I’ve read a lot of SF, but there’s a heck of a lot of it. More than I could read in my lifetime. That’s why this is the first book by William Shunn I’ve ever read, even though he has been publishing for decades and has been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula1. But … this book is not SF; it is autobiography.
Shunn has done a lot of interesting things. He was part of the team that wrote the venerable word-processing program, Wordperfect, which many of us still feel was better than the Word that replaced it as the business standard. He was also something of a celebrity in Canada in the mid-1980s.
William Shunn was the earnest young Mormon missionary whose bomb threat to Flight 789 made newspaper headlines all across Canada.
The book includes a short, dense history of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, a history focusing primarily on charismatic founder, Joseph Smith, although the account does include events after Smith’s murder. It’s an unflinchingly frank history and not one that I expect would be greeted with joy by his former co-religionists.
Then follows an account of Shunn’s brief career as a Mormon missionary in Canada. Canada has a rich history of distrusting religions that operate outside a narrow window of orthodoxy. It has given a frosty reception to Doukhobors and Mennonites; some religions have been singled out for outright suppression. Canada has not been especially fertile ground for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The church is still something of a curiosity, though it has been more than a century since the first Mormon town in Canada was founded by Charles Ora Card. In a nation of thirty-odd million, there are still only about two hundred thousand Mormons, more than 40% of whom are located in Alberta.
Canada would likely not be any Mormon’s first choice, but that was where Shunn’s church sent him.
Shunn discovered that Canadians, being supplied with perfectly adequate religions of their own (including the notoriously inclusive United Church, for people who want something like Unitarianism but with more poutine), were not especially interested in conversion2. Despite the poor odds of finding potential converts, he was still expected to spend long hours going from door to door, attempting to convert uninterested or hostile strangers. He also discovered that his fellow Mormons often fell short of their own ideals, as humans do. Disillusioned, he tried to abandon his mission. He was hunted down by church elders and persuaded to return to work. His faith renewed, at least for the moment, he decided that his flight had been a huge mistake. So, when a fellow missionary tried to make a similar escape, Shunn did everything in his power to stop him. Which included making a (baseless) bomb threat to ground the fugitive’s airplane flight.
Shunn is lucky that he pulled his little stunt in Canada and not the US. It was also lucky that he called in his bomb threat in the 1980s, well before 9⁄113. It may also have helped that he was a clean-cut white Christian.
A few years back I watched an interview with a fellow who had the dubious privilege of becoming a Shinryuu Tokubetsukougeki-tai (God-Dragon Special Attack Squad) pilot, a bomber pilot during World War Two. Pilot survival was not a priority for the God-Dragon Special Attack Squad. The pilot was quite frank about the psychological means used to convince young men to accept suicide missions. He was also, all things considered, happy that the war ended before he was sent to bomb the Panama Canal.
Although proselytizing in Canada isn’t nearly as dangerous as flying a suicide mission, it was clear to me that the same or similar psychological techniques were used to recruit and retain personnel. I suppose that is as (un)surprising as discovering that cultures as disparate as the ancient Egyptians and the Maya both built pyramids. Independent invention, anthropologists and historians call it.
There were moments when the shadowy web of influence exercised by the Mormons seemed extraordinarily creepy to an outsider like me. Shunn’s mission superiors were able to mobilize US Mormons who intercepted Shunn; the church reacted faster than Shunn could travel. I was reminded of Wintermute and the payphone incident in Neuromancer.
‘Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.’ It was a chip voice. ‘Don’t you want to talk, Case?‘
He hung up.On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones.
Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.
I can’t help but feel that the way that the Mormons caught up with Shunn is weird and ominous; it reminds me of the extralegal network of the clams. Perhaps this sort of thing falls within the normal range of ability for large, rich, geographically dispersed churches. To which I, someone who does not belong to any of them, say “Gosh, how interesting.”
Aside from being an ex-Mormon (like several other SF writers and fans), Shunn is — unsurprisingly for an SF author — pretty clearly what TV Tropes calls One of Us, a giant SF nerd whose reading list, provided in passing here and there, will be of interest to many of my readers. His list seems to have a lot of overlap with mine, which is probably no surprise.
Many autobiographers try play down or soften their youthful misadventures. Shunn faces his past head on. He centers his book on the stupendous mistake that was the bomb threat. He also provides enough context that readers can understand why he did what he did, and even begin to have some sympathy for the nineteen-year-old numbskull who did it. He doesn’t in the least try to justify it as a sensible decision.
This is an engaging book, both for the pocket history of the Church of the Latter Day Saints and Shunn’s account of his brief but memorable tour as a missionary. I strongly recommend it.
The Accidental Terrorist can be bought here
1. In an earlier post on my site, I referred to William Shunn as a former SF writer. I’m taking this opportunity to apologize. I had confused him with Mike Shupp. William Shunn is still active in the SF field.
2: South America has been more fertile ground for the Mormons. This may explain why a few years ago I used to get accosted by Mormon missionaries looking for the Latin American part of Kitchener-Waterloo. As it turns out, we do have South Americans in KW (despite our remarkable hate crime record), but there is no particular neighbourhood in which they congregate.
When I had my store, I would invariably reward LDS attempts to convert me at my place of work with an attempt on my part to sell them books. I had a lot more success than they did.
3: Some of you may find this unbelievable. When Shunn made his phone call, hadn’t Canada just experienced what is still the largest mass murder in Canadian history, one involving bombs on planes? Before 9⁄11, wasn’t this the largest terrorist attack targeting an airplane? Well, yes. However, Canada used the power of racism against the threat of mass panic. Most of the victims in the Air India bombing were Indian-Canadians. Canadians in general just didn’t get that upset about what the white majority saw as a brown-on-brown crime4. For much the same reason, many Westerners are proclaiming their solidarity with the French after the brutal Daesh attack of November 13, while ignoring the similar Daesh atrocities in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.
4: Which may explain the complete clusterfuck that was the ensuing investigation. Though some would say that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, while fine people to call when you have a barn that needs burning, are not all that good at catching crooks, especially when the victims are not white. And much the same goes for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Incompetence more than doubles when the RCMP works with the CSIS. They hate each other more than they want to catch bad guys.