The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Time Traveler

Over the past two days, I’ve experienced two short stories that project us into the future. The first, the Movie V for Vendetta is an entertaining parable about the evils of totalitarian government, the loss of civil liberties, and most important, the idea that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Set in the future, V for Vendetta will undoubtedly be interpreted differently by each viewer. Those on the Left will see the Bush government as the totalitarian regime depicted in the movie (in fact, the movie helps one come to that conclusion with back references to “America’s illegal war.”) Those on the Right, will see Iran as the model for the religious, faith-based dictatorship that subjugates its people. The terrorist, V, is hard not to like – a thoughtful man driven to vengeance for atrocities committed by the regime he dispises. Like all Hollywood fair, the treatment is a bit heavy handed, but better than most. Worth a ticket.

But another story I’ve come across is far more important and considerably more unsettling. Written by Dan Simmons, a writer “whose work spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, historical fiction, noir crime fiction, and mainstream literary fiction,” it is a short story about a time traveler who engages the writer on New Year’s Eve, 2005.

I am not familiar with Dan Simmons' other work. However, this short story is well-worth a read. Take a half hour and enjoy (if that's the right word) April 2006 Message from Dan.
I must admit that I had an eerie sense of foreboding upon finishing the story – not a good feeling at all.

In the story, written in the first person, Simmons is confronted in his study by a time traveler who has returned from the future to discuss a soon-to-be-encountered world that is both frightening and all too possible. Many people (including yours truly) have discussed the clash between the West and Islam. Few have integrated history with commentary with fiction in a more effective way. Here’s a tease excerpt as the short story begins:

I tried to relax. “What do you want to talk about?” I said.

“The Century War,” said the Time Traveler.

I blinked and tried to remember some history. “You mean the Hundred Year War? Fifteenth Century? Fourteenth? Sometime around there. Between . . . France and England? Henry V? Kenneth Branagh? Or was it . . .”

“I mean the Century War with Islam,” interrupted the Time Traveler. “Your future. Everyone’s.” He was no longer smiling. Without asking, or offering to pour me any, he stood, refilled his Scotch glass, and sat again. He said, “It was important to me to come back to this time early on in the struggle. Even if only to remind myself of how unspeakably blind you all were.”

“You mean the War on Terrorism,” I said.

“I mean the Long War with Islam,” he said. “The Century War. And it’s not over yet where I come from. Not close to being over.”

“You can’t have a war with Islam,” I said. “You can’t go to war against a religion. Radical Islam, maybe. Jihadism. Some extremists. But not a . . . the . . . religion itself. The vast majority of Muslims in the world are peaceloving people who wish us no harm. I mean . . . I mean . . . the very word ‘Islam’ means ‘Peace.’”

“So you kept telling yourselves,” said the Time Traveler. His voice was very low but there was a strange and almost frightening edge to it. “But the ‘peace’ in ‘Islam’ means ‘Submission.’ You’ll find that out soon enough”

Great, I was thinking. Of all the time travelers in all the gin joints in all the world, I get this racist, xenophobic, right-wing asshole.

“After Nine-eleven, we’re fighting terrorism,” I began, “not . . .”

He waved me into silence.

“You were a philosophy major or minor at that podunk little college you went to long ago,” said the Time Traveler. “Do you remember what Category Error is?”

It rang a bell. But I was too irritated at hearing my alma mater being called a “podunk little college” to be able to concentrate fully.

“I’ll tell you what it is,” said the Time Traveler. “In philosophy and formal logic, and it has its equivalents in science and business management, Category Error is the term for having stated or defined a problem so poorly that it becomes impossible to solve that problem, through dialectic or any other means.”

I waited. Finally I said firmly, “You can’t go to war with a religion. Or, I mean . . . sure, you could . . . the Crusades and all that . . . but it would be wrong.”

Read it … as if the time traveler was sitting in your study talking to you.