Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Right to Read Science Fiction

Review by Colleen Mondor

Glorifying Terrorism.
Farah Mendlesohn, Editor.
Rackstraw Press. 2007. 268 pp.
ISBN 0-9554688-0-3.

In 2006 the British government passed the "Terrorism Act" which made it a "criminal offence to directly or indirectly incite or encourage others to commit acts of terrorism. This will include the glorification of terrorism, where this may be understood as encouraging the emulation of terrorism." In angry response the authors in the science fiction anthology Glorifying Terrorism submitted stories that directly challenged this rule. As explained in his introduction, Andrew McKie makes it clear that these particular writers took the new law more seriously than most:

Under the legislation I can think of plenty of illegal classics, from Dun's suicide commandos to short stories by Bob Shaw, John Varley and Bruce Sterling. So can you. All we are asking is that we continue to be allowed to think of them; that the people writing for you in this book continue to be allowed to think of them, and others. If not we are not going to be allowed to think as we choose, we choose to be targets—not for terrorist, but for our own legislators.

That's a pretty big gauntlet to throw down but McKie and editor Farah Mendlesohn are deadly serious about their goal. They do not embrace terrorism or the killing of innocents, but they further are appalled by the idea that government can decide what can and can not exist in free expression. Who decides who the good guys and bad guys are after all; who decides what to label a freedom fighter as opposed to an insurgent?

Or the bigger question maybe is did all those guys on the Deathstar really deserve to die or were some of them just janitors working a good civil service job who had no clue that a bunch of rebels were going to fry them and have a big celebration? Mendlesohn believes we have a right to read those stories and that many of them live in the realm of science fiction. To illustrate her point, she had twenty-five writers, including Hal Duncan, Jo Walton, Charles Stross and Gwyneth Jones, craft all kinds of other world, futuristic, alternate history tales which involve some combination of rebellion, government and terror. It's up to the readers to decide what is good and bad here, just as it should be. And how you find yourself cheering at the end of some of these stories just might surprise you more than the tales themselves.

"Hijack Holiday" by Ian Watson is notable first because, as the author's points out in an initial note, it was written prior to September 11, 2001. Very quickly it becomes clear that this is a story about a passenger airline that has been hijacked but with a twist; the narrator and his wife and apparently everyone else onboard have paid for the pleasure of a fake hijacking; they wanted a unique holiday and this is what they chose.

Yeah, it's not so hard to believe is it?

Watson gives his couple all the self-satisfied arrogance that you would expect from the fabulously wealthy and bored, but slowly their confidence starts to erode. The terrorists are just so very mean and they don't seem to respect the occasional reminder that they are hired help. But still, there is the allure of instant celebrity to keep them all going. "How many TV sets around the world are tuned to our progress?" wonders the narrator and you just hate him for that, all the while believing every last obnoxious thing he thinks and says.

Which of course makes the ending all the much more powerful. But by the time you read the last words you are already wondering about this whole terrorism thing, and how easy it is to twist it in unexpected directions.

James Trimarco's "The Sundial Brigade" is a new twist on a first contact story that supposes the aliens might just enjoy those old recordings of life on earth a wee bit too much. In this futuristic tale, the visitors want earth the way they have read about; they want the historical earth and they want it as a great big living museum. Fans of Jamestown and other re-enactment sites might not have an issue with this but think about being told you have to live in the past, being given an assigned job and then told this is who you are—forever.

Not like an afternoon at Colonial Williamsburg when you think about it that way.

It comes as no surprise that some people might get frustrated by the way things are turning out and they might want to fight back. What's interesting here is that our rebel hero, Antonio (who got the unfortunate job of "beggar") gets help from some very unexpected quarters. And honestly I liked the way Trimaraco reinvented an idea that most SF readers have given up on and I found Antonio's journey to make a lot of sense. It's the oldest question of democracy in "Sundial," all about what makes a freedom fighter. It was reading this story that really made me realize how dangerous the Terrorism Act of 2006 truly is.

"How I Took Care of My Pals" by Elizabeth Sourbut is about soldiers and war and also slavery; military slavery. There is a twist here that I don't want to ruin but I will say that while this is not a completely new idea, it reads a lot like a Vietnam story (albeit on another planet). Part of what made "Pals" so powerful to me was how much it read like history; how the voices of the soldiers sound so achingly familiar. And again you wonder who the good guys and bad guys were. Siegfried Sassoon was considered mentally unbalanced for speaking out in uniform against the war but decades later he has become one of the greatest voices of truth in World War I.

History decides the good guys and bad, and all too often that hasn't been the ones who did what they were told.

"Strong Brown God" by Kari Sperring is more a story of civil disobedience than anything else. It made me think of water control in Idaho of all places, where irrigation is more important than anything else. It's also a story about control of knowledge, a true hallmark of modern times. Lucy Kemnizter's "John Brown's Body" probably hits closest to home as Brown is still a historical figure difficult to judge. He committed an act of terrorism in an attempt to arm slaves and was captured by troops serving under Robert E. Lee, of all people, as the southern states had not yet seceded from the Union. Brown was lauded as a great American hero by no less that Walt Whitman and yet; and yet he did raise arms against the American army. He just did not believe in the policy of slavery that the US government supported. A few years later his actions would likely have won him a medal from President Lincoln, but he was too early; he was fighting the Civil War before the war began.

Keminzter provides an alternate history where Brown did not die and his army of armed slaved was able to rise up into open revolt. Brown becomes a man in hiding, more of a legend than a leader, but he carries great power among his followers, all of whom fight for freedom. In this story the rebels—the terrorists—are unabashedly the heroes, just as Brown was to so many and just as American history struggles with referring to him today.

If what a government supports is morally wrong, can you be a terrorist for fighting it? Or are you the bigger patriot for knowing what is right? Then again, who decides what is morally good; who decides what is evil?

This book does get complicated, that's for sure.

Kathleen Sparrow rights of home grown anarchists in "Be the Bomb You Throw" and Adam Roberts gives us "a better way of making war" in "Here Comes the Flood" (a story that will sound familiar to fans of the original Star Trek.) Kathryn Allen places us inside the head of a suicide bomber in "Count Me In"; a terrifying place that explains nothing but the hard cold truth about revolution; about how much it demands from those who follow the word as gospel. And in probably the most disturbing story in the book, Rachel Swirsky makes health insurance the tipping point of society in "The Debt of the Innocent." On the surface the monster is obvious here, but on reflection that is simply not true. This is a story that is taking place in small ways around the world everyday. Oddly enough, "Innocent" is the least science fiction of all the stories because it seems we are already here, living it, although many people, who have likely never been truly poor, would deny that.

Swirsky's terrorist is closer than we think; and a frightening reality for millions of people.

There have been several reviews of Glorifying Terrorism that don't know what to make of this book. They think it's subversive or tame, that it exist merely to be all talk or really that it never hits the true mark of what terrorism is. I think all of that is bunk. The point of this anthology is to show the kind of stories that could be affected by the Terrorism Act; not so much to comment on actual acts of terrorism around the world today. This is a free speech collection that illustrates what debt science fiction owes to insurgents, freedom fighters, patriots and terrorists. There are a wealth of stories and books that have been written about these kinds of people; words that we take for granted and refuse to view through the lens of the 21st century. Well now we have to, because the governments we elect are making us. "It is irrelevant…whether any person is in fact encouraged or induced by the statement to commit, prepare or instigate any such act or offence." You break the law merely by writing these stories; merely by sharing them.

Do you love Star Wars? Well then you better think long and hard about what those movies are about, and just what kind of free world you want to live in.


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