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The Holy Land
By Robert Zubrin
Polaris Books
308 pg. US$14.95
ISBN: 0-9741-4430-4

The galaxy strikes back

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted November 17, 2003

The Holy LandOkay,  here's how it stands in the universe some centuries hence: After the Western Galactic Empire and the Eastern Galactic Empire combined to defeat the brutal Central Empire, people felt sorry for the Minervans who had been exterminated in large numbers by the Centrals. So a home was found for them, the home from which the Minervans originally sprang, the Kennewick district of the state of Washington in the energy-producing and wealthy but otherwise underdeveloped and superstitious United States of America on the backwater planet of Earth. But Earth isn't having any of it: rather than resettle the displaced Kennewickians, they are driven at gunpoint  back into the disputed territory to confront the vastly better-armed returning Minervans with their numbers and their martrydom of suicide attacks.

Sound familiar? It should.

Author Robert Zubrin, director of Pioneer Astronautics in Lakewood, Colorado, is in real life a fervid advocate of Mars colonization whose earlier non-fiction work, The Case for Mars and whose leadership of the Mars Society has helped to re-ignite the exploratory instinct of  humankind and garnered him much note, in particular, a spot testifying before Congress on space policy. In The Holy Land, Dr. Zubrin strays into science fiction to paint us an allegorical picture of the ongoing and seemingly insoluble Middle East crisis. The true identies of his fictional entities are barely concealed, if at all: The Western Galactic Empire is the West, the EGE is the East, the Central Empire was the Central/Axis powers, the Minervans are the Jews and Israelis, the Earth is the Middle East and the USA is a sort of fundamentalist Christian Saudi Arabia.

As literature, The Holy Land is neither Swift, nor Butler, nor even Bradbury. Zubrin's individual characters seem trapped in a recurring nightmare where they swim haltingly upwards towards the surface of psychological plausibility, only to sink back into the depths of charicature improbable in thought, word and deed. And the diligent reader must struggle under the tare weight of Buzz Lightyear prose such as:

Admiral Phillipus was thunderstruck. "But your Divine Majesty, a superluminal holotrans from here to Earth would cost over a million bluebacks a second!"
... "The natives were forced to take the full intensity of the blast, resulting in the shrinkage of every inhabitant of this country to less than 1/100th of their normal size."

The President turned to CIA director Collins. "Holy smokes, Fred, they shrunk them!"

Yet I have the disturbing awareness that, were I still seventeen, I might regard Zubrin as a literary genius. Zubrin the scientist, who deals in the unfathomable statistical likelihoods of space travel, is vastly more artful and acute when lampooning the behaviour of humanity en masse. When first I read that
... Five more heavily populated planets had been annihilated ... The Princess called a council .. to determine an appropriate response.

"We should pico-atomize their planet immediately and without warning ... Three hundred billion more of Her Divine Majesty's subjects have been obliterated. Trillions more are at risk. Next to that the lives of a mere million Minervans matter not all."

I revolted, until I realized that, were humanity in its current state to fill the galaxy, even the death of three hundred billions might leave us wavering in judgement as to our response, balancing economic interests and issues of conscience against blind retaliation. Thus is America's response to blows against our own empire enlarged through the lens of Zubrin's satire until we can see all the warts of our present policy in high definition. In the book, retaliation for the crimes of the USA is swift but unsure: Peru is destroyed. "See that thou hurt not the oil", as the book of Revelations says, is apparently (and sadly, plausibly) still the axiom when dealing with energy-producing client kingdoms even in the future.

As allegory, The Holy Land shares the family weakness so well taxonomized by Prof. Tolkien in his foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring:

I cordially dislike allegory ... and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
But if you can stomach allegory in favor of a brutal satirical swipe at the limits and follies of statecraft when interests at loggerjams become a mill ceaslessly grinding down the lives of innocents, you will find The Holy Land an amusing and thought-provoking read.

I spoke personally with Dr. Zubrin at his office in October, 2003.

Robert Zubrin: I have a voice [in the media and in testifying before Congress] regarding space exploration. But there's more going on in the world than just space. I wanted to deal with it. A man has to be a citizen as well as a professional. The Holy Land is my attempt to deal with the current crisis. I think this book could do a lot of good. It makes people see a lot of things that are going right now in the Mideast and in the War on Terrorism. I think that it would be particularly valuable if it got out onto the campuses. There's a lot of politically correct nonsense that is popular on campus.

Jack Woehr: Things that aren't obvious to the Zero Tolerance generation who have been educated to be supine before Authority, at least while Authority is watching. But what shibboleths in particular are you trying to skewer?

RZ: Well, for starters, the whole idea that the solution of this thing should be a Palestinian state. The way the United States government is fighting this War on Terrorism making attacks on peripheral targets and missing Saudi Arabia ... Let's see, what connection do the Saudis have to terrorism? They've set up about ten thousand madrasahs around the Moslem world teaching people to kill Christians, Jews, Parsis and Hindus.

JW: Certainly their form of state religion is reactionary, more reactionary even than Iran.

RZ: Exactly ... and then, the European pretensions. In the book, the character Kolta Bruna just wants to disarm the Minervans because she's so concerned about the Kennewickians. It ridicules the pretensions of all the various parties, including the Israelis. The Minervans are arrogant and vain and paranoid. Of course, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not trying to kill you."

JW: The Minervans also commit unspeakable acts of brutality because they are sure that their victims are not human.

RZ: Right, there is that side of it. And there's the other side of it, those people who are encouraging people into actions which provoke such brutality, suicide attacks, using children, and so on. They are hardly making it easy for the Minervans to see them as human.

JW: Two different kinds of blindness.

RZ: And then, in the book, [when Peru is attacked in punishment-by-proxy for the United States] there are the culturalists who are "very concerned" with the fate of the Inca artifacts.

JW: Like when there were people in Baghdad being blown up daily but everyone was worried about the museum artifacts.

RZ: Actually, the book was written before the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq. Where that came from was the blowing up of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. I was in France in late September, 2001. It was after 9-11. America hadn't quite attacked Afghanistan yet, maybe the bombing had started. The French, for once, were most sympathetic to the American action ...

JW: Because of the statues.

RZ: Exactly! You see these movies on CNN of execution of women for teaching girls how to read ...

JW: There were websites which showed the bodies of Taliban victims thrown out in the streets and the families forbidden to pick them up ..

RZ: Very similar to Pol Pot. The Taliban and the Khmer Rouge were very similar. Even the Nazis and Stalinists were not quite that thorough.

JW: They were trying to destroy all culture and all that came before.

RZ: The Taliban and the Khmer Rouge were trying to root out any semblance of human civilization.

JW: Like the Simpletons in William Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.

RZ: So I'm trying to do two things. One, I'm trying to address deal with the Middle East conflict through satire instead of scholarly analysis. The other is, I think the science fiction has lost its way. Science fiction has two different threads where it can make itself relevant. One is exploring the implications of  scientific progress, the other is social satire. Modern science fiction has mostly become fantasy, it's too detached from the world. To me, the first science fiction writer was Jonathan Swift. Then there's Karl Capek, with books like War with the Newts, which satirized appeasement. Both writers proved that science fiction provides a unique medium for engaging in social commentary. But science fiction hasn't done so in decades, so I felt that writing a book of this kind was a service to both the world and to art.

Jack J. Woehr was a Democrat, then a Republican, and now sides with the angels of the Libertarian Party of Colorado.

To order The Holy Land or to read an excerpt, visit Polaris Books here.

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