Tag Archives: Mutually Assured Destruction

Pohl’s Jem may not be a “gem” but is still worth a look

jemIn various profiles of Frederick Pohl, I have more than once seen Jem (1979) listed as one of his best and most important novels. After giving it a read I can see why it’s considered “important,” but I haven’t read enough of his work (at the time of this writing) to know if it’s really one of his “best” or not. This is a book packed with very pointed comments about politics, power, greed, war, imperialism, and the uglier side of humanity in general, and for that it deserves its due. From a storytelling standpoint, however, it’s not quite as successful. Certain elements of plot and character are unconvincing or out of place, making immersion in this fictional world more difficult. Nevertheless, it’s still a worthy investment of reading time.

The story is set in a near future in which the nations of Earth have arranged themselves into three large-scale alliances: the Food Bloc, the Fuel Bloc, and the People Bloc. The three entities exist in essentially Cold War conditions, with minor skirmishes here and there, but managing to avoid any major wars through the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. That’s Earth, one of the story’s two locations; the other is a newly discovered planet, Jem, that happens to be habitable by humans. The three Blocs send their own separate expeditions to this new world to investigate its lifeforms, resources, and colonization potential. Officially they are bound by treaty to cooperate and share information; but the reality is far different, as each camp races for advantage and domination of Jem for its own benefit.

This race to exploit a new world isn’t hindered in the slightest by the discovery that Jem has its own indigenous intelligent life, three species in fact. Although sentient, these natives of Jem are primitive, and thus in no position to put up a fight against the invading humans, most of whom never even question the moral implications of what they’re doing. The Jemman natives are seen as a resource to be used and profited from, nothing more. One of the main movers and shakers behind the Food Bloc expedition describes one of the Jemmans’ expected roles:

“For openers, Dr. Ravenel, I’d like to see your people create some trade goods. For all three races. They’re all going to be our customers one of these days.”

This shot at unrestrained commercialism brings back fond memories of Pohl’s classic, The Space Merchants, which tackles the same problem much more thoroughly.

But the Jemmans are seen not only as future consumers, but also as recruits in the humans’ ever escalating series of conflicts. They are manipulated and pitted against each other as the alien invaders become more and more open and brash in their machinations. Finally, the situation devolves into all-out war, and not only on Jem:

The world she had left was blowing itself up, and the world she had come to seemed determined to do the same.

What happens in the end — annihilation or survival? — I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.

What I really like about this book is Pohl’s sense of political reality, his no-holds-barred skewering of our species’ arrogance, and his ability to illuminate deeply fundamental human flaws very simply, often in a single sentence, such as this one that brings to mind Orwell’s “more equal than others” line:

“But learning to live together doesn’t mean that some people can’t live a little better than others.”

The main problem I have with the book is that it can’t quite decide if it wants to be a serious straightforward novel, or if it wants to be satire. For the most part it comes across as serious. But then there are certain situations and events that could have come right out of a Robert Sheckley story. For instance, during one camp’s first contact with an intelligent Jemman species, one member tries to communicate, while another, with no apparent sense of incongruity, starts shooting them to collect specimens! This equivocation between the serious and the satirical lessens the novel’s impact, I feel. Also, some of the characters feel less like real human beings, and more like caricatures of various personality types; and there is little progression or change in them over the course of the story.

Even with those flaws, though, Jem still has a lot to say and is worth reading.

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The world ends with a heavy dose of satire

I can’t remember ever reading a novel with such a serious message, presented in such a humorous way, and layered with so much satire you could cut it with a knife. This Is the Way the World Ends is James Morrow’s 1986 apocalyptic warning about the dangers of nuclear arsenals and the philosophy of “mutually assured destruction.” It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read; and if you ask me if I mean that in a positive or a negative way, I’ll probably say “both,” but definitely more to the positive side. Let’s just say this book was…. different.

The basic plot outline is that nuclear brinksmanship goes one step too far, and America and Russia unleash their nuclear weapons and the human species is destroyed. With the exception of six survivors who are put on trial for crimes against humanity. Put on trial by whom, you may ask? By the Unadmitted — the ghosts of people who would have existed in the future had there been no nuclear war. Much like Ebenezer Scrooge facing the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future, the six survivors must face the Unadmitted from the future, as well as representatives from the past, who are rather pissed off that all their work in building history was just a waste of time if the species was going to commit suicide. Given the presence of ghosts (as well as the inclusion of Nostradamus and his future-predicting ability), it might be better to use the term “speculative fiction” here. Although the novel has the biting social commentary of the best science fiction, it also has a foot (or several) in allegorical fantasy. It seems like the strangest books are always the ones that are hard to pin down to a single genre. But even if ghosts, spirits, or other supernatural elements aren’t your cup of tea (they certainly aren’t mine), I can still recommend this book as a worthy claim on your reading time. Even if absurdity abounds, there is also a great deal of serious reflection on the human condition, and Morrow’s writing style is first-class.

There is plenty of satirical roasting to go around, with targets such as nuclear strategy, the military mindset, the ability of diplomats to achieve nothing and then spin it as a victory, and the willingness of a population to accept the bad and dangerous decisions of its leaders. It is that last item which just may be the worst, Morrow seems to suggest. The core of the novel is the trial of the six survivors for humanity’s extinction. Four of them are politicians, scientists, or military men who had some actual relation to the design or deployment of nuclear weapons. The fifth is a famous television evangelist who supports a strong U.S. nuclear capability. But the sixth, a simple gravestone inscriber, is on trial for the complicity of average citizens in going along with the madness of their leaders. The prosecutor’s closing argument is very good, and this piece of it seems to go to the very heart of what Morrow wants the novel to say:

And then, one cold Christmas season, death came to an admirable species — a species that wrote symphonies and sired Leonardo da Vinci and would have gone to the stars. It did not have to be this way. Three virtues only were needed — creative diplomacy, technical ingenuity, and moral outrage. But the greatest of these is moral outrage.

[….]

And it is the world of George Paxton, citizen, perhaps the most guilty of all. Every night, this man went to bed knowing that the human race was pointing nuclear weapons at itself. Every morning, he woke up knowing that the weapons were still there. And yet he never took a single step to relieve the threat.

There are quite a few of these very serious, very moving passages throughout the book, illustrating the tragedy (or tragicomedy) of human nature. Another example that really struck me:

The human mind could accomodate anything. Some parents beat their children. Auschwitz. Sundeath. It’s just blood, the mind said. It’s only pain. It’s merely putting people into ovens. It’s simply the end of the world….

But the book is rich with humor too, sometimes enough to make you laugh out loud. For example:

“What else do you forsee?”
“Myself. Writing a large book.” Nostradamus wove his crow quill through the air. “One hundred prophecies, in ill-phrased and leaden verse. Gibberish, every last line, but the mob will love them.” [….]
“If your book will be gibberish, why write it?”
“Fun and profit.”

Morrow’s novel is definitely not gibberish, but is is fun, and also profitable in the social commentary department. Make sure you try it before the world ends.