Glorifying Terrorism, edited by Farah Mendlesohn
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
09 April 2007
"Terrorism does not necessarily express the true strength of the movement to which it claims to belong."
In the introduction to his recent book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Giles Kepel spends some time talking about terrorism. These general ruminations inform his more specific conclusion that Islamist terrorism signifies not the strength of its supporting ideology but its weakness, its historical failures. In a sense, the argument is a variation on the old saw that terrorism is the resort of the disenfranchised and marginalised, that such tactics are the only option open to those with much to begrudge but little to lose. Perhaps precisely because of the lowly, non-establishment nature of its inspiration and perpetrators, terrorism is often transformed by governors into an overexaggerated threat to society. It is demonised to almost laughable extremes.
Thus Glorifying Terrorism, edited by Farah Mendlesohn and published by Rackstraw Press. Primarily a counterblast to the British government's 2006 Terrorism Act, which saw the outlawing of the very act from which the volume takes its title, it is a collection of science fiction stories which each seek in their own way to engage with terrorism constructively, without the reactionary disapproval we have been encouraged to exhibit.
One of the book's stories, Kira Franz's "The Lion Waiting," tells with economy and empathy the tale of a sculptor, a creator, who becomes a force of destruction after suffering one too many ignominies. He becomes a sort of myth, a kind of allegory, to the generations he leaves behind. He becomes an inspiration, a glorified symbol of a person's ability to fight back despite a lack of armoury or traditional power. The children told this story will "remember only the glory of the lion." (p. 45) Just two and a half pages long, this story gets to the heart of the potency of terrorist action, cuts to the quick of what it is to glorify not just terrorism but, perhaps more accurately in this case, terrorists themselves.
Of course, ultimately terrorism is merely indiscriminate murder. Consequently, like Franz, most of the writers appearing in this collection take the easy way out and choose to glorify the terrorist rather than his method. James A. Trimarco's diverting "The Sundial Brigade," for instance, tells the story of Antonio Buccini, a street beggar in a future Florence. Earth has suffered climatic collapse, and has been "saved" by the descendants of humans who left the planet when things got bad and have returned now things are slightly better. In saving it, they have put the world into mothballs—created huge museums out of entire cities, and enforced a fascistic attention to period detail upon the populace. Antonio is stuck as a street beggar because he is told he must be, in order to maintain historical fidelity. Predictably, first his girlfriend and then his mother are arrested and literally disappeared for transgressions against their masters. Antonio therefore becomes one of what we quickly realise is, in Glorifying Terrorism, a long line of sympathetic coerced killers. Like Robert Neville in Matheson's I Am Legend, surely a terrorist from the perspective of the vampiric society he terrorises, the characters we meet in the collection seek to persuade us of their point of view and thus remind us that terrorism is something worth thinking carefully about.
In short, the stories in Glorifying Terrorism exist to extrapolate situations and futures in which their authors may justify and understand terrorist action. This is a laudable goal—all the singing very loudly and sticking one's fingers in one's ears in the world won't make terrorism or terrorists go away, and to pretend "terrorism," or even particular groups of terrorists, can be defeated or silenced is of course to fundamentally misunderstand the phenomenon. The writers in this collection do a good job of postulating a wide variety of terrorist motivations, which join together to underline the wider point that terrorism is a means, a method, rather than anything solid to be targeted and eradicated. Vylar Kaftan makes this point most successfully with a story in the "choose your own adventure" format. "Civilization" deposits the reader at the birth of a society and supplies them with choices to make. Of course, the choices all lead to the same end. Such is the cyclical nature of civilisation. Terrorism—and every other element of modern life—is to some extent inevitable, predictable, unavoidable. Glorifying Terrorism passionately articulates, then, the futility of a law banning the positive discussion of examples of an abstract noun.
The underlying problem that many of the collection's tales face, however, is that in some sense the sentiment behind that law, however clumsily expressed, is fairly defensible—terrorism cannot be glorified. It's a mucky, nasty business. The authors are therefore left with a choice between broad, ultimately empty, satire—Gwyneth Jones's stultifyingly obvious "2020: I AM AN ANARCHIST" (reality TV taken to revolting extremes!), for example, or Ken MacLeod's meaningless "MS Found On A Hard Drive" (everyone hates America, so it's OK!)—or stories which fail to live up to the collection's incendiary title and instead choose to Investigate Terrorism. One of the book's best stories by some margin, Rachel Swirsky's "The Debt of the Innocent," is a poetic, thoughtful exploration of the character of a conflicted terrorist in a resource-scarce future where the sick babies of rich parents with the right medical insurance can afford to stay on life support whilst those of poor parents are allowed to die. Yet for all its eloquence and explorations—perhaps because of them—it ultimately does not bring itself to glorify the actions of its principal character. One of the last lines of the story, spoken by the terrorist's daughter years after her action, is, "My mother was a monster." (p. 193)
Of course, the point of a book like this is not to do what it says on its tin, but rather ask questions. Pointedly, the twin questions to ask of the 2006 Terrorism Act are: what does "glorify" mean, and what signifies "terrorism"? The principle weakness of the Bill and the Act, as with all rushed legislation, is ambiguity and imprecision of language. Mendlesohn thus sets out to concoct a mixture of perspectives and approaches which will highlight the hopeless muddiness of the British government's diktat.
What the reader winds up with, unfortunately, are stories almost as woolly as their target. We get "Engaging the Idrl" by Davin Ireland, a sort of Orientalist fable in which a native people are treated with reverence and sympathy simply because they are other. Like too many of the stories in Glorifying Terrorism, Ireland's tale concludes that if only people stopped being mean to the terrorists then they'd quit blowing things up. We get Lavie Tidhar's South African horror, "Bophuthatswana," which although narrated from the clearly deranged vantage point of its violent narrator, casts Whites as vampires. We get a beautifully written poem from Suzette Haden Elgin, "What Can We See Now, Looking In The Glass," that is nevertheless a fairly simplistic rendering of a water-scarce future in which the rich sort of deserve to be attacked for being able to afford H2O; and we get Van Aaron Hughes's "Winning Friends," in which the "terrorists" are sexual predators with a highly contagious and entirely fatal STD, and our narrator becomes one of their number when someone else callously infects her.
There is only a finite virtue in asking questions when their premises rest on such soft foundations. It is a pity the stories Mendlesohn collects feel such a need to be so bald—M. Rickert's "Bread and Bombs" (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 2003), for instance, finds its power on this subject in its allusive quality rather than the hyperactive screeching of Hal Duncan's lamentable "The Last Straw," in which a terrorist afflicted with an horrifically leaden prose style seeks to destroy a series of clones of one of the UK's most prominent ministers. Indeed, most of these stories are too perfunctory or self-conscious to be successful as immersive science fictional entertainment (though there's an interesting variation on the far future clone soldier to be found in Elizabeth Sourbut's "How I Took Care Of My Pals," and in closing the volume Charles Stross succeeds where most of the collection's other satirists fail by imagining a simultaneously amusing and discomfiting future in which the inheritors of Tony Blair's Labour Party are driven underground by a far-right government, there to atone for their party's draconian sins in resistance). And so we are left with the stories' strengths as political and philosophical ruminations.
Take H.H. Løyche's epistolary "The Rural Kitchen," a tale which takes place over a period of ten years and sees civilisation collapse and return to pre-feudal bliss as a result of a terrorist attack on a volcano in the Canary Islands which precipitates massive climate change. "All respect to the dead," says our correspondent, "but thank you, dear terrorists, for lifting the burdens [of modern society] from our shoulders." (p. 232) This is a theme taken up by several of the collection's writers: Kathryn Allen, for instance, has her characters in "Count Me In" challenge our most basic assumptions, by letting them logically posit that modern society is too safe. "Without predators, human beings had no reason to band together, to watch each other's backs because there might be a lion hidden in the long grass, or a leopard up a tree." (p. 158) Terrorism, then, makes us love each other more.
In a sense, this is similar to the question repeatedly (and similarly redundantly, in the face of the Cylons' clinical slaughter of billions) asked in Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica series—why do we deserve to survive? What is so special about Western civilisation, Løyche and others ask, that means we should defend it against terrorists? It's a diverting question for philosophy freshmen, but morally bankrupt as a stated conclusion. Time and again, in their attempt to be provocative, the stories in Glorifying Terrorism merely come out muddled and ill-advised.
There are a couple of moments in Mendlesohn's own afterword which speak of this confusion. Trivially, she mistypes Joss Whedon's Firefly TV series as Serenity, the title of its movie spin-off. More crucially, she describes its main characters as terrorists. Whedon's characters are usefully described as terrorists in much the same way that the Bash Street Kids are usefully described as social revolutionaries. In fact, possibly less so—very much the point of the show's lead character, Malcolm Reynolds, is his total rejection of political action of any kind. Similarly, Mendlesohn offers the usual apologia for the Galactic Empire in George Lucas's Star Wars saga: Luke Skywalker and his rebel chums are terrorists because they destroy the Death Star, a government structure populated by innocent employees. If we truly must analyse the politics of so empty a movie saga, we would have to conclude that the Death Star was a military target, rather unlike the softer targets of most of the terrorists depicted in the collection's stories.
Of course, it's pretty unfair to pick on what is admittedly an afterword trying to have a bit of fun. At the same time, however, there is indistinct thinking throughout Glorifying Terrorism, and this lack of incision, of care, is its fatal weakness, both as literary entertainment and political broadside. Laudable as its aim is, and hopeless as the Terrorism Act may be, it is not enough to poke one's tongue out at authority. It's better to make a clever riposte. The hectoring hysteria of the official reaction to what is after all only the latest incarnation of a political tactic, one which has been with us in its modern form since the nineteenth century, deserves to be mocked and derided. But hurried and uncertain stories are neither enjoyable to read nor convincing in their arguments. If glorifying terrorism makes for bad law, it also makes for decidedly anaemic fiction.