Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Speaking of Politics in Science Fiction

I am at a bit of a loss for words right now......My husband read this last night and almost had a heart attack. You read it and let me know. Dan Simmons USED to be one of my favourite writers. When you read this....replace 'Islam' with 'Judaism' and think about what sort of reaction you or other people would have. Thinking like this is WHY we will have a Century War. edited to add.... I don't know if the next letter helps explain or make it worse. I think his point is still the same. Sometimes reading Simmons is like being in the most dense Philosophy class at University.


Avery DeBow said...

Propagandist fear-mongering.

SQT said...

My brain hurts, I'll have to go back and finish this later...

The Curmudgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Curmudgeon said...

Read the first, skimmed the second. A lot of the poll results in the second part were depressingly familiar.

When my son started at Notre Dame all the freshmen were supposed to read a book by a Muslim scholar (not the guy who ND later hired but who could not get an entry visa) introducing the Western reader to Islam and explaining the various legal "schools" of thought that compete within Islam. We read in the popular press about "Sunnis" and "Shiites" but these are only the most general terms. When you start getting down to cases you find "schools" like the Wahhabis and Salafis -- puritantical, jihadist sects rolling in Saudi oil money, financing the construction of mosques here in the West and generally 'taking over.'

Articles have appeared in the Chicago papers about mosques founded by Muslims from more tolerant backgrounds which have been effectively hijacked by Saudi money and Arab imams. Cab drivers and grocers struggling to build their own house of worship and then the Saudis come along with literally blank checks... and a few conditions. It's maybe a little like having a Unitarian Church taken over by followers of Pat Robertson.

I don't know if my son ever read the book he was assigned, but I did and I've been reading extensively on the subject since.

Fundamentalist Muslims describe the West as the Dar al-Harb, the "House of War." We're in the House of War because we're not in the Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam. We've not converted.

I wish this were only xenophopic fear mongering -- but it's not.

There are Muslim scholars who would describe the West as the Dar al-Amn, which would be the "House of Safety" -- where a Muslim would be free to exercise his religion -- the tolerant West where you (and I) want to live.

But the people who would preach this tolerance are apparently not in ascendancy in the Dar al-Islam. Not by a long shot. It's not an accident that so many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis -- supposedly our gallant allies in the "War on Terror." The Wahhabi sect props up the Saudi monarchy and, as a result, has a ton of oil money to spread around -- which it does -- in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan... and the United States and Canada and Europe.

I do not for a moment say that Mr. Simmons is predicting a likely future... but it's not completely implausible.

It really is scary out there.

It takes two sides to make peace, but only one to make war.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Ah, Crunchy, you've fallen into a trap I tried to avoid in my last posting: You've taken a stance against the position taken by the author. A political position.

I won't start my usual controversies. I could, but I won't. I'll respond instead to curmudgeon. I agree with you. I agree with you one hundred percent. Fundamentalists, or extremists are scary and dangerous wherever we find them, in whatever mask they wear.

Terry Nichols was dangerous when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma, David Duke is dangerous in his attempt to convince the world that the Holocaust didn't really occur, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are dangerous in their assertions that God is punishing the United States for our indulgence in homosexuality and other behavior he doesn't approve of.

Yep, the extremist is worth fearing. Whether left or right, whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
I agree with curmudgeon totally. And Avery, we should be afraid of extremists. Their voices are loud, hollow, and able to sway the many.

Now, I'm going to stop before I realllly get political.

What's important here though is how science fiction is used to forward an agenda. I will probably be doing another posting on politics and science fiction, probably by focusing on the work of Stanley Kubrick.

It's not the view that is necessarily important, but HOW the view has been implemented in fiction and how the culture has received it.

SQT said...

Ah, Stewart, how can any of us follow that?

Religious extremism scares me to death. Look at what it can make people do? From crucifixtions on down to suicide bombings, the religious extremist will do just about anything if they're convinced their God is superior to any other God.

jedimerc said...

I rather enjoyed the story, and have read a couple of the books referenced in the story.

His analysis of the battle at Syracuse was apt, and the compasrison to the present (and future day) was not that off base. As Stewart mentioned, the problem is not the story itself but the dangers of extremism. Whether you agree with the author's view or not, he carefully, and to my mind, with some forethought in using some examples that every trained historian knows of (and books... The 'Peloponnesian War' by Kagan is the seminal work on the subject, and John Keegan was one of the premier diplomats and cold war historians of his time).

The problem is not in the story. I saw it as a modern version of '1984' precisely because you could take any extreme group from Islam, Judaism, Christianity or even extreme political group and apply it to the situation, and whether this author is conservative or not should be beside the point (I think it takes a little guts to be conservative these days, even if I wimp out and remain moderate, but I have been moderate for a long time). The warning is to understand history in its wider context and see what could happen to prevent what might actually happen. The author's example is extreme, yes, but few in 1920 predicted 1939, and those that did were seen as 'fear mongering propagandists or extremists'.

Has the world changed since then? Not really, even if our sensibilites have evolved, but so long as extremism exists we might as well be prepared for a return to the 14th century, for radical fundamentalism seeks such ends, including and to our ability to approve, disapprove or abstain from such discourse.

Finally, I read most everything with a grain of salt, for I have seen so many 'visions' of the future, noble or not, simply fail to materialise... but it has mostly been a good read :)

Crunchy Carpets said...

I think the problem with Simmons is, depsite his massive 'expertise' in ancient history and so on.....and yes, he is well educated...but that he has then taken a rather simplistic and black and white (Bush like) attitude towards what is currently happening in our world.

I don't think you can blame ANY is the men behind it.

As Curmudgeon has said the Wahhabi's and the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi funded and in background ....A country that American still favours and treats as an economic partner, etc. Oil talks. Oil makes people blind to the crimes being committed under their noses.

I think writers are allowed their opinions as is everyone....Orson Scott Card and his homophobia is another example....but I don't like using it to take a tone like Simmons did here and to over simplify the issues at hand and the causes and the blames behind them.

I think it is dangerous. And Extremist leaning people will only use such statements to solidify their views.

Simmons has treaded into these dangerous waters before......he is very clear who he 'favours.'

Has anyone read Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt...

I think Robinson is far better at analysing how religion and men shape their world and who will be and who is to blame.

jedimerc said...

I have read Robinson's work, the Red Mars trilogy in particular.(not the one you mention, yet, but I will check it out, as I will read most anything sci-fi) Conceptually, a little dated, but good regardless.

I also just realised I butchered one of my own points... this is what I get for editing an entry and posting while also eating... sorry.

This bit should have read:
'Whether you agree with the author's view or not, he carefully, and to my mind, with some forethought, uses some examples that every trained historian knows of. '

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think the most masterful political writer was Frank Herbert in "Dune". His work was an attack on imperialism, a statement on religion, and a thematically, a profound exploration of predestination.

Now, one can either take the work as a straight up scifi tale, or see in it statements about geopolitical attitudes toward oil, prejudices in class, and a warning about decadence setting in and destroying existing power structures.

It is hard to imagine either the left or the right attacking this book, even though the author took strong positions. Why? Because both sides can use the book to support arguments.


ShadowFalcon said...

I am a Muslim.

Dan Simmons story upset me because it paints a picture in which people like me are the enemy for not other reason then what we believe.

"The its a good story" is a nice excuse, without consideration as to how it might other people feel.

My husband is Catholic, my whole family adores him (in fact somethings I think they like him more then me). I've never tried to force my religion on anyone and I don't know any muslims in my community who would.

The current political climate makes me scared. Scared for safty and for that of my muslim friends and family. Yes there are extremists like there are in any religion and those same extremist who scare everyone else scare us, the majority of peaceful muslims.

Everyone gets caught up with the middle east but Indonesia is the biggest muslim country in the world. Does that make them a threat?

Should people in the UK have sent bombs to the Irish republic when the terrorist organisations there (funded by the US btw) were bombing London? No of course not.

I'm saddened by the state of affairs in the world. Even though i grew up in England, I'm being made feel unsafe in my own home becasue people hate me, just becasue I'm not like them.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Shadow, it's frustrating to see how people treat Islam. In the U.S. and probably in Britain, paranoia has led to sanctioned racism. Last year I tried to get people to petition Barnes and Noble to get a racist, anti Muslim book off their shelves (stop now, don't talk to me about freedom of the press, Barnes and Noble is a private enterprise and may sell what book they see fit...I actually was sucessful in getting them to stop selling a magaziine).

All that being said, as a Jew, how should I feel about "Merchant of Venice"? or the work of Hemingway?
How should an African American feel about "Huck Finn"?

Complex question. No easy answers.

ShadowFalcon said...

I does seem like sanctioned racism and in this day and age surely we should all be able to move on.

Well done with your Barnes and Noble actions.

I can totally understand why a Jewish person would be upset by merchant of Venice. When we studied it in school at the age of 14, a teacher asked us to describe the characters in a class discussion. I felt really sorry for a close Jewsih friends of mine becasue the other students were shouting out things like "The Jewish guy is evil" and the teacher did nothing to discourage them until I and another girl spoke out.

Very difficult questions indeed.

I think all we can do is talk about the issues and deal with things in a peaceful way like Martin Luther King Jr and Ghandi.

Avery DeBow said...

"And Avery, we should be afraid of extremists. Their voices are loud, hollow, and able to sway the many."

Ok Stewart, I'll take the bait:

"The Time Traveler shook his head. 'You’ve understood nothing I’ve said. Nothing. Athens failed in Syracuse – and doomed their democracy – not because they fought in the wrong place and at the wrong time, but because they weren’t ruthless enough. They had grown soft since their slaughter of every combat-age man and boy on the island of Melos, the enslavement of every woman and girl there...'"

That the author -- under the guise of relating historical events -- implies that the United States is doomed to fail because it has failed to slaughter and enslave an entire population isn't in itself extremism? His mind, in this state, is as dangerous as any religious zealot's.

I don't see the artistic intent behind this work. All I see is a ham-handed attempt to, as Stewart suggested, use his voice to sway many. If the man feels the United States would be better off if it liquefied an entire nation, he should just come out and say it instead of hiding behind a thinly veiled work of fiction.

There are no true warnings in this work, only the latent fear of a bigoted man and a puerile attempt to disperse it to an alreaady paranoid nation.

The Curmudgeon said...

I promised myself I'd not wade back into this... but something Shadowfalcon said made me do it: Should people in the UK have sent bombs to the Irish republic when the terrorist organisations there (funded by the US btw) were bombing London? No of course not.

I'm an American of Irish descent. Back in my nightclubbing days, 30 years ago, I and my friends would go to Irish bars and drink Guinness and listen to the bands sing Rebel songs right along with them. And in many of the bars there was a little box, collecting money, we were told, to help the widows and orphans in Ireland.

Actually, as Shadowfalcon suggests, money put into those boxes went into MAKING widows and orphans. It went to the IRA for bullets and bombs. Men, women and children alike were murdered -- killings paid for by gullible people who thought they were doing something good while out having a good time.

Word eventually got around about what the money was really for... and no more money went into the boxes. And the boxes went away.

Charitable giving is one of the pillars of Islam. And too darn much of the money innocently donated by observant Muslims has gone into buying bullets and bombs.

When the Muslim community reacts, as the Irish American community did, and STOPS DONATING MONEY to terrorists, I'll be well on the way to no longer being "paranoid." But I read instead that Hezbollah and Hamas are the primary distributors of social services in their own benighted regions. You can't tell me that money given to these groups can be segregated and only put to charitable purposes. And these groups in particular appear to build schools and ammo dumps side by side.

Shadowfalcon says, "Yes there are extremists like there are in any religion and those same extremist who scare everyone else scare us, the majority of peaceful muslims."

I see no evidence that the 'peaceful majority' is shouting down the extremists. Those poll numbers in Simmons' second article argue quite persuasively against that in fact: The extremists' positions are becoming mainstream.

I read from time to time a scholar's observations that the Islamists have departed from true Islam and their tactics are not sanctioned by Islam. But the bin Ladens of the world are not declared apostates by the 'peaceful majority' of Muslims.

Shadowfalcon says she is being made to "feel unsafe" in her own home "because people hate me, just because I'm not like them." That's horrible -- but, unfortuately, I can understand why she feels that way. Because I know that extremism can breed extremists going the other way. I know there is unreasoning prejudice and suspicion of Muslims among non-Muslims and I denounce it.

On the other hand, Shadowfalcon, could you and your Catholic husband go live in Kabul? In Peshawar? In Tehran? Why not?

And, Crunchy? Nothing I say here should be considered as support or criticism of any policy of the American government. This is not the place for a discussion of politics.

In fact, that's the beauty of sci-fi: We can read and write about the worlds we want to build... or the worlds that we're afraid may be built... without the poison of politics seeping in to choke off reasoned discussion.

SQT said...


One of the reasons I've kind of stayed out of this conversation is that when you have a controversial topic like this, it's easy to go round and round and never resolve anything.

I don't mind hearing all sides of a topic, but if I'm invested in a particular point of view, it's highly unlikely anyone is going to change my mind.

I do have strong opinions on religion and I know I'll end up using my writing as a soapbox of sorts. It's not that I expect to change any minds, but at least I'll have my say. Of course it'll be completely within a religious contruct of my own making, so hopefully it won't be too offensive. That's the beauty of fiction, I can make a statement without having to put myself out there as a spokesperson for a particular movement.

Crunchy Carpets said...

"There are no true warnings in this work, only the latent fear of a bigoted man and a puerile attempt to disperse it to an alreaady paranoid nation." - You are right Avery.

And to keep this literary instead of political...that is the point.

Does a writer or an actor or a rockstar have any more say or sway because of his or her ability to reach the public?

And when does a piece of work stop being historicaly interesting (Merchant of Venice) and just racist?

Look at the fuss we make because of books that use the 'n' word or books that denigrate another race but because they were written in a time when that was 'ok' accept it as literature and to not shield our younger generations from it.

(and on a political question? Am I just dumb but why don't the 'peaceful' muslim countries or organizations not make more of a statement or fuss about all the extremism? When 65 people are blown up by another suicide bomber in Iraq...We see grief..but we don't see much call to stop the afraid of the terrorists in our midst...but a united front across all politics and religions would make a powerful force against these people)

jedimerc said...

From what I have seen and read, many groups that oppose the extremism are afraid they will wind up as the victims of the extremists... every religion(except maybe Buddhism) has been known to silence its own through violence, the 16th and 17th century in Europe being one of the more prominent examples.

The simplest reason: most people don't want to die for opposing extremism. And there is a lot to be said for apathy these days too...

Fear is the mind-killer, as Herbert wrote, and it also crushes the will.

My assessment, I admit, is rather cynical, but with religion (as opposed to spirituality), cynicism is all I see.

SQT said...

Does a writer or an actor or a rockstar have any more say or sway because of his or her ability to reach the public?

Oh boy, are you singing my song or what?

There's nothing that galls me more that some rock star/action "hero"/athlete who thinks they need to tell the world what to believe. I can make my own mind up thankyouverymuch. And I know it sounds elitist, but I know most of these entertainment types rarely have anything beyond a high school education, and the one's that do are usually smart enough to keep their mouths shut.

Another thing that I hated when I worked in Hollywood was that most entertaiment types had very flexible values. That is, they would change their values based on what was considered fashionable at the time. They'd glom on to Bill Clinton for the publicity, I saw it happen. They'd also profess to any politics they though would get them work with a particular director.

most people don't want to die for opposing extremism.

I agree. I don't feel qualified to judge those who have lived under regimes like that of Saddam Hussein. I've never lived in any culture other than one that lets me say what ever I want to.

Avery DeBow said...

Hey, now. Let's keep the high-school -degree-holder bashing to a minimum! :)

The sway of those in Hollywood is indeed powerful. These people are presented to the masses as glittering gods, larger than life (both metaphorically and literally when they appear to us on the twenty-foot glowing screen). Their images are so prevalent in our daily life that some are inclined to not only mimic their style and eating habits, but also their political position. Whether these stars take advantage of that out of a sincere belief, or out of the desire to lure the masses to their next film is entirely debatable. Either way it ends up with legions of citizens nodding along in agreement as they trip-trap off to the polls just so they can feel that much closer to their idols.

Anonymous said...

I won't comment on the story I think that's been covered.

Two things I do want to comment on,

First: The media decides what they want to portray and I don't think they feel that now is the time to show peaceful islamics protesting violent islamics. No one wants to see it/won't drive ratings.

Second: Why is some politician's or talking heads view more valid than an entertainer's or athlete's? They aren't any smarter or informed, though they should be. A business school education or affluent background don't make you an expert.

Just my two cents.

Stewart Sternberg said...


ShadowFalcon said...

Thank you Anonymous. I agree

Avery - in regards to your points, I've never given money to any terrorist organisation, I don't know anyone who would and I do know plenty of muslim groups who are trying to work against extrimist attitudes. Also the 7/7 bombers in London were handed in by thier own families, who were scared of what they had done.

There are apparently 1.2 billion muslims all over the world. If we the majority were not peaceful imagine what the world would be like.

Sorry Sqt i promise not to say anything more on the subject.

SQT said...

No need to apologize Shadowfalcon. I think it's good we have a Muslim in the discussion. It's better to hear your side of the issue than to assume anything. I appreciate that you spoke up.

Avery DeBow said...

Whoa, Shadowfalcon. Pointing the finger in the wrong direction. I'm the one saying there's no artistic intent in this work. I'm pretty much right there with you.

Charles Gramlich said...

If the purpose of literature is to get people thinking, then the Dan Simmons piece achieved that goal. And since we are all intelligent people, we can think for ourselves and decide whether we agree or disagree with the point of view of the "traveller." Note, I don't say Dan Simmons because I haven't personally met the man and don't know what his core beliefs are on the subject.

The historical context is interesting, but the conclusions of the "Traveller" could be countered with other historical examples. The United States is such an exmaple. While certainly not perfect, the US has achieved much by trying to maintain a core value of tolerance.

Sometimes tolerance wins, sometimes it loses. But I believe it is a worthy goal, worth taking the "chance" of losing.

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

Okay, so he read Thucydides, but that doesn't mean he understood Thucydides. What he conveniently omits is that the Athenians had already pissed off every other city state in Greece by using the contributions that were supposed to go toward mutual defense against the Persians and spending it on themselves. Don't even get me started on Alcibiades. We have more to fear from our own arrogance and inept leadership than from the Islamic version of the KKK. We might have gone after the terrorists with the same tactics that worked against piracy; instead, like Athens, we seem to have a Texas-size talent for making enemies and losing friends. Simmons also shows the usual chickenhawk admiration for the Spartans, a society that maintained its mighty military by using slaves for everything else at a ratio of 8-10 slaves to every Spartan. Spartans never relaxed because they were afraid to. There are parallels with the ancient democracies and our own self destruction, but not the one he makes. The "tough guys" got us into this mess in the first place, propping up repressive governments by helping them bump off every moderate reformer until there's no one LEFT but crazy people with guns.

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

This is the point at which I squint at sqt and start talking like Michael Palin as Dennis: "You're foolin' yourself-- we're livin' in a dicTATorship! SupREME executive power derives from a mandate from the MASSES, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!"