February 25, 2006

THERE'S A THERE THERE:

What should I do, Imam?: Novelist Robert Ferrigno imagines the Islamic Republic of America in the year 2040 (MARK STEYN, 2/23/06, Maclean's)

Every successful novelist has to convey the sense that his characters' lives continue when they're not on the page: an author has to know what grade school his middle-aged businessman went to even if it's never mentioned in the book. In an invented world, that goes double. And in a "what if?" scenario, where you're overlaying an unfamiliar pattern on the known map, it goes at least triple. Saying "Imagine the U.S. under a Muslim regime" is the easy bit, creating the "State Security" apparatus and Mullah Oxley's "Black Robes" -- a Saudi-style religious police -- is only marginally more difficult. It's being able to conceive the look of a cul-de-sac in a suburban subdivision -- what's the same, what's different -- that determines whether the proposition works or not. Ferrigno has some obvious touches -- the USS Ronald Reagan is now the Osama bin Laden -- and some inspired ones -- the Super Bowl cheerleaders are all male -- but it's the rich layers of detail that bring the world to life. In one scene, a character's in the back of a cab and the driver's listening to the radio: instead of Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil, it's a popular advice show called "What Should I Do, Imam?" It doesn't have any direct bearing on the plot but it reinforces the sense of a fully conceived landscape. There's no scene set in 2028, but if you asked Ferrigno what Character A was doing that year he'd be able to tell you. If you said "What's Dublin or Brussels like in this world?" he'd have a rough idea.

The Islamic Republic came into being 25 years earlier in the wake of simultaneous nuclear explosions in New York, Washington and Mecca: "5-19-2015 NEVER FORGET." A simple Arabic edition of the Koran found undamaged in the dust of D.C. now has pride of place at the House of Martyrs War Museum. On the other hand, the peckerwoods retrieved from the wreckage the statue of Jefferson, whose scorched marble now graces the Bible Belt capital of Atlanta. But what really happened on that May 19? Was it really a planet-wide "Zionist Betrayal"? Ferrigno's story hinges on the dark secret at the heart of the state, which various parties have kept from the people all these years. Car chase-wise, it's not dissimilar to Fatherland, Robert Harris's what-if-Hitler-won-the-war novel, in which a 1960s Third Reich is determined to keep its own conspiracy hidden. And in the sense that both plots involve the Jews, plus ├ža change -- in life as in art.

The local colour is more compelling than either the plot or the characters: there's a guy -- maverick ex-fedayeen -- and a girl -- plucky, and dangerous with a chopstick -- and a sinister old villain with the usual psycho subordinates. Standard fare, but in a curious way the routine American thriller elements lend the freaky landscape a verisimilitude it might not otherwise have had.


The texture certainly is what sets the novel apart, that sense -- all too rare in sci-fi/fantasy -- that the author has simply plucked a story from a fully imagined world, rather than just created enough of a facade to front the novel.


Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2006 12:38 AM
Comments

Orrin: ever read scifi/fantasy by Jack Vance? IMHO he has an incredible knack of evoking a very rich background through just a few throw-away lines. I also greatly like his usage of the English language. But to be honest his characters tend to be one dimensional.

Posted by: Daran at February 25, 2006 7:21 AM

I haven't--is there one you recommend?

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 9:07 AM

OJ:

Do you know if you get credit if I click through but put the book on the wish list and purchase it later? I don't like buying books in onesies.

Posted by: Rick T. at February 25, 2006 9:32 AM

Rick:

No clue--the Other Brother is the financier.

Send your address & I'll send you my review copy.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 9:43 AM

Just on the surface, the theme does strike me as the "Rising Sun" of its decade, though less alarmist in its way by setting the foundation of the story on more cataclysmic events than what Crichton did with his "We're losing our position as No. 1" theme, in which the threat was on a more here and now level than an altered civilization set almost two generations in the future (Michael's done better lately by sounding the alarm about alarmists, as opposed to being one himself).

Posted by: John at February 25, 2006 10:41 AM

Which is what makes State of Fear so funny.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 10:45 AM

I read the first chapter, and found it somewhat amusing, but ultimately unbelieveable, and not very well thought out.

Part of the problem is that the book imagines instantaneous conversion to Islam by the majority of the American population north of the Mason-Dixon, and that's just not how it's historically worked.

If you read the work of Richard Bulliet, one of the first scholars to attempt to apply quantitative methodology to the question of historic conversion-to-Islam rates, what you realize is that the process of converting a population to a new religion takes many, many decades.

In fact, it essentially takes 200 years to reach 85% conversion of the population, and there are always hold outs. (Like the Copts in Egypt, who still, after 1300 years of Islam, comprise around 15% of the population.)

Anyway, the book is a load of hooey. Perhaps entertaining hooey, but hooey nonetheless.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at February 25, 2006 11:07 AM

H.D.:

Our Great Awakenings happened fairly rapidly though.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 11:18 AM

We were already Christian, of one sort or another when we Greatly Awoke. No giant conceptual jump needed there.

If Ferrigno had posited a Taliban-style regime that forced conversion he might, possibly, have a point. But it's clear that his imaginary Islamic regime doesn't compel conversion, as there are still plenty of Catholics wondering around. In fact there are Catholic cops, suggesting that Christians are trusted enough to be employed by the governement.

This means that conversion to Islam in future America will likely follow historic trends, meaning it's going to take a century or more to reach a majority Muslim population.

Mass conversions of populations, either forced or voluntary, are incredibly difficult to bring about. Christian Rome/Byzantium was still suppressing pagans three hundred years after Constantine, and the Spanish Inquisition was still chasing crypto-jews into the 19th century.

In short, there won't be any mass abultions at the Super Bowl in 2040.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at February 25, 2006 11:58 AM

H.D.:

Ah, but note that he doesn't propose a future in which the majority becomes Muslim. The Red States remain Christian and Blue State Catholicism is still doing okay. Rather, as the Bluer portions of the country become ever more European in their social pathologies the natural puritanical impulse in the American character gets diverted into Islam.

It is though certainly more plausible that Evangelicals will be successful here in the States.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 12:05 PM

More on Jack Vance: http://greatsfandf.com/AUTHORS/JackVance. I'd recommend any of: Tales of the Dying Earth (4 book omnibus, fantasy), the Lyonesse trilogy (fantasy), Cadwal trilogy (SF)

Posted by: Daran at February 25, 2006 12:12 PM

Vance is good. I like the Dying Earth stories, and the Big Planet stories.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 25, 2006 12:58 PM

All of this forgets the Evangelicals in the Air Force, from whence our Franco would come to save us.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 25, 2006 1:21 PM

This wasn't the same Bulliet who said after the first WTC bombing;(re Kramer's Sandstorm) that Moslem bombers weren't the problem; our reaction to them was. Seeing how they conquered Spain in
the 8th Century, occupying for the better part
of 7 centuries; I'm not so confident, it wouldn't
take so long.

Posted by: narciso79 at February 25, 2006 1:40 PM

But what really happened on that May 19?

I'm getting really tired of sharing my birthday with this negative stuff. Ho Chi Minh was born on that date, and meanwhile we had the May 19th Liberation Army, so-named in honor both of Ho and Malcolm X (born on that date in Omaha, which is freaky).

Now it's the date of some fictional Islamic takeover. Oh goody.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 25, 2006 2:29 PM

My worry, based on many of his earlier posts, is that OJ would actually like to see a future US where the Blue States went Islamic. After all, it would take care of those pesky secularists and allow plenty of opportunities for witchburning.

Posted by: PapayaSF at February 25, 2006 2:36 PM

Yep, that's the same Bulliet, a professor of history at Columbia.

I divide Bulliet's work into two mutually exclusive parts. The first part is the very solid work he's done in Medieval Islamic History, and the second part is the polemical pronouncements he's made about current events.

He's very good on the history, very bad on the current events.

But that dichotomy--good on history, bad on current events-- is not unusual among historians of all stripes, and it's why I try not to claim any special authority for myself about the Modern Middle East, even though I know Arabic very well, have taught many specialized courses on Islamic history, and have published in the field.

Happily, for this conversation, conversion to Islam in Spain is actually something I know quite a bit about, as the topic of my dissertation was the Mozarabs, the Christians who didn't convert to Islam, but did become Arabized. That's why I think I can say with some authority that it would take longer to convert Americans to Islam than Ferrigno allows in his fictional world.

Of course, the flip side is that given enough time, two or three centuries, 85 to 95% would be converted.


Posted by: H.D. Miller at February 25, 2006 2:50 PM

Papaya:

Now you come close to the point. The Judeo-Christian US isn't likely to convert. Our religion is the strong horse. But what of a secular Europe which believes in nothing and is beginning to have serious social breakdown? Islam is certainly preferable to relativism.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 3:32 PM

HD:

But what of mere version, rather than conversion?

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 3:33 PM

given that in the book two of our cities are nuked, why wasn't our response more widespread ? why didn't we transport all the muslims out of the country, in response ?

Posted by: toe at February 25, 2006 5:03 PM

There are video-taped confessions of Mossad agents admitting they did it and nuked Mecca to try and foment just that kind of response.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2006 5:09 PM

It's much more likely that this country will simultaneously make soccer the national sport, switch to the metric system, make Spanish the national language and elect Hillary Clinton as President.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at February 25, 2006 10:08 PM

Aieee! Raoul, my eyes, my eyes.

Posted by: erp at February 25, 2006 11:07 PM

Matt,

I would almost trade you birthdays. I share a birthday with LBJ and that really chaps me. Almost any other president except for James Earl Carter would be better than that one.

Posted by: dick at February 26, 2006 9:13 AM

People in the past didn't have the internet and instant communications, so we can't really extrapolate from history about future mass religious conversions.

Matt, since you can't change when you were born, it's up to you to make May 19th Matt Murphy Day!

Posted by: erp at February 26, 2006 9:56 AM

Matt and Dick:

At least your birthdays match those of real people, unflattering though they may be. I, however, have the same birthday as Sailor Moon. That's not something you should willingly tell anyone.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at February 26, 2006 11:50 AM

The book isn't about how the US would realistically convert to Islam. The timeline, as mentioned, is way too short. It's purpose is a thought experiment to show what the US would be like if it did become Islamic. You couldn't just set it nowadays, so some sort of future timeline is needed. But it couldn't be too much ahead as other imagined future developments might take away the emphasis on the impact of Islam. Even the catalyst for Islamic conversion is unlikely, but that's besides the point. Such flaws may not make the book a great novel, but they allow the story to be told.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at February 27, 2006 12:52 PM
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