Review: The Holy Land ©2003 by Robert Zubrin; Polaris Books, Lakewood, CO; 298 pages.
for: American Mensa Ltd. Bulletin ` by: Heather Preston, editor, PlainsPeaking,
the newsletter of Plains and Peaks Mensa
The word satura (the root of our "satire") is a Latin adjective which originally meant "mixed" or "of various composition" and was used to refer to Roman sausages. What of that? Nearly 2000 years later, Otto von Bismarck provided us with a rational, rather than simply linguistic, connection between sausages and satire: "To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making." Robert Zubrin has been peeking, and sausage-makers all over the world have reason to be nervous.
The satirical target of this fast-paced science fiction adventure is "The Palestinian Conflict," a subject some would deem too serious for satire. Yet, because of the contradictions and colliding world-views embraced by the major players, it sometimes seems that the only responses possible for an intelligent, compassionate and informed observer are either deep sorrow or biting satire. In some ways, Zubrin expresses both of these in his work, but his overall optimism wins out to make this a tale of high adventure and deep humanistic insight.
Arrogant, beautiful, cultured aliens (Minervans, who worship the Goddess of Reason) are relocated to their ancestral home (20,000 years ago) of Kennewick, Washington. The US government is not amused. They are even less amused when they find they can do nothing about it militarily, but must try to manipulate galactic public opinion by creating a Kennewickian Refugee Problem so that one of the galactic superpowers (whose political differences are, for simplicity’s sake, largely defined by their religious differences) will either remove the Minervans or somehow make it possible for the Earthlings to do so. Our hero is a US Army Ranger named Andrew Hamilton, captured on an early sortie against the Minervans. This story has all of the space opera ingredients: lots of impressive fighting scenes, local and galactic political machinations of many flavors, Mom and turkey dinners, and handsome, heroic American boy meets gorgeous but slightly ultra-rational and arrogant alien girl – do they save the world? Do they lose one another? There is suspense, nobility, and charm. Not bad for only 298 pages! The pacing is excellent, the plot consistent and convincing. And, except in the epilogue, which ties up the plot as a good epilogue should, the satire has quite a bite.
Zubrin spares no one from the searchlight of his satirical situations and analyses, although his own position on the (actual) conflict will also be fairly clear by about page 20. It is telling, nonetheless, that the "solution" his characters reach is not sweeping and global, but begins more along the lines of Voltaire’s (Candide) conclusion with regard to the miseries of the world.* Madness is out there; healing and joy are in here, but Zubrin carries the cultivation of the garden a bit farther, mindful of its potential to influence the greater world: even a few small seeds, planted and tended in hope, can yield a lush Eden in the fullness of time. Tikkun Olam, but from a realist.
The author’s basic belief in the future (dare I say "optimism?" He is, after all, founder and president of The Mars Society, which is by definition optimistic) arises not from naiveté but from a long and varied experience, and this sense of hope is one of the weapons making his satire effective. Turning this particular horrifying and seemingly hopeless real-life conflict into a satirical space-opera is almost an exorcism. His advocacy of hope is not plaintive, but carries conviction. The reader may consider the writing as shading into propaganda, yet it dances nicely along this edge – the writing achieves at least one aim of propaganda through the subtle persuasion of lampooning all sides, causing even the most skeptical reader to ask new questions. And it is even more effective because it is funny. Often, in the midst of the most horrible (because if they are even partially a mirror of reality, "horrible" is the only appropriate word) political machinations, or the greatest crisis of communication between one key character and another, the reader will find himself bursting into laughter.
That is the second, and quite formidable, weapon of Dr. Zubrin – his playful and acute intelligence. Founder of his own aerospace research and development firm, holder of three US patents and designer of Mars Direct (the most realistic existing template for achieving a successful manned mission to Mars in the next twenty years), in a battle of wits Robert Zubrin would be well beyond "armed to the teeth." Consider The Holy Land a good read and a well-crafted SF adventure, in the guise of satire, from a man who could just as easily (and almost as entertainingly) have chosen to explain a new type of fusion reactor design or why it’s a good idea for humans to hie themselves to Mars, not in fifty years, but ten. Given the craziness that so often seems to skew the course of global politics, Zubrin’s perspective, humor and well-honed intellect, plus, of course, a talent for storytelling, are qualities many Mensans will appreciate.
– Heather Preston, 15 September 2003
* "We must cultivate our garden."