British SF and post 9/11 civil liberties

There’s been a variety of talk about post-9/11 literature in the U.S. Several novels, most recently Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, have explored the territory. Still, two recent releases by British SF authors Brian Aldiss and Ken MacLeod made me realize they seem to be most directly addressing and questioning the impact of 9/11 and the so-called war on terror on civil liberties.

Scottish author MacLeod’s The Execution Channel is a near future tale where the war on terror continues and Great Britain is suffering a series of terrorist (or was it?) attacks. MacLeod’s main focus is on a particular family in a post-9/11 world — ubiquitous surveillance, the blogosphere as a vehicle for disseminating information and psych ops propaganda, the role of government intelligence agencies, and seemingly irrational free rein as a response to fears and acts of terror. Yet at least two plot lines in the book explore not only the detention of individuals on the grounds of suspicion alone, but takes us inside a “black site” detention center using abusive interrogation techniques and torture.

In the former, it is fairly plain that citizens can be held largely on speculation, conjecture and guilt by association with virtually no legal protections, such as a right to counsel or bail. The latter paints a horrifying picture of what, for all we know, has occurred in the network of covert prisons and detention units the war on terror has apparently generated. If there is a failing in the book from a political perspective, it is that MacLeod throws in a plot twist that makes this a story of alternate history. Granted, this move raises interesting issues and allows MacLeod to satirize contemporary politics. Yet placing the events in a future that can never be rather than in a predictive future based on actual history tends to have the commentary taken a notable step back.

In HARM, the latest work by the almost 82-year-old Aldiss, brutal interrogation is a centerpiece of the story. The title is the acronym of a government agency, the Hostile Activities Research Ministry. It has detained a British born Muslim author, Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali, and is ruthlessly interrogating and torturing him because of one passage in a work of fiction he wrote. The unpleasant descriptions of the interrogation mix with an allegorical tale of Ali living on another planet humans colonized because things became too bad on Earth. Yet even on this new planet, humanity struggles with and founders over questions of religion, racism, politics and democracy.

Aldiss’s exploration of Ali’s detention and interrogation — and the racism and speculation on which it is based — is hard hitting and leaves no doubt of his views on the subject. Unlike MacLeod, Aldiss does not couch this in terms of alternate history. In fact, but for the story line arising from the main character escaping in his mind to the other planet, this need not be a story of the future. It could be a tale set today.

Notably, while American interrogators play significant roles in both stories, neither work is set in the United States. In fact, British author Aldiss leaves open for much of the story where the interrogation takes place and whether Ali has been the subject of extraordinary rendition. While we thus have two British SF authors exploring the impact of the war on terror on British citizens and their civil liberties, I am unaware of any work of notable American authors, whether in the SF genre or otherwise, that has done so from an American perspective. I’m not saying the American publishing industry is cowed by the political environment of the last several years and perhaps I am simply unaware of recent fictional works addressing these issues. Still, the apparent lack of fiction exploring these topics seems a sad commentary on a society that has prided itself on affording and protecting civil liberties and human rights.

UPDATE: In fairness to U.S. publishers, I note that a Strange Horizons review of HARM points out that the book was first published in the U.S. because, according to Aldiss, “English publishers are funking taking on the novel.” It is now set to be released in the U.K. on August 21, some three months after its U.S. release.

Certain liberties had to be curtailed — such as foolishness and satire and freedom of speech. They belonged to a bygone epoch.

Brian Aldiss, HARM

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