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HARM, US cover


HARM, UK cover

Michael Moorcock recently had a problem publishing the last two volumes of his brilliant Pyat quartet in the United States. According to Moorcock, the political climate made his anti-hero's famously anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic rhetoric more troubling than usual to Random House, which holds the rights to the series. Accordingly, it never released Jerusalem Commands or last year's The Vengeance of Rome in the U.S.

Fellow New Wave legend Brian Aldiss has had almost the opposite problem with his newest book, HARM, a tale of a British citizen caught up in a security state run amok. The book appears in the United States later this month, but struggled to find a home in his native Britain. Indeed, in the interview accompanying my reviewer's copy, Aldiss stated that "unlike Brave Betsy Mitchell at Del Rey—English publishers are funking taking on the novel," a situation only recently corrected when Duckworth, a house with only one other piece of science fiction in its 355-item catalog (the Russian fiction anthology Worlds Apart), took it on.

While the attitude of the larger publishers is unfortunate, given the implications of such "funking" for artistic freedom and political dialogue, it is not hard to guess why this is the case. The speculative element in science fiction often mutes its political power for mainstream readers, intentionally or unintentionally, a point that Aldiss acknowledges in the aforementioned interview. For such readers George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four represents less a forbidding future which must be resisted than a distant, decreasingly relevant past. Indeed, for them it is someone else's past, the nightmare of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union, the influence of Orwell's own wartime Britain on the story easily put out of mind. That sort of thing could never happen here, people say, and our countrymen do not do such things.

HARM, however, is unambiguously (and for a publisher, intimidatingly) about the present War on Terror, and Paul's torturers, at the titular Hostile Activities Research Ministry, are unambiguously American and British officials. Consequently it makes the reader identify with a figure mainstream opinion has these last several years regarded as expendable—the faceless "disappeared" swept by the thousands into secret prisons on flimsy pretexts and often no pretext at all in the name of "national security." The hate-filled taunts of his interrogators are the dark side of the public discourse, a reminder of how tolerant mainstream opinion has become of such thinking and speaking against Arabs and Muslims.

Additionally, there is no equivocation, no soft-pedaling of the truths HARM tells through the inclusion of pious speeches about how the threat justifies asking hard questions about the limits of civil liberties and cultural tolerance. There is no rationalizing what happens to Paul, precisely because there is no rationalizing it. (For that matter, there are also no speeches about the wrong of it, which would have been superfluous.)

In short, Aldiss's bold, masterful novel rejects the tepidity of what currently passes for public debate, and indeed the novel anticipates and incorporates the shopworn counterarguments into its narrative. The story begins with an authoritative voice declaring a break with the past, a narrowing of the scope of human life echoing the insistence of so many in the past several years "that everything has changed." "There had been a carefree time for foolishness, but that time was gone," the novel's narrator says, as so many said after September 11. "This was the time for seriousness, for a war against terror." (American readers should remember that while Americans take the idea of a "War on Terror" comparable to World War II for granted, the treatment of the conflict with Al-Qaeda as war has enjoyed less credence abroad, with even the British Foreign Office recently dropping this language from its statements.) The narrator then goes on to say what others dared not say in the same context, but which a good many have thought since, that "certain liberties had to be curtailed—such as foolishness and satire and freedom of speech. They belonged to a bygone epoch."

HARM promptly moves from this broad description of a changed world (whether the actuality of one, or an illusion of a changed world useful to those in power) to introduce its protagonist. "Hooded and shackled" he is faceless, like the images of terror suspects familiar from the media. He is also nameless, remaining "Prisoner B" until his interrogator, going over his file, reads his name aloud on page twelve—immediately raising one of the story's key conflicts. His interrogator reads it as Fadhil Abbas Ali, skipping over his given name, the much more traditionally British-sounding Paul.

Before then, however, the youthful Paul was "already aged by imprisonment and the fears that imprisonment brings." The stress was such, in fact, that even before this meeting, Paul started to imagine himself another man in another place—Fremant, a guard of Astaroth, the dictator of the human colony on the planet Stygia, a thousand light-years from Earth.

Aldiss follows both threads all the way through the novel. In the hands of a lesser writer the book's dual structure could easily work against its dramatic effect, but instead of being distracting, the events on Stygia effectively complement the primary storyline, intertwining with and reinforcing it. This is because Aldiss opts not to make the world Paul imagines an idealized alternative, or source of escape. Stygia is less fantasy than dream, with all the implications that "Big Dreams" have: it is a product of the world he actually inhabits, and as the story proceeds, one more and more difficult for him to distinguish from the hell in which he is trapped. Defined by genocide, tyranny, and religious strife, its atomized, repressed populace eking out a bare existence on the planet's insect-ridden surface, Stygia offers no flight from the horrors of the here and now.

The name itself says as much, "Stygia" being one of the names of the land of the dead ruled by Hades in classical myth, a place where people "can be simultaneously almost-alive and almost-dead," as Aldiss said of it in the aforementioned interview. Indeed, the residents of the village of Haven on that planet are "accustomed to the process of perishing, of living half a life" in their conditions of extreme exhaustion and poverty. Moreover, like the residents of Hades, the human colonists on Stygia were not living, sentient beings when they came to this world in the first place. Instead they made their journey as disassembled material in the Life Process Reservoirs aboard the ship New Worlds (just one of many nods to the history of science fiction), as "a slurry of stem cells, biochemicals, proteins and fats" inside the "flesh banks," from which they were reconstituted after their arrival. That reconstitution was an imperfect process, leaving them without memories and all the human ties that go with memory. Indeed, it left them all with damaged minds and bodies that make their speech a sequence of frequently ironic malapropisms.

Just like Paul on Earth, Fremant is unable to live out a life (or "half-life") of quiet desperation on Stygia—or heroically struggle against villainy. Instead he is persecuted and jailed, powerless in his own life and uncertain of who he is, something that goes beyond the division of his waking life between his imprisonment on Earth and this dream of another planet. Exactly as Paul imagines himself to be Fremant of Stygia, his earlier sense of who Paul is starts to come apart. Paul was born in England, of an English mother, raised in England, fully secularized and assimilated, married to an Irishwoman. All that matters to his interrogators, however, is that Paul's father was originally from South Asia. Religion becomes conflated with ethnicity. Paul is not a Muslim (he is in fact an atheist), but this aspect of his heritage means his interrogators can branded him as one.

Not surprisingly, it quickly becomes clear that Paul's incarceration and torture have nothing to do with serious counterterrorism. There is not even the presumption of a ticking time bomb, that scenario on which so many lazy thinkers fall back when trying to sell what is appallingly celebrated as the "Jack Bauer approach" to terrorism. He simply had the misfortune to be swept up in the ever-expanding dragnet because of a few lines he'd once written in a comic novel, The Pied Piper of Hament. In that book two of his characters joke about killing the Prime Minister, an exercise in the kind of frivolity, the "foolishness and satire and freedom of speech," that had become a "crime" in this brave new world.

Paul also remains in custody even after paranoia has ceased to be an excuse for detaining him, as his interrogators freely admit among each other. The American interrogator, Abraham Ramson, figures out in just one session early in the novel that Paul is not a threat and that it is a waste of time to hold on to him. Algernon Gibbs, the British manager of the facility, simply stubs out his cigarette and remarks "I'd nuke the lot of them, given the chance"—which is all that matters to him.

As in Orwell, the purpose of torture is torture, and all the rest of it is excuses, refuges for scoundrels, though Aldiss never needs to say it in so many words. HARM's great strength as a work of literature is its elegantly showing rather than telling what an idea like that means through the story of its central figure. For that, and the originality and force of its presentation, HARM richly deserves a place in the canon of dystopian science fiction.

Nader Elhefnawy has taught literature at several colleges, while reviewing and writing about science fiction. His published works include Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry, a history of science fiction focusing on the genre's most recent decades, and the novel The Shadows of Olympus. You can find him online at his blog, Raritania, and email him here.
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