13 December 2012

Channelling Catch-22

Having recently enjoyed British science fiction writer (and literature professor) Adam Roberts' books Yellow Blue Tibia and Salt, this week I've also zipped through his 2006 novel Gradisil, a 21st and 22nd century tale of high Earth orbit and three generations of a pioneering family who help to found an anarchic, free-for-all orbital nation of billionaires, freaks and runaways known as the Upland. While Gradisil displays the expected inventive Roberts soothsaying about life in orbit and on Earth in the centuries to come, and displays a typically strong writing style - there's a fantastic sequence with a man in a borrowed spacesuit, floating alone in space, anticipating a lonely doom - it is also a story of carefully-nurtured longing for revenge and the distances that can fester in families inhabited by singular individuals. There's also a bit of transmogrification of English spelling in the later chapters as the language and alphabet evolves.

Having recently read Joseph Heller's classic Catch-22, I enjoyed Roberts' delving into the American military psyche in the chapters dealing with US orbital ambitions to rule the Upland. War planners in the late 21st century are highly aware of the legal ramifications of their actions, including but not limited to the problem of making sure that the conflict lasts long enough to qualify as a proper war, and the practical concern that the de facto Upland leader, the titular Gradisil, is secured and formally surrenders. Here military analyst Lt Slater runs through the potential scenarios:

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Everything is in a high state of readiness. All the possible eventualities of Upland resistance have been stochastically appraised, these being:

[1] No Upland resistance, and immediate surrender, the problem here being the need to keep the war going for more than forty-eight hours. They have a dozen schemes for this necessary prolongation.

[2] No Upland resistance, but surrender delayed because of lak of national coherence and leadership. This would be very good; enabling the US to secure their territory before piking up a national leader and encouraging them to utter the critical words.

[3] No Upland resistance, but Gradisil refuses to surrender. Much Legal time has been devoted to listing which other prominent Uplanders would have the necessary legal plausibility to offer surrender. Since she has never been officially elected, it is arguable that Gradisil's actions are a legal irrelevance anyway.

[4] Some limited Upland resistance. This is the best scenario of all, because it would justify US action, enable them to prolong the war as long as they wanted, and give the troops something of a workout. With any military resistance the game becomes mainly military, and that's where Slater's confidence is highest.

[5] Significant Upland resistance. However unlikely this is, given the lak of Upland resources, the lak of a national will to fight, and the precariousness of Upland supply lines, it cannot be entirely ruled out. Gradi is the wild card. It's conceivable - just - that she will inspire at least some of her people to an heroic stand against the Americans [shout defiance in the maw of - !]. And this, number '5' is wat Slater, in his truest heart, yearns for: a useful military target, a task to stretch the troops a little. The more military resistance they encounter, the stronger the US position; for they are, wholly, the dominant party in military terms. Nobody denies that. Slater has promised a seventy-two hour war; but there is a great deal of leeway in this. Anything over forty-eight hours and less than one solar year is legally optimal. And there is simply no way the war could last as long as a year: for one thing, without food or the ability to travel downbelow the Upland population would starve to death before that. Which would not be ideal PR, but would still be a military result.

- Adam Roberts, Gradisil, London, 2006

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