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Thursday, November 14, 2002

Conspiracy and prospiracy:

One of the problems we face in the war against terror is that al-Qaeda is not quite a conspiracy in the traditional sense. It's something else that is more difficult to characterize and target.

(I wrote what follows three years before 9/11.)

Political and occult conspiracy theories can make for good propaganda and excellent satire (vide Illuminatus! or any of half a dozen other examples). As guides to action, however, they are generally dangerously misleading.

Misleading, because they assume more capacity for large groups to keep secrets and maintain absolutely unitary conscious policies than human beings in groups actually seem to possess. The history of documented "conspiracies" and failed attempts at same is very revealing in this regard — above a certain fairly small size, somebody always blows the gaff. This is why successful terrorist organizations are invariably quite small.

Dangerously misleading because conspiracy theories, offering the easy drama of a small group of conscious villains, distract our attention from a subtler but much more pervasive phenomenon -- one I shall label the "prospiracy".

What distinguishes prospiracies from conspiracies is that the members don't necessarily know they are members, nor are they fully conscious of what binds them together. Prospiracies are not created through oaths sworn by guttering torchlight, but by shared ideology or institutional culture. In many cases, members accept the prospiracy's goals and values without thinking through their consequences as fully as they might if the process of joining were formal and initiatory.

What makes a prospiracy like a conspiracy and distinguishes it from a mere subcultural group? The presence of a "secret doctrine" or shared goals which its core members admit among themselves but not to perceived outsiders; commonly, a goal which is stronger than the publicly declared purpose of the group, or irrelevant to that declared purpose but associated with it in some contingent (usually historical) way.

On the other hand, a prospiracy is unlike a conspiracy in that it lacks well-defined lines of authority. Its leaders wield influence over the other members, but seldom actual power. It also lacks a clear-cut distinction between "ins" and "outs".

Prospiracy scales better than conspiracy, and thus can be far more dangerous. Because anyone can join simply by buying the "secret" doctrine, people frequently recruit themselves. Because the "secret" isn't written on stone tablets in an inner sanctum, it's totally deniable. In fact, members sometimes deny it to themselves (not that that ultimately matters). What keeps a prospiracy together is not conscious commitment but the memetic logic of its positions.

As an exercise (and to avoid any appearance of axe-grinding), I'll leave the reader to apply this model for his or herself. There are plenty of juicy examples out there. I'm a "member" of at least two of them myself.

posted by Eric at 8:45 AM          

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

The Charms and Terrors of Military SF:

I took some heat recently for describing some of Jerry Pournelle's SF as "conservative/militarist power fantasies". Pournelle uttered a rather sniffy comment about this on his blog; the only substance I could extract from it was that Pournelle thought his lifelong friend Robert Heinlein was caught between a developing libertarian philosophy and his patriotic instincts. I can hardly argue that point, since I completely agree with it; that tension is a central issue in almost eveything Heinlein ever wrote.

The differences between Heinlein's and Pournelle's military SF are not trivial — they are both esthetically and morally important. More generally, the soldiers in military SF express a wide range of different theories about the relationship between soldier, society, and citizen. These theories reward some examination.

First, let's consider representative examples: Jerry Pournelle's novels of Falkenberg's Legion, on the one hand, and Heinlein's Starship Troopers on the other.

The difference between Heinlein and Pournelle starts with the fact that Pournelle could write about a cold-blooded mass murder of human beings by human beings, performed in the name of political order, approvingly — and did.

But the massacre was only possible because Falkenberg's Legion and Heinlein's Mobile Infantry have very different relationships with the society around them. Heinlein's troops are integrated with the society in which they live. They study history and moral philosophy; they are citizen-soldiers. Johnnie Rico has doubts, hesitations, humanity. One can't imagine giving him orders to open fire on a stadium-full of civilians as does Falkenberg.

Pournelle's soldiers, on the other hand, have no society but their unit and no moral direction other than that of the men on horseback who lead them. Falkenberg is a perfect embodiment of military Fuhrerprinzip, remote even from his own men, a creepy and opaque character who is not successfully humanized by an implausible romance near the end of the sequence. The Falkenberg books end with his men elevating an emperor, Prince Lysander who we are all supposed to trust because he is such a beau ideal. Two thousand years of hard-won lessons about the maintainance of liberty are thrown away like so much trash.

In fact, the underlying message here is pretty close to that of classical fascism. It, too, responds to social decay with a cult of the redeeming absolute leader. To be fair, the Falkenberg novels probably do not depict Pournelle's idea of an ideal society, but they are hardly less damning if we consider them as a cautionary tale. "Straighten up, kids, or the hero-soldiers in Nemourlon are going to have to get medieval on your buttocks and install a Glorious Leader." Pournelle's values are revealed by the way that he repeatedly posits situations in which the truncheon of authority is the only solution. All tyrants plead necessity.

Even so, Falkenberg's men are paragons compared to the soldiers in David Drake's military fiction. In the Hammer's Slammers books and elsewhere we get violence with no politico-ethical nuances attached to it all. "Carnography" is the word for this stuff, pure-quill violence porn that goes straight for the thalamus. There's boatloads of it out there, too; the Starfist sequence by Sherman and Cragg is a recent example. Jim Baen sells a lot of it (and, thankfully, uses the profits to subsidize reprinting the Golden Age midlist).

The best-written military SF, on the other hand, tends to be more like Heinlein's — the fact that it addresses ethical questions about organized violence (and tries to come up with answers one might actually be more willing to live with than Pournelle's quasi-fascism or Drake's brutal anomie) is part of its appeal. Often (as in Heinlein's Space Cadet or the early volumes in Lois Bujold's superb Miles Vorkosigan novels) such stories include elements of bildungsroman.

The Sten sequence by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch was both a loving tribute to and (in the end) a brutal deconstruction of this kind of story. It's full of the building-character-at-boot-camp scenes that are a staple of the subgenre; Sten's career is carefully designed to rationalize as many of these as possible. But the Eternal Emperor, originally a benevolent if quirky paternal figure who earns Sten's loyalty, goes genocidally mad. In the end, soldier Sten must rebel against the system that made him what he is.

Cole & Bunch tip their hand in an afterword to the last book, not that any reader with more perception than a brick could have missed it. They wrote Sten to show where fascism leads and as a protest against SF's fascination with absolute power and the simplifications of military life. Bujold winds up making the same point in a subtler way; the temptations of power and arrogance are a constant, soul-draining strain on Miles's father Aral, and Miles eventually destroys his own career through one of those temptations

Heinlein, a U.S naval officer who loved the military and seems to have always remembered his time at Annapolis as the best years of his life, fully understood that the highest duty of a soldier may be not merely to give his life but to reject all the claims of military culture and loyalty. His elegiac The Long Watch makes this point very clear. You'll seek an equivalent in vain anywhere in Pournelle or Drake or their many imitators — but consider Bujold's The Vor Game, in which Miles's resistance to General Metzov's orders for a massacre is the pivotal moment at which he becomes a man.

Bujold's point is stronger because, unlike Ezra Dahlquist in The Long Watch or the citizen-soldiers in Starship Troopers, Miles is not a civilian serving a hitch. He is the Emperor's cousin, a member of a military caste; his place in Barrayaran society is defined by the expectations of military service. What gives his moment of decision its power is that in refusing to commit an atrocity, he is not merely risking his life but giving up his dreams.

Falkenberg and Admiral Lermontov have a dream, too. The difference is that where Ezra Dahlquist and Miles Vorkosigan sacrifice themselves for what they believe, Pournelle's "heroes" sacrifice others. Miles's and Dahlquist's futures are defined by refusal of an order to do evil, Falkenberg's by the slaughter of untermenschen.

This is a difference that makes a difference.

posted by Eric at 9:20 AM