“The Century War”

Over the weekend, my friend Denny (read his blog here) sent me this story from the website of author Dan Simmons. I don’t think it’s saying too much to say that you have to read this story. On its face, it’s a tight, well-written short story, the kind of stuff that (if other things about it weren’t true) would give it a place in short story collections and creative writing textbooks for years to come.

At the very least, almost the entire story is a conversation that takes place over a couple of glasses of single-malt scotch. That, in itself, makes the story worth reading, imho.

[Spoiler Warning: the rest of this post assumes that the you have read and enjoyed (or at least been challenged by) the story at hand, and will therefore discuss and disclose plot elements without regard for your “right to be surprised” or your “right to have an opinion even though you don’t know what the hell is going on.” So read the story already. Then come back.]

Perhaps now you see why I’m not so sure this story, as technically good as it is, will ever find a place among “regular” short stories in an anthology. There are at least two reasons for that, one good and one horribly and inexplicably awful: either he’s wrong (that’s the good one) and Mr. Simmons’ story will fade quietly into history along with Y2K, “the world will end on dd/mm/yyyy”, and so many other almost-but-not-quite catastrophes. Or else he’s right (this is the bad one) and people will read his story a decade from now with that uncomfortable feeling you get at the end of Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor (that’s the one where the guy flies a passenger plane into the Capitol Building during a State of the Union address). A third possibility exists, of course: that in ten years no one will read it because no one will be allowed to. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

The main theme of this piece is: we have no idea what we’re up against. A “Category Error” he calls it; a mistake of epic proportions so catastrophic that we’re doomed to failure from the start. We’re so far off base we don’t even understand what game we’re playing. We’ve mis-defined (perhaps under-defined) the problem so badly that we have no hope of ever solving it. It’s like watching a flooded river rise closer and closer to our house and being worried that our sump pump won’t be able to keep the basement dry. Like being buried alive a thousand feet underground in the pitch-black bowels of the earth and feeling upset because the debris from the cave-in scratched our reading glasses.

Are we really guilty of such a miscalculation? Of such gross underestimation of the world around us? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Another theme then follows from the first. If we really are guilty of this Category Error and are therefore ignorant of the correct solution to our problem, then what is the answer? The answer, in the words of the Time Traveler, is that we aren’t “ruthless enough.” We are “too timid… too fearful… too decent… to match the ruthlessness of [our] enemies.” In his essay “Fear of Confrontation,” TCS Daily columnist Arnold Kling writes, “Unfortunately, large segments of American society no longer have the ability to confront real evil. People lack the confidence and moral clarity to stand up to intimidation.” We are playing hopscotch and arguing about whether Jimmy stepped on the line. Meanwhile, a 900lb gorilla smashes his way across the playground, scattering the broken bodies of our playmates behind him on his way to tear out our throats. What we need to do is invest in a big enough gun to drop the gorilla in one shot, splatter his brains all over the monkey bars (pun intended) before he does the same to us. And if the big loud gun hurts Jimmy’s ears, so be it ― he was cheating anyway.

Is that sort of ruthlessness really necessary? Do we really have to be so… so brutal? Again, I’ll leave that for you to decide.

A third theme, and then I will end my analysis with an open question. At one point the narrator complains that “the world is a complex place. Morality is a complex thing.” And while he’s right, to an extent, in a matter as clear-cut as the problem in the story, “the world, as it turns out, is not nearly so complex a place as [our] liberal and gentle minds sought to make it.” The narrator (and us, by extension) hides behind an artificial and self-made complexity, falsely blowing things way out of proportion in order to excuse our inaction. A homeless man on an exit ramp asks for a dollar. We drive past. How do we know what he’ll spend that dollar on? Is he really homeless? He should get a job; giving him money only enables his cycle of dependence… The guy needs a dollar. Turns out that’s not as complex as we make it out to be.

Is the world really this black-and-white? Do we just need to educate, to bring those peoples still locked in their constricting, archaic worldviews up-to-speed, catch them up on the moral development of the last century or so? Or is it we who need the education, a sharp slash to cut away the shades of gray to see things again as they really are? Is it time to reduce the complexity and ignore the rhetoric? A question, again, for you to decide.

And finally, at the end, why does the narrator get mad at the Time Traveler? Yes, he’s telling him bad news about his grandchildren. Yes, he’s painting a bleak picture of the next 15-20 years. But why does he get angry enough to draw a gun on the man who interrupted his New Year’s Eve to tell him these things?

And how do we feel at the end? Fearful? Bored? Incredulous? Scandalized? Angry that no one told us these things already? Lazy enough to roll over, flip on the new episode of CSI, and hope it all goes away?

Is there hope for us? I pray there is. I pray that Dan Simmons’ story does its job, sounds its clarion call, and then fades into history as another near-miss. Near the end of the story, the Time Traveler quotes a Greek philosopher who says that all human behavior is guided by three motives: fear, self-interest, and honor. It’s high time, in my opinion, that we start giving due consideration to all three. I pray that God will grant us a healthy and realistic fear, a godly sense of self-interest (for ourselves and those over whom he has given us charge), and a virtuous sense of pious Christian honor. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[Still wondering what the heck I’m babbling about? Amazed I could write this entire post without once actually naming the subject in question? Go back and read the story! Here’s the link again, you lazy slacker.]

Drink-in-hand: Yellow Tail Merlot (all the single malt is at Denny’s)


Dennis L Hitzeman said...

Well said, my friend.

To my mind, we cannot afford to wait and see whether the events foreshadowed in Mr Simmons story. We know a threat exists, and it is a threat we must address. Better to address it now when we have the advantage than later when we do not.


chris j pluger said...

I agree completely. I don't want to wait and see either.

That's why I blogged on the story: the more people who read it, the better.

It's like the Time Traveler in the story -- we can change the future by knowing what is, and what is to come.