Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: Tom Kratman's "A State of Disobedience"

As threatened, here is a review of the book I happened to pick up at Border's a couple months ago. It was pure serendipity. Tom Kratman's A State of Disobedience is in the "military science fiction" subgenre, a field with which I have become somewhat disenchanted for reasons that have nothing to do with this review. Nevertheless, I picked this book because 1) it was the author's first effort from 2003, and 2) from the back cover blurb it seemed less dreary than anything else I saw, and I was desperate to take a break from writing and read something new that didn't have anything to do with money, credit, banking, or finance.

The book got off to a slightly rocky start, with two things that I thought were going to be big problems and cause me to take a little inspiration from Dorothy Parker. That would have been to hurl the thing away with great force, and go into mourning for $8 that would have been better spent on cheap whiskey. One, the language describing the reaction of the new lesbian president of the United States to her inauguration is a bit much, and a little too explicit for my taste. Two, a Catholic priest seemed to be presented as a main character, and that almost always means too-heroic-for-words saccharinity, or consummate villainy hiding behind the collar.

Fortunately the [crud] describing the new president was confined to two or three sentences, so I was not subjected to the usual in-depth psychoanalysis of the president's sexuality, graphic descriptions of her deviant sexual encounters, so on, so forth, etc., by means of which far too many (one is too many) of today's novelists pad out their word count. Doubly fortunate, the priest turned out to be portrayed as an actual human being. Far more heroic than I, of course . . . what, we want to read about cowardly heroes? Face it, the 15-year old prostitute the priest rescued from the streets is more heroic than I.

To write this review I visited the author's webpage to get a little more background on the guy. I had formed a definite impression of him from what he had written, and I didn't want to make the mistake of confusing what his characters are with what he is. There were things that seemed consistent with the Just Third Way in his bio, but I still have no actual factual facts to go on. For example, like Dr. Norman Kurland, president of CESJ, Mr. Kratman is a lawyer, but — like Norm — claims not to practice. Was this because he decided, like Norm, that the last thing lawyers are interested in is justice, or because (like me) he has seen too much of lawyers and doesn't really care for them as a species? I have no idea. Similarly, if he's not Catholic, he has, remarkably, successfully accomplished a task at which all non-Catholic and most Catholic novelists fail: making fictional priests human instead of disgusting perverts so twisted you wonder how they got they got out of Hell, much less the seminary, or so pure and holy you can't believe you missed the memo about the Second Coming.

For laughs (and to cop a few ideas) I visited the Amazon webpage for A State of Disobedience and looked over the reviews, 60 of them when I checked. I got more laughs than ideas. Evidently this is a book you either love or hate. There were only a handful of 2-3-4 star reviews, with the rest 1s and 5s. My impression was that the ones who loved it actually read it, as did the few moderates. The haters didn't come off so well. The most frequent comment was that it was "unreadable," and they seem to have proved their point by not reading it.

For example, a significant amount of the vitriol seems to have been caused by the book's evident pro-life stance. Pro-life science fiction? There's a snoozer for you. Like that Robert Hugh Benson snore, Lord of the World, or Evelyn Waugh's Love Among the Ruins. What next? A Broadway musical based on T. S. Eliot's poetry about a pack of flea-bitten cats?

That's bad enough, of course, but there seemed to be particular outrage at the fact that the author sympathized with "anti-abortion" (never "pro-life") terrorists who go around burning abortion clinics, and is clearly filled with hate himself. Really? Almost the first scene in which the heroic-yet-human priest appears he takes issue with the cowardly-yet-human priest about the CYHP's inflammatory rhetoric at a pro-life demonstration. Later, when counseling the children before the fighting begins, the HYHP cautions the boys that the pseudo storm troopers who will be trying to kill them aren't evil, and they shouldn't hate them. Far from "sympathizing" with abortion clinic burners, the author has the priest who probably sanctioned the burning — which took no lives — come off as pretty pathetic, although there is a brief hint that he redeemed himself at the end.

A number of the negative reviews were pretty badly written, and contained some things that belied the claim that they were written by science fiction fans. My favorite was the comparison between the author and such greats as (and this is exactly the way the names appeared) "Kurt Vonegutt" and "Ronald Heinlein." Uh, huh.

Personally, I think the real reason the negative reviewers hated the book was pretty much the only reason not mentioned, the Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name, a.k.a., "The Anti-Semitism of the Intellectual." The book's most attractive characters are clearly Catholic. You can't say that, of course, but you can mention all the things that the Catholic Church "opposes" that the best people seem to be for: crimes against nature, confiscatory taxation, worship of false gods (e.g., the State), and so on, besides being slightly suspect for kissing rings and kowtowing to people who wear funny clothes and crazy hats. You can even hint that the author is anti-Semitic as, of course, Everyone Knows All Catholics Are. The book's clear conservative standpoint didn't help; a suspiciously large number of negative reviewers claimed to be conservatives of the some-of-my-best-friends-are variety.

Having gotten about a thousand words into this review, it's probably a good idea to say something about such non-essentials as plot and characterization 'n stuff. First the characterization. A lot of negative reviewers complained about stereotyping. I've seen this same comment about authors such as Louis Lamour and Edgar Rice Burroughs who didn't waste time going on (and on, and on) about their characters' innermost thoughts and motivations, but get to the action. I want a story, not a psychoanalysis session, although I suppose there are people who read military science fiction for that, and get irritated at all the battles and such that get in way of the real purpose of fiction which, apparently, is to bore people to death.

As for the plot, a lot of the negative reviewers described it as "over the top" and not really science fiction. No kidding. It's military science fiction. It's supposed to be over the top. As for the assertion that it's not really science fiction . . . when did political science stop being a science? The best science fiction isn't zap guns and BEMs, but extrapolates social, technological, political, and even economic trends, often exaggerating them to make a point and carrying things out to a more or less logical conclusion.

People seem to forget that the military science fiction subgenre itself was "invented" in 1871 by George Chesney with the publication of The Battle of Dorking. The novella did not have any new inventions or anything else, but simply described a possible scenario in which Prussia invaded and conquered England as they just had France. Chesney's aim was not to write science fiction, but to warn England about the fate of countries that failed to be prepared for defense. Similarly, my take on A State of Disobedience is that the author intended it as a fictional warning about what could happen if certain trends were carried to their logical conclusion — and to see if he could make a more or less honest living without practicing law.

Oh, yes, the plot. A lesbian has just been elected president of the United States, and she has an Agenda with a capital A: State control of education, the economy, individual incomes, and keep going with all the liberal causes, some of which are a trifle exaggerated. I say a trifle, because I am more familiar than I care to be with the way in which anyone suspected of being conservative is labeled, and subjected to constant harangues about the Evil Conservative Conspiracy — and, while it's sometimes frosted with a little bit of humor, you need only spend a short time within the DC Beltway to see that many liberals are honestly convinced that conservatives (or those they suspect of conservatism) mean to herd them into death camps at the first opportunity . . . and no, I didn't make that up. In 2004 a good friend told me in all seriousness that he expected to be rounded up, put into a concentration camp and gassed if George Bush was reelected.

I specify "suspect of conservatism" because the liberals I know inevitably label me conservative, while the conservatives label me a flaming liberal. As the founder of the COCOA Party (Concerned Ordinary Citizens Of America), I resent both labels. Mr. Kratman may sympathize — a couple of reviewers accused him of anti-Semitism, while at least one other claimed he was a hardline "neo con" . . . the new code word for "Jew."

Anyway, the new police forces are sent into Texas to break up a pro-life protest against abortion and, true to the nature of untrained police, overreact and start clubbing protestors as they are attempting to disperse. We, of course, know that this is pure fiction, because even untrained police or National Guardsmen would never open fire on people they have been told and retold are violent terrorists intent on killing everyone who disagrees with them.

Here's where a slight glitch occurs in the writing. The heroic-yet-human priest is very badly beaten, but a very short time later seems to have made a full recovery. It's not stated, but he doesn't seem to act like someone who recently had a serious beating from 15 fear-crazed untrained paramilitary police.

Right after that an abortion "clinic" is torched. In revenge, the pseudo storm troopers go after the cowardly-yet-human priest, assuming that they'll catch him at his office. They massacre everyone inside (being careful to plant incriminating evidence), but the priest was just coming in, and manages to escape, seeking sanctuary at the mission run by the heroic-yet-human priest.

Naturally the FBI tracks him down and tries to take him away . . . provoking the above-mentioned rescued former prostitute who idolizes the heroic-yet-human priest to start blasting away with a .22 when she thinks her rescuer is in danger. Several reviewers seemed to think that this and similar incidents were "unbelievable." Vide comment on untrained and extremely nervous and frightened people with guns, supra.

This causes the paramilitary police and the FBI to surround the mission and, eventually, invade, killing everybody inside except for the sole survivor. This, of course, could never happen, especially in Waco, Texas. The governor orders the arrest of the federal agents who carried out the operation, which eventually causes a civil war between Texas and the federal government.

That leads us to the single biggest problem I had with the book. From the perspective of the Just Third Way and Binary Economics, it pretty much destroys the book. Of course, the biggest problem with this Biggest Problem is that I doubt very much if anybody else even noticed that it was a problem — besides which, it has absolutely no effect on the book at all, or the reader's enjoyment or lack thereof. It does, however, give me the reason for writing this review in the first place (you knew there had to be one).

The author confuses a currency printing facility with a mint. Horrors. As a long time numismatist (i.e., a student of coins and money, cf. my monthly column in Krause Publications' World Coin News; I'm a student, I can't afford to collect the coins AND buy the books) I had the urge actually to write in the book, inserting a correction. He also doesn't understand money, credit, banking, and finance. Of course, neither does Ben Bernanke, President Obama, or all the others who go around telling everybody else how to screw up the financial system even more than now.

I think the plot could have been strengthened (or maybe made boring) by using the correct understanding of money, credit, banking, and finance. The Great State of Texas (Yee-Haw, as fellow choir members always yell out when Texas comes up) has a commercial banking system. Translation: instead of relying on Federal Reserve Notes backed (sort of) by the federal government's promise to pay out of future tax revenues, the commercial banks of the GSOT, backed up by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank in its capacity as a regional development/central bank, could have discounted and rediscounted privately issued bills of exchange in large denominations. These could either be used as money directly, or exchanged for small denomination promissory notes for day-to-day transactions. This would have established an asset-backed currency, and a tax base that Texas could then use to finance operations without the necessity of foisting more debt-backed currency on the population.  Now Texas knows how to secede from the Union and achieve a sound currency at the same time to finance it.

As I said, however, these gigantic errors do not really detract from the book. There are a couple of places in which the author's novice status shows through — you know, stating the obvious, overwriting a bit — but nothing you can't bleep over, forgive and forget (and what do you want from a first novel?). Bottom line: I'm not glad I spent the money. (I'm never glad about that — and I can't get them for free. For a Virginia author, almost a local, the author's books are noticeably absent from the library shelves in Northern Virginia . . . but then, so are mine.) I am, however, glad I read the book. It's better than most of the shows on television, especially since Buffy went off the air, and it wasn't a waste of money.



Herr Oberst said...

Ya know, I may like that review better than I like the book.


Tom Kratman

Kasey Chang said...

Read the book, and it's basically describing a dystopia: utopia gone to ****. It's like in every thing the worst-possible happened.

In a way it reminds me of two other books: John Ringo's "The Last Centurion", and Ralph Peter's "War in 2020". Both are about a world gone to ****.

Anonymous said...

Kratman's writing is great escapist entertainment. That said, a quick look at history will show that everytime a "Progressive reform" government has total control, the first people to suffer or thier own citizens. Revolutionary France in the 1700s, Germmany, Spain, Italy, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Venezuala, S.Africa, Rhodesia, Eritria, Russia and the list goes on. So contrary to many who are detractors of his work. Name me one "Progressive Movement" which has not led to abuse of the people. Mao not only said, "The comunist must understand power flows from the barrel of a gun". He also stated, "When we are don't have the guns, let us speak of peacefull non-violence. We have the guns, let them speak of non-violence". To those who criticize Kratman's portrayal of "Progressives" name me a Progressive system which did not devolve into violence. Take your time.

Michael D. Greaney said...

No need to take my time. It all depends on how you define "progressive." I use Theodore Reesevelt's definition, as given in his 1910 speech, "The New Nationalism."

That is, progressivism means respect for individual rights within a just system of laws — essentially what the Founding Fathers envisioned for America. Unfortunately, what has happened is that progressivism has been redefined as just another brand of socialism which rejects individual rights, subsuming everything into the collective.

So, yes, Anonymous, you are correct in that progressivism using today's definition leads inevitably to injustice and violence. Using the original definition however (and not violating the principle of contradiction/identity by performing a fallacy of equivocation and insisting that the original definition and today's definition describe the same thing), progressivism is simply another name for what some would describe as the American way.