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Science Fiction, Cool War and Civil War

Science fiction – or more accurately, speculative fiction –  has a rich tradition of exploring What if... scenarios, exploring alternative paths of important historical events, asking questions such as, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” or “What if America had lost World War II?”

Just a few of the multitude of novels diving into divergent paths for the American Civil War include Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. The recent, best-selling Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters posits that the Civil War never happened and slavery persists in regions of America. Even politician Newt Gingrich has written in this genre: his novel Gettysburg, co-written with William R. Forstchen, explores how history might have unfolded if the Confederacy had won this crucial battle. In a more outlandish speculation, William Forstchen’s Lost Regiment series, beginning with Rally Cry, envisions a Civil War era Union regiment transported through time and space to an alien world.

But science fiction more often projects into the future. Something deeply human keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow’s dangers. Several recent novels have foreshadowed a possible – and plausible – hot phase of the recurring American Civil War. I’ve written extensively about what I view as ongoing Phases of our American Civil War; luckily most segments of this persistent animosity have been tepid or cool, though the 1860s fever was near devastating. Indeed, I fear, with current tensions, the possibility that something could go volcanic. This was portrayed – in retrospect – by my post-apocalyptic novel The Postman, which has been receiving a surge of attention lately, for its depiction of “holnists” whose rationalizations sound very much like those of Steve Bannon.

One novel I’ve touted lately is Tears of Abraham, by Sean T Smith, which chillingly takes you toward a disturbingly hot second Civil War, a deadly struggle of countryman against countryman. What would happen if the U.S. split apart into warring states — set off by a far-reaching conspiracy? A president who declares martial law as states take steps toward secession. This page turner offers vivid, believable action and characters, along with sober, thoughtful insights into what it may mean — when the chips are down — to be an American. What divides us… and what unites us?

This seems particularly relevant considering the deep divides across America during the election cycle of 2016, where Red States and Blue States were more bifurcated than ever, seemingly unable to fully comprehend the opinions and problems of their own neighbors.

220px-TheCoolWarAnother science fiction vision that came to mind, given evidence of recent efforts by foreign powers to sabotage our democracy and economy, is The Cool War, published by science fiction master Frederik Pohl back in 1981. This tale portrays ongoing slow-simmering international tensions, a series of shadow wars where rival countries seek to sabotage the economy and markets of their enemies — and allies. In fact, I deem no novel to be of more immediate pertinence to any member of our defense and intelligence communities.

Wars, cool, cold or hot? David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Affairs, distinguishes them, commenting, “The purpose of the Cold War was to gain an advantage come the next hot war or, possibly, to forestall it. The purpose of Cool War is to be able to strike out constantly without triggering hot war, while making hot wars less desirable (much as did nuclear technology during the Cold War days) or even necessary.”

51YXFeqOcQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a similar vein, the near-future thriller Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole envisions a revived Cold War, with rising tensions between the United States, China and Russia. An all-too believable war played out not just on land and sea, but also in space and cyberspace.

Returning to parallel universes, Philip K. Dick’s alternate history of World War II,  The Man in the High Castle — follows a scenario where the Nazis have won the war; it has been vividly adapted in the recent television series of the same name by Amazon. I’ve also explored that dark aftermath where the Nazis won World War II in my graphic novel, The Life Eaters. Connie Willis has revisited World War II in her novel, Blackout. Three time travelers find themselves stranded in London during the Blitz, facing air raids and bombing raids.

Another book just hitting the shelves –  American War by Omar El Akkad – is a dystopian novel about a Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074. The United States has been largely undone by devastating ecological collapse, a presidential assassination, the onset of a virulent plague arising from a weaponized virus, and a militantly divided North and South. The novel vividly portrays a doomed country wracked by vicious guerrilla raids, refugee camps interning displaced citizens, accompanied by relentless violence and death.

Whew! One can only hope that dark visions from these nightmarish scenarios might serve as self-preventing prophecies — much as George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 girded many to fight against the rise of any possible Big Brother to their last breath. Can we resist the divisions that threaten our country?

Indeed, our civilization’s ultimate success may depend on our foresight — perceiving potential problems we are able to navigate, mistakes we manage to avoid. Science fiction has often served to shine a light to reveal possible — and catastrophic — pitfalls in our shared future.

Warnings we would be wise to heed… and wounds we would be wise to heal.

 

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Science Fiction Speculations

In contemplating the future, few authors attempt such a long-range view as the great Olaf Stapledon:

51pqceovipl-_sx322_bo1204203200_“To romance of the future may seem to be indulgence in ungoverned speculation for the sake of the marvelous. Yet controlled imagination in this sphere can be a very valuable exercise for minds bewildered about the present and its potentialities. Today we should welcome and even study, every serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarize ourselves with the more developed minds. To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values.” — so wrote Olaf Stapledon in 1930, in his classic novel, Last and First Men, an extensive reflection on the distant destiny of mankind.  Stapledon’s extrapolation extends over billions of years, charting the ups and downs, the highs and lows of civilization.

Another classic book that looked at the long term fate of humanity:

51prgnm2ool-_sx323_bo1204203200_“Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.” Walter Tevis vividly explored issues of privacy and literacy in his classic 1980 novel, Mockingbird. With the memorable android, Spofforth, who has lived for centuries and longs to end his life… an act his programming will not allow. In this dire future, our human descendants live in a drugged state; they have lost the ability to read or think critically and the race is slowly dying. One man rediscovers the capacity to read… and works to regain a different future for mankind. Mockingbird is a profound reflection on the importance of reading to maintaining a civilized, thinking society.

Of course, no one dealt with the scale of human destiny better than Isaac Asimov, in his wondrous Foundation series.

I have written elsewhere that Science Fiction is the branch of literature that contemplates the possibility of defying Fate… a fate that is not predetermined, but negotiable.

== Brief looks at recent Sci Fi novels ==

516n0gjbul-_sx328_bo1204203200_Death’s End: Cixin Liu’s latest novel wraps up his excellent Three Body trilogy, which began with the Hugo Award winning The Three Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu). This bold novel expands into realms of physics and philosophy, picking up the tale of human destiny half a century after the epic Doomsday Battle with the Trisolaran alien invaders. Explaining his most recent work, Cixin Liu writes, “I put in the idea of altering the natural laws of the universe in interstellar warfare, and consequently, the universe and its laws are seen as the leftover mess from a feast of the gods, a strange universe in which the Solar System falls into ruin in a morbid, poetic manner…”  To sample Death’s End, read a selection on Tor’s website. 

dark-matter-blake-crouch Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. This New York Times bestseller offers a tense, tightly wound thriller that explores the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics. Jason Dessen abandoned a high-profile research career to take up a quiet life with his wife and son, working as a physics professor at a small college. Mugged while out on an evening walk, he wakes up in a new thread of reality and sees where his life might have gone, the paths not taken. For in this world, he is an award-winning quantum physicist at a secret research facility, where he has discovered a way to superimpose quantum states … and he wants desperately to return to his old life. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one…

blue-remembered-earth-reynolds Blue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds, offers a near-utopia set in a post-catastrophe future where Africa has become the reigning economic, political and technological superpower. Humans have established thriving colonies from the moon to Mars and Titan. An omnipresent surveillance system, the Mechanism, maintains peace throughout the system. The story follows the descendants of Eunice Akinya, who established a sprawling family mining empire that stretches to the asteroid and Kuiper belts. After her death, a historic artifact discovered on Luna sets Eunice’s grandchildren off on a journey through the solar system in search of answers that could affect the destiny of humanity. Reynolds, former scientist at the ESA, presents a believable vision for a future forged in space.

51iof9vkbpl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Winner of the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature, Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, offers a vivid long-scale look at human destiny. The crew of the starship Brin 2, led by scientist Avrana Kern set off on a terraforming expedition to a distant planet, to establish a future home for humanity. But… the act of a saboteur destroys the ship. Kern escapes in a cryosleep pod after launching planetward a pod of monkeys and an ‘uplift’ nanovirus – which inadvertently finds a home among the invertebrates of Kern’s World, increasing their intelligence (and complexity of their social web) generation by generation. Meanwhile, centuries of war and plague have rendered homeworld Earth uninhabitable, and the last survivors follow ancient celestial maps to reach worlds terraformed by their distant ancestors. They arrive to find that their anticipated new home is not quite what they had anticipated… A compelling read!

51hxpmxb3gl-_sx322_bo1204203200_How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu This book is a few years old, but imaginative, witty and great fun. Time travel is not only possible, but fairly mundane in Minor Universe 31. Things do go wrong, and that’s where social misfit and time machine repairman Charles Yu steps in, to resolve paradoxes and save people who decide to change the past, perhaps by trying to murder their own grandfather. While seeking to find his own father, who is lost somewhere in time, Yu enters a perennial time loop. To exit, he must seek clues by reading (while also writing) a book his future self wrote, titled, How to live safely in a science fictional universe.

51xprzsviol-_sx326_bo1204203200_A fun book for Young Adult readers: Mad Science Institute, by Sechin Tower offers up a teenage girl genius who loves inventing robots and electronic devices. But Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck’s science projects have a way of going awry, setting off frequent explosions and the occasional fire. When she is admitted into the secretive Mechanical Science Institute (founded by Nikola Tesla), she uncovers a conspiracy of evildoers who want to use the institute’s science for nefarious purposes. Sophia teams up with her older cousin, Dean, to unravel these mysteries and prevent an imminent doomsday.

Finally…

Science fiction’s job is not to predict, but to explore possible tomorrows. But here’s an infographic showing 25 plausible future techs that will change daily life and that were predicted by science fiction.  And see seven ways Science fiction predicted the future.  A short list and some are better than others. But he does list John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar which forecast in 2010 a “President Obomi.”

 

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