Two years from now, terrorists under the banner of the "Progressive
Restoration" will take over Manhattan in a larger attempt to overthrow the government. Thirteen years later, President Chelsea Clinton and Vice President Michael Moore will haul out the good White House china for Osama bin Laden's state visit. By fiddling with your radio, you may be able to catch an underground broadcast by Sean Hannity. If you own a radio, that is; folks living in states that are under Sharia law won't even be that lucky.
These aren't my fantasies or nightmares. All of these vignettes are ripped from science fiction thrillers that have hit shelves in just the last 18 months. Sharia comes to the United States in Robert Ferrigno's potboiler, "Prayers for the Assassin." In Joel C. Rosenberg's "Last Jihad" trilogy, a steel-spined U.S. president nukes Baghdad, then combats a Russo-Iranian axis, all in fulfillment of Scripture (or so we're told in the nail-biting third book, "The Ezekiel Option"). Hannity and his stone-jawed sidekick, G. Gordon Liddy, battle the Clinton restoration in Mike Mackey and Donny Lin's comic book, "Liberality for All." The Second American Civil War is breaking out in Orson Scott Card's "Empire" (book out now, video game on the way).
If it all sounds a little strange and crazed, that's because it is. The right's sleep of reason is bringing forth dark, futuristic political thrillers.
This is not the first time literature has performed such a trick. The Cold War years inspired plenty of nuclear nightmare fiction, and the environmentalism boom produced hundreds of chillers about overpopulation, melting ice caps and worse. Before he was visited by extraterrestrials (or was struck by the vision of a giant advance) "Communion" author Whitley Strieber churned out "Warday" and "Nature's End," Bible-sized entries in the Armageddon and Enviro-geddon genres, respectively.
Nuclear scare and environmental disaster fiction played off fears that seemed very real. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' "Left Behind" books hinge on an event — the Rapture — that millions of readers believe could happen literally at any moment.
But the new genre of culture war and terror war novel is different. In "Prayers for the Assassin," an awful and believable event — coordinated nuclear attacks on American cities, with Israeli terrorists framed as the culprits — kick-starts a future that's too ridiculous to be fearsome. Egged on by Hollywood celebrities, millions of Americans convert to Islam. Families haul their kids to the thrill rides at Palestine Adventures. Battleships are renamed for Osama bin Laden.
It sounds like satire, but here's the funny part: Ferrigno is serious. Promoting the book on its official website, the author intones that "the possibility of such events transpiring only adds to the power of the book." Americans giving up the cross for the crescent, skipping Ruby Tuesday's during Ramadan? Why not? It could happen if, as Ferrigno warns, people are "weakened internally by dissent, economic malaise and a consumer culture hostile to people's genuine thirst for meaning in their lives."
Go back to the Cold War, or go back even earlier. Choose any conflict and you can find citizens and senators warning about the complacency that could usher in victory for the enemy. Americans were duly spooked by the German-American Bund, by shifty-looking Japanese immigrants and by every cultural trend of the moment that was softening up teenagers for the Red takeover.
Of course, it's of dubious value to compare the current American crisis — a hot and cold war against Muslim extremists with no foothold on the home front — to those conflicts. But that's how many Americans choose to interpret it. President Bush's speechwriters are never happier than when they're comparing the war on terror to the epic battles of "another generation." In the dying days of his Senate race, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum warned voters that turning him out could bring on World War III. "Many Americans are sleepwalking," the soon-to-be-ex-senator huffed, "just as they did before the world wars of the last century."
This is not normal behavior. It's coping behavior. It's similar to the tricks some doctors teach young patients who are struggling with cancer or other fatal diseases: They should visualize their maladies. If they picture the tumors ravaging their bodies, they can picture their bodies fighting them off and blasting them into oblivion.
Culture war fiction serves the same function. "Liberality for All" simply continues the one-sided conversation that's been taking place across right-wing media with increasing fury since 9/11. If you think the media, the courts and the United Nations are in cahoots to destroy your way of life, beating liberals in elections won't solve the problem. Better to dream up the final battle between liberals and liberty that has been framed by Hannity (the real-world blowhard, that is, not the fictional action hero) and fight it out in the funny books.
Card, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning science fiction writer, is the biggest literary heavyweight to try his hand at the culture war novel (though you wouldn't know it from "Empire's" stilted dialogue and improbable plot twists). But, by his own admission, he's doing it for a higher purpose than mere book sales.
"We are so constantly pounded by mild-mannered, stating-it-as-fact fanatics of the left who dominate the media that that starts sounding like the normal climate," Card sighed during a promotional interview with husband-and-wife bloggers Glenn Reynolds and Helen Smith. "Repetition makes even insanity sound normal."
Some insanities, maybe. Not quite all.