The Critics’ Corner discusses
Traps of Future History
Politics in a novel is like a pistol shot in a concert. — Stendhal
One of Bewildering Stories’ mottoes says, “Any story based on current events is out of date before it’s written.” Gary Clifton’s “Firing Back,” in this issue, uses the time-honored science fiction premise of a near-future scenario in order to steal a march on the present day.
Such a fictional strategy is tricky. Readers will be very interested in the characters Heather and Jackson, but they’ll be distracted by the expression of a political point of view that is quite provocative in attempting to exploit current “hot button” issues.
It’s perfectly okay if future history uses resemblances to today’s world, but readers need to know where the differences come from. Readers will always have in mind the question “How did this story get to where it is from where we are today?”
Let’s see how it works. We’ll lay out the premises in the chronological order of the text and ask how likely they are.
The Mexican radar station is not strategic and appears to have value only as propaganda. ISIS wants everybody to think the U.S. has bombed it.
Jackson immediately saw the plan ISIS was pursuing. [...] ISIS would attempt to take out the La Belatosa station and tell the world the U.S. had done it.
The deception ought to be transparent, but ISIS is counting on public panic:
Anybody who knew a damned thing would see the deception, but the world of 2031 included an uninformed mass of humanity whose give-a-damn factor was dead even with the ground.
For the record: the acronym ISIS refers to the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” It is also known as ISIL, the “Islamic State in the Levant,” which includes Lebanon.
In point of fact, ISIS — or whatever — is neither Islamic nor a state. It started as a revanchiste movement in Iraq and invents religious doctrine opportunistically. Readers will wonder how the present-day organization could become a world-class military power that can afford to engage in operations so far from home.
However, the note about a terrified and “uninformed” public rings true.
Meanwhile, another war has been playing out elsewhere:
In defense of Israel, the U.S. had dropped a class-four nuke on a rogue government five years before, skewing public opinion even further out of balance. World gutter talk had edged the United States from the Great Satan to Great Satan times two.
What is a “class four nuke”? How could one be dropped on a “government” rather than on an entire civilian population? And what, exactly, is a “rogue” government?
What does it mean that the nuclear attack “skewed public opinion further out of balance”? Since criticism of the U.S. is said to be “world gutter talk,” readers will suspect that “balance” means pledging allegiance to the foreign policy of a certain faction in Israeli politics.
And why would the U.S. deploy a nuclear weapon “in defense of Israel” when Israel could do it alone? The fallout would not be in public relations; such a move on anybody’s part would start a multiple-sided nuclear war or, at least, an all-out conventional war. How was it averted? But in the final analysis, is the hypothetical incident really relevant? Would omitting it change anything of substance in the story?
The ISIS of the story has acquired an unusual weapon from an unlikely source:
Provisioned, as well as anyone could tell, by the Russian government, the enemy had acquired a monster the Central Intelligence Agency apparently knew nothing about. A massive submarine, capable of carrying at least a dozen drones was hove to somewhere in the relatively shallow water southwest of San Diego. The sub was equipped to remain submerged and launch and recover drones from below sea level.
The fact the water was not of great depth actually helped the craft evade detection while lying on the sea floor.
The submarine is described later a kind of “super-ship” unknown to military intelligence. Its mission seems to include attacking commercial aircraft and covert provocation.
The ISIS of the story has been given a “monster” Russian submarine that the CIA and military intelligence know nothing about. Why don’t they? Such things are very hard to hide. And it’s concealed in shallow water off the Mexican coast? How can that be? Its drone launches alone would reveal its presence.
Is the scenario an indictment of the competence of the CIA and military intelligence? Or is it a satire of present-day U.S. policy, which uses drones everywhere, not only in official combat zones? Readers won’t quite be sure what to make of it.
In today’s world, ISIS has called for the beheading of Vladimir Putin and is a mortal enemy of Russia. ISIS is using not Russian but Chinese weaponry supplied by U.S. allies in the Middle East as well as U.S. materiel captured from the Iraqis.
Could the situation change between 2013 and 2031? Possibly, even probably, but the future history doesn’t remotely resemble what’s going on today, and readers will wonder how such radical reversals could have taken place.
The CIA’s scope of military operations has grown to the point that it is now a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Making the CIA a military arm is surprising but plausible. It implies that intelligence agencies can take direct military action in 2031. However, explicitly bringing it into a future history story implies a corollary:
In the 21st century, terrorists have performed an expert judo maneuver: with relatively little effort, they have provoked an overreaction. The U.S., for one, has become a counter-terrorist state. Canada, for another, is following suit. In both countries, civil liberties will eventually be only what intelligence agencies haven’t gotten around to classifying as “terrorism.” In some legislation currently being considered, this very article might qualify as such. That corollary may or may not be intended; in any case, it seems to lie outside the scope of the story.
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In conclusion, “Firing Back” allies the U.S. with Israel against ISIS and Russia, with Mexico as a pawn. That scenario fits the sound-bite size of TV “news.” It may even represent a political point of view in the U.S. in the present day. It can be chalked up to the poetic license of “future history” science fiction.
In any story, readers start with an unconscious assumption: everything and every character is normal — that is, what we, individually, think is normal — unless or until we’re told otherwise. It’s perfectly okay to portray a future that diverges significantly from the present or even one that seems implausible. However, when the future history is a variation on current events, readers will need to know how it came to be that way.
For example, ISIS is currently an enemy of the U.S. in Iraq but is aligned with U.S. and Israeli interests against the governments of Syria and Iran. For the purposes of “Firing Back,” which is set in a future some eighteen years hence, readers might be given some orientation by mentioning that ISIS has conquered Syria and Iraq and, possibly, Lebanon into the bargain. Readers might like to know how that could be done, but it’s really incidental for the purposes of the story; the characters Jackson and Heather could take the process for granted as an accomplished fact.
Of course, literary conventions allow authors to include politics in a story: the world’s great authors have done so, such as Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Stendhal himself. But they were all careful to avoid misplaced emphasis. In “Firing Back,” the reader interest is the relationship between Jackson and Heather. Their historical setting is important, of course, but authorial position-taking becomes a distraction.
Bewildering Stories also says, “There is no story so truly bewildering as reality.” The current conflicts in the Middle East are chaotically multiple-sided. We are already seeing the consequences that Natan Dubovitsky describes in his story “Without Sky.”