Friday, December 19, 2008

HARM by Brian W. Aldiss

Apologies in advance. This is another retread review. I originally wrote it for last summer. It posted 27-July-2007. The good news is, most of you probably never saw it, so it very well may be just as good as something new. Maybe. I have a couple reviews slated for next week; probably Monday and Wednesday. I just need to find time to write the damn things. Have a great weekend.

Brian W. Aldiss is a living legend in the science fiction genre—he has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He has been a progressive voice in the genre for decades, and his latest novel, HARM, has all the life, voice and thought provocation of anything he has ever produced.

HARM—an acronym for Hostile Activities Research Ministry—is a satirical novel based in the near future. It is the story of Paul Ali, a writer and British citizen of Islamic heritage, who is being held as a political prisoner in a terrorist detention camp. Inside the prison he is known only as Prisoner B. His crime: a few characters in his comic novel "The Pied Piper of Hament," drunkenly joke about the assassination of the British Prime Minister. His only human contact is with his interrogators, who practice torture and violence with a particularly frightening glee.

When Paul is not in interrogation he is sequestered in a solitary cell where he suffers visions and vivid imaginings due to a mental illness. He lives in two separate and distinct worlds. The first is the world of torture and pain, and the second is a distant world where insects are dominant, and the local human population has been transplanted with extreme difficulty. They were transported in Life-Process Reservoirs, which contained their brain functions and DNA and then were reconstituted on arrival. Unfortunately the reconstitution did not work perfectly, and many of them have lost significant verbal skills, a vast amount of their intelligence, and their cultural identities.

HARM is a disjointed novel that is effective for the simple reason that when all of the storylines are connected and examined as a whole, they become something more than their parts. It is a story that casts a cynical eye at our post September 11th society. Mr. Aldiss cleverly unmasks the tightrope that many British Muslims are walking—they must embrace the British culture without losing their own—and he also casts a shadow against the methods used by Britain and the United States in the war on terror.

HARM is a novel that is both enlightening and demanding. It is very much a novel of our time, and it captures many relevant themes—immigration, identity, racism, torture—but it also examines the obscurities and nuances of what has happened to our culture since the September 11th terrorist attacks. It translates the hate and anger with a perfect pitch, all while telling a compelling and entertaining story. I recommend HARM wholeheartedly.

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