Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The world until yesterday

This is a short novel by Owen Stanley, a pseudonymous writer. The story is unabashedly colonialist, and will rub you the wrong way if you are a good liberal. It's published by Castalia House, a press which otherwise mostly concentrates on military science fiction. “The Missionaries”, by contrast, is a piece of political satire with a few whiffs of Zivilisationskritik. It feels old fashioned, and if you don't know that it was written recently, you might actually think it's an old novel from the 1950's or 1960's, given its theme and political tendency (a pro-Empire attack on de-colonization).

The plot is set at the fictitious Elephant Island, where a group of hard boiled White settlers do their best to keep the restless natives in line. The indigenes are known as Moroks, probably a reference to the Morlocks in H G Wells' novel “The Time Machine”. The only thing that keeps the Moroks from descending into a “state of nature” á la Hobbes is their superstitious awe of the colonial administrator, who they believe is an incarnation of one of their divine ancestors. The fragile balance at Elephant Island is disturbed when the United Nations decides that the colony should become an independent state. Naturally, the UN officials sent to “aid” the natives turn out to be a bunch of idealistic liberal do-gooders. They sack the old administrator and his police force, which immediately prompts the Moroks to go on a cannibalistic rampage. The free distribution of money and goods, rather than civilizing the natives, turns them into cargo cultists demanding even more. When modern latrines and children's toys aren't magically turned into cargo, the Moroks decide to attack the UN Mission on Independence Day…

The local color (including long harangues in colloquial Australian English and shorter ones in Tok Pisin) points to Elephant Island being a symbol of Papua New Guinea, an Australian-controlled UN trust territory before independence. The geographical references also point to PNG, the godforsaken island being situated somewhere in the Bismarck Archipelago. The author's nom de plume refers to a 19th century British explorer who surveyed New Guinea. The only anomalies are the idols of the Moroks, some of which are said to have “simian” faces (there are no apes and monkeys on New Guinea).

While the most obvious spin on “The Missionaries” is the imperial one, occasionally a traditionalist or “reactionary” form of anti-colonialism is evident. Since the primitive Moroks can neither be helped nor reformed, why not simply leave them alone? Often, the UN liberals come across as the real colonialists, attempting to force a technocratic civilization onto a people who want nothing to do with it, and perhaps don't even understand it. The exploits of Lord Southall, one of the liberal characters, is described thus: “But by some strange process that defied analysis, his touch upon the nations he came to save reliably sent them into a rapid social decline: ancient African kingdoms were dismembered by civil war; robust republics of Amerindian peasants were reduced to beggary overnight; Muslim emirates were plunged into anarchy and despair.”(Locations 1601-1603). In an ironic reversal, the Moroks attack the intrusive UN mission on Bastille Day, the day celebrating the French revolution, in a bid to protect their ancien régime. Even so, there is little empathy for the Papuans in this story, and they come across as “better” than the UN aid workers mostly by default. As already indicated, liberals will get their feathers ruffled by Owen Stanley, who is evidently no Livingstone!

The main message of “The Missionaries”, however, is probably unconnected to colonialism sensu stricto (which no longer exists). It's rather a message of hard boiled right-wing realism. It's not difficult to “translate” the Moroks from Papuans to, say, inner city youth or refugees, with the Mission being “SJWs”. A more intriguing possibility is to see the Moroks themselves as SJW college students, completely out of control and descending into barbarism, with the proper authorities vainly trying to restrain them…

While I personally prefer Mr Livingstone to Owen Stanley (or his colorful editor at Castalia), I admit that this novel was a relatively good read, and even made me think. I therefore give it three stars.

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