Monday, July 9, 2007


I've been enjoying quite a bit of military fiction lately. I couldn't say what exactly put me in the mood, but I've been avidly devouring everything from Orson Scott Card and David Weber - both authors of lengthy, moderately philosophical sci-fi novels with a distinctly military bent - to Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Kent's Richard Bolitho, both classic canvas-'n-cannon nautical fiction about tall ships and the Royal Navy's struggle against the dastardly Napoleon.

By and large, every book has been an excellent novel on its own merits. Card's Ender series is a widely-acclaimed classic of the science fiction genre, and Weber and John Ringo's collaborative Prince Roger series is a less famous but superb series about... well, about space marines and galactic empires, honestly, but it's not as schlocky as it sounds, and I particularly enjoy the fact that it's obviously strongly influenced by, if not adapted from, Henry IV and Henry V.

The theme I've noticed, though, as the title of this post suggests, is authoritarianism, and the inevitable - given that the authors are all 20th-century American or British citizens - accompanying conservative spin. Card is perhaps the most subtle about his bias (until, at least, his most recent book, Empire, which is a monument to American conservative doublethink), playing up the humanity of the major characters and the unfortunate necessity of using them, children all, to protect humanity from the consequences of a horrific misunderstanding and subsequent war with the hive-mind "Buggers." At no point does he directly equate the Buggers with any sort of reductio ad absurdum socialism, but in the end, it's the unpopular, ruthless, and disciplined military personnel who use the child genius Ender to save humanity.

Of course, to reduce the book to such a simple, bare-bones description is to miss the point entirely. Card's writing is - ingenuously, I think - focused far more on Ender's development and internal struggles and on people in general than on any sort of "HOO-RAH" heroism. It's only in the framework, in the essential premises of the books, that any sort of underlying assumptions are visible.

What does it mean? I don't really know. Card himself is fairly famously a devout Mormon and strong social conservative, but to simply write off his body of work on that ground would be a tragedy.

Weber and Ringo's Prince Roger books are a bit towards the other side of the military fiction spectrum, an obvious space opera; they very emphatically do feature that selfsame HOO-RAH heroism, as well as futuristic weapons, raging barbarians, impossible odds, and a galactic enemy empire that could not be much more stereotypically Leftist if its military wore Che Guevara t-shirts. The Saints - the enemy empire - are a satirical exaggeration of the worst parts of the USSR and extremist environmentalist organizations mashed together into a ridiculous strawman. It's very difficult to take the obvious military authoritarian bias seriously, in fact, because the enemy - that one particular enemy, anyway - is so outlandishly extreme.

The notion of taking the straightforward authoritarian anti-Left message is further undermined by the occasional philosophical interludes, in which the characters discuss the unfortunate necessity for the horrors of war and the suspension of liberty in the military in order to protect a liberal democratic society; and yet that moderate impression is itself tempered somewhat by an almost conspiratorial tone of contempt for the presumably pampered, ungrateful individuals living in that very society. It's complex, like, I suppose, life generally is.

Again, any short description of the four-book series would be unjust, and to depict only one element of an on the whole excellent set of books might leave the wrong impression.

Anyway, enough summary. I'll spare you descriptions of the nautical fiction, because I think books about the Royal Navy probably need no further description for their salient characteristics to be obvious. They're fine stories of dashing adventure, in the name of the King.

The thing is, I can't really explain the draw. I consider myself a classical liberal and an intellectual. I should, by all rights, abhor war and all the waste, suffering, and destruction it entails. I should revile the suspension of liberty. I should be disgusted at the obvious right-wing propaganda in these books.


Well, perhaps not. Life is complicated. American politics are so polarized and vitriolic that we tend to forget that the divide between right and left is an almost entirely arbitrary one, and that one side can't really exist without the other.

Even more, though, authoritarianism isn't really a right-wing concept at all; it's the notion of a meritocratic authoritarianism, in which capable individuals have authority, that's been associated with the Right. The Left simply seems to prefer to vest absolute authority in more nebulous bodies or bureaus up to and including the people in general, but in the end authority is authority, and it is something which must be carefully balanced against liberty to maintain a healthy society.

I saw a book review recently of Max Brooks' World War Z, a zombie novel, which rated it one star. Now, you must understand that I do not exaggerate when I say that in terms of writing and storytelling and pure originality, World War Z is one of the best books I've read in years. Set aside any notions you may have about the schlock value of zombies, and pick up this book. If you have any interest in history, politics, comedy, horror, or simply good writing, you won't regret it.

So, what was the reviewer's reasoning? Apparently she didn't like the fact that Max Brooks was a liberal shill who blamed George Bush for the zombie outbreak.

Let me reiterate that: a woman rated a fantastic work of literature one star because she thought that someone had tried to blame Bush for zombies. It is worth noting that, to the best of my memory, at no point in the book was Bush's named mentioned, nor, in purely factual terms, was the United States the source of or the cause of the outbreak. If she saw George Bush as responsible for zombies, it was because that was what she wanted to see there, and so she trashed the book.

She trashed one of the most enjoyable books in years because she imagined a political spin to it.

And there, I think, is, at long last, my point: people have different perspectives. When they communicate, they do it from their unique perspectives. We can act no other way, because we are human. Chances are that whatever worldview informs the framework of someone's words, it's a matter of assumptions, and not of some sinister plot to brainwash our children.

If you allow your preconceptions about other people's preconceptions to blind and deafen you to what they're actually saying, we might as well just stop communicating at all and have done with it. If you can't get over your issues with whatever disagreements you have with someone to hear the words they're actually saying, you're flouting the very essence of what it is to be human: to communicate. This is something every adult should understand, and fewer and fewer actually seem to.

If you dismiss Max Brooks because you've concluded that he's a left-wing shill and therefore has nothing of value to say, then maybe it's no less than you deserve to be eaten alive when the zombies come.

And if you dismiss Orson Scott Card and David Weber and John Ringo because they're "right-wing extremists," well, you'll be missing out on some damn good books.

1 comment:

skyen said...

Eh, I'm something of a political retard, and I really can't tell Left from Right. Though I did enjoy the piece for what it was.

You shifted gears a few times, going from novel summaries to political terms to another novel to human communication. You tie everything up decently in the end, but all through the read I was wondering where you were going.