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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Observing Modernity

by Stefan Brenner

Michael E. Lloyd’s Observation One, Two and Three comprise a tightly-knit trilogy. Utilising the format of a science fiction novel, Lloyd invites us to examine the fabric of western modernity from two sometimes incompatible views. The complexities of our modern society are laid bare, as they appear to us terrestrials and also to an alien race of beings, the “Domans,” who suddenly appear bearing gifts of a material and spiritual nature.

What transpires next is part adventure, part mystery and part ruthless exposé of the unlimited hypocrisy and ability to twist the truth inherent in many of our most revered and long-standing institutions. From the European Union to the Department of Homeland Security, worlds both Old and New are subjected to the searchlight of Lloyd’s ironic commentary, illuminated by a scrupulous attention to detail that leaves no sheltering stone unturned, no slimy political or commercial interest undisturbed. Through this helter-skelter of political intrigue, a few ordinary citizens are forced to negotiate a path, their hitherto private concerns with love and life precariously intertwined with the global destinies of Earth and Dome.

As Earthly leaders and the emissaries of Dome engage in delicate negotiations over who should get what and how, the reader becomes the unwitting judge. But who or what are the Domans? At first this seems unclear. Undoubtedly they represent a technologically advanced civilization. But technology does not define any civilization’s essence, at least one deemed worthy of being judged moral or immoral. We find ourselves asking whether the Domans are truly superhuman in their psychological makeup — essentially lacking the human vices of pride, envy and self-regard. If so, regardless of how foolish and short-sighted, our sympathies must lie with the flawed and irrational Earthlings of the story.

For how could humanity, whose very capacity to transcend its basic drives springs from immersion in a harsh and unforgiving world, be expected to identify with such an alien intelligence? Our reason is a natural faculty, one forged in the daily struggle to survive and procreate. Only if Doman civilization grew out of such a struggle can we expect the two sides to engage with anything approaching mutual understanding.

As we read on, it becomes apparent that the Domans do comprise such a civilization. In fact, not only do they represent the culmination of eons of painful self-advancement, but the cost of their eventual transcendence has been great. For a race committed to trading as opposed to simply pillaging their way out of an imminent environmental catastrophe back home, certain sacrifices have had to be made. Indeed the price of their progress is one that humanity might think too high!

This is important. By naturalising the Domans, Lloyd removes the easy option of identifying with what we have become; instead we are invited to consider what we could be. In other words, the very strategy employed by the Doman emissaries!

We might well wonder whether such a strategy can succeed with one party inculcated in “zero-sum” thinking. Will humanity grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for advancement, or instead, as so often in the past, will self-interest and narrow sectarianism prevail? Perhaps an ideal outcome for everyone is just that, an ideal?

But if realism should win the day, there are still green shoots of hope in Lloyd’s story, albeit at the individual level. Within very many ordinary citizens, he suggests, dwells an incalculable fund of goodwill, creativity and love of life in all its diverse forms. Toni and Maelene, fusion of the Old World and the New, cast off mere idealism for something more mature, in their desire to fulfil private dreams without desecrating the Earth. And Salvatore will use his human talents in conjunction with the Domans’ gift to bring about a near-miracle.

Cynical readers might dismiss these romantic notions as mere sops to middle-class individualism; but such critics will have had no time for Lloyd’s Observation novels in the first place. “Philosophers have only interpreted the world” will be their cry, as they call for yet another revolution in wheels of power (after which everything important remains as it was before).

Since mankind cannot be forced to be free, then we had better think again or else we are surely doomed. Lloyd suggests that salvation requires something more radical. However “unnatural” this might seem, a better world demands a change in our hearts.

Copyright © 2008 by Stefan Brenner

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