[G here! Well, Phil is back with another piece of sci-fi, and this one’s a novel; so I’m going to limit my remarks to the basics. Generally we’re looking at the question of, “Is fiction real and, if so, to what extent?” Some of you might want to answer, “To no extent,” and leave it at that. And certainly that’s true in a sense; fiction is not fact; but that’s not the whole story. Fiction can tell us about events that aren’t happening, but might well; about popular delusions that recur from time to time; or plagues, wars and economic collapses; or witch crazes and torture; or other things of that ilk. History also does that, but who reads history?  

Our media are very lazy, or credulous, or both, and often mistake fiction for truth. I’m not talking about the occasional news report that accuses an individual, or group, of some wrongdoing, only to find that the underlying story is unsubstantiated. That happens, and sometimes the mistakes are corrected.

No, I’m talking about people in our popular culture who really believe the movies they see or the shows they watch. Do you want a case in point? Well, recently I heard a commentator on NPR opine that Americans knew our Government tortured people, because Hollywood had made movies and a hit TV series about it. What’s the principle at work here? Is it that fiction and fact are the same thing? If so, should we get our religion by reading the Bible [or another holy book] or by watching a movie? Should we learn physics by watching Gravity [the movie], or by studying science and math? Do we take the easy way, or the harder one?

Frankly I don’t think Hollywood scriptwriters are geniuses, sent by a greater power to instruct us in life, the universe and everything. I think they’re a bunch of guys, turning out words to make a product that sells, Nothing more; nothing less. And where do the words come from? From a bottle, or a pill, or gossip, the subconscious mind, another writer, or whatever? Who knows? From books? Probably not.

Perhaps the deference so-called educated people show today to movies and TV harks back in some strange way to the counterculture of the 1960’s. Do you remember Ken Kesey, a guru of that time? He was a writer, and he’s the one who said “To hell with facts! We need stories! [1]” Do our media and other notables still march to this odd tune? Tell the stories, Make up the facts? Once I thought Kesey’s fans lived in comic book stores, or on college faculties, but nowhere else. Today they seem to be everywhere!

With that cautionary note, let’s go to Phil’s exegesis on a long forgotten sci-fi novel. Phil?]

Thanks, I think. As you know, my sci-fi essays so far have focused on stuff produced in the early 1950’s. This time I’m moving up a bit, to a novel published in 1979. It’s called A War of Shadows and it’s by Jack Chalker.[2] I am one of the people who think it raises questions that resonate today. Others say it’s outdated trash. You be the judge.

The novel is sci-fi, in that it deals with a possible future. How do I know that? From the context. Jimmy Carter was President in 1979, but he’s not mentioned anywhere in the book. Instead there’s another President, by the name of Wainwright[3], who figures importantly at the denouement of the story. There was, and is, no President Wainwright in our collective past, so the author must have been thinking about the future

On the other hand, the future Chalker portrays looks a lot like 1979. Marijuana is still illegal; there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as gay marriage (or sex, for that matter); there are unreconstructed hippie revolutionaries, left over from the 1960’s, who are [still] looking for a revolution; computers are much in evidence, but only as devices available to the Government; and there aren’t any flying automobiles, regular tourist trips to the moon or Mars, or other things of that sort that people back then thought might come in the early 21st Century. So I’m thinking Chalker had in mind a future set sometime in the late 1980’s or the 1990’s.

Anyway, his book opens with an outbreak of disease. Everybody in the little town of Cornwall, Nebraska is mysteriously paralyzed or struck dead by an agent or agents unknown.[4] The Government is notified almost immediately. Why the quick reaction? It turns out that there have been a series of outbreaks in the country, all of them different, but following the same general pattern.

[Different? The same pattern? Explain, please?]

Well, they’re similar in that they occur in isolated locations, happen suddenly, and there’s no known cause or disease agent; they’re different in that the symptoms vary from outbreak to outbreak. But the net effect is the same; people sicken, many die, and the rest probably don’t recover.

The press knows about the outbreaks, of course, and has lots of questions. Since nobody on the Government side has good answers, there’s lots of speculation in the media, about flying saucers, etc. It’s at this point that a Dr. Sandra O’Connell makes her appearance…[5] She’s a bureaucrat on the medical side of the investigation, looking for the cause of what’s going on.[6] Then there’s another outbreak; people have lost their memories in a little town of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The outbreak is close by, so Dr. O’Connell decides to go there, in person, with the rest of the team.[7]

It’s there she meets a shadowy figure from the FBI, a Chief Inspector Jacob Edelman, who’s investigating the outbreaks.[8] He’s thinks they could be trial runs for a disease someone has invented and intends to deploy; probably against the U.S.[9] [Edelman is the FBI’s point man on counterespionage.]  Dr. O’Connell rejects the notion as “monstrous” Edelman says he’ll be back in touch.

Guess what happens next? Simply put, persons unknown – actually agents of the FBI – intercept and neutralize a heavily armed party of several people in eastern California. In addition to their armament, the hostiles also possessed several mysterious blue cylinders, one of which had been opened. Edelman arranges for the cylinders to be shipped back to O’Connell’s group, and the classified lab they use at Ft. Detrick, MD.[10]

Anyway, the plot picks up after that. A key person at Ft. Detrick thinks he has found the key to the mysterious cylinders and their contents, but is murdered before he can say more.[11] This is especially odd; Ft Detrick is a military reservation, and access to the medical facility in question is severely limited. O’Connell and a friend follow up, discover that the active agent in the blue cylinders may have been developed by our Government, and are kidnapped.[12] The friend disappears forever. O’Connell is drugged, spirited off to a mental hospital in Upstate NY, and maintained there in a drugged state for some time.[13] Eventually she escapes, still drugged, makes her way to Western NY State, is raped, and finally reaches a safe harbor in Canada.[14]

This is good, except that the Canadians release her to a bona fide FBI agent who, it turns out, is on the side of the kidnappers. It seems not all FBI people work for Edelman; some prefer the conspiracy. Eventually, however, Edelman’s people track down O’Connell and her captors, terminate the latter with prejudice, and rescue her.[15]

At the same time Edelman’s group investigates the people who actually deploy the blue cylinders and use them. The ones intercepted in Eastern California, for example, were in fact former terrorists from the 1960’s, recruited by a mysterious group, ostensibly to foment a new, leftist revolution. Edelman succeeds in placing spies in that group to track the terrorists.[16] But who and what are really behind the conspiracy?

Well, Edelman finds out, but not in a way you might expect. It seems that, during the crises generated by the epidemic, the Wainwright Administration persuaded our Congress to change U.S. laws to curtail, or eliminate a lot of rights that you and I might ordinarily think our Constitution protects.

[That sounds familiar.]

This gave Edelman the authority to kidnap a senior bureaucrat, actually a Special Assistant to the President, to find out what was going on and if the President was involved. The people who kidnapped the Special Assistant told him:

And yes we do have the right [to pick you up]. You gave it to us. You and whatever others that are involved in this. Preemptory arrest of citizens whenever an officer believes there is cause, suspension of habeas corpus, suspension of civil rights. Yes…[w]e do have the right. And thanks to directives coming out of your office, and those of the Justice Department, we may use any and all means of questioning, if it is in the interest of internal security. My boss thinks you’re a traitor…That gives me the right to break any damned little bone in your body, stuff you with any and all mind probes, drugs and other devices, and do whatever I feel like to get the truth.[17]

The villain, of course, collapses and immediately confesses. The whole point of the terror attacks, perpetrated by leftist dupes, is to terrify the American people. If they’re fearful enough, they’ll give up all their rights, and let the Government clamp down even more; President Wainwright is at the heart of the conspiracy; he and the chief conspirators are going to meet very soon, right there in Washington, D.C., to go to the final stage of their plot.

At the end Edelman has a lot of information and that gives him power. But the conspirators also remain quite powerful, and can be troublesome to him. So he goes to a meeting of the major conspirators and suggests a way out of their mutual predicament. If they’ll abandon the next steps in their plan, he’ll act as if he knows nothing. The novel ends without a resolution.[18]

[That’s not very satisfying; the author leaves us up in the air. But you know, the story is a good fit for our purposes. It’s definitely a paranoid romp; lots of plots, subplots and mysterious forces at work. The facts of the story are true, because the author makes them that way. That’s his prerogative in fiction. But really the whole thing is unlikely; too many moving parts and people who have to keep secrets; recent experience demonstrate that important secrets tend to leak. So even if the story were updated to today, I don’t think people today would take it too seriously.

And, of course, the story hasn’t been updated. It describes a future that probably ran into the early 1990’s; that hypothetical future is now past; and none of the events depicted actually happened! There wasn’t a President Wainwright; we didn’t have a series of epidemics in the 1980’s or the 90’s, and we weren’t attacked by unreconstructed hippies armed with bioweapons. And there’s no evidence our Government plotted against us back then any more than usual. Even the most dedicated paranoid would have a hard time confusing this book from 1979 with reality!]

Don’t be too sure about that! Anyone with a sense of humor probably could start something today with this novel. Just plant some rumors in the social media. You know, that there really was a big crisis back in 1979 – 1980, but it was hidden from the rest of us. There were epidemics; they just weren’t reported. Important people in and out of the Government were involved. Obviously the author didn’t want to implicate current or future Presidents, so he used the name “Wainwright” instead.

Even today we’re not sure who “Wainwright” really was. Was he Jimmy Carter, or possibly the new guy on the horizon, Ronald Reagan? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter; they were both powerful, and their successors should be feared. And don’t talk to me about lack of proof! There was a cover-up, after all, and it was effective. How so? The simple lack of evidence demonstrates that. Only a large and organized foe could destroy or hide so much information.

With that story line established, all a jokester needs to do is produce some blue cylinders. First there would be the rumors; one is found in Oklahoma, another in Nebraska, but both disappear. More paranoia. Then, when public enthusiasm begins to lag, it will be time to find some physical evidence. How much can steel cylinders and blue paint really cost?

[All right, I take your point. These days the social media sell lots of things and positions to the public. Agitators can turn out a riot pretty quick, with just a few text messages; and no doubt other bright and motivated people are working hard to expand, by text and talk, into new criminality. Who knows where it will end?

But let’s move on to the one part of Shadows that actually cheered me up. I kind of liked the idea that a Senior Assistant to the President, who oversaw a program to eliminate our rights under the 1st, 4th and 5th Amendments, among others, was himself crushed by a police interrogation authorized by his own program. What’s the chance that kind of thing might really happen?]

You mean here? In this country? Anything is possible, I suppose. But I doubt such a thing would affect the powerful for very long. The power-hungry are always with us, and are always angling for more. As Thomas Hobbes said, all mankind has a “…perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”[19]  And, in the words of Edmund Burke, people who receive “any kind of emolument from it [power], even though for but one year, can never willingly abandon it.”[20] This, I think, includes all forms of power, political, military and, of course, financial.  Everybody knows “[m]oney is power.”[21]

So billionaires and demagogues may come and go, but I don’t see any general trend on their part to return power to the people, once it’s lost.

[I take your point, but I don’t like it, and I’m beginning to understand Ken Kesey a little better. In this one case, I’d rather you dispensed with history.  To hell with your facts; let’s have a better story, with a happy ending!]

[1] You can find this in Brainy Quote, at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/k/ken_kesey.html . For a biography of Kesey, check out Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Kesey .   If you want to read an interview in the Paris Review, go to Ken Kesey, The Art of Fiction,  at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1830/the-art-of-fiction-no-136-ken-kesey

[2] See Chalker, Jack L., A War of Shadows (Ace, 1979, 1984). Note: we have the paperback edition here at the Zoo, so that’s what we’re citing, and we’ll cite it as Shadows at __.

[3] See Shadows at p. 48.

[4] See Shadows at p. 1-6.

[5] See Shadows at Ch. 2.

[6] Actually, she’s the “coordinator for the National Disease Control Center Action Teams.” See Shadows at p. 28.

[7] See Shadows at Ch. 3.

[8] See Shadows at 27-29.

[9] See Shadows at 28-29. “Suppose you invented something – a disease, a chemical, who knows what?-that could in theory wipe out everybody’s memory on a massive sale … Now the brain’s a pretty complicated place, and you can only do so much with animals, so you start guessing. You hit the wrong [brain] centers the first few times out. Then you get lucky – you hit a nice reaction that does exactly what you wanted … maybe more”

[10] See Shadows at Ch. 4.

[11] See Shadows at Ch. 6.

[12] See Shadows at Ch. 10.

[13] See Shadows at Ch. 12

[14] See Shadows at Ch. 18.

[15] See Shadows at Ch. 23, 25.

[16] See Shadows at Ch. 24, 26.

[17] See Shadows at p. 287.

[18] See Shadows at p. 300 – 314.

[19] He next three quotes are taken from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition) (Oxford, 2004), which we will cite as ODQ at ___. See ODQ at Thomas Hobbes, p. 390, n. 12.

[20] See ODQ at Edmund Burke, p. 166, n. 3.

[21] See ODQ at Proverbs, p. 626, n. 2.