"Ian Rankin once explained to an interviewer (the head of the Indian Communist Party!) that crime fiction is a way of talking about social inequality. Ron Jacobs applies that same maxim to the Sixties... in his wonderfully noir trilogy of those exhilarating and troubled times. And what Rankin does for Edinburgh, Jacobs amply illuminates for the Movement. Much much more than ripping yarns (though they are that too), from a master who's been there, done that, and lived to tell a tale or two."

--Ramsey Kanaan, Publisher PM Press/noir enthusiast

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Politics and Science Fiction

Paul Kantner and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane released an album titled Blows Against the Empire in 1970. Besides the fact that it had an incredible lineup of San Francisco area musicians, it was also interesting because of its science fiction theme. Loosely based on Robert Heinlein's novel Methuselah's Children, the album was about a spaceship that had been hijacked by a group of revolutionaries determined to create a new world. If one considers the political milieu of the time the album was created, this desire for revolutionary escape had a certain poetic sense. The antiwar movement had failed to stop the US war on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the black liberation movement was being murderously destroyed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Richard Nixon and his henchmen were enhancing an already existing police state apparatus and, to put it bluntly, it looked like the revolution the Airplane had cheered on in their 1969 album titled Volunteers was nothing more than a failed dream. Kantner, like many members of his generation (including Jimi Hendrix), was an avid reader of science fiction. So, since it didn't look like the revolution was going to happen on Planet Earth, why not write a science fiction story where it occurred in the heavens? The album is a blend of musical styles, from a sweet rendition of the Rosalie Sorrels song "The Baby Tree" to the hard rock anthem "Mau Mau (We are the Amerikon) that begins the disc. However, the strength of the work lies in its story about the hijacked starship, the struggles within the crew after the hijacking and the eventual decision to begin anew and leave the old world of war and greed behind.

This past October was the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The failure of that raid and the subsequent trial and hanging of Brown and most of his troops were some of the first salvos of the US Civil War. Brown's famous statement at the gallows that the "crimes of this guilty land (would not be) purged away but with blood" were some of the most prescient words ever written in US history. They were also a revolutionary call to arms that would propel that struggle against the stain of slavery out of the meeting houses and into the cities, fields, mountains and valleys of the United States.
As we approach the December 2nd anniversary of Brown's hanging, try to imagine an alternate scenario. John Brown and his troops did not get captured that autumn day in 1859. Instead, they made their way back into the hills surrounding Harper's Ferry and set up a camp. While militias and eventually US troops gathered in the towns around the mountain where Brown and his men were camped, a fire burned on the mountain like a beacon to all those men-white and black--who desired an end to slavery and a free nation of all men and women together. Instead of an insurrection fought by slavers and their allies designed to create a nation where the plantation and slave economy would continue to exist, there was an insurrection led by those wanting a nation where neither slavery or wage slavery existed. Now imagine this latter insurrection succeeding and creating a new nation based on these principles and calling itself Nova Africa.
This is exactly the scenario science fiction author Terry Bisson has created in his novel Fire On the Mountain. Bisson dedicates the book to the Black Liberation Army, among others. This edition includes a forward by Mumia Abu Jamal. Bisson was a member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committees during their campaign in the 1970s and 1980s against racism, apartheid, and the Klan and other racist groups in the United States. He is also the author of numerous science fiction works, including Voyage to the Red Planet, the sequel to the sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, and graphic adaptations of Robert Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon and Nine Princes of Amber.
Recently re-released by PM Press of Oakland, CA., this novel takes place in 1959 although with more technological advances. Many of those advances are directly related to the fact that Nova Africa is a socialist nation that has applied its technology to helping people instead of creating profits. There have been at least two wars with the nation formerly known as the United States and an uneasy truce exists between the current incarnation of that nation and Nova Africa. The protagonists include a Nova African anthropologist and her family, a historian at Harper's Ferry, and an adolescent slave boy that lived in Harper's Ferry during the period of Brown's time there who makes his appearance in the novel through a collection of papers he collected and wrote down as an old man.
The story takes place over a few days. The anthropologist, named Yasmin Abraham Martin Odinga, is delivering the aforementioned narrative to a museum at Harper's Ferry. It was the author's wish--her great grandfather--to have the narrative delivered and read on the July 4th centennial of the attack on Harper's Ferry which, for Bisson's book occurred on July 4th, 1859. She is late with the delivery due to an unexpected longer stay at a dig site she was working on in Africa. She is also pregnant and is picking up her teen daughter whose father died in a failed space mission a few years earlier. Bisson weaves this story in between the excerpts from Yasmin's great-grandfather's papers that describes both his adventures and observations during the time of Brown's raid and the subsequent success of the raiders in their struggle against the United States. The story moves rapidly and never stumbles. It is not only an interesting experiment in alternative history, but makes this reader wish it were true.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Judge Roy Bean Takes His Court to Manhattan

After several months of delay due to the legal concerns of his publisher American author Robert Coover published the novel The Public Burning in 1977. This novel is an often humorous and consistently biting commentary on the state of the US empire and the psyche that maintains it. It features (among others) Richard Nixon as the primary protagonist and narrator with occasional appearances from Uncle Sam as a Methuselahian superhero and Dwight Eisenhower as the latest incarnation of the American everyman. The entire tale occurs in the week leading up to the execution of accused atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and ends the night of their execution. Because it is fiction, Coover has moved the location of the execution to Times Square. The setting is possibly the most important aspect of the novel in that it portrays the execution not as the ultimate realization of justice but as a piece of national theater. It is a cathartic political moment designed to prove that the United States of America will not be undone by communists and other anti-American misfits, nor will it succumb to those who disagree with the natural order of things under American capitalism. This show is as much for the American people as it is for the rest of the world. No self-doubt is to be acknowledged when it comes to the American destiny. Coover's Uncle Sam character tells then Vice President Nixon as much in a vision: "We ain't going up to Times Square just to fill the statutorial law...," says Uncle Sam. "This is to be a consecration, a new charter of the moral and social order of the Western World...."
When I heard that Obama's Justice Department was going to try at least five of the alleged 9-11 suspects in New York City I couldn't help but think of Coover's novel. In the same way that the Rosenberg execution was a piece of political theatre designed to insure the US public that Washington had the over-hyped communist threat under control, this trial serves the purpose of convincing that same public that the terrorist threat is also being taken care of. During the trial and aftermath of the Rosenbergs, the US military was fighting a war in Korea and occupying a good portion of the world. Involvement in Vietnam on the side of the French was increasing and the ultra-right was relishing the publicity it had obtained thanks to Joe McCarthy and other anti-communist demagogues. Nowadays, the US military is fighting a war in Afghanistan, occupying Iraq and maintaining military bases around the world. The ultra-right is up to its usual publicity-seeking inanities and the economy is stumbling. It's time for a unifying event. Since (thankfully) attacks on the US homeland don't happen very often, the next best thing to rally the masses might very well be this trial.

Currently, there is a sideshow being whipped up by the rightwing that insists that the defendants should all be tried in military courts. Most of those not among that political minority disagree. The right has nothing to fear, however. Despite all the backslapping statements calling Attorney General Eric Holder's decision a triumph for the American way of justice, justice is not really the issue in these upcoming trials. No, what's at stake here for the empire reaches deeper than that. As far as the empire's guardians are concerned, these trials are about the very nature of the American future. Convictions (and most likely executions of the condemned) are essential to the continuation of the project. Doubt must be purged. Naysayers must be silenced. The attorneys that end up defending these men will be vilified. If the defendants are, by some fluke, acquitted, the jury will live in fear of their own countrymen for a long time. The court itself will be an armed camp reminiscent of the prison in Guantanamo where the defendants were held for years without trial. The effects of any torture endured by the defendants will lurk underneath every accusation and piece of evidence presented.
Given that New York is still one of the top media capitals in the world, don't look for a change of venue for these trials. The message here is not in the courtroom proceedings, but in the presentation of those proceedings. The Lady Justitia will be present, but the real force in this courtroom will be Nemesis, the god of vengeance. He has already made a difference, through the fact of the torture used by interrogators on the defendants. Getting the message that confuses justice with vengeance across will be the task of the media circus certain to ensue. The prosecution and their cohorts on the bench are depending on it.

From the trials in Salem to the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs; from the deportations of the anarchists and other radicals during the Palmer Raids of the early twentieth century to the trials of antiwar and black liberation activists in the 1960s and 1970s, the history of the United States is full of these rituals of cleansing. It doesn't matter if there are any truly guilty among the prosecuted and persecuted. It only matters that the national soul is cleansed and thereby able to begin its mission again--the mission referred to by everyone from John Winthrop in his discourses written on the passage to the new world to every president that ended his addresses with the words God Bless America. The city on the hill is still being built--now on a planetary platform. First, however, we must rid ourselves of those who don't share our vision of that city but would tear it down. More importantly, we must get rid of the self-doubt among those citizens who think the cost is too high. Vengeance under the cover of justice is just the prescription demanded by Uncle Sam and his saints.