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More Books… And I’m One-Fifth Done

A week ago I finished book #10 of the fifty (minimum) I have planned to review this Lunar Year. Books #8 and #9 have been waiting a while, so I’m going to post a short review of all three here and get back to my reading.

Book #8: Houston, Houston, Do You Read? (by James Tiptree, Jr.)/Souls (by Joanna Russ).

Book #9: Science Fiction: The Best of 2002 edited by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber.

Book #10: The Clash of Civilizations And The Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington.

Since these books are pretty much unrelated, I’ll examine each of them individually.

Book #8: Houston, Houston, Do You Read? (by James Tiptree, Jr.)/Souls (by Joanna Russ). (Get it here for $3! Or for even less, here.)

This book is a bit of a historical oddity, a Tor Double. If you’ve never seen one before, you might find it strange. The front of the book is… well, there’s no back, properly speaking, only two fronts. One cover is the front of one novella, and the other cover is the front of the other. It was a cool little idea Tor had that allowed for the publishing of novellas which might otherwise not make it into book form.

The Tor Doubles were relatively cheap, a convenient way to sample unfamiliar authors, and a great idea. Too bad they no longer exist.

In any case, you may be misled to believe one of the authors in this Tor Double was a man: James Tiptree Jr. was the penname of a female author named Alice Sheldon. Writing in the Golden Age, a male penname seemed to serve her well as a kind of Trojan Horse.

Both of the texts are arguably feminist SF texts. This is hardly surprising, for Tiptree’s work tends to have a feminist vein running through it, and Joanna Russ is famous as an explicitly feminist theorist and SF writer.

The stories were both engaging, though I found the Tiptree slightly moreso; this is not a cut-down for Russ, of course; I’ve enjoyed her work for a long time, and her very interesting fantasy-oriented take on male power and traditional religion among converted Germanic pagans during a Norse invasion was quite fascinating.

However, Tiptree’s story, arguably a little predictable by today’s standards, still grabbed me more. The machoism of the astronauts who inadvertently traveled into the future was a little overdone, but some of their assumptions sound believable as the thoughts of average men living in the 1970s; and their fate, though chilling, was understandable at the hands of what’s left of humanity, far in the future.

If you can get your hands on the Double, it’s worth it. The stories are worth it even if you can’t, though.

Book #9: Science Fiction: The Best of 2002 edited by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber. (Buyable here.)

This book was a reread for me, but since I was in the mood for some brilliant short SF, I picked it up and reread the whole thing. Some of the stories were brilliant, some a little uneven, but most of them were fascinating.

The standout stories, for me, were Geoffrey Landis’ “The Chase”, Orson Scott Card’s “Angles”, Ted Chiang’s “Liking What You See: A Documentary”, Yoon Ha Lee’s “the Black Abacus”, and James Morrow’s “The War of the Worldviews”. While I wanted to like the Stross piece, “Tourist”, it just didn’t work for me, somehow… I think it was overwrought, but maybe it’s just me. Christopher Priest’s “The Discharge,” too, was something hoped to enjoy but couldn’t get into.

The stories are all so different, I don’t know what to say about them as a group except to say that I was pleased to see such a number of writers I’ve never had a chance to read before, perform so well generally. (This is true even of Stross and Priest, whose stories were unarguably very well-written.) I shall have to look into the later collections by Silverberg and Haber, if there are any, to catch up on what I’ve missed in the SF world, here in Korea where no English-language SF mags are on newsstands.

Book #10: The Clash of Civilizations And The Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington.

Oh, this book. How difficult it is to write about this book, for, I have such very… apathetic feelings about it.

I used to have a friend who reacted to the mention of it as if she were a very touchy Jew hearing mention of Mein Kampf; she was, in fact, a Tunisian woman and suppose it simply got on her nerves that the book was mentioned so much after 9-11. She would cringe, then extend her rhetorical claws, and then tear and slash with abandon at the notion of the text.

Of course, I don’t think she read the book, and she often reacted this way to books, programs, to just about everything around her. This, I took, as a kind of symptom of post-colonial lit study… one begins to resent everything around one. She resented the hypocrisy of the government in her own country, but resented American criticism of her country’s government. She resented fake lip-service paid to Islamic beliefs in her own country, and didn’t self-identify as a Muslim, but contemplated wearing a headscarf for reasons of identity.

Now, I’m not mocking her; I know that adjusting to life in another country is often difficult, that the politics of identity for anyone who looked remotedly Middle-Eastern after 9-11 was complicated and difficult, and so on. But it seems to me that she was very much caught up by oppositional discourses, by resisting any definition of herself offered by anyone around her, any text, program on TV, comment by a peer, and so forth. What seemed missing to me, then, was any sense of a positive statement of identity outside the terms set forth by others. There was no sense of a valid criticism possible, it seemed; it was not alright for people to claim that Islamic culture is often sexist, or that Tunisia is, even as the most advanced Arabic nation in the Maghreb, still too sexist. And yet, it was alright for her to rail against sexist laws that prevented her from leaving for studies abroad without her father’s signature.

I bear this problem of intepretation in mind as I look upon the ideas and model of Samuel Huntington as presented in this book. Knowing how much importance it’s had in the Neocon circles that have brought about all that happened in Iraq, I am tempted to dismiss the book out of hand. Knowing that the model used is fairly simple, I am tempted to write it off as reductionism. But to do so would be wrongheaded of me, a simple oppositionalism in place of what should be an attempt to find out what, indeed, is the truth, if this book does not present it.

This, of course, is a big task, and not easily completed in any text significantly shorter than the original. I certainly do not intend to write a full refutation of the original text, so I shall simply have to acknowledge what I think is useful, what strikes me as erroneous, and what is simply irrelevant.

First, I turn to Huntington’ model. It is, essentially, a model fit for the setup of an online game. In fact, in some ways it seems tailor-made for such a purpose! (I find that a little bit disturbing, but I’ll move on.) Huntington takes great care at one point in the book to justify his model as the most sensible of many available.

The problem is that it’s not the most sensible of many available, because it is, in fact, just one of many available. One of the more succinct criticisms leveled at the book was by Marvin, who in an email to me wrote,

I haven’t read Huntington, but I wonder what happens if we replace “Civilizations” in the title with “Cadres of Autocratic Thugs at the tops of their respective power structures.”

Imagine that, he got in a major criticism of the book in one stroke. Now, of course, if you consider the book is really a manual for conceiving of the geopolitical landscape as an American politician, then of course this argument is meaningless: no Autocratic Thug would ever be interested in the thoughts of anyone in another country ranking below the level of roughly-equivalent Autocratic Thug, anyway. But of course, most of us are not American politicians, or politicians at all, for that matter.

And the world is quickly becoming an unbelievable fairytale that the comforting fiction that nation states are the basis of all internationally wielded power. They’re not, not any more. Al Qaeda, which isn’t even example number one, is not a country, nor is it clearly linked to any government exclusively. It’s a civilian organization. Shell Oil, likewise, may be a corporate “citizen” in the fictitious sense that corporations are “people”, but it’s not the citizen of any one state, not in any way that delimits its power or actions.

No, I am not about to advance a Jihad vs. McWorld argument, though it’s a model that clashes with Huntington’s in important ways. Where is corporate power? Why no mention of it? We hear a lot about religion, but nothing about how entertainment—arguably much more central to the lives of mass numbers of people—affects the geopolitical scene.

The global rift between the rich and the poor, and the rather more homogenous world elite, isn’t much mentioned. The kinds of changes that technology is bringing about—including a more muddled sense of nationality, better distribution of information, more dire weapons and also, potentially, more shared ecological problems… oh, that stuff didn’t come up.

Huntington’s analysis was, you know, alright, I suppose, for a one-dimensional approach, from the perspective of a multipolar geopolitics of the late 90s. It’s all wars and politics, though, and no stirrups, no horse-drawn plough, none of the small things that transform civilizations and transform the world across lines of culture and civilization.

Not only that: his model was wobbly all over the place. One example was how he set Japan into its own civilization. I’m sorry, but I don’t know that Japan is all that much more different from Korea or China that it needs a civilization to itself. Is it because Japan alienated itself from the rest of Asia during the war by committing atrocities? (Germany did that too, but German repentance seems markedly more noticeable, as well.) Is it because Japan is an ally of America? But then, Korea is an ally of America, too.

Huntington relies on religious/cultural lines… sometimes. Of course, Phillipine Christianity (or, for that matter, Korean Christianity, which is relatively important in how it seems, according to most educated Koreans I know, to be deeply tied to government these days) aren’t so crucial that they overcome deeper “cultural” bounds that Huntington decides apply in these cases; likewise, he considers China, which is really a shifting zone of several different cultures in flux and sometimes even in conflict with one another—a single core state within a civilization.

Sometimes I felt quite frustrated by his apparent desire to define everything in terms of inter- and intra-civilizational conflicts. Even right and wrong are defined by him in terms of this:

the belief that non-Western peoples should adopt Western values, institutions, and culture is immoral because of what would be necessary to bring it about.

Yes, of course he is right… until he reaches the word “because”. The belief is not wrong “because of what would be necessary to bring it about” but, simply, because it presupposes that Western values, institutions, and culture are inherently superior. One does not need to make such a presupposition in order to, say, think that the embrace of democracy, or of womens’ liberation, or of human rights is a good thing. One can believe that these things are good on other grounds, such as an increase in efficiency, in creativity, in freedom for people who have been denied freedom, and so on; and, in fact, members of non-Western cultures often embrace Western-styled institutions because they believe that those institutions will give them access to the kinds of values and culture that they want to adopt and adapt to their own culture.

Huntington may believe, with Arthur Schliesinger, that Europe is “the source, the unique source” of the “ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom…” but this assertion means little. The true source of these ideas is not generalized Western culture, for all of them vastly transformed common Western culture; the true source is the thoughts of a few philosophers who happened to be Westerners. If they have only become non-Western practices “by adoption”, well that, isn’t that also how they became Western practices? These ideas are rooted in the basic experiences of people, and have been found by many applicable to themselves, even if they were not born in the West. Democracy may have appeared in the West, but this does not make it a “Western” thing, any more than agriculture is Western, Near-Eastern, or Far-Eastern, depending on whose story you believe about the origins of farming.

I agree with the possibility raised by Huntington that the West may be in decline. I find his models of what may come interesting, in the way I might find a wargamer’s planned campaign interesting, but so much is left out of his model that I think it’s hardly worth considering seriously; and I think his notion of a World Order based on Civilizations is very unlikely to work, depending so much as it does on a very big, vague abstraction. Rather, I think the constraint of power, the attendant responsibility of those wielding it (including extremely dire consequences for war entered into lightly by leaders), and a general shift from “democracy” as instantiated in the form of occasional elections to something a little more sane will be the best safeguards against war.

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