Can stories change the world?
By Nafeez Ahmed
My forthcoming novel, Zero Point, is a political science fiction thriller set in the near future. It imagines the dawn of a world which hasn’t taken much stock of the chorus of scientific warnings that business-as-usual is leading us toward environmental, energy and related catastrophes. It explores how concentrations of excessive power associated with the national security system are, due to their very secrecy – their obscene lack of accountability – often incapable of doing other than respond to these crises with what they know best: more violence, more repression.
The novel’s got a lot of action. It’s got explosions, car chases, shooting, martial arts, and mad action set-pieces that would make Hollywood blockbusters envious. But it’s also deep. It’s got intrigue, suspense, twists and turns. It’s a political thriller which will give readers insights into the world of espionage they won’t find from even the most well known thriller writers. It’s got cutting-edge scifi that grounds fantastical tech in real little-known experimental physics. It’s even got a dose of the supernatural. Yes, I love cross-genre fiction.
I’ve also tried to ensure the novel retains a heavy dose of authenticity. The story is inspired by real-life events, down to a lot of details – from the historical evolution of the US intelligence system, to clandestine efforts to weaponise quantum physics. That’s not to say that the story itself is anything other than speculative fiction. But I’ve drawn liberally on what I’ve learned from my journalism and academic work to craft a fictional near future world that, despite its obvious craziness, comes across as a plausible, creative exploration of how both the powerful and the powerless could react when the prevailing system suffers a series of unexpected shocks.
Along the way, the story touches on questions about the morality of war and violence, through the journey of the main character, David Ariel – a veteran of the Fourth Iraq War (yes this near future has more oil-fueled wars in Iraq), now a cop. Ariel is a patriotic whistleblower who anonymously spilled the beans on the excessive violence of the war to Baghdad-based journalist Julia Stephenson, who became his lover. After leaving his life as a soldier, disgusted with his unwitting involvement in war crimes, he ends up on the Prime Minister’s police protection unit – which he hopes is a better way to use his skills to serve his country. Things go pear-shaped, though, when the Prime Minister is assassinated in broad daylight under Ariel’s watch, in the most spectacular terrorist attack on London since 7/7 – and he finds himself being inexplicably framed for the attack as an accomplice for al-Qaeda linked terrorists.
When Julia disappears after warning of a further impending attack to bring ‘the West’ down, Ariel is dragged into a race against time to clear his name, find his girlfriend and stop the next attack. What he discovers instead, though, is enough to blow anyone’s mind.
What was really exciting about writing this novel is that much of the most mindblowing stuff in the story, despite being pretty fantastical, is inspired by stuff that has actually happened. Indeed, most of the historical events that crop up in the story about secret defence research and crazy intelligence agency games with terrorists – and even dastardly state planning for the aftermath of environmental and energy emergencies – have their roots in the real-world, in ways I suspect most readers will find quite surprising. Of course, with speculative fiction you can take liberties with that sort of material to write a story that’s fun to read, and not limited to the boundaries of what we know. And that opens doors for a lot of creativity.
Despite that, the story is grounded solidly in my fundamental concern for our very real predicament as a species. So why write a novel relating to that predicament, anyway?
The Crisis of Civilization, as I call it, is not just about social, political and economic structures that are breaching the very biophysical limits in which they are embedded. It’s equally about, ideology, culture and value. And indeed, to that extent, it’s about story.
The prevailing system keeps itself going by telling stories about why the Way Things Are is so great, and why we don’t need, and shouldn’t want, any other alternative. The prevailing system, in fact, is inseparable from the prevailing ‘story’. That’s the story of endless progress, unlimited material growth and prosperity for all – except if a large number of people aren’t benefiting from that, it’s supposedly not because of the system, it’s because of rogue elements who aren’t quite implementing the system properly as it’s supposed to be implemented. Don’t blame the system – blame the bad apples. So the story goes.
The current business-as-usual trajectory of global industrial civilisation, however, suggests that this story is deeply out of sync with reality. Technological progress has indeed brought with it great scientific achievements along with a tremendous increase in our knowledge, and our capacity to intervene in our environment. But in a way, we’re still kids in a playground who’ve stumbled across big guns, and aren’t afraid to use them. What we seem to be forgetting is that the size of our guns, and our capacity to exert control and exploit our environment, is not really a very effective way, by itself, of measuring progress. Especially not when according to the scientific consensus, the way we’re ‘playing’ at the moment will end up destroying the entire playground and everything in it.
If the story of progress is the story of ultimate doom – and as the UN climate panel itself tells us, we’re heading for an uninhabitable planet due to accelerating carbon pollution before the end of this century (and potentially even earlier) – then the planet clearly needs a new, somewhat more accurate story.
Part of the problem, as I see it, is that when we’re trying to expose the self-defeating and counterproductive dynamic of the prevailing system, we’re going up against these deeply entrenched assumptions, ideas, stories which are so widespread, but often held unconsciously. To transition toward a civilisation that is able to harness what we’ve learned constructively in a way that stops us from killing the planet, each other, and ourselves, we need to develop new stories of the human condition which connect us with, not blind us to, reality.
So yes, the ‘revolution’, the transition, the change, the paradigm shift, whatever you want to call it, is not just social, political and economic. It is ideological. It is cultural. The revolution, in other words, will not just be televised – it will be digitised, musicated, artified, and beyond: The revolution will be storified.
The way to people’s hearts is through stories. I wrote Zero Point because I believe that we need to start creating new stories that inspire readers to see the world the way it is, even in the process of reading to escape the doldrums of everyday life. Because through the medium of fiction, through works of art, we’re sometimes able to witness the magic of reality that is so often difficult to see through the fog of consumerism, keeping-up-with-the-joneses, and all the other stuff that keeps us busy but, deep inside, asleep at the wheel.
I’ve always had a love of intelligent thrillers, science fiction, action-flicks, and human stories about struggles against overwhelming odds, personal growth amidst overwhelming adversity. I wrote Zero Point, the first volume in The Unravelling Trilogy, because it’s the kind of thing I’d love to read – and I wasn’t finding much out there which combined all the things I wanted to be reading in one grand story.
In that sense, Zero Point isn’t like other mainstream political thrillers. I’m no Tom Clancy – not because he didn’t know how to pen a good thriller, but because the techno-thriller genre that he pioneered tends to glorify the world of military and intelligence agencies as a case of ‘the good guys’ (in the west) fighting against ‘the bad buys’ (usually, in some fashion, by definition ‘not western’).
That sort of paradigm has become a staple, if not stale trope of the thriller genre, reflected often inHollywood, where covert action and military violence are largely – though not always – portrayed as legitimate violence against evil doers threatening ‘our way of life’ because they’re just so horrendously and inexplicably evil. Even when grand conspiracies are involved, it’s not one involving the system itself, but rather anomalous rogue agents in the system that need to be ruthlessly rooted out so ‘the good guys’ can go back to business-as-usual.
Zero Point subverts this subliminal neo-imperial narrative with a story arc that slices through the traditional binary polarisation between ‘us good’ and ‘them bad’ in traditional thriller writing, opening up the complexity of ‘deep politics’ – the extent to which the inherent corruption of the system is its greatest asset, and simultaneously our own worst enemy. My background in international security including my access to insiders – having contributed for instance to two major official terrorism investigations in the US and the UK as well as broken exclusives on military intelligence malpractice – gives me a unique perspective to draw from.
Writers like the late Clancy have no real understanding of the world of espionage. What they produce, instead, amounts to a form of gushing propagandistic fantasy, devoid of real experience or understanding of what covert action really involves, the complex web of privatised corruption in which it is so often embedded, and the regressive interests and ideologies it tends to serve.
If you want a glimpse of how things really work and a plausible vision of the sorts of trends we could see materialising in the near future – enveloped lovingly in dollops of insane scifi – Zero Point might just tickle your fancy.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist, and international security scholar. He writes for The Guardian on the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and the forthcoming science fiction thriller, ZERO POINT. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @nafeezahmed
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