In a BBC profile that I happened to watch again recently, John Le Carré said that he had watched the Berlin Wall come down and then waited. And nothing changed. The governments of the West continued with exactly the same policies they had concocted as a response to the Cold War.
He was right, of course, but not completely so. Things did change, in ways that the governments of the West did not expect or allow for. For instance, one of the weapons used by the West in the Cold War was rampant consumerism. The idea was to drain the resources of the Soviet Bloc, while western capitalism was kept in check by a range of natural balances such as the poverty of some markets (Africa), the unavailability of others (China, Russia), and the ready supply of resources from western-friendly states (oil from the Middle East). The Cold War did indeed end with the draining of Soviet resources, but it also removed most of those checks and balances on western capitalism. In fact, many of these checks were deliberately removed by the last Cold War governments (of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher), controls introduced in the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s were lifted because they were seen as outdated, and besides it was payback time for the people who funded these governments. Consequently, the wealth and power of banks and multinational companies and other big players in the capitalist game exploded, until they reached a state that was beyond the ability of any government to control. We are all (or, at least, all of us who are not already plutocrats) paying the price now.
And yet, despite an economic collapse so great that if it had occurred 30 years before the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War, the financial institutions remain essentially untouched and untouchable. Their influence can now be seen reaching into every aspect of government policy and foreign relations and indeed anything that affects the way we live today. One natural and perhaps inevitable development of that state of affairs lies at the heart of two novels I have read recently.
There are a number of similarities between The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata and The Water Sign by C.S. Samulski. They are both solid, readable novels that I’d be happy to recommend without suggesting that either might number among the best books of the year. Both express a profound dis-ease at the idea and consequence of violence through scenes that are explicitly and sometimes excessively violent. Both have come out from small presses, and have therefore perhaps not received the attention they might deserve (Nagata, as an established writer, has done a little better in this respect than Samulski with his debut novel). Both are the first volume in a series, and though it would be interesting to see how they develop one is also uneasily conscious that small press economics suggest that the appearance of those later volumes might well depend on the success or otherwise of these first volumes. But what I find most interesting is that both use essentially the same background, or rather, it is easy to imagine The Water Sign taking place only a little further along the same timeline occupied by The Red: First Light.
The key to both these novels is that war has become a commercial venture. Nagata has defence contractors initiating petty wars around the globe, and escalating the conflict whenever it suits their commercial interests to do so. Samulski has the main purpose of the UN being to check whether the weapons used by one side in a conflict violate the copyright of companies supplying the other side. In many ways this socio-economic change in the nature of the world has not changed things much. Both novels are first-person accounts by a foot soldier in the war, and both, therefore, repeat the narrative that has been familiar since at least the First World War: the poor bloody infantry are the victims of war, the guilty parties are those at home who plan the whole thing. Usually, the guilty party is a politician, here, because of changing circumstances, the guilty party is a company executive, but the principle is the same.
To emphasise the victimhood of our narrators, both are shown to be conscripts. Nagata’s Lieutenant James Shelley was a naïve student caught up in anti-war protest who had to join the army as an alternative to prison. Samulski’s Ayax was captured as small child and raised by a secretive sect to become a child warrior. They are, therefore, inherently innocent of the guilt of war. However, you cannot write a war story about a victim (well, you can, but you end up with something like All Quiet on the Western Front, and that tone is unlikely to sustain a series, and indeed is not calculated to appeal to the readers of gung-ho military sf who have to be at least a part of the intended readership of these novels). What’s more, since at least the advent of the ill-judged military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the common mood, even in large parts of the Left, has been to oppose the war but support the soldiers. So, although both Shelley and Ayax have been forced into an occupation they do not support, both prove to be extraordinarily good at the job.
They are heroic, so we can always cheer them on in the bloodiest action. They are clever and resourceful, always finding the right way to solve any problem, no matter what the odds against them. But more than that, they are both, in a sense, super-warriors, with the added advantage of a mysterious extra power. Shelley has a curious precognition of trouble, a second sight that mostly allows him to keep his platoon out of danger and to find the route through to victory. One of his soldiers refers to this talent as ‘King David’, a religious overtone that is even more explicit in Samulski’s novel; though the interesting thing is that it is there at all. Eventually, we are led to believe that these warnings of danger come from an aspect of the Cloud that has achieved independent sentience, the messages coming through the skullcap that all soldiers wear and that keeps them in constant contact with each other and with headquarters. It is, however, never exactly clear why Shelley has been singled out for this contact, presumably any and all soldiers could be so gifted. One must suppose that it is something to do with his individual heroic character.
Ayax, meanwhile, is brought up in a school where, from earliest infancy, every child is subject to brutal treatment, harsh discipline and military training. There is a significant part of this novel that reads like an old fashioned school story, Hogwarts reconfigured for a secret army, complete with schoolboy crushes, jolly japes, bullying and daring escapades, except that in this school any one of these might end in death. And like any school story, it is an hermetically sealed world in which we never hear of any graduates from the school or get any sense of what adulthood might be expected to hold for these children. The founder of the school is regarded with almost religious reverence, and his peculiar schooling is intended not only to turn out child warriors, but to release in them an Aspect, a sort of super-power. In the case of Ayax, this turns out to be immense strength and speed. More impressively, perhaps, the military training seems to provide a sort-of high speed maturation; throughout the novel Ayax thinks, speaks and behaves like an adult, he fights adults on an equal basis, and seems to be treated as an equal by every adult he encounters. He is around 14 years old, but except when we are deliberately reminded of his age and size and appearance, he might as well be ten years or more older. There used to be a common view that joining the army would ‘make a man of you’, Samulski seems to have taken that phrase literally.
Of course, the two heroes are loyal to their service. Even when he gets the chance to leave the army, Shelley chooses to stay. And Ayax constantly seeks the approval of his superiors, even when he is sent on a suicide mission, a mission from which he inevitably returns victorious. Yet there is always the question of what they are fighting for. As Shelley says, right at the beginning of The Red: First Light: ‘We are not here for glory – there isn’t any – and there’s nothing at stake’ or, as the blurb puts it: ‘in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.’ But if there is no cause worth dying for, then there can be no cause worth fighting for; yet these are war stories, we are supposed to cheer our heroes, and that means recognising and approving their cause. We are not going to care much for any character, however heroic, if all he is doing is turning a profit for some faceless corporation. So both authors spend a fair amount of time carefully manufacturing a cause. In Nagata’s case, it is that good old standby, revenge. A rogue defence contractor changes the rules of engagement, and two members of Shelley’s platoon are killed. Later, this same contractor, Thelma Sheridan, an almost stereotypical rendition of the stylish, arrogant and cold-hearted business person, is responsible for exploding nuclear bombs in various US cities. Both these books, by American writers, have international settings; The Red: First Light opens and closes in equatorial Africa; The Water Sign is played out in one of the Asiatic states of the former Soviet Union, and in Tibet, Jerusalem and Hong Kong; yet in both novels it is damage to America that most clearly and most symbolically hits home. Sheridan’s bombs, and the short-lived Texas insurrection that follows, tell us that untrammelled corporate power has fatally damaged the American body politic; and the fact that she can buy her way free of any possible legal comeback means that US political institutions have been compromised as a result so Shelley is justified in joining a rogue army unit to kidnap Sheridan and take her to face international justice. If corporate power has rendered governments impotent, then only international bodies offer any hope.
There’s a similar message at the end of The Water Sign, when Ayax and his companions set out to join the United Nations. But to reach that stage he has to go through the same process as Shelley, finding a cause worth fighting for, a cause strong enough to make him go against his conditioning. In this case the cause is religious. Ayax is brought up to believe that the gods of all monotheistic religions are actually aliens fomenting religious warfare in order to open the way for conquest (this is proposed by a man who has assumed a god-like role within the school); at the same time, Ayax keeps having visions of a female Allah, who gives him warnings and encouragement much like the messages Shelley receives from the Red. On his first mission, he stumbles upon a Tibetan monastery where Buddhist revolutionaries proclaim him the Water Sign, which is, within this drastically revised theology, an aspect of Buddha. On his second mission he encounters self-aware AIs (another way in which this echoes Nagata’s novel), and his quest to find the originators of the AIs occupies the remainder of the novel. The book is filled with such spiritual and physical conflicts (The Water Sign shares a common weakness of first novels: there is simply too much going on in it), but it is only when he goes to a fragmented and war torn America that things really coalesce. We learn that some sort of drug has rendered Americans incapable of working together in any grouping larger than a small tribe, and so the Balkanisation of the country, hinted at in Nagata’s novel, has here happened, and in some sense the heart and soul of the world has been torn asunder.
When we learn that the divine head of the school was responsible for the drug that destroyed America and also for fomenting the Buddhist sect that recognises Ayax as an aspect of its god (I said that Samulski has crammed too much into this novel), then we understand why Ayax must, like Shelley, rebel and seek a new power source.
In any straightforward realist sense, the economic underpinning of these novels does not work. Whatever else, there are more corporations whose income would be jeopardised by the loss of consumers and the reallocation of resources that perpetual war would represent than would profit from it. I would anticipate, therefore, some level of corporate as well as governmental dissent to the sort of situation these novels represent, but there is no sign of it. Nevertheless, as a satirical take on the consequences of untrammelled corporate greed, an extrapolation of the excess of corporate power over governmental power, these are interesting novels. Though what is perhaps most interesting is how closely they parallel each other.