Thursday, August 22, 2019

Agent of Chaos, by Norman Spinrad

A month ago, while I was busy preparing a talk on utopia and dystopia for the Hastings Writers Group, Francis Wheen tweeted about Agent of Chaos, a science-fiction novel from 1967 with a revolutionary hero called Boris Johnson. I couldn't resist.

The Solar System is in the thrall of the Hegemony, a fascist state where minor errors are met with instant death. In fact, the automated systems often kill people anyway, their fellow citizens assuming some secret crime has been detected. Johnson is in a terrorist organisation, the Democratic League, who are struggling to be taken seriously by blowing up the Hegemony's leaders.
"You know the official line on us - we're a joke, an amusement to be reported with the sports results, if at all." (p. 40)
They have only the most rudimentary grasp of what democracy even is - there is more than one seen when they fail to define what it actually is they're fighting for - but are still determined to shoot and blow up people in its name, even at the cost of their own lives.

They are thwarted - and also sometimes aided - by a third faction, the Brotherhood of Assassins, a peculiar organistion devoted to a doctrine of chaos that seems to be a mash-up of Marx and the laws of thermodynamics. The plot then takes an unexpected turn as a probe reaches a planet in orbit round another star and discovers some kind of intelligent life - far outside the Hegemony's reach.

Wheen is not the first to spot the connection to our current Prime Minister - the Guardian reported on Agent of Chaos in 2017. But, as both suggest, there's fun to be had at comparing the ambitions and shortcomings of the Johnson described here with the one in No. 10. The Hegemony is hardly the EU but the Johnsons possibly share something.
"Your own foolish pride in your supposed cleverness is what defeated you, Johnson ... A most peculiar psychology - a man who believes what he wants to believe." (p. 104)
Frankly, it's just weird seeing his name in the midst of pulp SF. The imagery conjured can be alarming, such as when discussing the relative failure of henchpersons.
"Fortunately, the crazy fanatics seem to be as incompetent as Johnson's boobs." (p. 57)
I'm not sure Spinrad means Johnson so be anything less than a hero. On page 124, Johnson is a babbling fool who can't articulate why he fights for demoracy. Then, oddly, the narrator speaks up for him.
"The Johnsons, he realised, were by and large the best type that the human race could produce under the conditions of the Hegemony - instinctive rebels, viscerally dogmatic in their unthinking opposition to the Order of the Hegemony, but uncommitted and curiously flexible when it came to final ends." (p. 130)
Yet when challenged, he goes rather to pieces - such as when asked about Democracy with a capital D.
"'It's not just a word,' Johnson insisted shrilly. 'It's... it's...'
'Well?' said Khustov. 'What is it then? Do you know? Can you tell me? Can you even tell yourself?'
'It's... it's Democracy... when the people have the government they want. When the majority rules...'
'But the people already have the government they want.' (p. 106) 
Indeed, Khustov argues that Johnson is just after power himself - he's a tyrant in waiting. We're offered little to suggest otherwise. His ingenious (over-complicated) schemes come to nothing, he's dependent on the sacrifice of others bailing him out, and the book ends with one enormous, chaotic mess left in the Solar System which Johnson conveniently leaves behind him while blasting off, unscathed, to new pastures.

Aside from Johnson, another leading character is called Jack Torrence - one letter different from the protagonist in The Shining, to add to the alarming visuals. Spinrad attempts to make his future Solar System multiethnic, but in terms that read uncomfortably now. There are also no women featured at all.

As for the sci-fi, this future all feels pretty standard, with the moving walkways beloved of a generation of sci-fi, the lanes running at different speeds. The mass surveillance that was once a horrifying idea is now a commonplace (if no less horrifying), the incongruous bit in the novel that wards (the human citizens) use paper identity cards and manually check against lists of known insurgents - with rare success.

It's also weird what the priorities are: Johnson can't argue a case for the cause he tries to kill for, which is surely central to him as the protagonist and central to the book. There's no great emotional depth to anyone in the story and there aren't any women, yet we get whole paragraphs devoted to the mechanics of a spaceship making a comet-like slingshot round the Sun or moving apparently faster than light without breaking the known laws of physics.

In short, it's an odd book, forgettable but for the chance of Johnson's name. Oh, and the cover - by an uncredited artist - does not represent anything that happens in the 156 pages. But that twisted, raging man at the centre... Does he look a little like Trump?

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