Robert Zubrin,
The Holy Land
(Polaris, 2003)

Back in 1994, seven years before he ventured into the science fiction field with his mission-to-Mars novel First Landing, I interviewed Robert Zubrin for a television show called e-Scape Velocity. When I asked him about the role science fiction had played in the advancement of the space program, he replied, "I know myself and many other aerospace engineers are all in this field because of a certain vision that we got of the human future by reading science fiction in our youth. So I think that science fiction has done an enormous amount. I'd like it to do more but we'd be nowhere without science fiction."

And so we come to Zubrin's most recent foray into science-fiction writing, The Holy Land. If First Landing was intended as propaganda for a manned mission to Mars, Zubrin has very different goals for The Holy Land. The novel follows more in the footsteps of Douglas Adams than it does in those of Heinlein or Clarke. But added to the book's Adams-esque comedic approach is a healthy dose of John Brunner-style political activism.

Brunner's brilliant novel The Sheep Look Up (1972) envisioned an ecological apocalypse resulting from the American capitalist/consumerist way of life. Zubrin presents an equally pessimistic future extrapolated from the current American political reality of the war on terror and the concurrent erosion of the separation of church and state.

The Holy Land is America. The President and his Christian administration feel that American sovereignty is being threatened by foreigners. The foreigners in question are the Minervans, refugees from a galactic war who have been rescued by the Western Galactic Empire and resettled on Earth. Now that the Minervans have moved into what was once Kennewick, Wash., buying out the locals and building 300-story skyscrapers where once there were homes and businesses, the U.S. government feels it must take decisive action to expel the intruders.

Unfortunately, the U.S. military is no match for the purely defensive "disarmers" the Minervans employ to destroy any weapons used against them. But there are other ways to win a war. So the government undertakes a plan to discredit the Minervans in galactic opinion, painting them as heartless oppressors. The plan involves moving former Kennewickians into slum-like refugee camps and recruiting the refugees' children for suicidal attacks on the pagan aliens.

While this may not sound like the stuff of uproarious comedy, The Holy Land is in fact a very funny book. It's a mix of humor and social commentary that would, without a doubt, make Michael Moore smile. While we Earthlings are depicted as smelly, backward, "proto-rational" animals, Zubrin's portrayal of the Minervans and the members of the Western Galactic Empire (the Weegees) is no less barbed. When Lisa White, director of public communications for the U.S. government, appears before the Weegee court to defend America against the charge that it aided in the sabotage of a starship -- triggering a reaction that destroyed several planets, killing all their inhabitants -- she has been meticulously scrubbed and carefully clothed so as to be presentable. Mrs. White's legal representative, Junea, comments....

"The Divine Princess will note that Mrs. White is wearing an original Felgorgious gown."
A murmur of admiration rippled through the female courtiers. The Princess said, "Yes, I can see that. My sisters and I frequently buy from Felgorgious ourselves."
"Hardly the sort of place where a planet assassin would shop," Junea observed.

The Holy Land is an impressive book. It made me laugh and it made me think. That's a dynamic combination. But the fact that Robert Zubrin wrote this novel before the tide of public opinion turned and made it safe to be critical of the methodology of the American war on terror, because he wrote it before it was safe to question the economic justifications for selecting targets for that war while passing over other potential targets, this is quite a brave book.

And if this book can have an impact on public policy equal to even a small portion of the impact science fiction had on the space program then I'm sure Zubrin will be over the moon -- or Mars -- with joy.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 18 September 2004

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