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Book Review;
by Wayne Lutz

The Holy Land, by Robert Zubrin (Polaris Books, 308 pp., $14.95)

Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Dr. Werner Von Braun. Gene Roddenberry. Doctors Carl Sagan and Robert Goddard. Dr. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, and, not least of those is one, Dr. Robert Zubrin. Dr. Zubrin, renowned visionary and space engineer, shares with these great men the honor of having won the prestigious Robert A. Heinlein award for "lifetime achievement in promoting the goal of a free, spacefaring civilization."

Zubrin, the 9th person to have won the award, is the author of multiple books and hundreds of papers through which he promotes his visions of the exploration and eventual colonization of space, with a special focus on Mars. Now, Zubrin has turned his ability to envision the possible beyond Earth, and focused it sharply on the impossibly absurd right at home.

The Holy Land is built on a unique concept that is both brilliantly conceived and wonderfully implemented; science fiction as a vehicle for satire. With penetrating insight, Zubrin lines up the crosshairs and lets fly a volley of satirical missiles at his target - the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the larger war on terrorism. The resulting direct hits expose the absurdity...and the truth...of it all to the reader with the force of a physical blow.

Given the recent pain of September 11 and the ongoing, daily struggles in the Middle East, it takes chutzpah write a book lampooning those events; but Zubrin pulls it off masterfully. Sometimes the only way to come to grips with a situation so out of control that it makes you want to sit down and cry is to do just the opposite.

Zubrin begins The Holy Land by establishing his premise, which quickly becomes apparent to anyone who's read a newspaper in the past two years. The Minervans are an alien race of human-like beings who have suffered terrible persecution from the Central Galactic Empire. They were nearly wiped out by that empire, in fact, until the Western Galactic Empire intervened. The WGE (Weegees) help the dispersed Minervans to establish their own homeland, in the city of Kennewick, Washington, U.S.A., ...Earth, which they claim is their ancient homeland.

The Weegees barely tolerate the Minervans themselves because of minor differences in an otherwise common religion: The Weegees worship a triune goddess, while the Minervans accept the divinity of one, but not the other two, of those goddesses...the goddess Minerva.

The Americans are another story, however. The United States is a fanatical, fundamentalist theocracy. The presence of the Mivervan "pagans" is intolerable to them, and the U.S. government sets out to exterminate them all.

With their superior technology, the Minervans make quick work of US forces in a disastrously one-sided battle, and the ensuing dialog between the president of the United States and the Secretary of Defense gives us an early insight into the workings of the mind of an opportunistic despot in an exchange that is at once hilariously absurd and chillingly recognizable:

"We've lost 40,000, but they've lost 400. That's one of theirs for every 100 of ours. We can afford that easily. There are 300 million Americans and only 1 million Minervans. At this rate, we will defeat them by simple attrition. No wonder they are begging for a cease-fire."

The President bowed his head in prayer. "Let us all give thanks to God for this glorious victory."

The exchange is recognizable, yes, but only if we imagine it coming from, oh, Iraq's minister of information, for example, and therein lies the genius of Zubrin's satire. The transposition of the cultures involved awakens the reader like a slap in the face to the insanity of situations to which we've become inured.

The parallels between Zubrin's alternate world and real-life conflicts intensify when the United States, realizing that direct assault won't work, sets out to turn Galactic opinion against the Minervans. Some of the original inhabitants of Kennewick remained when the Minervans settled, living side-by-side with and enjoying the fruits of an advanced civilization. But others chose to move away, and those are rounded up by the government and forced into refugee camps in Kennewick. They live in squalor, under the constant eye of the Galactic News which willingly reports on the oppression of the Kennewickians, by the Minervans.

But if conditions are so bad for the Kennewickians in the camps, why won't the government send food and medical supplies? Better yet, why don't they help them to relocate?

Why, because they're Kennewickians, of course. Kennewickians can only live in Kennewick.

Substitute "Palestinian" for "Kennewickian" and suddenly a political dynamic that seemed impossibly complex is shown for what it is - more propaganda than plight.

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, wrote, "The Holy Land ingeniously highlights the absurdity of the Palestinian position." The book certainly does that, but the Israelis don't escape Zubrin's barbs so easily.

The Minervans, while they would be willing to coexist with and even help the Earthlings, look down on them as inferior. Zubrin explores that relationship through the interaction between the two main characters - Hamilton, a POW Army Sergeant, and his captor, Aurora, a Minervan priestess (3rd class). As those characters are developed throughout the story, Aurora at one point concedes that some Earthlings might possess just enough rudimentary intelligence to maybe, just maybe, be "potentially" human.

But the distance between the two characters in terms of experience, civilization, knowledge, and religious and social training is so vast that it is impossible for one to even comprehend, much less agree with, the beliefs and perceptions of the other. Those unbridgeable differences make conflict between the two cultures a foregone conclusion - compromise is impossible where no common ground exists.

The American efforts to gain sympathy from the Western Galactic Empire fail. Even indoctrinating the Kennewickian children into Minervan hatred and sending them on suicide missions to "martyr" themselves (while staying "in frame" for the duplicitous galactic press) brings no sympathy, and the Americans realize that more drastic measures will be required.

The tension between the Weegees and Americans is complicated by the fact that Earth, and particularly the North American continent, contain huge reserves of "helicity," a substance that fuels the galaxy. Weegee "bluebacks," paid in exchange for the helicity, enrich the corrupt American government officials and fund their plans for holy war.

To declare all out war against the Weegees would be suicide, of course, so the Americans plan a series of stealth strikes against them. Training camps are established by the American government in Peru, and recruits are sent there to learn how to strike. Weegee bluebacks are used to purchase advanced technology to aid the terrorists.

The worst attack on the Western Galactic Empire comes when American terrorists hijack four Weegee spaceships with the intention of using them as weapons on a suicide mission designed to cause massive casualties.

Three of the hijacked vessels succeed.

The date of the attack is August 11.

When the Weegees come to Earth to exact retribution, the Americans divert them to Peru, where the terrorists were trained. Never mind that the hijackers were Americans, trained and funded by Americans. The helicity must flow.

Zubrin doesn't let the real-life Americans off the hook either, as you can see by the situation above. Far from it - his cutting wit slashes and hacks at every aspect of the Middle East conflict, exposing the raw innards for the inspection of anyone with the eyes, and the intellectual honesty, to see.

Nor does Zubrin stop at purely political nonsense. Rather, his humor illuminates the silliness of virtually every aspect of our present-day lives. No one and nothing is safe from Zubrin's satirical volleys.

Not our male-dominated cultures:

"Some of them, for example Earth, really do have governments largely led by men..."

The princess looked astonished. "But that's absurd! How could they possibly survive?"

Pallacina shrugged. "Apparently, not very well."

Not Feminism:

"...The men own all the factories and fish farms and have all the jobs in them...Of course, since we control the government we can balance the scales a little by taxing their excess income."

"How much of it do you tax?"

"Only 90 percent. However, when a Minervan woman chooses a man for a husband, she assumes ownership of 90 percent of his income. Thus together, these two measures set the male share of national income at 1 percent, which is bearable, although we hope to trim it considerably and obtain a more reasonable split in the future."

"Ninety-nine to one isn't reasonable enough for you?"

"Of course not...It's pretty much the same way all over the galaxy...But the cause of women's rights is advancing, and I think that some day we will obtain equality."

And certainly not political correctness:

"...We're being placed under guard, while those assassins are being given the free run of the ship." She shook her head.

"They're reporters," Danatus said. "They need to be able to move freely to get their story."

"Aren't you at least going to search their boxes?"

"We can't. We don't search other reporters, and they are suspicious, so searching them would be suspicion profiling. That would be illegal."

Aurora shook her head again. "May Minerva awake you."

The Holy Land is a literary caricature of a world gone mad, a warped mirror in the face of which the reflections, while often grossly exaggerated, are mostly instantly recognizable (but sometimes only subtly so - look up the location of Kennewick, Washington, on a map. Then look at the location of Israel, and compare the relative positions in relation to the surrounding enemy territories).

Dr. Robert Zubrin has produced a cutting, eye-opening, satirical tour de force. The Holy Land is a must-read for anyone with a social and political conscience. It's also funny - fearlessly funny. If you've already staked out an immovable position on Israeli/Palestinian/War-on-terror issues, then you might just be in need of a wakeup call. Maybe you're right, chances are you're which case, may Minerva awake you.

If She doesn't, The Holy Land surely will.