The Alien Question
Science Fiction Takes on the Middle East.

Friends of Israel these days cannot help but be frustrated by the enduring double standards and the endless doublespeak that surround the Arab-Israeli conflict. When terrorists blow up innocent Israelis, the Jews are blamed for incitement–and then criticized for retaliating. When Arab leaders speak to the Western press, they call for peaceful resolution of the conflict in Palestine–but they then turn around and fuel the fires of hatred, publishing anti-Israeli screeds in Arabic and funding schools that churn out Jew-hating children. Europe, too, is in the grip of a “new anti-Semitism,” and a majority of Europeans reportedly consider Israel the greatest threat to world peace–even as Islamist terrorists on Europe’s doorstep plot their next attacks.

Such painful absurdities are so abundant in the Arab-Israeli conflict that the subject has long called out for a skilled satirist. Now it has found one in Robert Zubrin, the author of The Holy Land, a rare work of science-fiction satire. The duplicity, mendacity, and hypocrisy that characterize the present predicament of the Middle East are laid bare in Zubrin’s engaging romp, with verve and biting wit.

An aerospace engineer and the founder of the Mars Society, Zubrin is best known for his writings and advocacy on behalf of space exploration. More than a decade ago, he came up with the plan that America is likely to adopt if it ever decides to rapidly send a manned mission to Mars.

The Holy Land, however, isn’t about space exploration; it’s a science-0fiction version of the politics of the Middle East. The story takes place in an alternate reality, where a race of aliens that long ago resided on the earth returns to take up residence in their ancestral homeland–the unlikely spot of Kennewick, Washington. These aliens, the Minervans, are now refugees from another part of the galaxy, where their population was decimated in a terrible war. Generally peaceful and industrious, they have advanced technology and skills that they use to rapidly improve their new home.

But the newcomers are attacked by a corrupt and xenophobic U.S. government. After the militarily superior Minervans easily repel the initial assault, the Americans begin a long campaign of terrorism aimed at killing the aliens or driving them out. We witness this unfolding terrorist war through the eyes of a Minervan woman and an American soldier, as each learns about the other’s civilization and copes with the deadly new reality.

What Zubrin is doing is apparent after a few pages: the Minervans represent the Jews, while the Americans represent the Arabs. In seeing the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict played out by these stand-ins, our judgment isn’t clouded by unfamiliar religious beliefs or exotic cultures; the foreign trappings are stripped away, letting us judge both sides only on the moral content of their actions. What if our religious beliefs were twisted to endorse mindless violence; what if we were governed the way Palestinians and other Arabs are governed today?

Thus in The Holy Land we can look afresh at all the tropes of the real-life conflict. The science-fiction device quickly stops seeming odd, and instead what starts to seem strange is the current real-life situation. Take, for instance, the U.S. citizens displaced by the Minervans. They are rounded up and moved by the U.S. government into squalid refugee camps right on the border of the Minervan city, so the Minervans can be blamed for their plight. “You see,” the American president tells an observer, “they have no place to live and nothing to eat. They’re starving!” When the observer asks why the refugees aren’t permitted to move elsewhere, the president responds just as Arab leaders do today: “You don’t understand. They are Kennewickians. They can’t live anywhere but Kennewick…. The only solution is for them to be given back their native land.”

The Kennewickians are the pawns of cruel, conniving, and corrupt leaders. The refugee children are brainwashed and turned into suicidal killers, and the family of each child receives compensation after the child is “martyred” for the cause of Kennewickian “liberation.” The entire country is fed libels about the Minervans–they supposedly have “razor sharp pointed teeth” and are purportedly unthinkably evil (we know they’re not)–while the U.S. leaders make a fortune by selling fuel to distant galactic empires.

Zubrin’s humor is plentiful, although it surely isn’t subtle. He lampoons everything from airline security to political correctness to the rhetoric of the jihadis (they are “crusaders” in The Holy Land), and he hilariously mocks the feckless United Nations. He ridicules a peace process that brings no peace and actually arms the terrorists. He especially skewers the international (or, in this case, interstellar) media’s one-sided news coverage, which serves more to distort than to report.

Several real-life events are directly transposed into the science-fiction setting, and part of the fun of reading Zubrin’s madcap plot comes from decoding the details. Some major aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict don’t make it into The Holy Land but on balance, they even out. The Minervans, for example, don’t build settlements like the Israelis do in real life. But the real Israelis send ambulances to pick up Palestinians hurt in the conflict, while Zubrin’s Minervans make no effort to aid the wounded earthlings. The story isn’t totally slave to the satire, and we get to see the protagonists and their friends and families develop in the midst of the chaos.

Among the critics to give Zubrin’s book a favorable nod is Daniel Pipes, the columnist and commentator who directs the Middle East Forum. “The Holy Land ingeniously highlights the absurdity of the Palestinian position,” Pipes has said. But the satire also shows great compassion for those Palestinians–or Kennewickians–who want peace but must live under the thumb of vain and petty rulers who see themselves as great leaders, while other Arab regimes–played by the U.S. government in the satire–exploit the refugees to keep their own positions secure. As one Kennewickian complains, “They bewail our plight endlessly on TV, but they won’t do a thing to help. It’s like they want us to suffer, just for show.”

In The Holy Land, Zubrin treats us to a strange, new look at some old and painful problems. If the conflict in Palestine and the war on terrorism continue to churn out absurdities–the renewed anti-Semitism in Europe, the disproportionate reaction to the security wall Israel is building, the protestors’ venomous personal enmity toward President Bush–Zubrin may soon have enough material for a sequel.

Adam Keiper is managing editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.