What a strange coincidence that Crooked Timber would have a symposium on the science fiction of Charles Stross days after I completed reading his first novel, Singularity Sky. (HT: Ralph Luker)  I had picked up the novel years ago, but it languished in the pile of books-I’ll-get-to-someday.  Reviewers had described it as a novel of ‘big ideas’ about the clash of civilizations, appropriately reflected in its publication date, 2003.

Among the contributions are fine analyses from Paul Krugman and Henry Farrell.  Curiously, the authors don’t deal extensively with Singularity Sky, nor do they touch upon one of the novel’s most relevant themes: asymmetrical warfare.  At best, the novel serves to illustrate singularity, which a theme that runs throughout his oeuvre.

Singularity Sky is set in an era in which humanity has been forcibly dispersed by a near-omnipotent Eschaton, an entity that jealously guards the past to prevent threats to its power.  The politics of Earth have been decentralized to the individual, nationality is meaningless, and citizenship (if one can call it that) emerges from a complex web of overlapping allegiances and alliances.  Conversely, the New Republic has regressed back to the strong post-Westphalian state, as represented by such nineteenth century powers as Prussia and Russia.  Anti-intellectual and anti-technology, advancement serves only to strengthen the  state’s ability to project violence.

In Massie-like fashion, the state invests in heavy space-faring battleships to protect its empire.  When the mysterious Festival drops technology over one of its colonies, inciting violence and revolution, the fleet launches in order to confront the threat to its sovereignty.  However, the political thinking that produces this type of war machine fails to comprehend, and thus respond, to the threat.  Instead of engaging in a high-tech, though traditional, gun battle, the ships are consumed by nanites.  The fleet is catastrophically defeated.  (Oh, there is also something about the Eschaton preventing interference in the timeline.)

According to the protagonists, the New Republic was bound for disaster.   The New Republic was organizationally mismatched against the Festival, the the former’s command hierarchy being incapable of confronting the decentralized system of the latter.  Unfortunately, we don’t see this, it must be told to us (as with much science fiction) by the protagonists.  Stross never describes how the Festival operates, and what we do see of its military strategy (if you could call it that) does not preclude a centralized command structure.

In the end, the technological differences (rather than organizational) carry the day.  The pesky nanites are  too small, too numerous to confront with large-scale weapons.  The strategic advantages aren’t clear, and we are left with a narrative that gives superiority to the civilization with the better technology.  Tropes of western imperialism could fit easily into this narrative.  Indeed, I could not help but think of the Africans who believed that German bullets would turn to water and would not harm them.  (I’ll grant that Stross’ description of what happens to societies inundated with techonology is compelling and frightening.)

This aspect of the novel offers insight into what had been a poorly explored aspect of the “War on Terror”: the tendency to associate terrorism with the politics of state rather than understanding the mentality and organization of terrorists.  How much Stross wants readers to equate the New Republic’s fights against the Festival with the War on Terror is debatable (nor should we force congruence between them).  Yet Stross has vocally denounced the United States’ targeting of nation-states as exporters of terrorism.  Instead, the fight requires broader, more cordial engagement with the societies from which terrorism rises:

Declaring a war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 was good politics for George W. Bush. But it’s a misleading metaphor; because war is terrorism by other means, just as terrorism has become an extension of diplomacy by the weak against the strong, to fold, spindle and mutilate Von Clauswitz’s famous dictum. If a war against terrorism is to be successful it must be fought in peoples’ hearts and minds, with unusual weapons like trust and respect, and a willingness to negotiate with the moderates before our intransigence turns them into desperate extremists.

Insisting that a war on terrorism is a literal war, involving bombers and tanks, is foolish in the extreme. Handing them a victory on a plate — by surrendering our civil liberties on the altar of security — is insane.

Given Stross’ interest in the War on Terror, it’s fair to ask how useful his novel is at illuminating asymmetrical warfare.

Part II tomorrow.