Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Holy Land book cover The Holy Land by Robert Zubrin

Polaris Books - copyright 2003
298 pages
cover art uncredited

Book reviewed in September 2003

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

       An underutilized strength of science fiction is that it is an ideal vehicle for satire.  The Holy Land is science fiction satire in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., John Sladek, and James Morrow, effectively using wit and humor to frame important social issues.  Author Robert Zubrin tells a story of the future to skillfully illustrate the absurdity of events transpiring in the world today.  (This is quite a departure for Zubrin, a renowned expert on the planet Mars and on space travel, whose only prior novel, First Landing, concerned space travel to the planet Mars.)

       The Holy Land is a science fictional retelling of circumstances in the Middle East, from the creation of Israel through the current War on Terror.  This is a sensitive topic to make light of, with painful memories of 9/11 still fresh in our minds, but it is a subject that richly deserves to be satirized.  To give just one example: On August 19, Hamas claimed credit for a suicide bombing of an Israeli bus that killed twenty-two people, including seven children, and injured 135 others.  Two days later, Israel retaliated with a helicopter strike against a Hamas leader.  Hamas responded with a statement that, in light of Israel's attack, it would no longer respect the cease-fire.  Most American newspapers and networks reported this straight, without noting the blatant absurdity of Hamas saying it was suspending its cease-fire two days after blowing up a bus filled with women and children.  Tragic as it is, there is nothing for this kind of idiocy but to laugh at it.  In The Holy Land, Robert Zubrin makes his points by making us laugh.

       In The Holy Land, Earth has just come in contact with a vast galactic civilization, which apparently originated from Earth thousands of years ago.  The galactics are taller than the norm for Earth, but otherwise outwardly appear identical to Earthlings.  They can easily spot us, however, by our bad teeth and skin and our terrible B.O.

       The story opens when a race of galactics called Minervans occupy the town of Kennewick, Washington, which they claim as their ancient homeland.  For those of you unfamiliar with the state of Washington (like the Minervans, I call it my homeland), Kennewick is a dusty little town in apple-growing country, about as unlikely a piece of real estate for people to fight over as . . . you guessed it.  Although Zubrin never mentions it, Kennewick's main claim to fame is that it is the home of Kennewick Man, whose fossilized remains certain Native American groups have disgracefully sought to conceal from scientific study.  One suspects that in the universe of The Holy Land, Kennewick Man was a Minervan from the time before they emigrated into space.

       The Minervans are looking for a quiet place to escape the persecution they have suffered at the hands of other space-faring civilizations, including a recent attempt by one of the major galactic empires to exterminate them completely.  Kennewick proves a poor choice.

       The United States government, largely controlled by Christian fundamentalists, finds the presence of these pagans on American land intolerable.  It launches a military campaign, which the Minervans defeat with their technological superiority.  American Sergeant Andrew Hamilton is captured in the attack. We see much of the ensuing culture clash through Hamilton and his captor, Priestess Aurora.

       Unable to evict the Minervans by force, the U.S. government turns to guile.  It forces former residents of Kennewick, most of whom had already settled in other parts of the country, to live in squalor in refugee camps outside Kennewick, then trains the refugees' children to carry out attacks on the Minervans.  The government knows full well that these attacks will be ineffective - Minervans, like all galactic races, are telepathic, so it is impossible for the children to catch them by surprise - and will result in the children being killed or maimed when the Minervans' defensive systems destroy the guns in their hands.

       All of this is designed to generate bad publicity for the Minervans and sympathy for the "Kennewickian" refugees.  The other galactic races, including the largest galactic power, the Western Galactic Empire ("WGE"), are shocked by the Minervan mistreatment of the Kennewickian refugees and the atrocities against the Kennewickian children.

       Matters are complicated when Earth is found to possess huge reserves of helicity, a valuable resource necessary for space travel.  The proceeds of helicity sales soon begin to line the pockets of corrupt American officials.  Some of the funds are used to purchase anti-telepathy devices.  These devices facilitate suicide attacks against the WGE, beginning with the hijacking of four spaceships, three of which succeed in destroying WGE planets.

       The WGE is well aware that Earthlings carried out these attacks, but is reluctant to take action that might interrupt its supply of helicity.  The Americans, aided by an extremely friendly galactic press, try to persuade the WGE to place the blame on the Minervans, on the theory that their mistreatment of the Kennewickians caused the whole situation.  Failing that, the U.S. tries to divert WGE reprisals to Peru and Mexico, where the terrorist training camps were located. Never mind that the terrorists were Americans, funded by Americans.

       If this has not yet started to sound familiar, you should go find some newspapers to read before trying The Holy Land.

       As you may have guessed from the above, Zubrin's outlook is generally pro-Israeli.  He does not exempt the Israelis from criticism, however, as shown by his Minervans' attitudes toward Earthlings, which range from condescending to racist.  Prejudice against Earthlings, whom Minervans' refuse to acknowledge are even human, is the primary barrier to the relationship between our main characters Hamilton and Aurora.

       Through the WGE and other galactics, Zubrin shows disdain for Western attitudes toward the Middle East.  The galactics' outrage over the plight of the Kennewickian refugees does not reflect any real concern for the Earthlings.  (In one scene, the top galactic reporter is incensed when Hamilton and other Earthlings start tending to children wounded in an attack on the Minervans, because saving the children detracts from her story.)  The galactics are motivated instead by their desire to keep the helicity flowing and by their dislike of the Minervans - whom they despise because the Minervans' religious beliefs differ from their own in ways that are almost as trivial as the differences between Christianity and Judaism.

       Most contemptible of all are the American leaders.  The American president is depicted as entirely self-interested, making use of religion and religious fanatics as tools to further his own ambitions.  It was a deft choice for Zubrin to have the United States stand in for the sponsors of today's Muslim terrorists.  Hopefully this will prompt readers eager to find fault with America to consider how they would react if the U.S. began to behave like most Arab governments.

       Early on, Zubrin busies himself setting up his bizarre version of the Middle East to the exclusion of much characterization.  In the second half of the novel, however, Zubrin warms to his own characters.  Aurora is forced to travel incognito across America with Hamilton, and their interactions with each other and with other Americans they encounter work well, particularly a moving conversation between Aurora and Hamilton's bigoted father.

       There are also some interesting science fictional elements, such as Hamilton's efforts to outthink galactics who can read his mind, and one delightfully absurd pseudoscientific passage where Hamilton learns why space travel makes you taller.

       Still, the social satire is the main attraction.  In the course of the novel, Zubrin makes fun of nearly every aspect of the Middle East situation.  His barbed humor reaches much further than politics of the Middle East, however, hilariously lampooning topics as diverse as religion, the military, gender differences, and political correctness.  Many of the funniest lines have nothing at all to do with the Middle East, but simply play off mankind's innate goofiness.

       Zubrin is always careful not to take himself too seriously, and at times the story seems rather silly, but that's what makes it funny. Like a funhouse mirror, the reflection it shows us is outrageously distorted, but it's still pretty easy to see ourselves.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com
Copyright 2003 Aaron Hughes

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Links to webpages about Dr. Robert Zubrin, and related topics:
Robert Zubrin - Wikipedia
ESR | The galaxy strikes back - A review of Robert Zubrin's The Holy Land
The Tocquevillian: The Holy Land, by Robert Zubrin
The Mars Society

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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