July 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

To Think, To Speak, To Use Reason

One of the biggest mistakes of the ill-starred Bush presidency was to imagine that a “War on Terror” was indistinguishable from a war on territory. Invading a sovereign territory to attack someone who does not recognise and has no interest in national boundaries is so many kinds of stupid it’s hard to know where to begin. Even a cursory knowledge of history, from Napoleon’s experiences with the very first guerrillas in Spain to Vietnam, should have told somebody that bombing towns and grabbing territory isn’t actually a very productive way of fighting a non-standard army. And terrorists, fanatics, armies driven by belief rather than discipline, are about as non-standard as it’s possible to get. In fact, if you look back at history, the only terrorist conflicts that have reached any sort of resolution (Northern Ireland, South Africa) have been those where the two sides have talked to each other. Those where the state has relied largely or exclusively on a military response (Sri Lanka, Gaza) have simply dragged on with ever increasing misery and no resolution in sight. In military terms alone, there is no outcome that could convincingly and conclusively count as a victory in a war on terror.

But as big an error as that galumphing ignorance of history might be, it is overshadowed by an even more egregious error: the belief that you can identify your enemy. In fact you cannot, because the enemy is ever-changing. So there is only one possible rule: trust no one. Which means that in a war on terror, everyone is the enemy. I am the enemy, you are the enemy, my parents are the enemy, your children are the enemy. All must be treated with the same ruthless suspicion. Freedom and privacy must be sacrificed in an effort to control an enemy who might be anyone or everyone -- or someone else entirely. I am not given to quoting Conservative politicians with approval, but one of them put it very well a year or so back when he said: in World War II our soldiers were asked to give up their lives for our freedoms; today we are asked to give up our freedoms for our lives. Somehow it seems a poor exchange.

There is always a time lag in fiction. It takes time for a contemporary concern to take shape as an idea in the mind of the writer, longer still for that idea to translate into a novel, and for that novel to negotiate the labyrinthine process of publication. But now those concerns are starting to emerge in some of the most potent science fictions of the last few years.

Last year, for instance, we had Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, which presented the notion that terrorism was in effect the latest manifestation of the old Great Game, an on-going conflict between the state and the individual. Stephen Baxter picked up on this suggestion that the real war is between the control of the state and the freedom of the individual in The H-Bomb Girl, in which the escalation of the Cuba Missile Crisis leads to an increasingly repressive regime in Britain. Interestingly, The H-Bomb Girl was a young adult novel, as is what is perhaps the best novel to date to deal with these issues, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

Back in 1785, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a new and, he believed, humane type of prison, the panopticon, which guaranteed the good behaviour of the prisoners by ensuring that at every moment they might be under observation. It didn’t take long for people to recognise that the panopticon principle was a way of controlling more than just prisoners. That was the idea behind Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We, in which people are obliged to live in glass houses where they might forever be watched by the state. In George Orwell’s 1984 this became the ubiquitous, inescapable television, and the threatening promise that “Big Brother is watching you.” Doctorow specifically references this in his title, but as he shows throughout the novel the state now has many more, and more subtle ways of watching us all.

As Bentham implicitly recognised, the more we are watched, the less free we are. So it is worth noting that even at the outset, Doctorow’s America is hardly a land of the free. At his school, Doctorow’s hero, Marcus, finds that his computer is open to probing by the school authorities, his movement along the school corridors is observed by gait-recognition software. Marcus finds ways to circumvent this, but the truth is we are already living in a panopticon society.

Then terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge and Homeland Security moves in to protect the population. Now the truth is that we’ve all of us grown used to calling on the government to protect us from every ill, from unemployment, from pornography, from pollution, from crime, from attack. And governments have bought in to this notion; indeed, it can sometimes seem that the only job of governments these days is protection. But the only way to protect absolutely is to control absolutely. We don’t think we’re making a bargain when we call on governments to help us, but that’s what happens: make me a little safer and I’ll give up a little more of my freedom. It’s a nebulous thing: if you’re innocent you’ve nothing to hide from the panopticon -- so we don’t really notice what we’re giving up.

And that’s what Homeland Security does; sweep up all sorts of little freedoms in the cause of greater protection. Except Marcus and his friends are caught up in the initial sweep, and he decides to fight back. In all honesty, you couldn’t really say this is a great novel. It’s didactic, it frequently stops the action for long and often clunky explanations, its characters are mostly little more than sketches. But it isn’t really about literature, it’s about teaching.

At first you imagine that what Doctorow is trying to teach us all is how to fight back in our hi-tech world. After all, it comes with all sorts of techy slang, amazing gizmos, and an afterword by Bruce Schneier. But none of this actually works. If you tried to disrupt the forces of government with any of this stuff you wouldn’t get very far because it’s made up. Indeed, even Doctorow has to rely at the end on that old standby, a sympathetic journalist, to push the magic button and get them all home free.

But no, what Doctorow is really teaching is the value of freedom, the need to fight to preserve our liberties, the virtue of questioning our own governments, the need to challenge authority. It’s an old story (to make his point Doctorow calls on everything from the American Constitution to the hippies), but it is worth repeating. And Little Brother is a powerful hymn to the preservation of our individual liberties.

Around the same time that George Orwell was writing 1984, the stalwart of the Labour government, Ernest Bevin, said: “If I believed the development of socialism meant the absolute crushing of liberty, then I should plump for liberty because the advance of human development depends entirely on the right to think, to speak, and to use reason.” It was the same thinking that fed into Orwell’s masterpiece. It seems a shame that more than half a century later we’re still having the same arguments, still struggling to preserve the same liberties. But at least the fight has inspired writers like MacLeod and Baxter and Doctorow.