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The Holy Land by Robert Zubrin

Satire is tough. Its greatest strengths — its topicality, its ability to connect with readers through familiar associations — are often its greatest weaknesses. Nothing dates more quickly than topicality. Consider all of the ’80s SF novels in which the Soviet Union were still major villains hundreds of years in the future. Also, in order to make trenchant commentaries upon real life, satires like The Holy Land take place in their own absurdist unreality, a world so topsy-turvy and deranged that it ends up being the only way to illustrate what is wrong with the world we live in. It’s a form of artistic reductio ad absurdam that can hit bullseyes every time when at its best (say, Dr. Strangelove) but can all too easily go over the top into excess if handled poorly (say, Natural Born Killers).

The Holy Land never quite rises to the manic heights of, say, Terry Pratchett in full battle dress, but it doesn’t stumble either. A full-on skewering of the current geopolitical situation involving the U.S., Israel, Palestine, religious extremism, and terrorism, it’s a sharp, witty story that carpet-bombs literally everybody, every side, every ideology with equal shock-and-awe. Zubrin handles it like a boss. There are more laugh-out-loud moments in the book than I would have thought possible. To be honest, his targets (the manipulative media; selfish greedy politicians; religious zealots; the faceless mob) are pretty easy. Still, if you come to The Holy Land looking for a hearty chuckle at the expense of our crazy modern world, you’ve hit the jackpot.

The story begins with the invasion of Kennewick, WA, by the Minervans, an alien race who claim Kennewick as their ancient holy land. The rabidly fundamentalist Christian government of the United States responds not at all well to this. But the Western Galactic Empire, who have long had a policy of unilateral support for the Minervans, merely shrugs and smiles and regrets there’s nothing it can do. To appease the Americans, the WGE provides them with some spiffy technology, and offers to pay them large sums of WGE currency (“bluebacks,” a brilliant sort of double-pun poking fun at cowardly foreign policies dictated by financial interests) for the right to mine “helicity,” a rare natural resource the WGE needs and which happens to be plentiful in America.

Though the Americans certainly enjoy the WGE’s money, this doesn’t stop them from waging war on the intrusive Minervans, training children for martyrdom missions and secretly sponsoring terrorists to blow up WGE planets (using tools and technology they’ve bought with WGE money). Some folks might think Zubrin has well crossed the line of good taste with such direct referents to 9/11. But as he is very open about his novel's intent to skewer virtually the entire geopolitical landscape resulting from that event, it's certainly gutsy of him to go for it. If any part of this novel is off-putting to anyone, it will be Christian readers who don't like the parallels being drawn between Islamist fundamentalism in reality, and Christian fundamentalism as represented in the book by the U.S. president and his lackeys. But Zubrin is simply making the point that any kind of religious extremism informing government policy is absurd and dangerous. (And with some of the extremism being expressed by certain individuals among the Christian right in this country these days, to say “it can't happen here” is woefully naive.)

So the Minervans represent the Israelis, obviously; the WGE, the Americans (in real life); and the Americans (in the book) stand in for the Palestinians. Superficially, this could amount to nothing but a more-clever-than-average Saturday Night Live sketch played out to feature length.

Zubrin makes The Holy Land a real novel by anchoring the story in two sympathetic protagonists: Aurora, a Minervan priestess, and Andrew Hamilton, whom she has captured during an unsuccessful attack on Kennewick, and whom she now considers a “study specimen.” Hamilton bristles at the patronizing way virtually all of the aliens (the WGE and Minervans alike) dismiss Earthlings as subhuman, though it's a perception certainly not helped by violent mass rallies staged by the U.S. Hamilton knows he simply won’t gain any sympathy for his people unless he can convince Aurora that Earthlings are at least somewhat human. Though the ultimate outcome of their growing relationship is kind of obvious, their scenes still make for some of the book's funniest and most heartfelt. The best example is from late in the book, when Hamilton takes Aurora in disguise to his parents’ house to hide her from the mob. A moment that could easily have been lathered in mawkishness becomes the book’s most genuine.

I commend Zubrin for the way he’s managed to turn post-9/11 lunacy into comedy without sliding into anything wildly inappropriate. And by occasionally springing something that isn’t funny at all (like the spectre of wounded children) smack dab into the midst of the story’s hijinx is a sobering way to remind you that while this book might be laughable, the reality it is commenting upon certainly isn’t. Zubrin isn’t consistently good at drawing this balance. The book’s infrequent moments of graphic violence work in the earlier scenes, but at the climax they come across as too Hollywood.

Considering how difficult a tightrope walk this sort of book is to write, on the whole Zubrin has far more hits than misses. Whether or not The Holy Land is the Strangelove of its generation, perhaps the best compliment I can give it might actually not sound like one: if only the world weren’t so insane that books like this were necessary.