The Holy Land, Robert Zubrin

Polaris Books, 2003, 298 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9741443-0-4

[Requisite disclaimer: This particular novel was sent to me by the author in November 2003, with the understanding that I would review it shortly afterwards.]

Given the increasing silliness of the last few years in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it’s been dismaying to see Science Fiction avoid the question altogether. Save for a few writers (goodness bless Bruce Sterling and his “In Paradise”), few seems to have the required guts in tackling today’s mounting problems. Where are the Pohls, Kornbluth, Sheckelys when you need them? Today’s stuff seems more interested in catering to the market than changing how people think about the world.

Well, Robert Zubrin makes a valiant attempt at socially-responsible satiric SF with The Holy Land. The result may have a few rough edges, it’s still an audacious novel that deserves a much wider audience than it’s likely to get as a work published outside the mainstream cluster of publishers. The first book of a small publisher named “Polaris Books”, The Holy Land probably won’t make it to your local bookstore.

A quick look at the book’s premise may help explain why bigger publishers may be reluctant to deal with it: One day, the American president awakes to find out that Kennewick, Wasington, has been taken over by aliens. Not just every aliens, mind you, but refugees from a galactic war, coming back to claim their ancestral land. Americans are booted out of there and placed in refugee camps, whether they like it or not. Meanwhile, the American government (a bunch of greedy fundamentalist morons –no relation to reality is implied) encourages kids in the refugee camps to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks against the alien invaders. (Cry ‘pagan!’ and let slip the weasels of war, or something like that.) And so on. This summary barely scratches the surface of the first two chapters of the novel.

The least we can say is that Zubrin has guts in tackling the Israeli/Palestian conflict in such a madcap fashion. But he’s got a lot more on his mind, as the rest of the novel picks apart the War on Terrorism, American foreign policy, oil capitalism, media demagoguery and the rest of what we’ve come to associate with this brand new century. This is not subtle stuff by any measure, at least initially: The first chapter is a laugh-a-page marvel of breakneck satire, served with more gusto than polish. It works incredibly well at sucking readers into the story.

Such pacing can’t be sustained, of course. After the first twenty pages, The Holy Land loosens its grip on satiric content, allowing the “real” story to come to the surface, the evolving relationship between alien Priestess Aurora and human prisoner of war Andrew Hamilton (US marines). It’s a risky bet; not only does the book sell itself as humor, but such “humans and alien learn to get along” stories have been done before. Repeatedly.

But it works. Against all odds, even as the laughs are replaced by a more restrained approach, The Holy Land becomes something else. Real drama surprisingly starts to emerge from the book, but so smoothly that it’s not immediately obvious that a tone shift has taken place. There are still a few good lines here and there (“an hour after the Weegee assault, over 80 percent of the Peruvian Earthlings are still alive… has the much-vaunted Western Galactic Imperial Navy finally embroiled itself in a hopeless quagmire?” [P.158]), but the book has moved away from staccatos satire to a brand of lighter science-fiction somewhat reminiscent of books like Peter Jurasik & William H. Keith, Jr.’s Diplomatic Act.

Bits and pieces of sharp satire can be found scattered through the novel, mind you. The helicity segments are a not-so-subtle jab at oil-driven foreign policy . There are hysterical digressions on feminism, profiling, “the August 11th tragedies” and a cute little scientific inside joke about the real cause of the galactic Red Shift [P.137]. Droll stuff… and that’s not even going into the material that flew over my head during the first read-through. Some Internet digging on the “Kennewick man” and helicity is enough to make me suspect several such easter eggs buried elsewhere in the novel.

Meanwhile, the real plot-line of the novel evolves into something that is interesting in its own right, and not simply as a support for satiric jabs. Aurora and Hamilton don’t simply act as stand-ins for their respective races, but as good characters in their own rights. They have a nice rapport, even as Zubrin generally avoids most of the maudlin moments you would expect from such stories. Even Aurora’s undercover visit to Earth (which becomes increasingly predictable as the novel’s structure becomes evident) has its unexpected delights.

Being a product of a small publisher, The Holy Land suffers from a few rough spots in term of editorial supervision; while the production qualities of the book are nearly indistinguishable from what we have come to expect from major publishers, there are a number of prose snippets and segments of the plot which could have been improved with some editorial attention. But no big deal, really: Zubrin has good instincts when it comes to plotting and the novel moves at such a pleasant clip that it’s not worth nit-picking on small details.

Readability remains high throughout; it’s quite possible to read the book in a single afternoon, pausing for occasional laughter. Only the unsatisfying Joan-of-Arc ending is bothersome, as it seems a little bit too dramatic, a little bit too quickly set up and resolved. On the other hand, the ultimate fate of the American President is a delightful last-minute punchline. The laughs are there right up to the end even though, for a moment, it looked as if Zubrin had started pulling his punches.

All in all, though, The Holy Land is a pretty satisfying book. The satiric intensity of the first chapter (which you can read on-line at the Polaris Book website) isn’t sustained all the way through, but a much harder trick is pulled off in building a fun novel about issues that have been explored before in other stories. Much like in First Landing, Robert Zubrin proves uncommonly adept at making the most of his characters and rescue books from obvious pitfalls. It’s unusual enough to see a hard scientist manage to write a novel in which the characters come to life, it seems almost too good that they’d do so in a novel with satiric intent. Certainly, this is a welcome direction for SF. As today’s world becomes crazier and weirder, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for science fiction to follow suit, and maybe enlighted us in the process.

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