Thursday, September 20, 2012

Caliban's War, by James S. A. Corey

I may not be the first to say this, but Corey's series The Expanse (and particularly this summer's installment Caliban's War) is the very definition of post-9/11 literature.

Of course, some obvious books are post-9/11 because they deal with the effects of that day directly (like Don DeLillo's Falling Man) or indirectly (like Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Caliban's War is a tougher book to pinpoint because it doesn't even mention the United States or twenty-first century terrorism, which it shouldn't, being set in the remote future and all. At the time of the book's events, there's too much recent history for an event in our present-day to bear much weight. It would be like you consciously dictating your life based on the Jamestown settlement. Of course, it affects our world today. But you're not thinking about how it does so.

I'm convinced, though, that if The Expanse were published twelve or fifteen years ago, it would have been a vastly different story -- or it wouldn't have received the attention it's getting now.

Up to World War II, conflict was simple: we understood nations like England and Germany. Even in Vietnam and with the Cold War, the threat might have been less bordered, but we could still call it Other, and in so doing we could perceive if not exactly understand it.

9/11 gave Americans our first taste of a threat we truly could not comprehend. Those who directly committed the acts against us were dead, so we could not bring them to justice. Whatever weight the conspiracy theories held, we could not begin to think that We, rather than Other, were culpable, so we dismiss them. We had to put faces on the threats in ways we could understand: individuals and nations. And, yes, as a nation we experienced catharsis when Osama bin Laden died. We breathed a little easier when Saddam Hussein was disposed and Iraq began following a different path, no matter what our individual beliefs about the war were.

But the real threat that 9/11 exposed was not bin Laden and it was not Iraq and it was not Afghanistan and it was not the Taliban. It wasn't even terrorism, not exactly, though we've tried our best to squeeze our hands around that wet sponge. The threat is one we don't know how to combat because we cannot comprehend it. Because of 9/11, we take our shoes off at the airport and we live under the constant and real possibility of indefinite detention. Those are the new facts, regardless of political beliefs or personal inclinations.

As humans, we feel the need to act when our survival-as-we-know-it is threatened. So we act, even if our actions are directed at the wrong source. Even if our actions are ineffective or counterproductive. We act, so that we feel like we stand a chance.

One definition of post-9/11 is the recognition that we may be acting against a bogeyman -- that we may not be willing to face or able to comprehend the threats to our existence because they are much more unrecognizable than Other. Or sometimes, the threats may be much more recognizable and closer to home than Other, which frightens us more than any foreign intrusion could. The key to survival in our worldview has become more than outgunning our enemies. It means either understanding that we may never understand the threats to our existence, or transferring those ghostly threats onto tangible avatars.

Those are our choices, and they play out in Caliban's War. I'm trying not to give spoilers to the book, for which you're welcome. But go read it, and then think about how your own understanding of the novel would have been different in August of 2001. (Then go brush up on The Tempest and see what you conclude about the title of the book. Corey ain't no dummy.)

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