Tom Kratman‘s new book A Desert Called Peace is more than a novel. It is a forceful and very timely political statement presented as a dystopian science fiction novel, but difficult for anyone to mistake for mere fiction. Working with the support of a sympathetic publisher and under the protective disguise of the science fiction genre, Kratman has written the kind of book which a lot of people would like to see banned or burnt if they could get away with it. It is a book which will make many furious, even more troubled, and some few enlightened.
As he did in A State of Disobedience, Kratman has taken real world events and changed the names to protect the not-so innocent, and presented them as an illustration of his view of what’s wrong in the world and how things ought to be. In A Desert Called Peace the writing and the fictional narrative are stronger and the setting deliberately distanced, because the events and themes which the novel addresses are much more immediate and controversial. Nonetheless, anyone with an awareness of recent history and major world figures can easily identify the places, people and events beneath Kratman’s veneer of science fiction.
The story is set 500 years in the future on a world called Terra Nova, Earth’s single interstellar colony, made accessible by an accidentally discovered wormhole. The novel presents the backstory of the colonization and development of Terra Nova as interludes to the main narrative, providing a fairly reasonable scenario of how the world could develop such a startling similarity to Earth in the beginning of the 21st century. Earth itself also plays a significant secondary role in the story, and wil likely play a larger role in the as yet unpublished sequel Carnifex.
Five centuries after settlement, Terra Nova has ended up remarkably like today’s Earth, with colonies established by different earth nations developing into analogs of those nations in similar geographical regions. The hemispheres may be flipped, but the relative positions of the nations of the new world match those of the old and despite name changes, the reader will recognize the major players. The Taurans are the Europeans, the Volgans are the Russians, the FSC is the USA, Sumeria is Iraq, Balboa is Panama and so on. Some contemporary figures and many institutions are identifiable as well, and many are certainly represented by type if not as specific individuals. There are international do-gooders and NGOs and media organizations which will ring plenty of bells, and the world faces many of the same problems ours does, including international terrorism in the form of fanatical Salafi muslims settled in an oil-rich region.
The story really begins with the attack of two airships controlled by terrorists on the Terra Nova Trade Organization tower which results in the deaths of thousands, including the wife and children of Patrick Hennessy, a retired FSC military officer from a wealthy family background who has moved to Balboa to live with his family in his wife’s homeland. This sets up a ‘what if’ scenario based around Hennessy as the main character of the novel and the idea that he has the skills and resources to make the war on terror his personal crusade for revenge for his murdered family. This fictional scenario set in the context of a sequence of events which closely parallels the historical aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks in our own recent history, allows Kratman to explore the nature of war and terrorism as well as recent events and provide through Hennessy’s actions a guide to how he thinks the war on terror ought to have been fought, and where those efforts have come up short in the real world.
Without giving away too many details, Hennessy raises a mercenary army based out of Balboa and hires out to the FSC in their invasion of Sumeria, where his forces are given a part of the country to pacify and prove to be more ruthless and more effective than the FSC is despite their limited resources and relatively small numbers. Hennessy’s vision of the war on terror is clear and unequivocal and he does in his part of the war in Sumeria the things which the FSC doesn’t dare to do and thereby avoids a variety of pitfalls and is remarkably successful. This includes the use of torture, assassination and intimidation. He applies the principle that the friend of his enemy is also his enemy and treats the international news media, interfering NGOs and human rights organizations extremely harshly. He also has the autonomy of command that allows him to avoid politically correct decisions and make strategically sound ones instead. So he forms an alliance with Sumeri military forces after they are defeated, rather than disbanding them as the FSC does in their part of Sumeria, deals with terrorists and insurgents and their supporters on their own terms and with a ruthlessness which his allies recoil from, managing as a result to win the hearts and minds and respect of many Sumeris and the hatred of Terra Nova’s progressive community and the representatives of the post-progressive elite of the old Earth regime.
Kratman has a military background and served in the Gulf War and is clearly keenly aware of how things have gone wrong in Iraq and in the War on Terror as a whole. He uses the book to play out several examples of how he thinks important aspects of that conflict should have been handled, including the use of some of the harsh methods mentioned earlier, and an interesting alternative version of the Siege of Fallujah. Particularly hard hit in the novel are the Kosmos, Terra Nova’s equivalent of our international community of “Tranzis” or Transnational Progressives, as well as their fellow travellers in the news media. One of the more disconcerting aspects of the novel is Kratman’s clear personal animosity towards these groups and individuals. I have plenty of reasons to dislike them and be suspicious of them myself, but clearly Kratman has some personal experiences which turn certain scenes in the novel into a bit too much of a revenge fantasy.
A Desert Called Peace is a much more complete novel than some of Kratman’s earlier works. The characterizations are better, the integration of plot and backstory are better. The narrative flows and keeps the reader engaged, and the didactic elements are expressed by example rather than by lecturing. That makes it a good read. You can kind of shove the message to one side and just enjoy the book as pure story, though there is still plenty of material which those who are squeamish or not fans of military SF will find disturbing.
That said, this is still primarily a dystopian novel based on current events. It even operates as such on two levels, because the interludes about the settlement of Terra Nova and about the state of Earth in the 25th century form a second angle of attack against the forces which Kratman sees as a threat to freedom and western civilization. It is harsh and doesn’t softpedal its ideas, and it’s likely to piss people off.
Kratman has elicited some pretty harsh reactions from the political left in the past, being called all the usual names reserved for those who they do not understand but find threatening. This book isn’t going to make them any happier. However, it’s not just a gung-ho, macho, neocon stroke-book (there, I beat them to the description). Kratman finds plenty of fault with America’s political leadership and certainly doesn’t push an overt right-wing agenda, even though that’s what many will mistakenly see in the book. There’s also a signficant subtext of the difficulty of fighting an enemy effectively without becoming like that enemy and losing your humanity, and there seems to be the potential for a message about personal redemption as the series develops. Kratman even gives Hillary Clinton a break. After making her the villain of A State of Disobedience her surrogate here is presented a lot more realistically.
I could conclude by suggesting that those of a progressive persuasion who don’t like the military and just want to hug the terrorists until they come ot their senses should probably not read this book. But maybe they should give it a try. It will probably offend them in more ways than I can count, but it might also get through to them on some level. Kratman has humanized a lot of his message and made it approachable for a wider audience. Different readers may come away with different messages from it. One reviewer has already claimed the book is a condemnation of the Iraq War, largely missing the point that it’s more of an argument for having fought that war and done it more competently. Other readers may find the characters and the problems which they face to be compelling. The subject matter is difficult but it’s not treated in a cheap or opportunistic way.
In A Desert Called Peace Tom Kratman has crafted a complex novel with more than one message and whether you’re predisposed to agree with him or have an open mind or just like a good story, it’s worth a look. And keep an eye out for Carnifex which is scheduled for a quick followup release in early November.