An Orwell for the 21st Century

Nafeez Ahmed Zero PointISBN 978-1-62007-538-8 (Kindle edition). “Zero Point – The Unravelling Trilogy – Book One” by Nafeez Ahmed was published by Curiosity Quills in 2014. Recently we crossed new ground as we reviewed our first work of science fiction here at Post Carbon Living and this presents us with another delightful first: a first review of a fast-paced political-action-techno thriller by none other than renaissance-man Nafeez Ahmed. This came to our attention at almost exactly the point that we had wondered exactly how best to pinprick mainstream consciousness with sustainability narratives. Hence we moved away from non-fiction to look at the wider arts. This is not for the first time that this shift in philosophy has oddly matched Ahmed’s. At the time we were working on the Transition movement model Nafeez came up with “A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization and how to save it” in which he neatly identifies the link between his work on geo-politics and the existential threats of climate change and peak oil. In this move Nafeez Ahmed shifts from non-fiction to sci-fi fantasy thriller. It puts him in step with a great tradition that few have mastered. So, are we seeing the birth of a new Orwell?

George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair 1903 – 1950) is familiar to us today as one of the 20th century’s greatest authors who made a successful jump from anti-totalitarianism polemic to science fiction and fantasy. Today Orwell is far more well known for “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-four” than for “The Road to Wigan Pier” or “Homage to Catalonia“. So certainly there is a good pedigree in making this shift to fiction. Today the word “Orwellian” is part of the English language because of his fiction. Fiction reaches out to us and is accessible in a way that non-fiction fails to. It is a perfectly valid move. It has form. Today more than ever we need a new Orwell. So let’s examine what Ahmed has achieved within his own pathway.

10376845_702334799882731_5028816959869252599_nWe have been reading and appreciating Ahmed’s contemporary work since his 2002 non-fiction debut “The War on Freedom” (Tree of Life ISBN 0-930852-40-0). Between “The War on Freedom” and Ahmed’s follow ups “The War On Truth” (ISBN 1 84437 059-3 Arris Books 2005) and “The London Bombings” (ISBN 0-7156-3583-2 Duckworth 2006) we learnt of the close association between organisations we label as “terrorists” and our own military intelligence communities. There then seemed to be a gap in Ahmed’s output until “The Crisis of Civilisation” book & film emerged in 2010/2012 as he emerged as a leading authority on British government security networks, resource depletion, climate change and geopolitics.

From that point on we followed this author via social media and appreciated his warm and generous online manner. Although he defends his position vigorously against critics we have always found him friendly & approachable. His prolific online journalistic work covered quite radical ideas at the nexus of climate change, resource depletion and the murky activities of the establishment. These are never easy topics to sell to a mass audience. So we were surprised and delighted to see him gain a position as blogger/columnist for the Guardian Newspaper. Surprised because his radical approach to his chosen topics (“the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises” as he puts it) were never likely areas to be promoted into the mainstream.

My view at the time was either that Nafeez would have to tone it down a bit or it would all end in tears. It all ended it tears when the Guardian dismissed him from his position in 2014. Although the Guardian was subsequently accused of censorship it seemed that the specific excuse used to fire him (that he had allegedly gone beyond his brief in an article about Gaza) was a smokescreen. It may well have been the straw to break the camel’s back but Nafeez Ahmed was ALWAYS likely (eventually) to clash with the establishment press. They would always tire of him after time, and it is some kind of weird credit to the Guardian that they endured such a ‘troublesome priest’ for so long. It was Nafeez himself who retweeted the view of a critic (at the time that the Guardian ‘Earth Insight’ column started) who commented that Ahmed was some crazed conspiracy nut.

Nafeez is no more a conspiracy nut that Noam Chomsky – but it is easy to understand why such slander sticks so easily. His truths are uncomfortable truths. They are deeply troubling and it matters not how well researched they were (Nafeez’s research is impeccable) nor that they joined the dots in a way that was breath-taking. No, it only mattered that these were dots that no one is meant to be joining. Our political establishment IS engaged in a sleazy and corrupt ideological battle against its own citizens whilst encouraging those self same people to believe that SOMEBODY ELSE is to blame. Our propaganda model so insidiously teaches us that Islam is an evil to be fought at all costs that we forget that our own democratic government system is guilty of far more terror, death and destruction than any poor man with a gun. The very definition of “terrorism” is simply now a slur that we apply to any official enemy of the state. Cast your minds back to the 1980s and the stories of the young white men from Britain who fought alongside the Muhajideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Their tales were told like they were from some Boys Own Adventure. Nowadays any such talk of fighting to free a people over-seas will land you in jail as a terror suspect. (Don’t forget that the Nazis labelled the American and British Bomber crews as “sky pirates” for their terror bombing of German civilians.)

It is time for a new perspective – a new Orwell. Indeed it seems that almost ANY perspective will be fresher than the garbage served up as news in Britain today. Who better than Nafeez Ahmed to rewrite our fiction in the way that he has rewritten reality to reflect the facts? Ahmed’s latest resume tells us that he “has taught international politics, contemporary history, empire and globalisation at the University of Sussex’s School of Global Studies and Brunel University’s Politics & History Unit… [and he has] advised and consulted for a range of US and British government agencies on international security and counter-terrorism policy.” If anyone is best placed to write a geopolitical sci fi thriller then it was him. His background may make him unusual in the field but he had the insight necessary. He had written critically acclaimed non-fiction and made films – why not push his unique abilities into the field of written fiction? Since so much of what he has uncovered has the whiff of a political thriller why not go the whole way and convert it into one? So what does it yield?

Nafeez Ahmed will the first to admit that he is no George Orwell and “Zero Point is no “Nineteen Eighty-four” (yet), “The War On Truth” was no “Road to Wigan Pier”. Yet still, “Zero Point” is a killer novel, fantastic entertainment that deserves a massive audience. I read it from cover to cover and loved it. It runs at a thousand miles-an-hour with an almost Bournesque-like ability to gets it main action hero into and out of scrapes. I admit that I have not read a thriller like this before. The last significant science fiction work we ploughed through was The Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey. However we know this kind of hi-tech thriller genre best (as most people do) not by reading the works of Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy (Nafeez himself described Clancy’s work as being “gushing propagandistic fantasy“), or others of their ilk, but by the genre’s big screen Hollywood representation. Even then there has been a tendency to leave your brain at the door. Still, Hollywood has come a long way since the politically incorrect days of John Wayne shoot-em-ups against North American Native Americans.

Cinema audiences have moved on in the last thirty years. They demand greater sophistication. There was one distinct moment in the film “Airforce One” when the hijacker’s leader asks the President’s daughter “have you ever wondered why a poor man needs a gun?” Despite this growing tendency to break the mould of the good guys versus cartoon-cut-out bad guys there is still a long way to go. Rarely does our action hero realise he is working for the bad guys – and if he does it is in the harmless future fantasies such as “Total Recall”. It remains true that most of the best techno-thriller literature is written by old white guys who know full well how the CIA works but don’t give a damn about the reasons why a poor man picks up a gun.

Knowing the author’s background there will be no surprise to learn that “Zero Point” is just a little bit different – but not in a simplistic respect. The good guy/bad guy formula is not corrupted here; the few times an Islamic terrorist appears in the book they remain cartoon cut outs – just more cannon fodder to be blown away. The story remains traditional, highly violent and is still firmly seen from a western perspective. However what you can expect is that the hero is brighter than the average grunt having worked in military intelligence. He knows a few things about Islam and for him the battle is no glorious ‘cowboys versus Indians’ game. He actually distrusts the British establishment more than the Islamists. Certainly a healthy perspective for any modern action hero! In one slightly awkward scene the central hero convinces a young jihadist to switch sides through an argument based upon his eloquent knowledge of the Quran and the edicts of mainstream Islamic authorities. Don’t expect a sophistication like THAT appearing on a cinema screen soon…

Which is more the pity. The fast-paced action hurtles along in such a way that you can just imagine it as a movie. This is no accident as Nafeez credits two fellow film-makers in helping him craft this work. This was written for the big screen with few moments of deep thought or introspection. That is not to say that it is simplistic – we happily admit to getting lost by the intricacies of the plot at several points – but it is highly visual. This is an all-out, full-throttle, adrenalin rush for anybody who wanted to see a movie mash-up between “Hell Boy” and “The Bourne Identity”. Really, it is THAT insane – chock full of fantastical, mind-blowing, technologies. It is a conspiracy-theory-fest of corrupt private defence contractor Nazis, gadgets, Armageddon, particle beam weapons and military hardware with more gadgets than your average Bond movie. You will literally get lost in this book and emerge the other side uttering “WTF!?” Yet it still maintains credibility – you can almost believe it – you want to believe it – and if you don’t then just suspend belief and enjoy the ride. “Zero Point” offers a vision of a near future that is all too real and all too nasty – a world driven to deeper and deeper extremes of repression as it wrestles with the impossibility of infinite economic growth.

Now admittedly some of the references to peak oil and climate change proved a bit ham-fisted. In the context of the novel they actually don’t really prove that central to the plot either. Their inclusion is an occasional reminder of exactly who wrote this but “Zero Point” still relies far more on Nafeez’s earlier work as an international security scholar. As such it renders it remarkably mainstream. In fact I cannot think that he will be levelling accusations of “censorship” against his publishers if he continues to churn out high-octane-Ludlumesque fiction like this. Seriously, if you read one (or three) political-thriller(s) this century make sure they are all written by Nafeez Ahmed. This shit will knock your socks off. If we gave out stars this would get five out of five.

So, final analysis: is the political-techno-sci-fi-thriller format a good vehicle to get the peak oil and climate change memes under the noses of people who wouldn’t otherwise care? Undoubtedly: yes – although we base that assumption on the fact that nobody else has really tried before. Does it subvert the genre, remove the glorification of violence and make us question the establishment and its imperial ambitions…? Well, not much, but it is a promising start. We’ll see where this takes us (two books to come). Certainly any book about zero point energy wonder-weapons that kicks-off with the assassination of a British Prime Minister and ending with an all out gun-battle with a Nazi cyborg, in the Paris headquarters of the International Energy Agency, (without it looking utterly silly) has to get somebody’s vote.

It gets ours. Nafeez is genius. Somehow I wish I could hate him. He may not be an old-Etonian like Eric Blair but that may no longer be important. “Zero Point” is no landmark literary work, it remains a fairly generic thriller – typical of the genre. Regardless, we need a fresh perspective writ-large across the fields of fiction and non-fiction. Something that captures the public imagination, something that endures and rewrites the DNA of our culture. Nafeez Ahmed is a long way from being the next Orwell but the pedigree is there and he is treading the right path. It was Russell Brand who claimed that Owen Jones was this generation’s Orwell. Jones is a good candidate yet he has yet to use his intellect to push off into a fictional outing. Nafeez leads the pack. We follow his progress with interest. It might not be now or next year but someday he will write what we all need to read. Judging by the lacklustre response from the reviewers on Amazon “Zero Point” is going nowhere. It is a slow start for genius. We respect him for trying and urge him on. Already he is putting his Guardian experience behind him and has launched his own crowd-funded journalistic outlet. Watch this space. Something awesome is coming.

 

You can read more about this remarkable book at www.zro.pt You can read Nafeez’s views about the role fiction in change our fate in his article for Ecohustler “Can stories change the world?”. To read our own blog on the role of science fiction in changing our views of the future go to our piece on the role of futurism. As Nafeez writes it “The revolution will be storified.”

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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