Thursday, May 07, 2009

Bad Science Fiction

As long as my much-delayed follow-up post on Human Smoke is (here again is my original review, from last August), I was still unable to find appropriate space for the following, so I give it its own post.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging response to Human Smoke was the five-part roundtable discussion hosted last March by Ed Champion. As was true of many of the mainstream reviewers of the book, some of the participants were fixated on what they perceived as an attempt by Baker at an "objective", revisionist history arguing a fairly simple (read: simplistic, naive, or arguably dangerous) pacifist case against the war, and concomitant minimization of the evil of the Nazis. One exception to this was Dan Green (another was Ed himself), who suggested that the book is "mostly about 9/11 and the Iraq War"--the book's depiction of Churchill, for example, countering the ways in which his myth was employed by the neo-cons for their own end in the run-up to the attack on Iraq. I don't know if I'd go quite as far as "mostly", but I agree that there's no mistaking the book's several present-day applications. And I agree with Dan when he says:
while it’s important that his narrative be accurate–the people quoted actually said those things and the behavior described actually happened–it isn’t necessary that it be objective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be as good as it is (and I think it’s quite good) if it were. He wants his readers to remember his book the next time Churchill and Roosevelt are nominated for sainthood and the next time WWII is described unambiguously as the “good war.” To this extent, I think he will succeed admirably.
As noted, Dan's was just one contribution to the discussion. The whole of it is worth looking into. Yet even here, I found a disturbing tendency for some readers to immediately unwind elaborate alternative histories, which they somehow perceive as plausible given what they--mistakenly, in my view--characterize as Baker's argument. Eric Rosenfield, for example, writes the following (Eric's and Dan's contributions can both be found in part five of the roundtable):
Let’s imagine, for a moment the alternate history Baker envisions: Churchill never comes to power in Britain. Hitler marches into Poland and conquers it, and England does not declare war despite it’s mutual defense treaty. Let’s even buy that this leads Hitler to never invade France or Russia, despite his constant talk of a “Third Reich” to rival the former German Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. He starts sending all the Jews in the Reich to Madagascar. Except the Jews, who have already had all their assets liquidated, can’t be allowed to create a powerful state there so they are carefully controlled, and Madagascar becomes something like a Jewish Indian reservation ala the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia. Jews start dropping like flies from malaria and other diseases they have no defenses against, while the delighted Germans refuse them proper medical treatment or insect nets and watch the Jewish population dwindle. Perhaps there are even some rebellions and a massacre or ten.Meanwhile, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco consolidate their power in Europe and create an oppressive, Fascist mainland that lasts for generations. Japan conquers China and completes their oppression and exploitation of the Chinese and Koreans. With these powers now entrenched the idea of toppling them through military or other means becomes less and less possible.
This is just bad science fiction. "Let's imagine, for a moment the alternate history Baker envisions"? There is nothing in Human Smoke that should make one think Nicholson Baker imagines anything like what Eric's fever dreams have given us here. But you see this kind of thing a lot. Another example, from around the time of the book's publication, was Nigel Beale's comment at the end of this post, in which he admits to not having read the book (and to anyway not much caring for Nicholson Baker's other books), and yet is able to approvingly cite reviews like William Grimes' in The New York Times. Nigel writes:
Baker contends that if the West hadn't used bombs, Hitler's support at home would have evapourated [sic]. While Baker's pacifist sentiments are admirable, based on what I've just heard, and the reviews I've read I think he's wrong. My sense is that if Chamberlain had stayed in power millions more Jews would have died and today we’d all be goosestepping to the beat of a racist conductor.
I highlight these remarks only because they are typical and all too common whenever the myth of the "good war" is questioned, as well as in debates about "humanitarian intervention" generally. The idea is that if something hadn't been done--if our leaders hadn't made certain no doubt unpleasant choices--we necessarily would find ourselves, now, still, sixty-plus years later, living in a world-wide fascist super-state. The evident faith in our leaders is touching, if not outright delusional, while the distrust of popular pressure, the apparent belief that people will simply roll over for occupying powers the world over--and never resist! for decades!--is simply depressing. And ahistorical. (Meanwhile, the entire political history leading up to the war is elided or at best reduced to explanations of the German roots of the Nazi regime and creeping European anti-Semitism.)

1 comment:

Eric Rosenfield said...

Bad science fiction it may be, but I was honestly trying to grapple with what Baker was suggesting in his book.

I honestly think that peaceful methods and diplomacy would not have been an adequate response to Hitler, and I believe that was what Baker was proposing. (Especially considering his later interview with Charlie Rose.)