychopaths.
Which is why war requires wolockification of the enemy. The enemy must not be perceived as a fellow fully human being whose slaying is an act of murder.
What does this have to do with science fiction and fantasy?
Ask yourself the inverse of this question.
Why has so much science fiction and fantasy been written and continues to be written about wars by humans against wolockified enemies? Aliens. Robots. Demons. Ghouls. Zombies. The Living Dead.
Literarily and literally non-human.
Perfectly wolockified enemies.
This has been a dominant plot structure of science fiction and fantasy as long as there has been genre fiction, and indeed of much fiction time out of mind. Classic Greek dramatic story structure and its sophisticated modern descendants may depend on tragedy—an otherwise moral and heroic character destroyed by a personal flaw—or comedy, not necessarily humor but a happy ending in which such a figure triumphs. But popular fiction has more often than not been the story of the Good Guys versus the Bad Guys.
Muslims versus Infidels. Cowboys versus Indians. Conquistadors versus Aztecs. Cops versus Robbers. Nazis versus Jews. Jews versus Goyim. Joseph Campbell may have declared that the Hero with a Thousand Faces is the noble mythic human champion, but Good Guys versus Bad Guys, Us versus the Wolocks, is the much more common plot template.
And science fiction and genre fantasy can and do perfect the wolockification of the enemy for story purposes, with fictional wolockified enemies who really are not human and therefore can be guiltlessly slaughtered. Fictional “heroes” do the killing without feeling guilt, and guiltless readers or viewers get their rocks off on the fictional carnage.
We all do this without really thinking about it, as readers, viewers, and creators of these stories, and I cannot claim virginal innocence. My first novel, The Solarians, was about a war between the human race and extraterrestrials who were aliens not merely in physical form but culture, consciousness, and morality. Such perfectly wolockified enemies that they were not quite individual “beings,” so that I could have my fictional humans guiltlessly kill these Duglari wholesale. But when the plot logic required the killing of billions of fictional humans I copped out; I just couldn’t write it.
The Iron Dream, however, was written after my experiences with Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, but before the creation of Star Wars by George Lucas.
Star Trek versus Star Wars. The names alone indicate the literary choices, and the bottom lines indicate the economic and cultural consequences.
The starship Enterprise was on a galactic quest to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” The crew structure was military, the crew wore uniforms, and the Enterprise fought aliens when it had to—but the mission was exploration and discovery, not conquest, and the voluntary creation of an intergalactic federation of sentient beings. The Vulcans, and even the now-beloved Klingons, who started as wolockified Bad Guys, became stalwarts of the Federation.
Gene and I became collaborators on various projects that unfortunately went nowhere, but which allowed me to understand and respect him as a true colleague, as a creator and champion of what for me is the real deal of idealistic serious science fiction.
Anti-wolockification. The respect and acceptance of the Other as a fully conscious, and therefore equal sentient being. Gene Roddenberry was forthrightfully anti-colonialist. Gene’s Prime Directive, that of the Enterprise, Star Trek, and its fictional multi-species Federation, was do not interfere with the independent evolution of another culture. However primitive it may seem to you. However distasteful you may find its mores. No exceptions even for the best of idealistic reasons. A damn tough Prime Directive to honor, and several Star Trek episodes revolved around the inevitable paradoxes.
Cut to years later when I, then current president of the SFWA, Ben Bova, then fiction editor of Omni, and Isaac Asimov, then, well Isaac, were treated to a private screening of the forthcoming first Star Wars movie. We were not amused.
Ben was outraged that this film was science fiction lite, pure fantasy in threadbare science fiction clothing, either without even an attempt at scientific credibility or political sophistication, or perhaps even ignorance that such concepts existed, a rip-off of the real thing. Isaac seemed to be mostly pissed off at the wolockification of robots, or literally faceless humans in robot suits, or whatever the soldiers of the equally faceless evil Darth Vader were supposed to be, beyond targets in a shooting gallery.
I saw something more disturbing than innocent schlock.
That Lucas was pirating tropes of genuine serious science fiction to produce commercial schlock was no big deal to me, having been a film critic in Hollywood and seen plenty of such stuff. And the plotline of Star Wars was all too similar, Cowboys versus Indians, Good Guys versus Bad Guys, Yanks versus Commies, Us versus the Wolocks. But something more culturally dangerous was beginning to be churned out here.
Way back in the day, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells had a hot public argument. Verne declared that his science fiction’s hard technologically centered fiction was the real deal and that Wells was just using technological and scientific tropes as trappings for fiction centered on political morality and conflict, and whose raison d’etre was merely social and cultural propaganda. Both sides had their points, and this dialectical schism between Vernian and Wellsian streams of science fiction has persisted ever since, and not at all to the literature’s detriment.
But Star Wars versus Star Trek, wolockification versus de-wolockification, an endless war versus an adventurous trek to encounter alien civilizations and embrace them in a democratic multicultural Federation–formerly bad guy Klingons not excluded–the royalist right of Princess Leia versus the Prime Directive of a democratic Federation, is something else again.
This dichotomy cuts to the heart of what science fiction has been, should or should not be, what it has now become or is becoming, and what it means as a dominant genre to the political, cultural, and moral health of a nation that has been at war for fifteen years with no end in sight.
Before Star Trek, “science fiction,” far more widely known as “sci-fi,” was a minority genre: pulp adventure stuff and monster movies on the one hand, and serious literature for those with a taste for it and the knowledge needed to understand and appreciate it on the other.
But three seasons of Star Trek, a TV show whose lousy ratings hid the fact that twenty or thirty million people were watching an hour of science fiction every week, changed everything. Even in a non-SF show or film, if a character gazed upward in fear or despair, and moaned “Beam me up, Scotty,” any mass audience knew exactly what it meant. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek opened the door to general mass culture for science fiction. And when George Lucas’s Star Wars marched through it to riches and glory, it could do so opening with a disclaimer credit, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away,” that was not a disclaimer but a wink and a nod, followed by an interstellar warship whizzing overhead, no explanation, none needed.
Cut to the present. Science fiction, or now more properly “sci-fi” indeed, has long since come to dominate cinematic box offices and TV rentals as well as the video game industry, and the visual and aural media have long since come to dominate “sci-fi,” a.k.a the genre once known as “science fiction.”
How? Why? To what end? With what results?
It used to be said that one picture is worth a thousand words, but a major film or video game budget costs a lot more than even a thousand best-selling novels. How do you cover corporate bets like that? With sophisticated tales that explore deep existential dilemmas? With love stories played out with superior acting that twangs the heartstrings? Get real, kiddo, Barnum knew, and for that matter, so did Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl—with SPECTACLE!!
Back in the day, sci-fi flicks had to be el cheapo monster movies because the technology didn’t exist to mine the genre for blockbuster spectacles on budgets less than the National Debt. But now the magic of FX technology and modern hundred-million-dollar budgets allow the same species of schlockmeisters to produce anything they and their writing teams can dream up.
As long as they at least break even. Which requires mass-market numbers of eyeballs. Which requires blockbusters. Which require visual SPECTACLE! More and more of it, more and more extreme, more and more exotic, more and more outrageous, as the audiences become more and more jaded.
Of which only “sci-fi” can supply ultimate moving imagery. Sci-fi indeed! On this commercial level, any distinction between science fiction and fantasy, between that which could be possible and that which is impossible, becomes entirely irrelevant. What is possible is what you can put up on the screen. World War I and II dogfighting space fighters turning barrel rolls in the void! Exploding spaceships! Exploding planets! Death Stars! The Magic of the Force! Huge loud blasts in outer space! Robot killers existing outside Isaac’s Three Laws!
This sort of sci-fi spectacle not only encourages wolockification, it just about requires it.
Star Wars was an immense commercial success and therefore the template for what followed. And indeed, the plural is one of the keys even if Lucas didn’t intend it with the first movie. But he probably did, for he ended up building a franchise on permanent warfare. Never-ending visual warfare supplies never-ending violent spectacle, and never-ending sci-fi war allows never-ending upping of imaginative spectacular carnage until the franchise peters out.
And this of course requires endless supplies of wolockified enemies to slaughter in wholesale and retail ways without spoiling the fun for audiences by arousing empathetic guilt or sympathy for those being murdered. Sci-fi is a bottomless and even not politically incorrect supply of such perfect wolockified enemies, these fictional shooting gallery dummies being quite literally and literarily non-human.
For what effect the transmogrification of our culture’s major, and indeed probably only, progressive and visionary literature into this species of popular mass entertainment may have had, may still be having, and will continue to have in a culture at war for over fifteen years without anything that can be honestly called victory, I turn to Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War, an anthology edited by Douglas Lain. This, for my money, exemplifies what speculative fiction should be doing under these circumstances.
This is an anthology of mostly reprinted stories and large and interesting interstitial essays by Lain, which taken by themselves would make a coherent historical meditation on the psychic, political, and cultural nature and effects of what he calls “Modern War,” more or less as fought by the United States. Interestingly enough, although it was the last war fought by an American draftee army, he opens with a section titled “The Vietnam Syndrome.”
And with my story “The Big Flash,” which I can’t avoid mentioning out of false modesty, because Lain uses it to make one of the two major points of this very essay—that this first television war was the first modern war, because entertainment media and the military used each other for their own divergent purposes.
Vietnam was also the first modern war fought by the United States at least partly against nonuniformed guerrilla forces on their own territory, so that the noncombatant people thereof themselves tended to be wolockified in the minds of the American troops and indeed of American citizenry via television coverage. This was exemplified by the My Lai massacre and the excuse for another such action that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” And the second Vietnam story, Kate Wilhelm’s “The Village,” is an angry yet cunning and empathetic attempted antidote to this extreme wolockification by imagining both the innocent village and soldiers slaying its wolockified people as Americans.
The “Terrorism” section, of course, begins with 9/11, and a rather oblique parable, “The Frozen One” by Tim Pratt. But then it gets to the down and dirty with Michael Canfield’s “Language of Monsters,” in which the war seems to be Iraq II, and is the story of the relationship between the Muslim “monster” and his American interrogator, as narrated primarily in first person by the monster, who seems to be the more sympathetic of the two.
Ken Liu’s “In the Loop” is about an advanced form of drone warfare in which the drones are given the autonomy to choose when and whom to kill for the supposedly positive purpose of sparing humans the guilt by taking them out of the loop. Of course this only transfers the guilt to their creators. Brendan C. Byrne’s “Wasps/Spiders” deals with advanced media war reportage as something like sinister virtual reality games.
“Weapons of Mass Destruction” is the least successful of the sections, not really dealing with weapons of mass destruction at all. “Text of Colin Powell’s Speech to the UN Security Council Cut Up with Regret” by anonymous is what it says it is, propagandish gibberish and by far the worst thing in the book. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” is a nice piece of sardonically humorous science fiction, but it’s stretching a point too far to find it germane to the title of the section.
“Shock, Awe, and Combat,” though, is exactly what it says it is—gritty, grim, down and dirty tales from various battlefields by Ray Vukcevitch, Pedro Iniguez, A.M. Delamonica, Audrey Carroll, and Linda Nagata. None of these at all glorify combat or leave the warriors in question and the reader in anything like a state of awe, and do leave more of the characters than not in existential shock of one kind or another. Show, not tell. True anti-war science fiction, not anti-war propaganda.
“Mission Accomplished” is the entirely sardonic title of an entirely sardonic section, since both “Winnebago Brave” by Rob McCleary and “Seeing Double” by Ray Daily are both about what Lain himself calls “the interminable quality of the mission in Iraq,” and both feature sardonic iterations of Saddam Hussein, who himself seems to be impossible to entirely obliterate.
By the time we get to “Life After Wartime?” the psychological effects of war on soldiers afterward are dealt with directly, in “Sealed” by Robert Morgan Fisher, “Unzipped” by Steven J. Dines, and the excerpt from Jon Bassoff’s novel Corrosion. David J. Schwartz’s “The Sun Inside,” the longest and best story in the section, does it by taking his wounded warrior inside, of all things, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Hollow Earth, which at first seems to be a peaceful utopia, but which turns out to be anything but.
The final section, asks, or suggests, whether “War Is Over?”
Or whether it can ever be, and of course, alas, we do know the answer. Lain’s own story, “Noam Chomsky and The Time Box” artfully demonstrates that you can’t change history or indeed probably human nature even with a time machine. Not even with a time machine that can take you back into alternate pasts to create a better alternate present, though in “Arms and the Woman,” James Morrow does take us back with a different Helen to a different Troy in a different Trojan War who does manage to make it come out better. But this is wistful comedy, not any sort of prescription for permanent peace.
As I said in my previous column here, I don’t review collections or anthologies of short stories not because I consider them trivial compared to novels–which I don’t–but because I find it difficult to do them justice. I would either have to select a few stories to consider at some length, or do what I’ve done here for the first—and I hope last—time and give thumbnail mentions of everything.
I’ve “reviewed” Deserts of Fire as I have because this anthology as a whole, devoted as it is to “Speculative Fiction and the Modern War” as it proclaims on the cover, presents speculative fiction about war not as “action-adventure “ spectacle in the so-called “pulp tradition” wolockifying a fictional Other. Not war, even necessary war, as a path to glory, but its polar opposite.
Which is the literature whose ultimate cultural goal is to speculate on how the exterior surround, including the media, affects and molds consciousness, and vice versa—how consciousness affects and molds culture and the physical matrix in which it is embedded. And yes, while being entertaining.
Woe be it to any culture, as history demonstrates, as speculative fiction itself upon occasion imagines, that lacks anything that fulfills this function, as it blindly staggers into the tarpits.
Science fiction, like America, like modern culture, like our species itself, may be in danger of losing this vital literary function, as so it chronically seems to be trending, but it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.
Or writers like China Miéville do.
Actually there really aren’t that many, if any, writers of speculative fiction like China Miéville. The man is a one-off. His novels seem somehow to be “realistic” speculative fiction on a literary experiential level while being out-and-out fantasy on a scientific level, perhaps by being so nuts-and-bolts on a phony technology level, like steampunk on speed, or better, on LSD. Miéville is also openly and aggressively political, a sort of socialist anarchist, without descending to propagandist didacticism.
His latest, The Last Days of New Paris, is entirely a novel of war. Or rather wars, alternate versions of World War II set in Nazi-occupied Paris and thereafter, in different times of alternate histories, and then some, all nested complexly within each other. What is more, much more, there are about as many sides in Nazi-occupied Paris as in present-day Syria, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Miéville was partly inspired by the current Syrian situation, since he is entirely au courantly political.
In the 1950 time stream, Paris is still occupied by Nazi troops, trapped inside by an event that happened in the 1941 time stream; the southern part of France is still ruled by the puppet Vichy government, and there are at least two and maybe more versions of the French resistance. One is the historic (in the reader’s time line) Free French, apparently still led by Charles De Gaulle. The other is the Main à plume, whose doctrine, tactics, and raison d’etre is Surrealism.
These two resistances share common enemies in the Nazis and their Vichy stooges, but don’t have much use for each other. Most of Paris, but not all, is in ruins, and its twenty arrondissements divided up into turfs by the Nazis, the Main à plume, the Vichy, and minor neo-street gangs.
That’s the anything-but-simple political and military set-up of China Miéville’s 1950 New Paris, but the easiest part of this alternate Paris to comprehend, at least initially. For hovering above the city, winking in and out seemingly at randomly are . . . manifestations, manifs, as they are popularly called. These are monstrous creatures, who are and are not material, dangerous or benign or sometimes even helpful in human terms at least, but apparently not even exactly conscious entities, though they sometimes seem to take sides. And if that isn’t enough, devils from hell seem to come and go, following their own unknown and possibly unknowable agendas.
But be patient, it will begin to coalesce into something approaching coherence. As we follow Thibaud, more or less a leader of the Main à plume, around, dodging and fighting Nazis and later on a quest with Sam, a female photographer supposedly from outside blockaded Paris on a mission to photograph every manif so as to create a book called . . . The Last Days of New Paris, we begin to learn about something that happened in Miéville’s 1941 Paris, seemingly our historical 1941, before an event called the Blast released or created the manifs and diverged the time lines.
It turns out than the manifs are manifestations of actual creations by real Surrealist artists, and in a painstaking afterword Miéville reveals who created what. Don’t ask me how this was possible, and don’t expect China Miéville to really tell you either, though toward the end of the 1941 time line, we do finally learn that an American agent of some service and a devotee of Aleister Crowley and practitioner of something like black magic mistakenly built the device that brought about the Blast.
That’s about as far as I think I should go with these interlocking time lines, alternate time lines, and slowly coalescing plot lines, except to assure the reader that it does all come together satisfyingly at the end. If that is the end, for in another afterword that’s hard to believe really is an afterword, Miéville purports to tell us that the novel was dictated to him verbatim and nonstop by a mystery man in a hotel room for thirty or so hours during which Miéville drank wine from the mini-bar but never took a piss. Don’t try this at home.
Throughout the novel humans and other entities, material and otherwise, have been depicted with different levels of beingness. Humans are more or less at the top with one glaring exception. There are devils of various sizes, powers, and agendas—and the manifs who do not seem to even have consciousness until very late in the story.
The Nazis, though, are depicted as fully and truly evil, as close to wolockification as Miéville ever comes. This reminds me of something Phil Dick told me he had come across while doing research for The Man in the High Castle:
“A letter from a concentration camp guard complaining to his wife about how the cries of the children at night were very disturbing. The noise made it difficult to sleep. There are things walking among us that look like us but aren’t really human.”
The ending of The Last Days of New Paris, when action, plot lines, revelations, and dramatic denouements come together in a surprising, emotionally, logical, plotwise, and yes philosophical, epiphany that I am not about to reveal, reminded me of something else Phil told me and something else I myself wrote much later.
Phil did live to see the rough cut of Blade Runner, the epiphany of which did not appear in his novel, when instead of killing his human enemy at the impending moment of death, the killer android reached out his hand to save him.
“They got it!” Phil told me. “Caritas. That’s what gives a being a soul. That’s what makes a he, she, or it human.”
In my short story “The Helping Hand,” our contemporary Earth gets an S.O.S. from a dying civilization on a nearby extrasolar planet desperately begging for us to save them. At great expense, the peoples of the Earth raise the funds needed to send a rescue expedition with the advanced technology that must be invented to do it.
But when they get there, there’s not even a planet. The whole thing was a fraud! What is there is some kind of artificial habitat. When the furious humans go inside they find a cornucopia of diverse alien representatives.
Why did you inflict such a terrible hoax on our people? they demand.
“Not a hoax, but a test,” they are told, “and you have passed it. You have been found worthy.”
The human race is then wildly acclaimed by every being present.
“Welcome to the Interstellar Brotherhood of Sentient Species.”
Copyright © 2017 Norman Spinrad