Tuesday, August 24, 2004

STERLING ON THE WELL

Bruce Sterling is one of the few science fiction writers I still read. He has a scary and unique understanding of the way the world works globally. His surprisingly empathetic story of an Islamic terrorist, We See Things Differently, was written almost 20 years ago but now seems prescient, and I loved his sarcastic 80s cyberpunk polemics as Vincent Omniveritas in his broadsheet Cheap Truth. He's never rested on his laurels and churned out formula sharecropped trilogies like so many SF hacks. I recently read his new novel, The Zenith Angle, where he takes the template of a Clancy technothriller and explodes it with his own hip arsenal of attitudes and ideas (I don't think Clancy would feature a character reading pomo/porno goddess Kathy Acker). If at times it seems a little too much like an airport read, he still notices aspects of how the world works in a way no one else does. Like his confrere Wm. Gibson, he's set his most recent book in the present, because the post 9/11 world we live in has become the stuff of a dystopian SF novel, so why even bother with the corny speculative furniture? He's pretty damn good just off the cuff as well. Here's his rundown on the current situation from a recent session on the Well:

Well, I think what September 11 was about was a calculated
provocation against the "Washington Consensus" by an
extremely violent group of fanatics with no ability
to govern. Al Qaeda has the relationship to Islam
that the Khmer Rouge had to Marxism.

To me the most significant thing about Al Qaeda is
not that they are Muslim but that they are stateless.
Their personnel are almost all diaspora people, exiles.
The most effective ones have Western educations.
So it's not a clash of civilizations, it's a clash
of globalizations.

The ability of the American administration to assert
its will around the world has been very much
hampered. The US is now bogged down in a ground war
where nationalist resentment rises every day.

By contrast, Al Qaeda, who number at most maybe 30,000
revanchist adventurers, are methodically demonstrating
their ability to wreak bloody havoc pretty much
anywhere on the planet. Their
loss of so-called "bases" in Sudan or Afghanistan
or the Pakistani tribal lands never
bothered them much. They're not a government,
so they don't need "bases." The mere fact that
they exist and have credibility, that's what
makes Al Qaeda the "Base."

Five years after 9/11, the USA is a deeply
polarized society with alienated allies and
practically zero diplomatic credibility. The least whisper
from the Al Qaeda camp is pored over and
valorized; they're crazy, but they're successful.
The emptyhanded USA with its witch-hunts
for nonexistent WMD looks simply delusional.
You'd be hard put to find a Mexican, Canadian
or Briton with the least belief that the Bush
Administration means anything it says.

This enormous setback came because
of the loss of two and one-fifth buildings.
We really need a better word for this struggle
than "terrorism." People in the US
were once pretty frightened about Communist subversives,
but very few Americans are genuinely frightened
about Al Qaeda. We just resent them furiously,
we lost all sense of perspective. Americans aren't terrorized
by Al Qaeda, but in 9/11, Americans got jolted into
an unthinking revanchist rage that revealed
the American state's deep political weakness.

Outside the US borders, the US Administration
no longer looks like an outfit that thinks
clearly enough to set a global agenda.
Fundamentalist capitalists are just watching
those oil prices and sweating bullets, while at the WTO,
where the US one strode the stage like a Colossus,
the Chinese and Indians closet themselves
with the Brazilians. The Washington Consensus
of the 1990s is as dead as the Brezhnev Doctrine.

On the other hand, the clock won't stop ticking.
Ten years ago people just talked about globalization;
now we're really wading in knee-deep.


(via boing boing)