Reviews, “Split Decision”

A Militant Peace
David Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell
Clarkesworld, November 2011.

Namasté Prime
Grá Linnaea
Apex, Issue 28.

How will we fit into the future?

Unrecognizable, alien Earth futures are a common theme in science fiction; the familiar turned surreal is an unsettling experience for most readers. The joy of the genre is thinking about how to adapt to such developments.

Consider: twenty years ago, cell phones were a joke, computers worked miniscule hard drives, and the Internet was still modem-based. Now we use iPads on our porch to stream live video which we can dynamically store in high definition quality for later. Is it any wonder that your grandmother calls up once in a while for tech help?

None of this is new. Generations have faded into irrelevance throughout history. What is new, in our young millennium, is the breadth and depth of generational changes. The scope. Contemporary science fiction stories reflect that scope and put the old question to it: How would we fit into the far-reaching, technologically unimaginable future?

Klecha and Buckell, in their story “A Militant Peace”, question the application of twentieth century nonviolence to twenty-first century dictatorships. Conducted through a regional peacekeeping force, the characters aim to slowly encroach upon a nation’s sovereignty, offering an alternative to living within the regime. Yet the regime will not go quietly into the good night, and so our peacekeepers use advanced technology in an effort to avoid deaths.

There is a manufactured sense to the enterprise, breezily implied by a listing of supplies for refugees: “Shoes and clothing by Nike. Dinners by ConAgra. TV by Samsung. Computers by Dell.” Citizens back home can watch the events unfold via live stream, and so the advertisers have insisted on a bloodless operation.

Compassionate industrialization.

The integrated nature of corporate sponsorship with a UN mandate gives horrible flashbacks to Naomi Klein’s nonfiction book The Shock Doctrine, which culminates in stories about temporary shelters built by contractors for people who suffered calamities. Klein goes so far as to call the contractor experience inIraqwar profiteering.

Toward the end of the story, our protagonist Mai is presented with a fairly basic moral dilemma. A powerful cannon is blasting the alternative settlement area, and within a few minutes, hundreds of civilians will die. Due to constraints on the battlefield, she’s the only person in a position to act: she can either refrain from attacking the enemy and uphold the mission’s ideal, in the process sacrificing those civilians, or save the civilians at the expense of the ideal.

Mai makes her choice: she murders two enemy soldiers and disables the cannon. She manages to avoid a trial but is dishonorably discharged and her prized military career comes to an end. Mai rejects the astroturf, idealized notion of a peacekeeping mission in order to preserve a community that will undoubtedly be subsumed by the astroturf. She does this because her old values insist on it, the “part of her [that] craves a fight. A real fight. A test of skill, courage, and arms.” This philosophy has no place within the UN/corporate mandate—emphasized repeatedly by her commanding officer who stresses the ever-present streaming viewers and advertisers.

Questions spring up every few paragraphs. One wonders if turning each soldier into a television camera is a good idea. How much individualism does that grant the soldier? Is that level of autonomy really desirable in a project like this? Would civilians even want such a non-mediated source of war journalism? This is the evolution of concerns that have come with each major conflict, most recently embedded journalists in the 2003 Iraq War.

Apart from these functional questions, a more basic concern rests at the heart of the story. Reading after the 2011 military intervention inLibya, the text demands an accounting of the moral arithmetic that supports an ideal at the cost of civilian lives. The ideal is one of the most worthy to ever be considered, that is, thou shalt not kill. Mai murders, betrays the ideal to save the community of innocents. Could you be so brave? Could I? How would we fit into this future?

“Namasté Prime” takes similar questions from a more spiritual angle, as the text ponders a future where a group like Anonymous gets religion. Tether, like Mai, is encountering a new philosophy, albeit one that is more organic. Rather than instituted by an international body and corporate sponsors, it’s developed around future tech. A world where technology has become so advanced that it can now be imbued with faith.

A world where “one-in-five pedestrians ran flashing adverts across their faces,” so we know that corporate money retains as much influence here as in Mai’s world. Both stories accept this presence of business; neither character is much disturbed by the ubiquity of advertisements and corporations. The religion in “Namasté Prime” centers around a digital Eden, a direct counter to the technological nature of this future, and one that Tether quickly finds enticing. Technology versus nature is another standard theme in science fiction, and even the addition of faith is a little old, but there is a consistent focus on this particular religion as a community-in-formation.

Tether thinks to himself, “He’d been off planet six months. Six months! Everyone was suddenly crazy.” New religions aren’t a commonplace occurrence, at least not in the hacker crowd. Yet here we are. Once the story lays out the details, direct comparisons to current events become obvious. “Lacking the processing power of major corporations, they linked multi-processor torrents on the web. Millions of machines across the planet.” This community is grassroots, not astroturf like the UN/corporate mandate in “A Militant Peace.” This is a horizontal system, much like the Arab Spring protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Creating Namasté started by jamming together hundreds of people’s personalities (absorbed through future tech), a literal interpretation of horizontal leadership. Namasté becomes a “single, unified mind,” which might obliterate the horizontal idea, yet each personality is individually apparent. “This water is people, the dirt, the rocks, the sky, the sun, it’s all people’s consciousness.”

A successful future utopia? Malarkey!

Yet that is what is being proposed. A naturalistic, peaceful utopia centered around…what, exactly? It’s never made quite clear. Unified mind. Peace. Existing as nature, not within nature. Very easy to see where a new religion fits in.

In these stories, old systems like warfare and religion are not destroyed but merely challenged. Stinging critiques of the institutions are held off, and instead their acceptance in a future society is questioned. Can a technoreligion live alongside consumerism, and how easily would it gain converts? How will technology and new ideas continue to alter warfare?

That these questions are being asked at all is encouraging. That they are posed within the device of a “new community” is fascinating. New communities challenge the status quo by doing things differently, by altering priorities and values. The Arab Spring, the Spain protests, and Occupy Wall Street are new communities, connecting new people and arguing for a shift in priorities. While they may not elicit immediate change, they alter the discourse: they force the population to talk about the issues.

Tether returned home and found his old life replaced. He soon discovered this replacement spoke to him. Mai finds her old way of life outdated, unaligned with the new values that will create communities. Her refusal to accept these new values speaks to their manufactured identity. Alternative settlement areas supplied by major corporations are not organic communities: they are premeditated, branded, artificial. People within the community are worthy of Mai’s sacrifice; but the philosophy behind the community isn’t worthy of the people’s sacrifice.

Tether and Mai go separate ways; he joins a community and she leaves one.

It’s worth noting that their divergence occurs at the cost of a few lives. Tether murders his old benefactor, the avatar of business and institutionalized religion. This murder brings him to peace and saves his community. Mai murders two enemy soldiers, and for it is excommunicated. Tether’s murders are celebrated; Mai’s murders are an embarrassment. They both kill to preserve communities, but the differing values force separate outcomes.

It makes the reader wonder which society they would value. One where life is of the utmost importance, yet everything is artificial? Or a murkier world, where life can be endangered, yet the community is genuine and organic? I’m a pacifist, but comparing these stories forces me to question that stance. I hesitate to say that perhaps I won’t like the resolution.

Of course, ideas of “artificial” and “organic” are perhaps too narrow. Real people are behind the UN/corporate mandate, right? Real people sign the checks, real people watch the live streams. Are they not organic? Boiled down, the difference is intent. An organic community is created to serve unified interests of the group as a whole. An artificial community is created by individuals to serve private interests.

There are ideologies at stake here, too. Horizontal leadership supports organic construction, as goals develop from cooperation. Vertical leadership lends itself to artificial construction, as goals are premeditated and assigned. Perhaps an example would help.

In October 2011, then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou wanted to offer his populace the choice of a new bailout at the price of strident austerity. As discussion of this referendum heated up, polls of Greek citizens made the rounds that said “60% thought [the economic package] was bad for the country.”[1] The referendum represented a shot at horizontal leadership, or at least a democratic choice for the people who would ultimately be required to withstand more austerity. This idea frightened those in power, both within Greece and across Europe, and Papandreou left office within two weeks. A technocrat was installed who would focus on securing the emergency funds (and thus austerity as well).[2]

Essentially, Greek leadership was given a choice similar to Mai and Tether. Those characters took the sympathetic route, preserving their communities. The Greek leadership has decided to ignore what the Greek people have to say. (Although there will be an election in early 2012; perhaps voters will respond by throwing out the leadership?) Accepting the bailout and the austerity is in keeping with modern economic philosophy; the only reason I object to the current implementation is that it ignores the populace. A populace that has already been subjected to two years of austerity that hasn’t helped. Data for August 2011 shows that Greek unemployment stood at 18.4%; Greece’s economy is shrinking at an annual rate of 5.5%. Joblessness for those aged 15–24 hit 43.5%.[3] No wonder a majority want to break with modern economic philosophy.

The Greek leadership is Mai at the gates of the alternative settlement zone, deciding not to attack but to wait, to endure, in the name of an ideal. (Maybe they think they’re Batman.) The Greek leadership is Mai if she chose the system over the people.

Breaking with entrenched philosophy requires facing unfamiliar outcomes, such as being dishonorably discharged. So far no politician has been willing to make that kind of sacrifice. More than ever, the world needs a Mai to throw their career out the window, to charge the cannon and preserve our community.

Stories like “A Militant Peace” and “Namasté Prime” seem alien because of the technology involved, but that is changing in front of our very eyes. Soon, the questions the authors have asked will no longer be hypothetical. They will be immediate. Important.

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