Orwellian Newspeak is making a comeback. A year ago, lefties touted, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism," misattributing the quote from Marxist historian Howard Zinn to Thomas Jefferson. Now, dissent on Obamacare is called "un-American" and demonstrators are "Nazis" and "mobs."
George Orwell's 1984 may not have been the original dystopia novel—Sinclair Lewis's It Can Happen Here, about a fascist America came first, and dystopia has always been a staple of science fiction-- but 1984 is the most influential and remains, in many ways, the most prophetic.
A trio of new novels attempt to tread in Orwell's footsteps, two of them very successfully. One futuristic look at a Sharia dominated future, one historic look at the totalitarian society that came the closest to Orwell's terrifying vision, and one simplistic polemic that tries to extrapolate from current events, but flops badly.
Heart of the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno
Perhaps the most anticipated popular fiction offering of the year for readers of this column is Heart of the Assassin, (Scribner, $25.95) Robert Ferrigno's final volume in his trilogy about a future America split by civil war and dominated by Islamic rule.
For readers of the first two books—and please read them, don't start with this one—there is really only one thing you want to know from me.
Yes, it is a worthy finale to the trilogy.
Heart of the Assassin is a rip-roaring mix of action, social commentary, and suspense, with just a touch of wicked satire to spice up the stew.
For the uninitiated, here is a clue as to just how great Ferrigno's Assassin trilogy is: Giving a rave review to the first book, Prayers for the Assassin, was part of the indictment against columnist Mark Steyn when he was hauled before Canada's so-called Human Rights Commission. Recommendations don't come any higher than that.
The scenario is set several decades in the future, after deteriorating morality led many to embrace Islam in reaction, and nuclear terrorism blamed on Israel led to a Civil War in the United States. The North, East and West are dominated by The Islamic States of America, while "The Bible Belt" in Texas and the South has stayed independent and free, but poor.
Here's how Ferrigno explained how the world changed, because of the concerted efforts of a jihadist billionaire known as the Old One, who fancies himself the long awaited 12th Imam.
From, Sins of the Assassin:
"It had been his money, filtered through numerous fronts, that had financed the think tanks and jihadi legal defense teams … all the useful idiots. It had been his money that had funded politicians and religious figures, compliant judges and radical journalists, billions of dollars in honoraria, with presidential libraries and foundations in particular targeted. That was the carrot. … There was also the stick. Hard-line military leaders discredited. Evangelicals mocked. Curious investigators framed or fired. Or worse…."
"The U.S. Military won every battle, but they had no voice, no message that could be heard. The Old One's servants monitored every TV station and never saw a hero, only the dead. A war without heroes, without victories. Only petty atrocities inflated for all the world to see, clucked over by millionaire news anchors and fatuous movie stars. Their president himself apologized. We must show that we are more humane than the terrorists, he said. As though the wolf should apologize for having sharper teeth than the rabbit. Good fortune beyond the Old One's wildest dreams, an enemy who wanted to be loved. Be ashamed of the war and soon you will be ashamed of the warriors — the warriors got that message soon enough."
Heart of the Assassin opens with a bang, with a chilling scene taken from real life. In 2002 14 students were killed in a fire at a girl's school in Mecca in 2002, because the Sharia-enforcing religious police would not let the girls leave the burning building-- because they were "immodestly" dressed.
Series hero, Rakkim Epps, disillusioned Islamic superwarrior, is on a mission to New Fallujah-- the renamed San Francisco, center of Wahabbist extremism—when he happens upon a fire, and sees the religious police forcing girls back into the flames. Of course, Rikki is about as capable of being a passive spectator in this situation, as Jack Bauer would be of enforcing Miranda rights while the bomb is ticking.
Rakkim Epps going medieval on fanatical thugs keeping girls in a burning school to protect their virtue is the most viscerally satisfying scene of gee-I-wish-something-like-this-had-really-happened since Navy SEALs met an African death squad face to face in the Bruce Willis movie Tears of the Sun.
Discussing the plot of Heart of the Assassin is problematic. In many thrillers, a reviewer is careful not to reveal the end of the book or movie. Giving too much detail of even the setup of this third installment of the series gives away too much of the first two books in the series, much less this one.
In brief, Heart finds both sides of the former USA struggling and weakened by war and the exploitation of the situation by foreign competitors and enemies—the most immediate danger coming from a Chavez-like military dictator in the Aztlan Empire to the South.
American patriots on both sides are working for the same goal--to reunite what used to be the United States. However, the Old One wants unification too, but for an entirely different reason. The Old One needs unification in order to have a superpower from which to bring about the Caliphate.
Epps's side, however, has come to the realization that even a moderate Islamic republic is always one regime change away from Sharia dictatorship, and even the most strict Christians will make better allies for forming a free society that tolerates moderate Islam.
At its Heart, this thriller's theme is that faith matters—and that it matters what you believe in. No modernistic it-doesn't-matter-what-you-believe-just-so-you-believe-something platitudes here, or all-religions-lead-to-the-same-God nonsense.
What really sets this trilogy apart, is that Ferrigno gives his fantastic premise the ring of truth by echoing current events, like the school fire above, and the radical chic that gave Islam its foothold in the crisis (Naomi Wolf, anyone?)
Of course, the framing of the Israelis for the act of terrorism that tears the world apart is the most chilling parallel to today's world. After all, 8 years after 9/11, half the Arab world still thinks the Mossad did it-- worse, the President's recently departed Green Jobs Czar is not along in thinking WE did it to ourselves.
The scenario is complex and deceptively complete. I say deceptively because as the series goes along, Ferrigno spends less time on it and more on the characters and the plot. But that's because he can. The scenario holds up to the rigors of the plot, and is well thought-out enough to expand logically as Ferrigno expands the world his characters operate in.
That strength points to exactly what is wrong with our next book.
America Libre by Raul Ramos y Sanchez
This bit of La Raza-style agitprop pretends to be a call for moderation and understanding, but under its civil veneer, it posits a white America that is just waiting to savagely attack a minority ethnic population.
In America Libre, (Grand Central, $13.99) the accidental shooting of a Latina girl by Texas authorities leads to Hispanic rioting which escalates practically overnight to wholesale slaughter and internment camps. Please. Worse than the supposed triggering incident in this book is happening right now on our southern border-- without Americans breaking out the heavy weaponry.
But this point of view is not even Sanchez's biggest problem. This novel about a future race war between Anglos and Latinos in America exists in some strange world where America is only populated by Anglos and Latinos! What happened to Americans of other racial backgrounds—not to mention all the endless combinations of the melting pot?
America Libre is even worse than those old-style racialist novels which assumed that race relations in the U.S. were only about black and white. This ham-handed polemic has attained a certain cult following, and so has gained major publisher support. But it's the above limitation I think, even more than the politics, that will keep readers from buying in to a world that just doesn't ring true or deal with the complications of real life.
The Secret Speech by Tim Rob Smith
While Tim Rob Smith's political mystery thrillers set around the Stalinist era may not quite reach the literary heights of Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series (which began with the classic, Gorky Park) Tim Rob Smith does as good a job as anyone ever has of conveying the Orwellian soul-consuming nature of Soviet Communism.
Despite its wonkish title, The Secret Speech (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99) TRS's second book to feature Leo Demidov, a former MGB true believer who has seen the error of his ways, and is devoting his life to making amends for his actions.
The Secret Speech is even better than TRS's first novel, the mostly terrific Child 44. Unfortunately for marketing purposes, Speech lacks the commercial hook of Child 44--a cop looking for serial killer in a land where official policy is that such a criminal cannot exist in the utopia created by one of history's most prolific mass murderers.
Child 44 was marred by a huge coincidence in its final plot twist, but did a superb job of immersing the reader in a society where the State has become god, enforcing its image of omniscience and omnipresence with the pain of death and torture—and where no other religion will be tolerated.
The Secret Speech, however, deals with the first cracks in that veneer. Stalin is dead, and Nikita Khrushchev has given a speech to the Politburo condemning Stalin's brutal excesses. Now, someone is mailing the speech to schools, KGB functionaries, and other apparatchiks all over the USSR, who are terrified by its revelations and unsure how they are supposed to act in light of them.
This leads to an outpouring of revenge, suicide and general chaos within the Soviet government. Leo, despite his conversion, is a deserved target of such revenge. But he must take action to protect innocents around him who are caught in the crossfire.
This leads Leo to penetrate one of the worst camps in the Gulag, where the uncertainty of what the changes in Moscow might mean has added an anarchical edge to the brutality. Eventually, Leo finds that the cruelest deception under communist rule may be extending any hope for reform; and the breathtaking nature of the cynicism at communism's core will shock even him.
Ranging from secret tunnels under Moscow, to the Gulag, to the streets of Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution, The Secret Speech is an exciting and complex thriller that shows off its author's impeccable research at every turn.
But that is not what makes Tim Rob Smith's series special. Leo Demidov is a worthy descendent of Orwell's Winston Smith, a man searching for individual honesty, worth, and redemption in a totalitarian regime designed to brutally and mercilessly stamp out such endeavors and demand complete subjugation, heart and soul, to the State.