It would be an understatement to say that drones and UAVs are hot button issue right now. As an ongoing part of the “war on terror”, the use of remotely piloted vehicles to target terrorism suspects remain a popular one within the US, with 56% of respondents indicating that they supported it (as of Feb. 2013). However, when the matter of civilian casualties and collateral damage is introduced, the issue becomes a much stickier one.
What’s more, it is becoming increasingly evident that how the drone program is being presented is subject to spin and skewing. Much like the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, it is in the Obama administration’s and the Pentagon’s best interest to present the issue in terms of “hunting terrorists” while categorically avoiding any mention of the real costs involved. And thanks to recent revelations, these efforts may prove to be more difficult in the future.
It was just over weeks ago, on July 22nd, that London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a leaked Pakistani report that detailed numerous civilian casualties by drone strikes in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). For years now, obtaining information about civilian casualties caused by US and NATO strikes in this region has been incredibly difficult – information which these documents have now provided.
The 12-page dossier was compiled for the the authorities in the tribal areas, the Bureau notes, and investigates 75 CIA drone strikes and five attacks by NATO in the region conducted between 2006 and 2009. According to the document, 746 people were killed in the strategic attacks. At least 147 of the victims were civilians, and 94 were children.
This directly contradicts inquired made by the United Nations, which began investigating the legality of the drone program and strikes last year. According to the U.N.’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights (Ben Emmerson) Pakistan then claimed at least 400 civilians had been killed in U.S. strikes in the country since 2006. Quite the discrepancy.
And while a majority of other tallies relied on media reports of drone strikes, the FATA list was compiled by government officials who were sent out to investigate damage firsthand in the wake of attacks. According to the Bureau, on several occasions officials registered different casualty rates than the media outlets reported.
The Bureau went on record to say that there were gaps in the information provided, like why none of the names of the casualties were provided, or why civilian casualties were not provided for 2009, the last year covered in the report. It is possible that logistical factors played a role, such as the lack of accurate census data in the FATA region, and that casualty figures for the year 2009 were difficult to obtain due to the acceleration of drone strikes during that year.
It is this last aspect which is likely to give many pause, since it was the decision of the outgoing Bush administration to intensify drone strikes during the last few months of his presidency, a decision which the Obama administration adopted and maintained. And the list provided only shows a gap between the official numbers and those obtained on the ground during the years of 2006 and 2009, when the strikes began.
What are we to make then of the years running from 2009 to 2013, where drone strikes in the western region of Pakistan became a much more common occurrence and the body count – civilian or otherwise – can only be expected to have escalated? This could another reason that figures were omitted from 2009, which is that the Pakistani government was concerned that they might spark outrage if they were to ever be made public.
However, that is all speculation at this point, and more time and investigation are certainly needed to determine what the cost in human terms has been. One thing is for sure though, the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are likely to become increasingly controversial as more information emerges and an accurate picture of the death toll is presented.
For years now, the US government has denied that large civilian casualty counts exist, but it continues to withhold the numbers. But some claim those numbers will not shed any real light even if they are released, since it is still not clear how the US forces distinguish between civilians and “militants” or “combatants”.
In a major speech on national security in May 2013, Obama strongly defended the drone program but said the administration would codify the process it goes through before ordering attacks and would work with Congress to create more oversight. However, no promises were made about the number of deaths leading up to this declaration, whether or not those facts and figured would be made public, and strikes continue to take place which violate this new mandate.
As the saying goes, “the first casualty of war is the truth”. And without much effort, one can easily draw parallels between this latest phase in the “war on terror” to the vagaries of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where information was withheld, numbers debated and legalities issued in order to justify highly questionable acts.
And for those old enough to remember, the specter of Vietnam is also apparent here. Then, as now, the public is forced to rely on leaked information and confidential informants simply because the official stories being issued by their government are full of discrepancies, denials, and apparent fabrications. One would think we had learned something in the last five decades, but apparently not!
Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA and its domestic surveillance program – aka. PRISM – has reemerged to reveal some additional secrets. It seems that in addition to spying on their own citizens, the NSA has been using its resources to spy on tens of thousands of operations around the world. Not surprising, but what Snowden revealed showed that when it comes to nations like China, surveillance was just the tip of the iceberg.
Snowden, who has been hiding in Hong Kong since May 20th, revealed in an interview on Thursday with the South China Morning Post that the NSA has been hacking computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. Among the targets in Hong Kong were the Chinese University of Hong Kong, public officials, businesses and even students in the city.
All told, Snowden estimated that there are more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with at least hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland. The tactics, he claimed, involve selecting large targets and infiltrating in many places at once:
We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one.
Snowden also explained his motivation for blowing the whistle on the NSA’s foreign operations. It seems that in light recent tensions between the US and China, which has been characterized by ongoing accusations and recrimination, he felt the need to tell the truth behind the lies. As he told the SCMP, his motivation was based on:
the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries….Not only does it do so, but it is so afraid of this being known that it is willing to use any means, such as diplomatic intimidation, to prevent this information from becoming public.
Though Snowden also discussed possible plans to seek asylum in Iceland or elsewhere during an interview last week, he told the SCMP that he’s staying put in Hong Kong for now. He emphasized that his stay in China was not an attempt to avoid justice, but to reveal criminal behavior. He also expressed admiration for countries that have offered asylum (such as Russia), claiming that he was “glad there are governments that refuse to be intimidated by great power.”
The Guardian newspaper, which has published information from documents leaked by Snowden, has said that it has more than a thousand other documents that Snowden managed to smuggle out or download from the NSA using a series of laptops and a thumb drive. These documents are to be disclosed in the coming weeks, according to the paper, so more revelations are expected to come.
Though there are those who question his motivations and methods, no one can deny that thanks to Snowden, some very questionable behavior has been revealed that involved people at the top echelons of government. One can’t help but be reminded of Richard Clarke, former head of the NSA, who came forward in 2004 to testify before to the 9/11 Commission and reveal the extent to which the Bush Administration failed to prevent the largest terrorist attack in history, or how it sought to pin that attack on the Iraqi government.
And for those who have lived long enough to remember, these events also call to mind the Pentagon Papers of 1969. In this case, it was another whistle blower named Daniel Ellsberg who, through the publication of hundreds of government documents, revealed that the US government had been lying about the Vietnam war, the number of casualties, and the likelihood of its success. And let’s not forget former FBI Ass. Dir. Mark Felt – aka. “Death Throat” – the man who blew the whistle on the Nixon Administration.
In the end, whistle blowers have a long history of ending wars, exposing corruption, and force administrations to take responsibility for their secret, unlawful policies. Naturally, there were those who are critical men such as Felt, Clarke, and Ellsberg, both then and now, but they have never been able to refute the fact that the men acted out of conscience and achieved results. And while I’m sure that their will be fallout from Snowden’s actions, I too cannot dispute that what he did needed to be done.
As Edmund Burke famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
The Book of Eli: This 2010 movie – starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and directed by the Hughes Brothers – takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States thirty years after nuclear war has left it a scarred and desolate place. Enter into this a wandering nomad named Eli (Washington), a man who is wandering to the West Coast with a mysterious book that “a voice” commanded him to take there. As he travels, the importance of his task is made clear, as the history of the post-war world he is making his way through.
Along the way, he encounters a town run by Carnegie (Oldman), a man who dreams of building more towns and controlling their residents through the power of a (again) a mysterious book he has heard about. His men are busy at work, searching the surrounding countryside for this book, but so far to no avail. When Eli arrived in town, Carnegie forces him to stay, as he is the only other literate person he has ever encountered.
Ultimately, it is learned that Eli has the book Carnegie is seeking, and that this book is none other than the Bible. He escapes from town and is pursued by Carnegie’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis). He explains to her that the Bible he carries is the last remaining copy since all others were destroyed after the nuclear holocaust. He was guided to it by a voice, he says, and has since been making his way across the country, guided by his newfound faith.
Eventually, Carnegie catches up to them, mortally wounds Eli and takes the Bible for himself. However, Solara manages to escape from his custody and begins transporting Eli to San Francisco so he can complete his mission. They come at last to Alcatraz where a group of survivors has been holding up under the watch of the curator named Lombardi (Malcolm McDowell). When Solara reveals they have a copy of the King James Bible, they let them in. Eli, who for the first time is revealed to be blind, begins reciting the Bible from memory.
Back in Carnegie’s town, he manages to unlock the Bible and is horrified to see it is in braille and that his wounds will soon kill him. Meanwhile, Eli dies in Alacatraz just as the printing press there begins printing copies of the Bible and the curator puts the original on a shelf next to the Torah, Tanakh and the Qur’an. Solara decides to leave and head back home, taking with her Eli’s possessions in the hopes of making a difference. She, like him, has become a wanderer guided by faith.
Granted, the message of this movie might seem a little over the top. I, for one, can’t imagine why post-apocalyptic people would destroy Bibles. If anything, I would think they would take their frustrations out on science and turn to religion for solace. Still, the point is made very clear through several key acts of symbolism. Eli, though blind, is guided by faith and it keeps him alive. And though he is robbed of the Book, the true source of it’s power, which Carnegie wants to abuse for the sake of power, lies in Eli’s own self. Really, the message couldn’t be more clear, and yet it is demonstrated with a degree of subtly that one would not ordinarily expect from a movie with a religious message. But it’s not so much about the Bible itself, it’s about maintaining hope and faith in a world where these things have been abandoned.
A Canticle for Leibowitz: Published in 1960 and written by Walter M. Miller Jr., this novel is a considered a classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi by genre fans and literary critics alike. Renowned for its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state, this book has generated a significant body of scholarly research, yet it was strangely the only novel Miller wrote in his lifetime.
Inspired by Miller’s own participation in the bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino in WWII, the story takes place in a Catholic Monastery in the South-Western US after a nuclear war – known as the “Flame Deluge” – takes place. Known as the Albertian order, the monks who inhabit this monastery are dedicated to preserving humanity’s scientific knowledge and rebuilding civilization over the course of thousands years.
The story opens roughly 600 years after the war takes place, in a time when science and technology, even the idea of literacy itself, has been almost wiped out by a campaign known as “Simplification”. At around the same time, a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, who worked for the military, converted to Christianity and founded the Albertan order.
After generations of hiding and smuggling books to safety within the orders walls, Leibowitz was betrayed and sacrificed by “Simpletons”, at which time the Catholic Church had him sainted and ordered the monastery beatified. Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science. The story is structured in three parts titled: “Fiat Homo”, “Fiat Lux”, and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let There Be Man, Let There Be Light, Thy Will Be Done), with each part comprising six centuries each.
In Fiat Homo, which takes place in the 26th century, events revolve around a young novice who while on a Vigil, finds his way to a bomb shelter with the help of a mysterious Wanderer. The discovery triggers an uproar at the Monastery, as it seems that the shelter contains relics belonging to Leibowitz himself. Some fear the sensationalism triggered by the discovery will hurt Leibowiz’s canonization, which is still being debated. After many years, the canonization is given the green light and Francis is sent to New Rome to represent the order at the Mass. Unfortunately, he is murdered in the wilderness and is buried, by none other than the Wanderer himself!
Fiat Lux opens up in the 32nd century, 6 centuries later, when the New Dark Age is coming to an end and a New Renaissance beginning. At this point in time, the Abbey is coming into conflict with the city-state of Texarkana, a metropolis’ who’s growth was hinted at in the last pages of Fiat Homo. The mayor, Hannegan, is essentially an upstart dictator who intends to become ruler of the entire region my manipulating alliances and gaining access to the Abbey’s own stores of knowledge. In the end, Hannegan’s intentions to occupy the abbey and make war on his neighbours leads to a schism whereby Hannegan is excommunicated by the Pope and he declares loyalty to the Pope to be a crime in his domain.
In the last part, which takes place towards the end of the 38th century, humanity has once again returned to a state of advanced technology, complete with nuclear power, weapons, and even starships and extra-solar colonies. As a state of cold war sets in between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition, the Order begins to enact a contingency plan known as “Quo Peregrinatur Grex Pastor Secum” (“Whither Wanders the Flock, the Shepherd is with Them”). As the nuclear bombs begin to fall, members of the Order board a starship and launch for deep space. With Earth about to succumb to nuclear war yet again, the Order is heading out to ensure that both humanity and its knowledge survives.
The stories central themes, which include the rivalries between church and state and the cyclical nature of history, are what make it such a memorable and enduring classic. Even though it is set in a fictitious future, it is loaded with allegories that connect it to the past. Nuclear war in the near future is the fall of Rome, the ensuing New Dark Ages a reiteration of the last, and the final nuclear holocaust between the Coalition and Confederacy represented contemporary fears of nuclear Armageddon.
By the Waters of Babylon: Also known as “The Place of the Gods”, this short story was originally published in 1937 by Stephen Vincent Benét. Taking place in a future where industrial civilization has been destroyed, the story is narrated by a young man named John, a son of a priest who’s people live in the hills. In his day and age, John’s people believe that past civilizations were in fact Gods. There homes are considered hallowed ground and only priests are permitted to handle metal artifacts taken from them.
Eventually, John decides that he will go to the Place of the Gods, an abandoned city that was once part of industrial civilization. In order to gain his father’s approval, he claims he is going on a spiritual quest, but keeps the intended location a secret. John then journeys through the forest for eight days and crosses the river Ou-dis-sun to make his way to the sacred place.
Once he gets to the Place of the Gods, he finds abandoned buildings, statues and countless indications that the “Gods” were in fact human. When he finally finds the remains of a dead person in an apartment, he comes to realize the truth. The Gods were in fact humans whose power overwhelmed their better judgement, hence they fell.
Upon returning to his tribe, John tells his father of the place called “New York”. It is at this point that it is made clear that the “hill people” live in the Appalachians, and the river he crossed was the Hudson. In the end, his father warns him that recounting the experience to the other tribe members will have destructive consequences. The truth, he claims, can be bad if not conveyed discretely and in small doses. The story ends with John promising that once he becomes the head priest, “We must build again.”
Farnham’s Freehold: Based on his own experiences in building a fallout Shelter, this 1964 novel by Heinlein involves a family that is transported to the future after a nuclear explosion puts a dent in their reality. In addition to the thematic elements of nuclear war and time travel, the book also contains some rather interesting commentary on race relations and segregation in the United States at the time.
The story begins with the Farnham family holding a bridge game in their home, which is attended by Hugh, his alcoholic wife Grace, their son and daughter (Duke and Karen), her friend Barbara, and a black domestic servant named Joe. After they are alerted to the fact that nuclear war is commencing, the people rush to the bomb shelter and wait for it to pass. When it seems that the bombs have stopped falling and their oxygen is running low, they walk out and begin to investigate.
What they find is that they’ve been transported to Africa, where an advanced civilization now exists that uses white people as slaves. Initially, they suspected they had been sent into an alternate dimension, but quickly realize that they are in the future. They are spared because Joe, their black domestic servant, is able to communicate to their captors in French.
In time, Hugh and Barbara agree to take part in a time-travel experiment in exchange for their freedom. They are sent back to their own time, where they escape from the bomb shelter just as the bombs begin to fall. However, they soon realize that they are not in their own time, but an alternate dimension where things are just slightly different. They survive the war and agree to spend the rest of their lives trying to prevent the future they saw from coming to pass.
The Quiet Earth: Originally a novel written by New Zealand author Craig Harrison in 1981, this story went on to inspire the loosely-adapted film of the same name which was released four years later. In both cases, the story revolves around a small group of survivors who awaken to find that the world is now devoid of humans and most other forms of life, and that time itself seems to have stopped.
The story begins with John Hobson, a geneticist who was experimenting with using radiation to activate dormant genes, which was meant to have an accelerating effect on human evolution. He wakes up in a hotel room from a nightmare where he was falling, only to find all clocks stopped at 6:12. Upon leaving the hotel, he finds that all clocks have stopped at 6:12 and that everyone appears to have simply vanished. He dubs this phenomena “The Effect” and begins looking for other survivors.
His journey takes him back to his research facility where he finds the corpse of his partner, Perrin, inside the radiation chamber. Retrieving Perrin’s locked box of papers and grabbing some weapons and supplies he sets out for Wellington. Eventually, he finds someone, a Māori lance-corporal named Apirana Maketuin, who agrees to accompany him. They eventually reach the capitol and settle in, hoping to find other survivors and run tests on “The Effect”.
Things deteriorate before long, as Hobson begins to worry that Api might be a psychopath due to his wartime experiences in Vietnam (he finds pictures of him posing with the mutilated corpses of Viet Cong). His plans to kill him with sleeping pills are interrupted when they accidentally run over a woman in the street while joyriding. They return to the hotel and make her comfortable but know she will inevitably die. This leads to a further breakdown between Hobson and Api and they fight. Api dies in the confrontation after apparently giving up.
Finally, Hobson breaks open Perrin’s box and realizes that his partner had him under surveillance because he considered him unstable. Hobson comes to the conclusion that the Effect was his doing since the the project cause the unraveling of animal DNA, and hence only those with the dormant gene pair would be spared. It is at this time that Hobson begins to have flashbacks from his last days at the facility, during which time he sabotaged the machine because of growing misgiving about the project and mistrust for his Perrin’s motivations. It was this sabotage that caused the Effect, and the reason Hobson slept through it was because he took what he thought was a fatal dose of sleeping pills.
Maddened with grief and guilt, Hobson jumps from the window and begins to fall to his death. But then, he wakes up in the same hotel room he found himself in at the beginning, recalling the same dream where he was falling. He checks his watch and it says it’s 6:12… Spooky! Though it bears a strong resemblance to such works as I Am Legend, The Quiet Earth went beyond in that it chose to focus on the themes of perception, culpability, and alternate states of consciousness. All throughout the book, it is not quite clear if Hobson is dreaming, in an alternate dimension, the last man on Earth who is responsible for the death of countless life forms, or just plain crazy.
Shadow on the Hearth: This post-apocalyptic novel, which was the first novel to be released by Canadian sci-fi author Judith Merril (1950), takes place a week after nuclear bombs have devastated, but not destroyed, civilization as we know it. The plot revolves around a mother named Gladys Mitchell and her two daughters – Barbara and Ginny, who are fifteen and five years of age – as they struggle to deal with worsening conditions and a system that is quickly becoming an abusive dictatorship.
For starters, all civil authority has broken down in the wake of the war and been replaced by the Security Office, a form of emergency services that exercises all power. Gladys’ contact with the services is the local “emergency squadman”, Jim Turner, a neighbor who begins to display a rather creepy fascination with Gladys along with a desire to turn the emergency to his own advantage.
Similarly, the difficult situation breeds suspicion and intolerance on behalf of the authorities who begins see enemies everywhere. The Mitchell’s maid, a woman named Veda, comes under suspicion when it is learned that she was off sick during the time of the attack. Much the same is true of Gladys’ old science teacher, who predicted that nuclear war would be inevitable and now fears the paranoid Security Office might suspect him.
Meanwhile, Gladys tried to maintain a disposition of stoic calm, mainly because she believes its her role as a mother to act as though everything is fine. While her intentions are good, she’s slow to admit that Turner and the authorities are corrupt, that their situation is bleak, or that she might need to manipulate certain people to get her way. But in the end, she is willing to go to great lengths to protect her family, from both external threats and the threat of dissolution.
In several key aspects, this story demonstrates some of the overriding themes and feelings that were present during the early cold war. We have the specter of war and dictatorship, the focus on the single-parent family, the idea of domesticity and sexism, and the affirmation of the mother figure who will do whatever it takes, even if she seems naive and silly, to keep her family safe and secure. While it might seem dated by modern standards, it is nevertheless a fitting and accurate portrayal of life in the 1950’s and the likelihood of what would come of it if the bombs started to fall.
The Time Machine: Last, but not least, we have the story that has made my lists in one form or another on numerous occasions. In addition to being an example of utopian and dystopian fiction, The Time Machine is also a fitting example of post-apocalyptic science fiction. This is part of what makes H.G. Wells novella a timeless classic, in that it transcends or jumps between genres and can therefore be read from a number of different perspectives.
In this respect, the Time Traveler’s trip to the distant future, where the world has degenerated into a two-tier structure between the monstrous Morlocks and the stagnant but beautiful Eloi, can be seen as an example of post-apocalyptic society. What’s more, their respective degeneration is seen as the result of humanity’s obsession with class distinction, the masters becoming lazy and ineffectual while the workers have become cannibalistic and brutish.
Another apocalyptic element in the story comes towards the end when the Time Travelers recovers his machine from the Morlocks and travels another 30 million years into the future. Once there, he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, a red landscape similar to that of Mars which is covered by lichenous vegetation and crab-like creatures wandering across blood-red beaches. As he jumps further, he sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die out, the world falling silent and freezing as the last organisms die off.
In a deleted section of text, which H.G. Wells apparently included in the original serial version at the behest of his editor, but cut from the novel once it was published. Here, Wells demonstrated “the ultimate degeneracy” of man by having the Time Traveler escape from the Morlocks and jump once more before traveling 300 millions years into the future. Here, he found an unrecognizable Earth populated by furry, hopping herbivores, which he interpreted to be the descendents of the Morlocks and Eloi. Thus, in addition to first losing the instincts that defined humanity at its greatest, the Morlocks and Eloi, themselves descended from humans, even reverted to an earlier state of evolution in the end.
Though not a post-apocalyptic tale in the strictest sense, this story does contain the necessary elements of such a story. You have humanity degenerating as a result of cataclysmic events or its own inherent weaknesses, civilization as we know it being destroyed or disappearing, and even the world itself coming to an end.
And that’s all I got for post-apocalyptic sci-if. Sure, there are countless more examples that could be included, but three lists is enough for me and I’m neck deep in other concepts that are vying for page time. In the coming weeks, expect more news on technology, space exploration, the upcoming anthology, Data Miners (set for release in August) and plenty of assorted tidbits on stuff that relates to the world of science and science fiction. Take care all and see you again soon!
Once in a while I like to break from sci-fi to honor major political developments or anniversaries. And since I missed out on honoring those who participated in D-Day on June 6th, I refuse to let this one pass without comment as well. As many are no doubt aware, it’s the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and in many countries, this occasion is being marked and commemorated. For many people in many nations, not just the historians among us, this war was extremely significant.
But what is most interesting is how it is remembered differently. For Canadians, 1812 was a decisive moment in which the country came together to repel a foreign invasion and declare its nationhood in the face of annexation. For Americans, it is remembered as a largely defensive affair in which a second British attempt at invasion was repulsed. For the the British, it was a largely colonial affair that was designed to distract them from the war on the Continent with Napoleon. And for the First Nations of Canada and the US, it was seen a loss which led to further annexation and loss of sovereignty.
And that’s just the Anglo-American perspective. If we were to set our sights a little farther abroad, we’d notice that people in Russia, Germany, and France also have thoughts of their own to share. For France, 1812 was a major setback in the larger affair known as the Napoleonic Wars. For this stout general/dictator from Sardinia, it was the beginning of the end for his rule and his empire. The Russians accordingly saw it as a great victory against a foreign invader, one which they would exploit in future wars to bolster morale. And for Germany, being forced to fight in Napoleon’s “Grand Armee” was a catalyzing event that helped to rouse national sentiment, ultimately leading to German unification in 1871.
Interesting how history can be relative, isn’t it, depending on who you ask and what their perspective is? But thanks to my own historical studies, I’ve learned much about this war, and can say that they all reflect a certain aspect of truth. In the end, all points of view and how we choose to remember the war tell us much of our national experience of it and confirm that the war was a very large affair that was experienced differently all around the world. I shall be brief, since the real historians are the ones you should be listening to. I just want to offer my humble two cents 😉
The American Perspective: In the course of studying American history, I was interested to see just how the War of 1812 was treated. It was no secret to me that the popular American conception is that they won the war – here in Canada we say the exact same thing. But what I did find objectionable was the rather glaring ommissions that seemed to pervade the history textbooks on the subject.
For example, so many of the battles which took place on Canadian soil were not mentioned, the focus being on the battles America won and which happened for the most part on their own soil. These included the Battles of Plattsburgh, Chesapeake Bay, Washington DC, and especially New Orleans.
And yet, the best explanations I have heard for this come from American historians themselves. As one put it, “Americans, when they chose to remember the war at all, focus on the last year of the war when the battles were defensive in nature”. This, he claimed, is what gives rise to the illusion that America was fighting a defensive war which allowed them to think of it as a victory.
Another historian, who was also a General in the US Army, claimed that it is only in West Point Academy that a full and comprehensive treatment of 1812 is available in the US. Here, he claims, officers in training are taught that 1812 is a perfect example of what NOT to do in a war, namely go to war with overconfidence, an underfunded and staffed army, and a divided country.
And yet another claims that 1812 is America’s first “forgotten war”, beating Vietnam by over a century and a half. I especially liked this take on it since I’m a real proponent of how history repeats itself, just in different settings with different particulars. Seen in this context, 1812 was a less than stellar affair which quickly became overshadowed by the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, both of which were decisive for America and had a far greater impact on their history and development as a nation.
The First Nation Perspective: Compared to the other perspectives, this one is by far the most sobering and real. In fact, one could characterize it by saying that this is a case where people were invited to a war, made a big difference, and then were shut out in the cold to be forgotten while the other combatants came to terms and all had their own victory parties. Disgusting really, but it teaches us something about how history frequently screws people over.
For the Cree Nation and the many nations that encompassed the Great Lakes Region, the war began long before 1812. Prior to this, American encroachment led many nations in the Ohio valley to begin to organize and militarize for the sake of defense. Seeing opportunity and common cause in this, the British began arming these nations and making alliances with them, knowing that any invasion northward would effect all. At the forefront of all this was a committed individual named Tecumseh, a Cree leader who was responsible for much of the cultural revival that was setting in and saw potential in an alliance with the British.
When war was declared, Tecumseh and his bands of fighters proved to be the decisive factor in several battles, not the least of which was at Fort Michigan, where they came upon the garrison by way of the river and took the fort with barely any casualties or shots being fired. In time, the collaboration between Brock (the British Commander) and Tecumseh led Brock to give him his overcoat as a personal gift. However, in keeping with his cultural traditions, Tecumseh conferred the honor onto a more senior warrior in his army. Brock was not offended.
During the American invasion of Upper Canada, the Mohawk nation also proved decisive. At the attack on Fitzgibbon, Mohawk warriors mounted a surprise attack on the unsuspecting American army and forced the surrender of over 500 troops. They had been tipped off by a young woman named Laura Secorde, a nurse who had been privy to the American plans while tending to wounded soldiers on Canadian soil.
In just about every subsequent battle on Canadian soil, Cree, Mohawk and Iroquois warriors were intrinsic to the fight. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the presence of these seasoned warriors was often the difference between victory and defeat. Facing overwhelming numbers, the Angl0-Canadian forces were often bolstered by the fact that American troops were frightened of Native warriors, having been subjected to stories about their fearsome, bloodthirsty nature for so long.
Unfortunately, the war ended for the Cree Nation and Tecumseh during the Battle of Moraviantown (aka. the Battle of the Thames)i n southern Ontario. After the defeat of British naval forces on Lake Erie, British forces were ordered to pull back to where they could be reinforced and resupplied.
However, Tecumseh objected and voted instead to hold the line against the advancing American armies. Though he died and his forces were defeated at Moraviantown, this battle stalled the American forces long enough to give the British and Canadian forces time to regroup. As a result, the Americans were defeated at Lundy’s Lane six months later and the last invasion of Canadian soil was stopped.
The Canadian Perspective:
As I already stated, from the Canadian point of view, 1812 was a decisive war that saw the country come together to repel a foreign invader. This perspective does gloss over the fact that there were divisions between Upper and Lower Canada, that victory was owed in large part to its Native allies, and that Canada was still nominally a colonial possession of the British Empire. However, the perspective still holds true, as Canadian militia were the cornerstone of the small garrison of British regulars. In fact, Brock chose to dress all of his militia in the same red coats as his regulars in order to give the illusion that he had a larger force. This in turn would play a major role in ensuring the cohesion and organization of his forces in the battles to come.
And to top it off, Canadian forces did succeed in overcoming the odds against a much larger American invasion force. Whether it was the assaults on American border forts in Michigan and along the Great Lakes or defensive actions in Ontario and Quebec, Canadian forces managed to acheive an almost unbroken string of victories.
These included the Battles of Queenstown Heights, where the American forces that had crossed Lake Ontario and set fire to York (modern day Toronto) were defeated. The Battles of Chrysler’s Farm and Chateauguay were also decisive victories which forced the American forces to abandon their St. Lawrence campaign, the planned invasion of Quebec. And finally, Lundy’s Lane, though not a decisive victory, was seen as the final battle in which the invaders were stopped.
All of these experiences served to galvanize national sentiment and helped to inspired demands for reform which would culminate in the Rebellions of 1837. This is especially ironic seeing as how American planners believed that the Upper Canada Loyalists would welcome an American invasion and see it as a chance to throw off British rule. Instead, it inspired Canadians to reject union with the United States and demand a measure of independence on our own terms.
The British Perspective: And last, but not least, we have what Merry Ol’ England thought of the whole affair. Far from seeing it as a mere diversion, the British were actually quite invested in what took place on North American soil, even if they did see it as a distraction from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
For many years, Britain had been locked in a state of cold war with the US, monitoring the frontier with wary anxiety and taking every opportunity to bolster its defenses, either by supplying Native allies or making sure their were garrisons in Upper and Lower Canada and fleets on the Great Lakes.
Though these were by no means comparable to American forces, they did indicate how seriously the British took the prospect of an American invasion. And in the end, Britain felt pretty good about it’s conduct during the war. Their vaunted General Brock, though he died in the line of duty, organized a stalwart defense of the colonies while the British Navy harassed and assaulted many American ports. Though eventually these invasion attempts were rebuffed, they did meet with some success.
While Brock and Tecumseh managed to seize a series of key forts in the Great Lakes region and burned Detroit to the ground – in retaliation for the burning of York – they managed to set upon Washington DC and burned it to the ground. This is something which is commemorated extensively on the American side, particularly how a portrait of George Washington was saved before the old White House was set ablaze.
But of course, the defeated attempts at invasion did not go unnoticed either. Whether it was at Plattsburgh, Baltimore or the disastrous assault on New Orleans, it was clear that the war would end with American territorial sovereignty more or less intact. As a result, Britain would walk away from the war undefeated, but without much to show for it.
But of course, that was ultimately the goal in North America, to repulse the American invasion while at the same time ensuring that Napoleon’s defeat on the continent was assured. With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, and the war with France now over, Britain breathed a temporary sigh of relief. This would end with Napoleon’s return from Elba, but that too would be resolved with the Battle of Waterloo a year later. For the British, as well as the Americans, 1812 would fade into obscurity, something to be remembered mainly by historians and not popular consciousness.
Well, that’s my limited appraisal of the war. For the full scoop, you really need to check in with the historical recreationists, especially those who maintain the border forts along the Great Lakes region. For example, if you’re in Kingston, best check out Fort Henry. I remember going there as a preteen and thinking just how awesome the whole affair was. Not only do they dress in period costume and tell you much about the history of the fort, they also conduct actual musket and cannon drills just to keep things interesting and authentic.
Also, be sure to do your own research on this and other “forgotten wars” of history. It’s often because they were so instructive that they are allowed to fade into obscurity, mainly because people would like to forget what happened. However, that is how lessons are avoided and convenient lies allowed to permeate. Those familiar with World War I and the legend of the “Stab in the back” will know what I mean by that! Had people not been in such a hurry to forget the carnage and pretend that the war was just a big misunderstanding, or that Germany had been betrayed and not defeated, World War II could very well have been avoided.
And for those veterans who fought in the Vietnam War, as well as those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (two “forgotten wars” in the making), the lessons of a forgotten war cannot be allowed to go unlearned again. In fact, one could argue that if 1812 were taught in full in schools and academic institutions other than West Point throughout the country, wars like Vietnam and Iraq could have been avoided. When one reads of how men like Jefferson said taking Canada would be “a mere matter of marching”, slogans like “domino effect” and “we’ll be welcomed as liberators” suddenly ring very hollow!
In short, there’s a reason history is full of repeats. All too often, it seems that only a select few are able to discern the patterns and realize that this sort of thing has been done before, usually with disastrous consequences. And my father – who recently visited Europe as part of commemorative trip – would tell you, some people do remembrance right! In Belgium, especially in the town of Ypres, commemorative ceremonies are an almost everyday occurrence. Those who died in the defense of the country and the events which devastated it are solemnly remembered on a regular basis, not just once a year. One would get the impression that these things are important to them!
Okay, that’s enough out of me. Happy anniversary War of 1812. You accomplished much, remind us of much, and really deserve to be honored, regardless of the fact that you fell between the War of Independence and during the Napoleonic Wars. I tell ya, those wars are such attention hogs! In any case, I look forward to 2014 too, when the end of World War I will be commemorated the world over, but especially in Flanders where the people will holding all kinds of celebrations to mark the centennial of the end of the Great War. My wife and I plan to be in attendance. I know my folks will be front row center!
Welcome back my friends! A funny thing happened just this morning. I was looking at an old article – titled Dystopian Science Fiction – and realized that something was missing. Yes, this is the article that earned me most of my current followers and the bulk of my traffic on this site, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there was a hidden voice in that little study that never got a chance to have its say.
Basically, when I was looking into dystopian literature, I realized that it and utopian literature are almost the same thing. You might say that they represent two sides of the same coin, not so much opposites as interchangeable facets where one can become the other with a simple turn of the wheel. So I asked myself, why then haven’t I compiled a list of the most popular Utopian literature to go along with my dystopian one? Having read Thomas More’s seminal book that started it all, I’m nothing if not incredibly fascinating by the subject. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nerd for research and can’t resist sharing what I find.
So why the hell haven’t I done this yet?! Don’t know, probably got swept away with all those posts about robots, ships, and guns. In any case, it’s a mistake I rectify here and now. Using the same format as my article on dystopian sci-fi, I’ve come up with a tentative list of the greatest forerunners, classics, and modern examples of utopia in literature. The list is by no means complete, but I feel it is a faithful sampling. You be the judge, here goes:
The first acknowledged examples of utopian literature come to us from classical antiquity, when scholars reached beyond the old strictures of writing about dynastic struggle, great wars and the foundations of their empires to tackle issues such as justice, morality, and the driving forces of history. By asking these questions, and offering up possible explanations, they were to have an immeasurable effect on subsequent generations of intellectuals, statesmen and social reformers.
The Republic: Written around 380 BCE by Plato, this is perhaps the oldest example of utopian literature. Written as an account of one of Socrates many dialogues, the chief purpose of this book was in finding the true definition of justice and what it takes to achieve a just city-state and a just man. As Plato’s best known work, it is also one of the most influential philosophical and intellectual texts in the history of western society and maybe even the world.
Made up of ten books, the account follows Socrates and his Athenian and foreign guests as they discuss various topics. Amongst them are whether or not the “just man” is happier than the “unjust man”, the theory of forms and universality, the nature of the soul, the role of the philosopher in society, and finally, what the different types of government are and what makes them just/unjust.
From Plato’s account, Socrates and his peers proposed that philosophers are the ideal statesmen and that justice can best be summed up by considering the common good rather than common sense definitions having to do with personal justice. In addition, the allegory of the cave – how we are all essentially prisoners and merely going by projections of truth rather than truth itself – was advanced. And finally, they listed the four predominant forms of government (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) and how they tended to devolve into each other.
Ultimately, the value of this work was in how it showed the connection between political cause and effect, and how it sought to create guidelines for good governance. It’s identification of the four major types of government has been used over and over in the history of political discourse and even became the basis of modern political sciences. And because of its focus on things like the common good and the idea of philosopher statesmen, it was also to have a profound influence on later generations of scholars, particularly Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx.
The City of God: Written by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century CE, The City of God is considered one of the most important texts in the history of Christianity. Written after the Visigoth sack of Rome, the text was intended as much as a consolation to Christians as it was a discourse on theological matters. Basically, Augustine claimed that though the city of Rome had fallen, the City of God, the “eternal Jerusalem” still stood strong and would endure.
Essentially, Augustine advanced a perception of history in this book that was characterized by a dialectical process, or a conflict between opposites. On the one hand, there was the City of Man, characterized by earthly pleasures and decadence, and the City of God, dedicated to eternal truth. The conflict, he claimed, would end with victory for the latter, where people would throw off the bonds of an earthly paradise in favor of a spiritual one.
Thought it did not concern itself with matters of practical governance or how an ideal state could be created in the here and now, Augustine’s treatise was to have a profound effect on the fields of theology and philosophy. Basically, his idea of a city where spiritual purity could be attained became the basis for a theocratic state, while his theory on the dialectical process of history would go on to inspire men like W.F. Hegel and (again) Karl Marx.
Tao Hua Yuan: Otherwise known as “The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring”, this book is considered the quintessential utopian book by Chinese scholars and historians. Written in 421 CE by Tao Yuanming, it is an epic poem of how a traveler accidentally discovers an ethereal paradise where people live an idyllic existence, unaware of the world outside their walls.
Written after the collapse of the Han Dynasty, a period marked by civil war and unrest, this poem tells the tale of how a fisherman sailed up a river that was entirely surrounded by blossoming peach trees. At the end of the river, he finds a village where the people, thought surprised to see him, welcome him and treat him as one of their own. He quickly realizes that the community is an idyllic one, where people live in harmony with nature and one another.
In time, he learns from the villagers that this place was established by their ancestors during the last civil war when the Qin Dynasty was conquering all of China. Since that time, they have been cut off from the outside world and know nothing of its political shifts and wars. Upon leaving, he is told that it would be pointless to recount his discovery of the village to others. He nevertheless makes a note of the village on his map, but when he tells others of it, their attempts to locate it prove unsuccessful.
In essence, the poem suggest that this place, the idyllic village, was otherworldly, and the man’s voyage up the river was in fact a voyage into the afterlife. It also advances the idea that it is only in being cut off from the outside world that an earthly paradise can exist, and those that leave it will never be able to return. This idea was to have a profound influence on Chinese and Asian culture, no doubt inspiring such myths as that of Shangri-La. In addition, the Chinese expression shìwaì taóyuán, which refers to a remote paradise – and literally means ‘the Peach Spring beyond this world’ – has its roots in this poem.
By the time of the Renaissance (14th/15th century CE), Europeans began to have a renewed interest in classical learning. At first, this consisted of merely adapting and translating previously lost texts from ancient Greek and Arabic to Latin and other European languages. However, by the time of the Enlightenment (18th century CE), European scholars were adapting and expounding on classical ideas, bringing them forward into the modern age with new speculations and examples on how a perfect society could be created, or whether or not one was even possible. It was also the age that the term Utopia began to be used popularly.
Utopia: Ah yes, the man who gave it a name! Sir Thomas More, otherwise known as Saint Thomas More, was a Renaissance humanist and THE man who brought the word Utopia into modern usage. Written in 1516 CE, his seminal study on the perfect society has influenced all subsequent generations of social critics, employing social criticism, history and of course, delicious irony to make a series of points about the ideal society and whether or not it can even exist.
The story is told (much like Plato’s Republic) as a dialogue between the author and a fictitious man named Raphael Hythloday, a world traveler and tradesman. In the course of recounting his tales of all the places he’s seen he brings up one in particular place, the island nation of Utopia, which he hails as the best of all possible societies. As the story goes on, he details exactly what it is that makes it an ideal place, and by comparison, all others flawed.
To break it down succinctly, the Utopians do not value gold and silver because they long ago discovered that there worth is merely an extension of their rarity. Instead, they choose to value iron and bronze as precious and keep jewels, gold and silver in reserve in case they need to bribe foreign princes or armies. In addition, their economic activity is based on an egalitarian principle, where all people rotate from one service to another so that no sense of class hierarchy ever becomes permanent.
What’s more, when it comes to education, the Utopian have made it manifest that all people be taught to read and educated on basic matters of logic, philosophy, numeracy, etc. This is to prevent the creation of a philosopher caste which is concerned solely with matters of thought while others toil away and provide for them. Much like with their policy or rotating labor, it is customary that all people divest themselves from their tasks every now and then to pursue matters of art, science and other intellectual pursuits.
And of course, politics, property ownership, and all other forms of activity on Utopia are considered communal. There is no such thing as private property, rule is exercised by council and not by kings and a court, and membership in this council is rotational, popular and considered a civic duty. In short, Utopia is an ideal society because rule by the few, greed and ownership are all forbidden. And though there are few laws to speak of, all of these practices are contained within a strict code of conduct which was passed down by the island’s founder, King Utopus.
And last, but certainly not least, is the issue of religious tolerance. Written during the time of the Reformation Wars, More claimed that in this ideal society, no one’s faith was ever held against them. Provided they believed in a higher power, no discrimination or persecution were allowed under the law. However, there was one exception, which applied to atheists (!). Essentially, it stated that anyone who did not believe in the hereafter, where they would be answerable for their sins, would be allowed to hold public office.
In the end, Hythloday claimed that there was no reason why other nations could not adopt these same principles which benefited the nation of Utopia so. The only reason, he claimed, was because all other nations of his day were “conspiracies of the rich” where enlightened reform is avoided because of greed, vanity and pride. Ultimately, More chooses to disagree with this fictitious character on numerous points as a way of distancing himself from the critique.
In addition, there are several ironic points which seem to indicate that he was also questioning whether or not such a place could even exist. The name Utopia for one translates from Latin to mean “No Place”. In addition, many of the customs he describes sound less than ideal and would seem to suggest that the only way to create a perfect society is to force people to comply with strict rules, which in turn can create its own problems. In the end, it was not clear if More was saying that such a place does not exist, could exist, or will never exist. All that is clear is the influence it had, once again by expounding on the virtues of collectivization, popular sovereignty and the removal of class distinction.
Gulliver’s Travels: Though I included this novel in my previous list as an example of dystopian fiction, there are many elements of Gulliver’s Travels that fit into the category of utopia as well. For example, between every voyage Gulliver undertakes which brings him to a land that parodies some aspect of English and European society, there is a corresponding trip to a comparatively idyllic place.
After traveling to the land of the Lilliputians, a land of moral midgets who’s size matches their outlook, he travels to the land of Brobdingnagians where the same rule applies, only in reverse. Whereas he was denounced by the Lilliputians for not helping them to subjugate their neighbors, to the Brobdingnagians he was considered a novelty and his own moral outlook was received with horror.
In addition, after traveling to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, all of which are seen to be inherently flawed in some respect, he travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. These horse people, who boast rational capacities that put humanity to shame, are seen as the perfection of nature whereas humans are seen as brutish. What’s more, Gulliver’s time amongst them makes him inherently sympathetic to them, but in the end they deny him the right to live amongst them since they see him as a danger to their civilization.
Ultimately, Swift did not give any details as to how the morally upright societies which stood in contrast to his parodies achieved their current state. But by including them in his story, he was employing a decidedly utopian tactic – using a fictitious, ideal society to point out the flaws in an existing one.
Erewhon: Also known as “Over the Range”, this novel by Samuel Butler is renowned as a prime example of utopian literature (though there are some dystopian elements as well). Published in 1872, the bulk of the story is an account of the fictional nation named Erewhon which is located within the mountains of New Zealand. Often compared to Gulliver’s Travels and Letters from Nowhere (1890) the tale is about a seemingly perfect society which proves to be less than all that.
In describing Erewhon, Butler paints the picture of an idyllic society where people live close to the land. There is also no machinery because the people of Erewhon fear that it will someday become intelligent and supplant them – a rather unique take on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.
However, in time, the author notes several odd customs in this land involving their justice system, religion and system of coinage. For example, criminals are treated as invalids in their society, whereas invalids are treated as criminals. In addition, religious institutions offer their own coinage and act like banks, but are immune to charges of counterfeiting because they are religious institutions. These practices were meant to satirize certain aspects of Victorian society at the time, including its religious hypocrisy, intolerance and anthropocentricism.
Clearly inspired by other utopian writers, Butler even went as far as to borrow a page from More who was also ironic with his choice of title. The name Erewhon, an anagram for “Nowhere”, makes the deliberate point that this society is fictitious, and therefore its better elements are not to be found anywhere. Though by no means a dystopian story, it is nevertheless a poignant allegory for the British Empire during the time of writing, an empire that for all intents and purposes did not live up to its own ideals.
Though by no means as popular as dystopian literature, utopian novels were still a very common feature in the 20th century. And like dystopian lit, it was used repeatedly by authors to mock and satirize the world of their day. By showing a society that had overcome mankind’s traditional flaws, some sought to demonstrate how society could be bettered. Others, however, liked to juxtapose the belief in a perfect society with the reality of an imperfect one, as a way of demonstrating how the quest was noble but was sure to encounter problems.
Men Like Gods: Published in 1923, this work of science fiction by the venerable H.G. Wells explores an parallel universe where human beings live in a world without government. Much like the time machine, the book contains equal parts speculative science and social commentary, involving a world in the future that parodied his own.
Taking place during the summer of 1921, the story opens with a cynical English journalist named Barnstaple who is mysteriously transported through time to an alternate world named (interestingly enough) Utopia. Essentially an advanced Earth, Utopia is three thousand years ahead of humanity, where people live in a perfectly realized anarchy, no government or sectarian religion exist, and scientific research flourishes.
All Utopians live by the “Five Principles of Liberty”: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. After a month of staying amongst the Utopians, Barnstaple asks if he can stay amongst them but is refused. According to the people of this world, the best thing for this journalist is to return to his world. This he does, renewed of vigor and committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.”
This was not a political revolution, in Well’s eyes, but rather the march of progress which he felt was already very much at work in society. In essence, such a revolution that was guaranteed by scientific and rational progress, he surmised, would one day wipe away all the current problems of the world. Namely, petty nationalism, sectarian turmoil, and irrational fear.
Childhood’s End: Released in 1953, this story is perhaps Arthur C. Clarke’s best known novel outside of the Space Odyssey series, and the one which established him as a writer. Embracing many themes which would show up in numerous sci-fi franchises, the book deals with the near-future possibility of contact with an alien species and the profound effect it will have on humanity. Broken down into three parts, the book begins with the arrival of aliens, moves onto the effect they have, and concludes with the aftermath of their experimentation and their departure.
The story opens with the introduction of the Overlords, a space faring race that appear suddenly in orbit around Earth in the late 20th century. With their ships poised over every major city on Earth, they issue a simple directive: End all war, now and forever. They assume a sort of indirect control over human affairs, preferring to stay aboard their spaceships, and communicating directly with only the Secretary-General of the UN.
Though many suspect of them of malicious intent, the Overlords influence is largely indirect and they promise to reveal themselves in 50 years. In the meantime, the suppression of war leads to a sort of golden age where prosperity flourishes, but at the expense of creativity. When 50 years is up, the demon-like Overlords emerge and begin conducting some seemingly benign psychic research.
Generations pass and humanity grows antsy due to a general feeling of stagnation. However, many children begin to be born who demonstrate telekinetic powers. Finally, the Overlords reveal that they are representatives of what is called the Overmind – a vast cosmic intelligence created from alien races that have all shed matter’s restrictions and become cosmic beings. The Overlords, for whatever reason, cannot join the Overmind, so they act instead as a bridge, seeking out intelligent life and fostering cosmic evolution. Humanity is now set to join this intelligence, having become post-human and ready to embrace their full potential.
Though some would see this concept of Overlords, Overminds, and tampering with evolution as a negative, Clarke presented it as an unequivocal positive. To him, the idea that humanity would need to be forced to become enlightened seemed like a perfectly plausible means of overcoming its inherent flaws. This is in keeping with Clarke’s Futurist mentality, where progress is not only inevitable and desirable and human antipathy towards progress is based on irrational fear.
The Dispossessed: Published in 1974, this novel is one of several utopian science fiction books published by famed author Ursula K. Le Guin. Written during the Vietnam War, the story takes place in a distant solar system (Tau Ceti) where two empires with diametrically opposed views become engaged in a proxy war when a neighboring state undergoes a revolution.
Set in the same universe as her critically-acclaimed story Left Hand of Darkness, the Tau Ceti system consists of two major worlds – Anarres and Urras. Urras is the focal point of the story, a planet which is dominated by two major nations which are rivals. The A-lo nation (which represents the US) is capitalistic and patriarchal whereas the Thu nation (Soviet Union) is run by an authoritarian regime that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.
To complete the analogy, both states become embroiled in a war when an underdeveloped nation named Benbili experiences a revolution which prompts both sides to invade. Thus, Benbili comes to represent South-East Asia at the time of the Vietnam War, just as Urras represents the world at the time of writing – a world divided between two diametrically opposed empires, both of whom seem to think they are the example of a perfect society (or as close as one can come to it).
As the story goes on, we learn that Anarres, the other major world, was settled long ago by a group of proto-Anarchists who left Urras to escape the planet’s divided nature. Since that time, the Anarrean people have created an egalitarian society which maintains contact with Urras only through its capitol-city spaceport. In keeping with the story, this alternate planet can be seen as a third option for humanity, which finds itself otherwise torn between two extremes.
This calls to mind Brave New World, where Huxley had created a planet torn between madness and insanity, or primitive freedom and “civilization”. In the end, the character of John the Savage, a man who had a foot in both worlds, could not reconcile himself to either and killed himself. Huxley had long expressed regret with this outcome, thinking that he should have offered a third option in the form of the exile communities that dotted the world in his story. Seen in this light, Dispossessed seems to offer solutions to the problem of two civilization fighting over who’s “utopia” is better.
Ecotopia: Published in 1975, this novel is considered a pre-eminent work of utopian fiction and a fitting commentary on the green movement and counter-culture of the 1970’s. In it, author Ernest Callenbach describes a new society which has been founded in the Pacific Northwest by groups of ecological secessionists. Interestingly enough, his critique of this fictional society was based on environmental science and descriptions of actual communes that were being established across the mid-western US at the time.
Set in the year 1999, the story takes place from the point of view William Weston, a reporter named who is the first American to travel to the new country of Ecotopia. Most of the narrative consists of his cables back to the fictitious newspaper he works for, but other details are filled in by his diary entries. These include an affair with an Ecotopian woman, an experience which leaves him transformed and opens him up to the Ecotopian way of life.
Amongst the differences he notes between his world and this ecological utopia are the policies of universal health care, liberal cannabis use, fitness, local art and fitness (as opposed to television and spectacle sports), sexual freedom, and voluntary mock warfare. Curiously enough, they also celebrate gender roles and believe in racial separation. Not sure how those are meant to be utopian, but okay…
In the end, the narrator comes to see that the Ecotopians are not a backwards, regressionary people but simply individuals who want to live a healthier existence closer to the Earth. In addition to using modern technologies, provided they are ecologically friendly, they also maintain an advanced arms industry and stockpiles of WMD’s, a means of ensuring that a potentially revanchist US government doesn’t try to take back their territory by force. In the end, Weston chooses to stay in Ecotopia and act as a sort of cultural liaison to the outside world.
Aside from the issues of gender roles and racial segregation, this book seems to fit the description of an ideal society quite well. By demonstrating that a better life need not mean huge sacrifices or the denial of technology, Callenbach was basically arguing for an open mind when it comes to the ecological and social experiments which were taking place in the US at the time. His idea of an outsider coming to respect and embrace this culture also calls to mind More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels, where the narrators did the same. He also seems to be arguing that a better society is not only possible, but within our reach.
The Giver: Although classified as a dystopian novel by some, this 1993 piece of YA fiction has undeniably utopian elements, and therefore confounds simple classification. Taking place in a fictional community where pain and strife have been eliminated through “Sameness” and people’s roles are selected by a council of elders, The Giver begins as a description of a utopian society which gradually becomes more dystopian in its outlook.
Enter into this world Jonas, a young boy who has been selected by the elders to serve as the next “Receiver of Memory”. This person occupies a venerated position in their society since they are responsible for storing all memories that predate Sameness, just in case they are ever needed to aid in the decision making process.
As Jonas receives these memories, he comes to understand just how powerful knowledge is. People in his society are happy, but only because they are ignorant to any way of life that runs counter to their own. In the end, he faces a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he could release the memories and enlighten his people, though it will surely mean chaos. On the other, he can keep them ignorant, thus ensuring stability for the time being.
Written for young adult audiences, but intensely mature in its outlook, this story not only examines what it takes to create a perfect society but what the costs of that might be. It is also very poignant in the way it addresses a theme which is crucial to growing up – how the end of innocence is a necessary step to becoming a mature and responsible individual. This is a step we frequently wish we could avoid, but seems inevitable in the long run.
Looking at the extensive list of utopian fiction that has been produced across time, I am once again reminded of just how closely linked it is with dystopian fiction. It seems that all utopian commentaries emerged out of a problematic world, where authors felt the need to offer up a better or even ideal society as a means of satire or consolation. Though they differed in that they were not quite cautionary in nature, they shared the same basic purpose as dystopian tales. At once, they offered people a chance to examine this thing we know as the human condition and ask if something better were truly possible.
Overall, I’m not sure which I like better. When I was penning the article on dystopian literature, I could honestly say I preferred it because it seemed more realistic. Now, I wonder if there is not a profound sense of genius and realism to utopian literature that I was perhaps overlooking. Sure, one could make the argument that works like the Republic and Utopia were simple in their intent, claiming that society could be turned into a model of justice and fairness through basic reforms. But upon closer inspection, one sees the unmistakable presence of irony. In all cases, it seems like the author is agonizing over the question of whether or not such changes are even possible.
Sure, greed could done away with if collectivization were enforced. Sure, if money were abolished, there would be far less in the way of crime. Sure, if people were made to rotate between professions, there would be less class conflict and snobbery. And of course, if government were truly representative and those in power were closer to the governed, there would be less abuses of power. But how do you go about making that happen? How, without resorting to force or Draconian measures, do you get people to treat each other as equals and respect each other.
Like it or not, the question “can’t we all just get along?” has been dogging humanity since the beginning of time. Many solutions have been suggested, like the expropriation of the ruling class, a certain means of production, or a certain way of living. But inevitably, all these proposed solutions get tied up in moral considerations (i.e. killing is wrong), or questions of practicality – i.e. getting rid of all the cars, central heating, AC and electricity will lead to millions of deaths worldwide. So really, is utopian literature meant as a proposition for change, or is it merely a tool to make us contemplate the tougher questions?
I know my answer, but in the end, the point is simply to ask, isn’t it? It’s the exploration that counts, which is precisely why such literature has been penned over the centuries. Waiting for heaven to come might be a pain in the ass, but trying to make it come can also be a ticket to hell!
Well, my book club is finally coming to the end of reading 1984. I sure am happy we picked that novel, as it is not only one of my favorites reads but one of my favorite books to teach. There’s just so much there, a real English-teachers delight! And really, I never get tired of reviewing it. There’s always something new to talk about, as you can plainly see! In addition, I’ve been hosting some 1984 chat groups over at Goodreads and that got me thinking about certain elements of the story all over again. In the first forum we were discussing whether or not a 1984-type society could still happen, and to what extent did we think we might be living in one already. In the second, we got into the differences between 1984 and Brave New World, how Orwell and Huxley had different visions on the future, and which we thought came true.
In any case, what I realized from all this was which part of the book I loved best. It was definitely the passages in Part II where Winston was reading from Goldstein’s Manifesto. Not only did it totally appeal to the historian in me, it was just so full of depth and insight that it got to me every time I read it (I think I’m up to three now). And after doing a little side research, I came to realize that Orwell wrote this section of the story first. Not only was the manifesto a major, culminating event in the story, it was also the centerpiece of Orwell’s thought, the very basis of his cautionary tale. Essentially, the manifesto detailed how inequality was a constant in human civilization, the ongoing struggle between the high, middle and low. But in addition to being a constant, it was almost a necessity as well, an inevitable side-effect of living with scarcity, drought, and recurring shortages.
It was with the advent of industrial technology however, that this pattern finally became breakable. While it took some tweaking, common sense finally convinced the barons of industry and political leaders alike to make reforms to fit the times. This began in the 19th century and carried on well into the 20th, when standards of living for the poor and common finally began to rise. And as education, the distribution of goods and services, and news media also improved, the gap between rich and poor and even the need for social distinctions began to diminish.
Curiously, it was as the need for social distinction seemed about to disappear that the totalitarian philosophies of the 20th century appeared. Whereas industrial processes had come to represent the potential for human liberation, these new thinkers (Marxist-Leninist and Fascist were their official titles) wanted to use these same things to make enslavement permanent. In other words, these folk saw the writing on the wall and decided to do everything they could to arrest the process of history. Or, as Orwell put it, “the pendulum would swing one last time and then stop forever”. Human beings could never be allowed to be fully liberated, they had to be cast down and kept there. Hence, these totalitarians took advantage of all that was happening in the 20th century to make it happen. Two World Wars had already began the process in earnest, destroying the infrastructure that was making human equality possible and turning what were once comfortable, privileged people into brutalized subjects.
In order to ensure that this continued to be the case – in other words, that the basis for oppression and inequality continued to exist – war had to be constant, but also limited. Nuclear weapons were abandoned and war would continue by conventional means, albeit for unconventional purposes. The real aim henceforth would be for the dual purposes of keeping people focused on an external enemy while ensuring that no improvement in the standard of living would ever be possible. All industrial products would be used by the war, and occasionally, planned shortages would go into effect to keep people wanting and just a little off-balance.
Or at least, this is what Orwell had predicted, in a nutshell, through his alter ego of Goldstein. And there’s a reason the second act ended with it. Up until that point in the story, Winston knew there was something wrong with society and wanted to rebel against it. The book did not really teach him anything in this respect. In truth, it did little more than confirm what he already knew. But the overall effect it had was to let him know he wasn’t alone. He finally learns that he is indeed sane for feeling the way he does, mainly because he knows he has to be right.
This readers with all of Act III to answer the final burning question of Why? Winston soon learns this after he and Julia are arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured and brainwashed. Much like their betrayal, the hopelessness of their situation and the fact the Brotherhood does not even exist, the answer to this question is a spirit-shattering disappointment. Power, O’Brien tells Winston. Power is the only reason. For what else is there, in the final analysis that can justify the lengths that tyrants and their administrators will go to? Why else would countless generations of kings, emperors, nobles, priests and elites do what they have done over the millennia? Why torture, detain, brainwash, conquer, convert, force confessions and exterminate entire races of people? What better reason is there than to feel god-like and know that moral arguments and the truth are useless against you?
True, Orwell’s vision never really came to pass. There are those who would venture that we are living with Big Brother government and in an Oceania-style society right now but I would not be one of them. In every measurable way, we averted Orwell’s dystopian future by not getting into a third world war, by expanding the middle class, public education, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor even further. We also managed to take big steps towards the elimination of the gender gap – another thing that has been increasingly obsolete with the advent of modern society – and the racial gap. Granted we’ve only come so far, but if one looks at the post-colonial wars of independence, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement in conjunction with the victories of organized labor and the expansion of the middle class, one can see just how much progress we’ve made towards the kind of society of equals that Goldstein’s totalitarians wanted to avert.
But in the last thirty years, we’ve moved away from that ideal like never before. More and more, there are forces out there who are telling us of the need to cut taxes, deregulate the economy, globalize, privatize, cut education, eliminate collective bargaining, pensions, job security, outsource industry, streamline, downsize, etc etc. These same forces are the ones pushing for fiscal conservatism, saying “we simply cannot afford it anymore” as a justification for neutering governments by destroying their budgets and putting tax monies back into the hands of the rich and the super rich. Where that fails to sway people, the specter of “SOCIALISM!” is used quite effectively to frighten people into compliance and keep them from seeing the real agenda. All the while, smear campaigns are employed to paint protest movements, reformists, and people who question these changes as “radical”, “socialist”, “communist”, and even “elitist” – much the same labels that were used against people who protested the Vietnam War, segregation and sexism in the workplace.
This “revolution” began in earnest in the late 70’s, early 80’s as a response to the progress made in previous decades. In Britain, it was led by Margaret Thatcher, in the US by Ronald Reagan, and by various other supplicants and imitators in other parts of the Anglosphere and west. In terms of politics, the goal was clear: squeeze the concerns of the poor and the idea social responsibility out of politics by taking advantage of the fact that the poor were at an all time low. In terms of values, the objective seemed to be erase the pluralistic society that was emerging as confusing and chaotic, while emphasizing a traditional society instead. In short, these people wanted to regress because they didn’t like the society that was emerging. However, these revolutions did not really take off until a full decade later, when another event – the end of the Cold War – gave them another push. In the absence of a second hegemonic superpower, it now seemed that the US and its allies were free to push forth with a new agenda, not just abroad but at home.
Intrinsic to the agenda of these new conservatives (aka. neo-conservatives) was the idea that peace, security, and open markets should be achieve not through multilateralism, but through unilateralism and military force, if necessary. Rather than the US and its allies becoming more multinational, the world was to become more American. Britain and the Anglosphere would continue to enjoy the “special relationship” with the US, while continental Europe would be split based on “old” and “new”. The old Europe – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, all EU members who were firm in their commitment to regulated markets and in the habit of challenging US interests from time to time – would be marginalized in favor of countries that had recently emerged from dictatorships and had more fragile economies. These countries, who were not in a position to challenge the US, would be pressured into entering into military treaties that would cordon off Russia with a “missile defense shield”. The same is true of China, another major power with access to nuclear weapons. Their neighbors would also be pressured into an alliance with the US, extending the missile shield, and thus making the US (in theory) impervious to attack. Thus, with nothing to fear from these countries nuclear arsenals, the US could do as it pleased and not concern itself with the objections of its former enemies.
In the Middle East, a similar plan was put into effect. For many decades, Britain, the US, and continental European powers had maintained close ties to several “friendly dictators” in exchange for good trade relations and access to petroleum. However, by the end of the Cold War, the US and Anglosphere maintained this policy more aggressively, placing military bases on the soil of willing nations in exchange for direct political and military support. This came with obvious consequences, most notably in the form of terrorism and widespread anti-US sentiment. With country after country viewing the US presence in the region as a liability, the US and its “willing” friends decided to look for a new base of operations, a place where they could build “enduring” military bases that would give them secure access to petrol reserves and the ability to sandwich unfriendly neighboring regimes.
Finally, there was the agenda at home. For decades, this new breed of conservatives dreamed about turning their countries into one-party states, or at least marginalizing dissenting political voices until they were no longer a concern. Be they Republican, Tory, Conservative, or Likud, virtually all nations in the developed world experienced a push from the right on or after the last decade of the 20th century whose aim was to oust “liberal” concerns from politics and make a “security” agenda paramount. In addition, a clear economic agenda was being put into place as well that seemed dedicated to weakening government and allowing the private sector to fill the void. Oftentimes, this took the form of removing restrictions to trade, but also involved removing environmental, trade, and labor regulations that were designed to prevent unsafe or exploitative business practices. And finally, there was the moral dimension, where political forces of the right allied themselves to the religious right in order to push for legislation that would make abortion and stem cell research illegal, while simultaneously decriminalizing martial rape and the teaching of creationism mandatory.
What is most curious about this is the timing. Once again, it seems that forces intent of preventing freedom and imposing their singular world view mobilized when the exact opposite trends were on the cusp of being realized. With the Cold War over, former colonies freed, and minorities, natives, women and homosexuals free to be themselves and demand equality, it seemed that a new golden age might be possible. In fact, many people, of all political stripes, predicted that this would be the case, that the 21st century would be characterized by peace, the extension of free markets, and human rights. So… what happened? Personally, I would venture that it was precisely to avoid these things that the neo-cons mobilized the way they did and have done what they have done. Where they couldn’t take power, they stole it. Where they couldn’t exploit tensions, they created them. This isn’t to say that there weren’t lylegitimate security concerns at the turns of the century (i.e. terrorism), but the neo-cons certainly did all they could to make these worse through negligence, mishandling and/or overreaction.
Some would certaintly disagree and say these things are natural developments, or are necessary. But really, how can one not look at the concentration of political power, media, industry, and money into fewer and fewer hands over the last thirty years and not see an agenda. What is the purpose of all this, aside from the desire to put power into the hands of a select few? Aside from making a few people a hell of a lot richer, it would successfully reverse the trends that have been at work in western society for the past century, and that First Nations and the non-western world has been fighting to have access to for the latter half of it. That being, freedom, equality, and the elimination of vast disparities of wealth, power and privilege. Destroying that will once again create the basis for an unequal society by making sure that the middle and low do not have the means to challenge the power of the elite. If education, job security, a full belly and an informed mind are no longer possible on a grand scale, then the power of a small elite will seem justified. The only stumbling block to achieving all this lies in the ballot box or (God forbid!) technology that cannot be turned on its users to prevent the spread of information and dissenting viewpoints. But these too can be dealt with, given time…
Yes, I am aware of how soap-boxish this all must sound, but it HAS been on my mind of late. It also might sound like a conspiracy theory, but there’s a difference: Conspiracies are subtle, underhanded, and can’t be proven either way. Hence why they are called conspiracy theories. This, on the other hand, is blatant, obvious, and in everyone’s face. And the tactics aren’t rational or covert either, they have about as much subtly as a sledgehammer and are constantly being spewed. From the television, the newspaper, the pulpit, and the halls of government, there is scarcely a corner of society that hasn’t been exposed to this new take on an old rhetoric, so I don’t imagine anyone will not know what I’m talking about, even if they don’t happen to share my interpretation.
Anyhoo, I’ve gone on long enough with my own opinions. And since it was the Goodreads forums that inspired these thoughts of mine, I’ve included links to the Goodreads threads below. I’m becoming aware of how good a forum this is for discussing literature, and for aspiring authors to post their work, get feedback and network with others of their ilk. Check it out!
Sometime last week, I finally got my hands on the original graphic novel of V for Vendetta. I figured that since I was going to review this movie at some point, I ought to read the source material and treat it like all the other adaptations I’ve covered so far with this blog. Interestingly enough, the creative force being the graphic novel was none other than Alan Moore, the same man who created The Watchmen! While I’ve never been much of a comic book guy – which I admit is both treasonous and weird given my obvious geekhood! – I can honestly say that this was one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. Hell, it was guys like Moore with such creations as Watchmen and V that helped to establish the very concept of the graphic novel. While the dividing line between them and comic books is pretty fine, one can’t deny that guy’s like Moore combine a great deal of thought and inspiration to come up with these things, certainly no less than what typically goes into a high-end novel.
Not only that, but with The Watchmen, we got a story that was equal parts satire on the traditional subject matter of comics (superheroes) and the history of the 20th century. This is done in true sci-fi form, employing an alternate reality to show how the existence of a certain phenomena altered history, and using the differences to illustrate what took place in the real world. Embracing such things as generational change, feminism, war, civil rights, the decline of America, politics, nuclear holocaust, paranoia, UFO hysteria, and the American Dream, the scope and depth of this book was virtually undeniable. And when it came time to adapt it to the big screen, the same spirit came through pretty clear. There were naturally some weaknesses that emerged out of the monumental task of adapting the voluminous text to the big screen, and some complained about the changes, but in the end, it felt like a pretty faithful adaptation, and one that was overdue!
Zack Snyder must have seemed like the natural choice to shoot this epic, having directed 300 – another graphic novel adaptation – just three years before. The end result was an official release that left out various parts of the plot in order to cut down on run time, but still managed to be two and a half hours long. As expected, a directors cut and an “Ultimate Cut” were also released on DVD that contained much of the missing elements, and they run for approx. three and three a half hours respectively! That’s what you get when you try to adapt a classic to the big screen, I guess. In either case, the box office draw and DVD sales were through the roof, another result of a classic meeting the big screen!
Naturally, there were those who complained about the cinematic release, citing the things that were left out, the new ending which did away with the whole UFO theme, and what not. However, the thing that divided audience the most, ironically enough, was Snyder’s commitment and reverence of the original source material. While some praised him for his faithful adaptation, his biggest critics saw this is as a drawback, claiming that his commitment to the source material made the movie feel “stuffy” and “boring”. Some even found themselves falling in the middle, saying that they were impressed with the faithfulness of the adaptation, but unsure as to whether or not this made for a good movie. One thing was certain though, for fans of the graphic novel, the biggest source of contention was the changed ending! Squiddy or Manhattan, which was better? For those of you who read the novel, you know what I mean 😉 For those of you who don’t, read on!
The story opens on the murder of a superhero by the name of The Comedian. Whereas the novel only shows the aftermath of this, the movie gives us the full fight scene in order to open with a bang and get our attention. In any case, we begin the movie knowing that The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is dead, and his friend, fellow superhero Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), is on the case! This latter superhero, named for the mask he wears, is one of the few superheros in this day and age who’s not working for the government or gone into retirement. He believes The Comedians death is part of plot to eliminate the Watchmen, as superheroes have been turned on by popular opinion and outlawed by the state. We also learn quickly that due to the historical presence of superheroes, the world has unfolded quite differently. Due to their efforts, America won the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon remained president since, the Cold War escalated and nuclear war now seems inevitable. Society has also gone to hell in a hand basket, but at least there are electrical cars!
So, fearing a plot against his former superhero friends, Rorschach seeks them out and tries to warn them. These include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), his wife and partner Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Most of them are retired, except for Dr. Manhattan who is doing nuclear research for the government (fitting since he’s a nuclear-powered, godlike man!) and Ozymandias who’s supersmarts have led him into the world of inventing and big business. Most of them are skeptical, until an assassination attempt against Ozymandias is narrowly averted. The movie then gravitates between filling in the characters back stories and the progress of the murder investigation in the present.
On the one hand, we see how The Watchmen, an organization of crime-fighting superheroes, evolved from the Minutemen, a similar group that was formed in the 1930’s in response to the rising tide of organized crime and gangsters. In showing the history of the Watchmen, we are made aware of how history unfolded differently since their own stories are so very intertwined with history. What is palatable in all this is the feeling of loss and betrayal that accurately portrays America in the 20th century. Much like in the novel, there is the pervasive sense of the “end of innocence” as we go from a rought but optimistic past through a series of shocks and upheavals, landing finally in a dark and gloomy present where annihilation seems inevitable. Most of this told from the point of view of Rorschach, a man who’s own cynicism reflects the mood of his age. His thoughts and findings, all of which he puts down in his journal (which will come up later), provide the narration. And I dare say Haley did a very good job portraying this dark, brooding superhero! The way Rorschach always said “Hrrrmmmm”, that I thought was done pretty well too.
In any case, Rorschach’s investigation soon leads him to a former villain named Moloch (Matt Frewer) whom he suspects because of him being a former enemy of The Comedian. However, his suspicions are allayed when he learns Moloch is dying of cancer. Interestingly enough, Moloch tells him that the Comedian showed up at his apartment shortly before he died, drunk off his ass and muttering something about how it was all a joke. This makes Rorschach even more curious, as he now believes the man was onto something that could shake even him. It’s been well established at this point that The Comedian was a real SOB, and that his alias is sort of an ironic joke. Like the Joker, his humor comes in a brutal, sardonic form, albeit somewhat less evil (only somewhat).
In any case, Rorschach soon finds himself framed when he returns to Moloch’s apartment, finds him dead, and that the police are upon him. He puts up a brave struggle, but the police soon have him and rip off his mask. They are suprised to find that this ass-kicking vigilante is actually a pretty puny man who wears lifts, but is a grizzled due nonetheless (Haley looked the part pretty well too!). While in jail, we get to hear some of Rorschach’s story as a shrink examines him, and the reasons for his cynicism and dark world-view quickly become clear. Seems Rorschach was the child of a prostitute who routinely beat him, until he ran away from home and began beating the shit out of bullies. In time, became a vigilante and donned a mask that looks exactly like a Rorschach diagram, dolling out justice to those who violated the law and/or his rigid moral code (which he clearly uses to compensate for his lack of moral values growing up). At first, he had limits, beating criminals up but never killing anyone. But then came the encounter that forever changed him, which he relates with brutal detail to the shrink while looking at (you guessed it!) Rorschach diagrams! I shant go into too much detial, suffice it to say that it involved a pedophile/murdered who’s crime demanded swift and severe retribution!
Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan comes under fire during a televised interview. Seems some investigative reporter has turned up evidence that everyone he’s ever been in contact with is dead or dying of cancer. You see, Manhattan was created when a nuclear accident broke down ever cell in his body, only to later be recomposed out of pure energy. He can take whatever form he wishes, duplicate himself, teleport, vaporize his enemies, and so forth. However, it was assumed up until this point that his presence was benign and he was not a threat unless he wanted to be. When he learns this, he has a minor breakdown and teleports himself to Mars, wanting to break contact with humanity and spare anyone else the harm of being around him. His partner, Silk Specter II, has already moved out since his lack of humanity was driving a wedge between them. But when she hears of his departure, she is understandably upset. She has already moved in with former colleague and friend Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the two begin a sort of affair.
With Manhattan gone, the Soviet Union, which has been at a strategic disadvantage since Manhattan first started working for the US government, decides to take advantage of his departure and invades Afghanistan. The Doomsday Clock gets closer to midnight! Similarly, Silk Specter and Night Owl decide to come out of retirement because of the impending crises and do what they can to help people in need. Their affair has been abortive up to this point because they feel afraid and impotent with all that’s happened, but after saving several people from a burning building, they feel on fire and do it right in Nite Owl’s hovercraft! To Halleluiah by Leonard Cohen no less! They then break Rorschach out of jail, knowing that he was right about their being conspiracy at work. With The Comedian dead, an attempt on Ozymandias and the confrontation that made Manhattan leave Earth, it now seems evident that someone wants The Watchmen out of the way. After all that is done, Silk Specter decides to confront Manhattan, which she does after he comes for her and brings her to Mars. In the course of a tense discussion, he reveals to her that The Comedian was her father. Seems her mother, Silk Specter the first (played by Carla Gugino) slept with him in spite of his violent behavior towards her, and she was the result. She is, again, understandably upset, but still manages to convince Manhattan to come back and help them.
Together, Rorschach and Nite Owl go to Ozymandias’ office and unlock his files. In them, they find compelling evidence that he has been behind everything. The smoking gun comes when they see that The Comedian was working for him in the last while, and that his death was obviously to prevent him from telling the others what he had found out. They also figure out that he staged his own assassination attempt and sent a false reporter to tell Manhattan the cancer story, thus getting him out of the picture. They then travel to his Antarctic retreat where they know he’s still working on whatever pet project The Comedian died to protect. And here we get another change just like at the beginning (aka. the addition of a fight scene). In the comics, Ozymandias reveals his full plot to them and only tangles with Rorschach briefly. In the movie, there is an extended fight scene between Owl, Rorschach and Specter before he shows them what he’s really up to. And that’s where the biggest change of all comes into play: the big finish! But first, his motive!
Basically, Ozymandias explains that his plan was to unify the US and USSR and prevent a nuclear war by exploding the world’s largest energy reactors which he and Dr. Manhattan created. This will level several of the world’s major cities. Naturally, they try to stop him, but he explains that its too late and the reactors are already set. The energy signatures of the explosions are consistent with Manhattan’s, in part because the technology is based on the same forces that created him. Ergo, it is believed HE attacked Earth, most likely out of some anger-fueled breakdown that happened as a result of his breakdown. As noted already, this is not what happened in the novel, but more on that later…
Silk Specter and Manhattan have already shown up, and Ozymandias tries to kill Manhattan by luring him into some kind of nuclear de-compiler that is similar to the one that altered him in the first place. However, Manhattan proves immune to it and manages to finally subdue Ozymandias. He, however, turns on his many TV’s and shows him the reports which tell how the US and Soviet Union are standing down in the face of this new attack. They both seem to think Dr. Manhattan is attacking them now and are combining forces to defend against him. The others are angry, but Manhattan cannot argue with the logic and agrees to take on the role of the bad guy and go back into exile, this time permanently. Rorschach refuses to play along, him being a no-compromises kind of guy, and Manhattan is forced to vaporize him to maintain their little secret. Manhattan then says good-bye for the last time and leaves them for good. Nite Owl and Silk Specter leave too, vowing to keep fighting crime as New York rebuilds and build a future together.
The movie then ends with people from a right wing tabloid named the New Frontiersmen talking about there’s no news now that the Cold War has ended. But it seems that in their incoming mail, there’s a strange journal… It’s Rorschach’s, which he happened to mail to them just before he and Nite Owl departed for Antarctica. Remember how he recorded everything in there? Well, it seems like the secret might get out after all! The movie and comic both end on this scene, offering the reader/viewer an uncertain and possibly open ending.
First off, the new ending. As I’ve said twice now, the part where Ozymandias blew up the world’s major cities and blamed Manhattan was not what had happened in the original graphic novel. There, Ozymandias was working on perfecting matter teleportation, and it was this technology which he also used to try and destroy Dr. Manhattan. In any case, what he was teleporting was the body of a massive, genetically engineered bio-organism that looked very much like a massive alien squiddy into the heart of New York. Sounds weird, I know, but the result was that New Yorkers became convinced that an alien attack was underway. The organism died in the teleportation sequence, and only a few people were killed, but the point is they believed that an invasion attempt had failed, but more could be coming. THIS is what united the US and USSR, the prospect of an external threat that came from another species, not Doc Manhattan.
To be fair, I saw the reason for the changeover. The Squiddy concept was weird, but it played into the whole UFO paranoia that also existed in the latter half of the 20th century, as seen with Roswell and Area 51. The idea of playing that against Cold War rivalry made sense, it was just the execution that seemed a little weird. By putting Dr. Manhattan at the center of the conspiracy, Snyder was able to rework the plot quite effectively, but he did away with an essential element as a result. In addition, the recurring side-story about the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter which a patron is reading at a newstand, was also missing. However, Snyder was sure to include an animated adaptation of this portion of the novel onto the DVD.
The concept of the Doomsday Clock was also something that was changed, albeit in a faithful way. In the novel, the clock is not an actual object but a device that tells the reader before each chapter how close they are to the climax. But in order to keep it, Snyder adapted it into the movie as a set piece a media personality used to capture people’s fears about the impending nuclear war. Other than that, the only real changes had to do with action sequences which were included for obvious reasons. And they’re actually quite entertaining, being at once over the top and brutal. In a way, it kind of adds to the satire, combining superhero-like antics with bloody realism, which is essentially what the comic book is all about.
So what else was bang on…? Well, the feel was almost exactly the same. The movie’s intro, done to “The Times They Are A-Changing” by Bob Dylan was quite masterful at establishing the tone and giving the audience a quick glimpse of the back story. In fact, the entire soundtrack is faithful to the time period being depicted, giving it all a sense of historicism. The only flaw I saw in any of this was the scene where Nite Owl and The Comedian (in a flashback sequence) are shown cracking down on protesters during the late 70’s before superheroes were officially outlawed. After dispersing the crowd, Nite Owl turns to The Comedian and says “What happened to this country? What happened to the American Dream?” This was a bit obvious, and it was never done in the comic. For the most part, the movie captured this theme very well so I didn’t see why any of the characters needed to come right out and say it.
But overall, I felt that the movie was a faithful adaptation. In fact, I was impressed with how closely the movie followed the novel until the end. However, this does not mean that it could ever hold a candle to the original. This is not an attempt at snobbery on my part, it’s actually just how I feel about all adaptations. They are fun and serve their purpose, but can never really be expected to provide the same meaning or enjoyment as the original. In addition, reading is always more enjoyable, in my humble opinion, because the reader is able to stop, think, and interpret what they are taking in. In a movie, the entire process is transmissive, no room for interpretation until its all over, and the key jobs of visualization and imagining are done for you.
So… yeah! Watchmen, people! Read it, see it, decide for yourself. And know that the second you do, you too will have an opinion on the subject and demand that it be heard. Hell, you might even shout at a person or two for not sharing your beliefs. See, that’s the thing about geeks. We’re passionate about interesting but inconsequential things!
The Watchmen: Entertainment Value: 7/10 (run-time kind of brings it down)