Sunday, 5 October 2008

Review - The Traveller

There are broadly two attitudes towards national security: the view that focus should be directed inwards at criticism of one’s own government and infringement of civil liberties or the view that focus should be directed outwards at enemies of democracy and oppressive regimes who seek to extend their dominance. These two attitudes are exemplified in two similarly titled science-fiction stories, The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks and Message from a Time Traveller by Dan Simmons. One of these stories rang true with me, one I found ridiculously offensive: ironically the one I disagreed with was the better written and the one I agreed with was derivative and cliché-ridden.

Message from a Time Traveller is ridiculously offensive albeit interesting. The story was an insult to Islam and the opinion expressed – that all Muslims detest the West – is completely ignorant. The message itself was clear: that liberals are wasting their efforts by creating in-fighting among country’s citizens (well, the USA’s citizens) and that they should be more focused on fighting an actual enemy abroad who seeks to destroy their very way of life. Based on the story, Dan Simmons seems to believe not that there is a vast network of terrorists attacking the West but that Islam as an entire religion is attacking the West and the democratic system. This attitude is ridiculous: it characterises millions of people with one sweeping generalisation and it implicitly suggest that their religious beliefs should be subordinate to the US’s own beliefs namely the beliefs of freedom and democracy.

The Traveller on the other hand (a novel as opposed to Simmons’ short story) is terribly written but rings terribly true. The characters are shallow caricatures, clichés abound, the dialogue is written in the intensely serious style that characters in Bruckheimer films use, and the narrative structure itself was peppered with set pieces remarkably similar to parts of the Star Wars trilogy. It is the story of some rebellious freedom fighters battling against the oppression of a seemingly invincible ruling system with their only advantage being the last individuals of a group hunted to extinction who can use mystical powers (hence the similarities to Star Wars). The background however is interesting as it tells of a society where shadowy manipulation through fear and intrusive social monitoring mechanisms have led to citizens being little more than drones, or worse, prisoners in a virtual ‘Panopticon’. The mysterious author, John Twelve Hawks, at least partly blames this hidden totalitarianism of modern society on the philosopher Jeremy Bentham which is about as unfair as Simmons’ opinion of Muslims; Bentham was not some rapid arch-conservative fascist, he was an intelligent moral philosopher who campaigned for gender equality, abolition of slavery, the separation of church and state, and argued for a rational system of utilitarian morality (a flawed system but a noble ideal nonetheless). Twelve Hawks focuses on Bentham’s design for a prison and illegitimately extends Bentham’s design far beyond its intended use on convicted felons.

But I digress. In an insightful essay at the end of the book, Twelve Hawks talks about manipulation of society by powerful individuals who use fear and the power of nightmares to keep control and the gradual erosion of our civil liberties in the name of security and protection from these invisible threats. It’s a view similar to that expressed in Adam Curtis’ seminal documentary series The Power of Nightmares (although Curtis presents a more mature argument). We now live in a society where the citizenry are routinely lied to (why do we never talk about those WMDs?), where we are told about threats that don’t exist to scare us, and where we freely accept the limiting of our freedom so we can feel momentarily safe. The media scare us, the Neo-Conservatives of America fight tooth and claw to stay in power, and we fall deeper into a distracted stupor watching reality-TV and imbibing inane celebrity gossip while mercenary information-gathering groups watch us through the millions of surveillance cameras that punctuate our civil existence.

There are two attitudes towards national security. While I agree strongly with the view as expressed by John Twelve Hawks (whomever he may be) that we must fight internally against our own governments first and foremost, I can recognise the right-wing point of Dan Simmons: that at some point in the future there may be genuine threats to our security (although at present they are greatly exaggerated by the government and the sensationalist media). The existence of a thesis and an antithesis is generally a call for synthesis and we need a balance between protecting ourselves from outside aggressors as well as the machinations of insidious governmental control. I place priority on individual liberties and the failings of a government subjugated by the lies of rich and greedy individuals who feel no moral qualms about controlling the population of a planet through fear, lack of education, and moral pontificating.

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