Posts Tagged ‘lavie tidhar’
Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction has upon each other.
The human race is the smartest life form on the plant Earth. To some that statement is simple fact and to others it sounds incredibly arrogant. Yet no one can deny the progress we’ve made scientifically in the last few centuries and with breakthrough technologies emerging quicker and quicker, very few claim to know where we are going.
However I claim to know where we should go and that place is outer space. So much of our science fiction draws upon the possibilities of what we could find beyond our own atmosphere. For example in Escape Pod 309: The Insurance Agent a significant portion of humanity had come to believe that intelligence beings come from somewhere other than Earth to embody the influential members of the human race such as Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Jean D’arc, Elvis, and Madonna.
Whatever you might personally believe about this theory the possibility of extraterrestrial life is not completely unprovable. For example, astronomers have discovered a quasar which is producing water which as we known is one of the major requirements for life as we know it. The quasar has in fact produced 140 trillion times more water than all that could be collected from the Earth. Of course this quasar is an estimated 12 billion light years away (about 30 billion trillion miles, not that means anything to the average person) so it is unlikely we will ever reach it without inventing or discovering some kind of faster than light travel, which is impossible according to our current understanding of physics. Or is it?
Scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research have released findings showing neutrinos, subatomic particles that make up an atom, that move faster than the speed of light. Their findings are now being rigorously studied for possible faults since it would begin a re-write of some of the fundamental theories of physics. Yet another example of how science slowly and methodically changes its view points in order to build a better understanding the universe. The human race, however, is not typically so methodic.
In The Insurance Agent, it is explained that the Alien Theory of Spiritual Beings, as it is called, is a concept that goes in and out of vogue. This is understandable when you compare this to the conclusions found by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Their studies show that if only ten percent of a population holds an unshakable belief, that said belief will end up being adopted by the majority of society. Even more interestingly, these beliefs, once they reach the critical ten percent threshold, tend to spread quickly. The best examples being the overthrowing of decade long dictatorships. Fundamentally most people don’t like to hold an unpopular opinion except, as a popular meme tells us, for haters, who have to hate.
Science fiction I think is an imperfect example of an unshakable belief. For years we have continued to write science fiction about space exploration and with each passing year, we understand and find more and more about the sky above us. The ideas put forth by our stories and their adoption by readers could be the ten percent needed to inspire the next young scientist to test if Lady Gaga is really an alien or not.
It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen. – Muhammad Ali
The Insurance Agent
By Lavie Tidhar
The bar was packed and everyone was watching the Nixon-Reagan match. The fighters were reflected off the bar’s grainy wood countertop and the tables’ gleaming surfaces and seemed to melt as they flickered down the legs of the scattered chairs. The bar was called the Godhead, which had a lot to do with why I was there. It was a bit of an unfair fight as Reagan was young, pre-presidency, circa-World War Two, while Nixon was heavy-set, older: people were exchanging odds and betting with the bar’s internal gaming system and the general opinion seemed to be that though Reagan was in better shape Nixon was meaner.
I wasn’t there for the match.
The Godhead was on Pulau Sepanggar, one of the satellite islands off Borneo, hence nominally under Malaysian federal authority but in practice in a free zone that had stronger ties to the Brunei Sultanate. It was a convenient place to meet, providing easy access to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and, of course, Singapore, which resented the island’s role as a growing business centre yet found it useful at the same time.
She wore a smart business suit and a smart communication system that looked like what it was, which was a custom-made gold bracelet on her left arm. She wore smart shades and I was taking a bet that she wasn’t watching the fight. She was drinking a generic Cola but there was nothing generic about her. I slid into a chair beside her and waited for her shades to turn transparent and notice me.
‘Drink, Mr. Turner?’
It’s been about ten years since Al Qaeda operatives flew jets into three U.S. buildings (and were thwarted before they could hit a fourth). In that time we’ve all suffered the effects, which is to say: a couple of wars, a lot of political punditry, the unfortunate rise of Sean Hannity, and the end of flying for fun thanks to security theater (at least, in the U.S., where I live). I think it’s safe to say that most people wish the bombings had been nothing but a story, a book they could read and then put down again.
In Lavie Tidhar’s new novel Osama, that’s exactly the world the characters inhabit.
Osama is the story of Joe, a private detective residing in Vientaine (in Laos), who is commissioned by a mysterious woman to find a man named Mike Longshott. What makes Longshott special is this: he is the author of a series of pulp novels entitled Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. With a nearly unlimited line of credit, courtesy of his employer, Joe travels to Paris, London, and elsewhere in search of the mysterious author, only to find his way blocked by false leads and government agents who kick the crap out of him.
Despite being a short novel — under 300 pages — it took me a while to finish the book because it just didn’t draw me in. I’m usually a fan of alternate history — both in short and long form, from Pullman to Turtledove and beyond — but my issue with Osama was that, while a Turtledove novel (for example) will pick a single point in history to change, I was never really sure what was different about Osama — or, even, when it took place. If the book shows a world where Bin Laden didn’t commit or mastermind terrorist acts, then I clearly don’t know enough about the history and impact of the man, pre 9/11, to comprehend what might have changed because he didn’t exist. That was a major sticking point for me while reading the novel, and someone better versed in recent history might not have that problem*.
Osama did have a lot of rich scenery — Tidhar is a well-traveled writer who has lived in many locations worldwide, and as such he has a wealth of experience to draw on in creating an Osama-free world. He also changed enough about that world that, if it was supposed to be contemporary to our own, readers are forced to wonder just how much technological advancement was driven by terrorism (or violence in general). The big difference was that no one used computers. And, as for air travel, things were very different in Joe’s world: he is still allowed to smoke on airplanes, non-first-class passengers get meals, and if there is any airport security to speak of, I completely missed it.
I generally read books for enjoyment, not enrichment — although I don’t mind being required to think or project my knowledge to get the full benefit of a book. However, I think that, to enjoy (or even fully appreciate) Osama, readers have to engage far more critical thinking skills than I really felt was necessary. I had to fill in too many expository gaps and I’m not even sure I did that correctly. While well-written, the story, though straightforward, didn’t keep me as interested and engaged as I think it could have done.
You may enjoy this book, especially if you like alternate history or are a student of (or commentator upon) current events. But it wasn’t the book for me.
Special thanks to the author for providing a review copy.
Note to parents: this book contains violence and adult subject matter. Plus, if younger readers don’t have more than just a passing familiarity with terrorist acts beyond 9/11, they may find themselves lost. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.
* The first time I was truly exposed to the name Osama Bin Laden was the morning of 9/11 — I was working on a morning radio show and we saw the video of the first tower just after the first plane hit it. The host, a Lebanese-American, took one look and (off-air) said “Osama Bin Laden”.