Warning from a time traveler

There are some writers that routinely surpass the bounds of excellence and inhabit a land that only a few know. Among historians, Paul Johnson, Victor Davis Hansen, Stephen Ambrose and Shelby Foote* come to mind; in “fiction” — so broad in scope that it defies categorization — I have a small pantheon whose work I read religiously: J R R Tolkien, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Nabokov, Ayn Rand, Tom Wolfe, Robert Harris, and Dan Simmons. (Stephen King — a writer who is better than most folks give him credit for — and I had a nasty divorce after the sixth and seventh volumes of The Dark Tower, but that is a story for another day.)

Dan Simmons is, first and foremost, a great novelist. Broad ideas, superbly written characters that are so well-defined that you cannot but help sympathise (or hate) them as intensely as you may a real person. He is also a very honest writer who does not surrender his writing to an agenda. The work is first. Among his novels, Song of Kali, Lovedeath, the superb Hyperion series (Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion), a masterpiece of science fiction that belongs in the top ten of all time in that genre, and the recent (and equally excellent) Ilium and Olympos (a retelling, sort of, of Homer’s Iliad through the eyes of a dead and cloned 21st century historian, observing the events of the story unfold again on Mars with Zeus, Apollo, Hera and the other real gods!) I think he writes like a god and I devour his new books with pleasure.

On Simmons’s website he publishes a monthly letter to readers that is always interesting. Being a former teacher he always picks a subject that interests him and then makes it so readable that we are his thralls until he is finshed telling us his stroy. A while back he mused about Melville; he wrote an essay that incorporated Virginia Woolf and Tony Soprano (!); this month he wrote about a visit he received from a time traveler. The time traveler’s purpose was to shake him up and awaken him to the dire situation the West finds itself in. Here is a brief excerpt:

I sighed. I was sick of Iraq. Everyone was sick of Iraq on New Years Eve, 2005, both Bush supporters and Bush haters. It was just an ugly mess. “They just had an election,” I said. “The Iraqi people. They dipped their fingers in purple ink and . . .”

“Yes yes,” interrupted the Time Traveler as if recalling something further back in time, and much less important, than Athens versus Syracuse. “The free elections. Purple fingers. Democracy in the Mid-East. The Palestinians are voting as well. You will see in the coming year what will become of all that.”

The Time Traveler drank some Scotch, closed his eyes for a second, and said, “Sun Tzu writes – The side that knows when to fight and when not to will take the victory. There are roadways not to be traveled, armies not to be attacked, walled cities not to be assaulted.”

“All right, goddammit,” I said irritably. “Your point’s made. So we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq in this . . . what did you call it? This Long War with Islam, this Century War. We’re all beginning to realize that here by the end of 2005.”

The Time Traveler shook his head. “You’ve understood nothing I’ve said. Nothing. Athens failed in Syracuse – and doomed their democracy – not because they fought in the wrong place and at the wrong time, but because they weren’t ruthless enough. They had grown soft since their slaughter of every combat-age man and boy on the island of Melos, the enslavement of every woman and girl there. The democratic Athenians, in regards to Syracuse, thought that once engaged they could win without absolute commitment to winning, claim victory without being as ruthless and merciless as their Spartan and Syracusan enemies. The Athenians, once defeat loomed, turned against their own generals and political leaders – and their official soothsayers. If General Nicias or Demosthenes had survived their captivity and returned home, the people who sent them off with parades and strewn flower petals in their path would have ripped them limb from limb. They blamed their own leaders like a sun-maddened dog ripping and chewing at its own belly.”

I thought about this. I had no idea what the hell he was saying or how it related to the future.

This is the must-read for today.

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*I just received the first five (yes, five) volumes of Time-Life’s 40th anniversary edition of Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. The addition of Civil War era photos to Foote’s brilliant text is fantastic. Expensive, but fantastic.

5 thoughts on “Warning from a time traveler”

  1. George, you must read Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin on Lincoln and his cabinet through the Republican National COnvention in 1860 through his death. One of the best books I’ve read in months, after “1776”, “John Adams,” and now most recently, “Alexander Hamilton.”

  2. The one-eyed scarred man shook his head. “Historians in my time know that it began on June 5, 1968,” he said. “But it hasn’t really begun for you yet. For any of you.”

    June 5, 1968:

    Presidential candidate Rober F. Kennedy killed by a Jordanian.

    First anniversary of the 6-day war between Israel land everyone else

  3. George – I looked up several articles and it looks like he was a Christian Palestinian by ethnic heritage, but Jordanian national (from the West Bank), born in Jerusalem (then part of Jordan) but had permanent resident status and lived in Pasadena (whick, in a sense, makes him a Californian). Some reports also identified him as a communist sympathizer. His mother was employed at a Presbyterian church. He was obsessed about killing RFK by the first anniversary of the 6-day war.

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