Reviewed by Matthew Appleton
This review was originally published in the July, 2004 issue (#191) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
Under normal circumstances, I am a huge fan of satire and of taking absurd situations to their logical extreme. In my opinion, one can find comedy in almost any situation. Almost any situation. Given the complexities of Middle East politics, the present American stance in confronting terrorism, and the tragedies that have taken place, I find very little potential for humor in the events that precipitated and followed the September 11 attacks. However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that someone else can find the humor and point it out to me. That’s where Robert Zubrin steps in with his sophomore fictional effort (as founder of the Mars Society, he has published extensively on behalf of space exploration), The Holy Land, in which he attempts to satirically skewer the last 55 years of Middle East history rearranging the major players and events.
In The Holy Land, a group of aliens called the Minervans, with the aid of the Western Galactic Empire, return to their ancestral homeland in Kennewick, Washington. Having legally purchased nearly all the property in the area, the Minervans are trying to create a society of their own after the Central Galactic Empire nearly killed them all in an attempted genocide. However, their new neighbors, the United States of America, are controlled by a corrupt, fundamentalist Christian regime that doesn’t want pagans setting up a society within its borders. Very quickly, the United States declares war on the Minervans but is completely repelled and ultimately loses territory thanks to the superior military of the Minervans.
When the American government opens diplomatic negotiations with the Western Galactic Empire (whom they derisively call the Weegees), it discovers that the United States is sitting on the largest untapped reserves of helicity, a primary energy source for most of the Weegee technology, in the galaxy. Quickly, the two governments enter into an agreement where the United States is paid handsomely for a resource it doesn’t need. The American government then uses the proceeds to promote its Holy War against the Minervans. However, they prove impossible to forcibly remove, and public sentiment starts to turn against the Weegees, who are blamed for allowing the Minervans to immigrate to Kennewick in the first place. Eventually, the anger and frustration build to the point where a group of Americans, with the secret approval and assistance of the United States government, manage to hijack four spaceliners and cause them to explode, wiping out three star systems in the Western Empire.
Zubrin’s extrapolation of our world into his fictional world during the first part of Holy Land is entertaining mostly because it so succinctly skewers fundamentalism in various forms. The Americans, with their profound belief that God will ultimately ensure victory regardless of their methods, misguidedly continue to attack the Minervans and make martyrs of children who partake in suicide attacks. The Minervans, who believe that Earthlings are not truly human or rational as they do not share the same belief system or methods of cleanliness, come across as condescending, unfeeling, and arrogant. Zubrin, proving he is an equal opportunist, even manages a slight jab at fervent atheists with a thinly veiled reference to the recent controversy over the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance.
However, Zubrin’s satirical take on the political situation falls a little flat. The most visible flaw in his presentation concerns the parallel between his United States and the actual Arab world. The problem is that the Arab world is not a homogeneous political or social mass, and despite the fact that most Arabs share a common belief system, any attempt to lump the Arab peoples together as a whole is sorely misguided. There are too many competing ideological and political strains in the various Arab states to even suggest that they are able to work together. In presenting the United States as the Minervans’ only opposition, Zubrin is tacitly presenting the situation as such. Placing the Minervans on territory that straddled the U.S.-Canada border, say an area encompassing Detroit and Toronto, and having the United States and Canada share similar wacko, fundamentalist, corrupted theocracies might make a better satirical presentation of the scenario. This flawed template is a prime example of Zubrin oversimplifying or by taking a scenario too far.
Another of the many oversimplifications occurs when he tackles the issue of pre-boarding screening and racial profiling. After security is tightened at Western Empire space terminals, there’s an incident where a bunch of badly disguised American “journalists” are waved through a security checkpoint while an elderly citizen of the Empire is subjected to a full body cavity search. I was sympathetic to the point Zubrin was trying to make; although I am a huge supporter of the ACLU and believe that racial profiling is generally uncalled for, clearly the current security procedures in United States airports border on the ridiculous. However, when one of the Americans predictably carries out a terrorist attack, none of his comrades are detained for questioning by the Western Empire, because there’s supposedly no reason to believe they assisted him. While current pre-screening procedures deserve mockery, the real United States certainly wouldn’t let the obvious friends of a confirmed terrorist leave without detaining and cross-examining them.
But Holy Land isn’t just a satire. What starts off as a subplot in the first half of the novel becomes the focus of the second half: a love story between Aurora, a Minervan priestess, and Andrew Hamilton, an American soldier she takes as a POW in the opening stages of the American-Minervan conflict. At first neither is able to stand the other, but as they learn more about each other and by proxy their cultures, they first come to understand each other and eventually find themselves in situations whereby each saves the other’s life. When they manage to survive their ordeals, they find that in addition to truly understanding each other without judgment, they have found a way to love one another. True, Zubrin makes it clear that Hamilton is unlike most Americans in that he is far more rational than his fellow citizens, but the fact that he thinks that the citizens of the opposing cultures are able to find a way to love each other shows a certain level of optimism in the belief that individuals are often far more humanist than their governments.
Unfortunately, Zubrin doesn’t harbor that sort of optimism for the final fate of the conflict. The ending of Holy Land suggests it’s impossible to find a solution that will allow the Jews and Palestinians to live together peacefully, that there’s too much animosity to overcome now. (Again, given the parallels he has drawn, I have a problem with the insertion of a former Central Empire official as the arbiter for the agreement that splits Kennewick and the surrounding territory between the Minervans and the Kennewickians.) In fact, he suggests that any attempt to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel will only lead to the slaughter of the Jews and the annihilation of their country.
Yet, others may not share my criticisms of Holy Land. As you read the book, it’s clear that our sympathies are supposed to lie with the Minervans. While condescending, they are certainly far more logical than their new American neighbors, and they always operate honestly and in a fashion that will cause as few casualties as possible. They are clearly the victims in the situation and the United States is to blame for the overwhelming majority of the strife and violence that occur as a result of the Minervan resettlement. Those who believe that the Arabs are by far mostly responsible for the current hostilities and rancorous relations in the Middle East will buy into Zubrin’s presentation much more readily and will show greater empathy for the socio-political arguments presented in this novel.
Ironically, such a split reaction seems somehow appropriate to any novel taking a satirical look at the situation in the Middle East.