Are peace and pacifistic attitudes now passé?

The City, Not Long After — Pat Murphy

City-Not-Long-After

Pat Murphy’s 1989 novel The City, Not Long After exists in the intersection between two subgenres, the post-apocalyptic story and the nonviolent resistance story. There are far more post-apocalyptic stories than stories about nonviolent resistance. That’s because Everything Blew Up and Then Fell Down is a hell of a lot easier to write than stories where the protagonists are not allowed to solve social problems with cathartic violence [1]. Also, if you do write about nonviolent resistance, you will only enrage Gregory Benford and Charles Platt.

This is the sort of subgenre that almost compels spoilers and so, SPOILER WARNING.


~oOo~

Almost twenty years before the events of this novel, a virgin field epidemic swept the Earth; highly contagious and extremely lethal, it swept the majority of the human population from the Earth, leaving only pockets of survivors here and there. In San Francisco, it happened that the majority of the survivors were either artists or tolerant of artists. A generation after the die-off, San Francisco is home to a community of amiable weirdos.

Further up the coast of California, a less happy story is playing out. General Miles, nicknamed Fourstar by his enemies after the promotion that the General graciously granted himself after the plague (having apparently emigrated from a nearby Niven and Pournelle novel), has a grand vision of reuniting America under his authority. He would prefer it if communities simply submitted to his rule peacefully but if a town decides to resist, Fourstar is perfectly happy to smash the offending town into rubble pour encourager les autres.

San Francisco is next on Fourstar’s to do list, Whereas other cities were just dots on the map for the General, San Francisco is a very special target. Not only is it widely believed to have been the center from which the plague spread, but its liberal culture is an affront to the America in which the General believes.[2] The General has to conquer San Francisco—or at least annihilate it, to remove any threat posed by an alternative social model.

A few of San Francisco’s inhabitants may be dubiously hygienic wackaloons, but there are also citizens with impressive technical skills and access to a much broader body of knowledge than Fourstar possesses (he is in the habit of burning any books he deems a threat to the body politic). Where San Francisco comes up short is in the matter of an organized militia, which they totally lack, and the right sort of bloody-mindedness needed to carry out a protracted insurgency.

Public figures like Danny-boy argue that to fight Fourstar with Fourstar’s methods is to become Fourstar; others, like Jax, a refugee from a region recently invested by Fourstar, insist that the alternative to violence is to be conquered and brutally subjugated by Fourstar and his minions. Danny-boy is a local while Jax is from away, so Danny-boy wins the argument. Instead of methods aimed at killing or maiming as many of the enemy as it takes to get them to leave, Danny-boy and his band of merry lunatics are going to use unorthodox methods to convince the General that San Francisco is not worth the bother.

Except, of course, walking away from San Francisco for any reason would count as a loss for the General and that would puncture his illusion of invincibility—something Fourstar will never tolerate, because if one town defeats him, what is to keep the rest of his empire from rising up against him? [3]

It’s interesting that an author living in San Francisco would imagine a West Coast where LA was a hotbed of nasty religious nuts, Oakland was impassible to civilized kind, the coast up towards Oregon and Washington was under the lash of a militarized conformist, while San Francisco somehow came out of it all semi-utopian, nodding happily and smelling faintly of patchouli.

It’s going to get more spoilery from here on. Have some dots.

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If violence is out, Danny-boy and his ideological allies need to find alternative methods. The San Francisco artists have convinced themselves this is possible:

We don’t have to kill Fourstar’s people. All we have to do is change their minds. We just have to make them think we can kill them at any time. That would be enough. Let’s think of this war as an art project.”

(This is an example of the “if all you have is a hammer” principle: San Francisco is the city of Art, so they tend to approach problems from that angle.)

They compare their situation to India forcing out the British and ditto Vietnam and the US (which, for the record, is not painted as a nonviolent conflict but one where a small polity managed to defeat a larger one). But the big issue is going to be convincing the other side to play by San Francisco’s rules. It’s not a completely hopeless situation—see, for example, the Utah War, which by the way is a war American SF doesn’t get half the mileage out of that they could—but it’s close to being so. Fourstar always has to win to be assured of staying in power. The artists may be unwilling to kill or to cause mass devastation, but that’s not a handicap from which their enemies suffer.

Fourstar’s system does have an obvious failure point: Fourstar seems not to have a designated successor. (Choosing an heir would mean admitting that Fourstar will some day be forced by infirmity or death to leave office, which would be to admit weakness and also to set up a possible rival.) If he dies, his realm fragments. However, Danny-boy and his allies would have to abandon their vow of non-lethality in order to exploit this failure point. That isn’t a problem for Jax, coming from up the coast as she does, and having had an entirely different sort of upbringing than charming, naïve Danny-boy….

~oOo~

I gather from the author’s afterword that the hardcover wasn’t received with rapturous acclaim:

When The City, Not Long After came out in hardcover, some reviewers criticized it as a return to “sixties sensibilities” and “flower power,” as if peace and pacifistic attitudes are now passé. We did that once—no need to do it again. The implication is such attitudes are not realistic, unsuitable to the real world in which we live.

I am dismayed by the notion that some seem to think that there is no need to consider other ways of living. Needless to say, I disagree. For me, the concerns and sensibilities expressed in The City are not those of the sixties but those of the present.

The present” in the previous quote is presumably some time before February 1990, when the mass market paperback I am now reading was published. As we know, the US was at that time locked in a struggle for global domination with the Soviet Union. As the Cold War had lasted for decades at that point, the same basic reasoning behind the Doomsday Argument clearly suggests that a prudent person who, having no reason to think they were in a special moment within the Cold War, could expect it to continue until the mid-21st century. I know some of you are going to argue that the Soviet Union collapsed soon after this book was published, ending the Cold War in a comparatively peaceful manner, but who are you going to believe, mere history or math?

The US has been frightening itself with existential threats (some real, some imagined) since its founding. To embrace peaceful alternatives is reject fear of imminent destruction, which is turn is to reject America itself! Which, to be honest, a number of characters explicitly do. That, I would bet, was another element of this book that may not have gone over well with some readers.

Leaving that aside, I have to wonder if her critics actually read the novel. As far as I can tell, Murphy plays fair within the rules she has chosen for her world. The inhabitants of the City are determined to stay [4] and will not willingly submit to Fourstar. Fourstar will never give up as long as he breathes and he has an experienced, well-equipped army. There are only two possible outcomes to this and Murphy picked one of them. Not only that, but [rot13 for spoiler : Qnaal-obl unf gb erfbeg gb yrguny sbepr; va gur raq, uvf jnl snvyf]. What did her critics expect? To be honest, I would have expected Murphy’s ideological allies to be more affronted by this novel than her opponents were.

This novel and other works by Pat Murphy are available from Open Road Media.

1: My gamemaster for Mutants and Masterminds commented a few months ago that the core conceit of superhero fiction is that every problem can be solved by punching it in the face.

2: To be fair to the General, in the world of the novel, San Francisco was, through no fault of its own, one of the epicenters from which the plague spread. Although the original disease reservoir was deep in the Himalayas, the plague was spread inadvertently by well-meaning do-gooders who were importing monkeys from the Valley of Peace in the Himalayas to zoos around the world. Legend had it that if “the monkeys were to leave the monastery (in the Valley of Peace), they would bring peace to the world.”

The moral here is: when dealing with seers and mystics of any flavour, you want to make very sure the words they say mean what you think they do in your particular case. “If you attack, a mighty kingdom will be destroyed” and all of that; ambiguity is not your friend when it comes to oracles. Seers seem to have odd senses of humour, although in this case the monk who supplied the Western idealists with information did warn them “though it may not be the peace you expect.”

I don’t know if Murphy intended any sort of HIV parallels when she wrote this book. When the book was first published, in 1989, this was a subject on many people’s minds. I would bet that there were people at that time who felt very much like the General where San Francisco was concerned: a plague spot, best burned out. Even if Murphy didn’t intend such a parallel, readers could easily have seen one.

3: Aside from the near-total lack of inclination to do so, I mean. There’s not much evidence people up the coast much mind the boot on their neck.

4: Thus eliminating what I will somewhat spoilerishly call the Eye of the Heron solution.


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