I’m writing a piece right now on Science Fiction since 9/11, based around, but not entirely limited to, the themes of security and surveillance. I’ll be giving this as keynote at the Images of Terror, Narratives of (In)security conference in Lisbon on the 23rd and 24th of April this year – I am not sure where I will send it for publication yet. Because of this, I have been reading and rereading a lot of SF, but I thought I’d mention two recent works that have most impressed me. I will probably add more thoughts in the weeks to come on this topic.
The first is Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion (Orbit, 2012). Ken MacLeod was a welcome participant at Mike Nellis’s excellent split location Glasgow / Jura workshop that marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four back in 2009, and many of his books have dealt overtly with security and surveillance themes, notably his near-future / alternative world novel, The Execution Channel (Orbit, 2007). Coming out of a period spent not only engaging with surveillance scholars, but more importantly being a Writer in Residence of the UK Research Councils’ Genomics Network, Intrusion takes place in a subtly nightmarish near-future Britain of oppressively caring forced medical intervention (in the form of a compulsory pill to cure genetic illnesses) and ongoing but nebulous terror threats, where even being seen to look too long at a piece of pro-terrorist graffiti is grounds for arrest and ‘torture-lite’ interrogation over where your loyalties lie. For a writer who has a well-deserved reputation as a pretty hardcore materialist and socialist, there are also unexplained hints of myth and magic at the edges of this work, and there is also a strong sense of what architects would call genius loci, the spirit of place, in both its London and Scottish island settings, which make the book all the richer and more satisfying as a piece of fiction. I think it’s his best novel ever, and that is coming from someone who was already a big admirer of MacLeod’s work – all of which is well worth reading.
In contrast, Lavie Tidhar’s Osama (PS, 2011) is all edge. It is slippery, slipstreamy and dreamy and reading it generally makes you feel like you’ve been drugged or waterboarded. This novel is dominated by the image of Osama Bin Laden, but not the ‘real’ Bin Laden, for this is a world separate but somehow connected to our own in which 9/11 (and subsequent attacks) never happened. As the novel progresses one realises its alternative earth is profoundly anachronistic, even non-modern: trains still seem to be steam-powered and there is no Internet. In that world, ‘Osama’ is the vigilante protagonist of a series of hard-t0-find cult pulp novels which detail Al-Qaeda’s fictional exploits, but which fill their most fanatical readers in this other world with the belief that somehow the events of the novels are more real than their own. There is a divergence point where everything changed, but it isn’t actually 9/11 at all, it’s much further back and has to do with the Sykes-Pichot agreement which formalized the settlement of the ‘Middle-East question’ in WW1. And Osama Bin Laden, it hints, is inseperable from the history of our own world, inevitable even. Osama is reminiscent of writers like Philip K. Dick, in particular, The Man in the High Castle, and much more so, the surrealism-influenced writers who came out of the 1960s British ‘New Wave’ of SF like J.G. Ballard and Brain Aldiss (I was reminded of that very underrated post-9/11 Aldiss novel, H.A.R.M) and particularly Chistopher Priest, both in terms of his slippy alt-history, The Separation, but also the atmosphere of earlier works like A Dream of Wessex and his ‘Dream Archipelago’ sequence of stories, which he recently added to with The Islanders. But at the same time, Osama is something quite unique, rich with pop cultural allusion, irony and bathos, and frequently seems to invert or counteract its own apparent intentions.