Osama by Lavie Tidhar
World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2012)
British Science Fiction Association Award Nominee for Novel (2011)
The Kitschies Nominee for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2011)
Time is a funny thing. Around 2007 one of the Science Fiction new wave’s elder statesmen Norman Spinrad was collecting rejections around New York. This was rare in his four-decade career. The book he couldn’t sell was a radical one for sure. Osama the Gun a novel set in a future Al-Qaeda-inspired caliphate was a bold story for sure. I mean you are talking about the guy who satirized the Lord of Rings by writing a novel as Hitler and got it published as the Iron Dream in the 70s. No one would touch his Osama book.
A few years later in 2012, Lavie Tidhar upset the World Fantasy award by beating a couple of lightweights like Stephen King and George RR Martin. The remarkable thing is the novel he won with was an alternate History called Osama. I can imagine Norman Spinrad’s raised eyebrow who only published his novel the year before after years of trying. He couldn’t get anyone to touch his Osama novel while this one won a major award.
Hey, it is all subjective and timing is everything. I like both novels but Lavie Tidhar’s Osama is operating on another level. It was my mission this year to read several books on the topic of Speculative Fiction and the War on Terror. I had decided to save this one not only because it won the big prize but I knew it was respected by author and professor D.Harlan Wilson who picked it as his Dick-like Suggestion on our podcast Dickheads. He referred to it as the type of novel that Phil had wanted to write.
The comparisons to The Man in the High Castle are obvious but it appears Tidhar was not shy about parallels to the classic Hugo winner. It is hard to not compare these two books but I am going to do my best. One underrated aspect of PKD’s alternate worlds is they are not the opposite of ours. The reality where the allies won in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy the novel inside a novel is not ours. The history is different. That is indeed the tactic that Tidhar takes with this story.
Through-out the events of Osama, there is a blending between the fiction of the novel, The fictional novel in the story, and details from actual history. As a human being, Tidhar mentioned on the very first page I think as a disclaimer that he had several near misses with famous terrorist attacks. In some ways, he was a witness to this history in a unique way. This motivates the story and standing in for Tidhar is our main point of view character Joe. We know Joe is a Detective, and that he lives in a French Indochina that never saw the conflict and war that southeast Asia did in our reality. We don’t know much else not even his last name.
Joe’s mission in the book is to find Michael Longshott is pulp novelist who writes the Osama Bin Laden novels that are a popular series of books about a terrorist vigilante who has become popular. While some of the events sound like our history they are slightly off. A very fine point is put on the question of what if and how it relates to the Middle East and the War on Terror. A character asks the question outright.
“What if the Cairo Conference of 1921 went ahead as planned, with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell dividing up the Middle East for the British? What if they chose a Hashemite king to rule Iraq, and would that have led to a revolution in the nineteen fifties? Or, what if the French war in Indochina somehow led to American involvement in Vietnam? Or if the British held on to their colonies in Africa after the Second World War? You see – " he was in full steam now, his eyes shining like the headlamps of a speeding engine – "the Vigilante series is full of this sort of thing. A series of simple decisions made in hotel rooms and offices that led to a completely different world.”
This novel makes clear that decisions made at Downing Street and hotels are the main ingredients of this conflict. The real answer to why do they hate us? Is so drastic that it takes a blending of reality and fiction to process. Osama Bin Laden became a bogeyman; he became a living alternate history depending on what world and reality you choose to live in. In one reality he is a mythic figure with conventions and a fan following. In another, he is the most hated and hunted man by the most powerful nation on the planet.
“It was a war about fear, he thought, not figures on the ground. It was a war of narrative, a story of a war, and it grew in the telling.”
The conflict has always on been about narratives, from attacks meant to inspire fear to Bin Laden being buried at sea to reduce the idea of an honorable funeral. A story about false histories and blending realities is a good way to comment on this conflict. Terror at the end of the day is an emotion and a War on Terrorism will always, in the end, be about who controls the narrative.
Joe spends the bulk of the book trying to find Mike Longshott, what started as a job becomes an obsession. If there is a weakness to this book in my opinion that search takes a bit too long. As Joe gets closer his grip on reality begins to melt away. It is at this point that goes from being influenced by Philip K Dick and his classic High Castle to being in conversation with it.
Is Joe being affected by drugs? Is he a victim of terrorism reliving trauma? By the time he gets to the heart of the mystery, he could be in a hidden pocket between universes. The speculative elements at this point go beyond the alt-history and are delightfully weird.
“Joe wished it had all been just a dream. To think of planes crashing into impossibly-tall towers, of bombs taking out eyes and teeth and fingers, of a silent, secret war he didn’t understand, was to think of fiction, a cheap paperback thriller with a lurid cover. There was – there could be – nothing real about such things.”
This novel is beautifully written with artful prose. Tidhar has command of the concept and the message and translates it through a noir detective spectrum. It is influenced by classics and the conversation of ideas and ideals makes this book a profound act of Science Fiction. It deserves the awards it won and in fact, I am surprised it didn’t win more. As a commentary on the War on Terrorism, it is spot on and an excellent example of what IMPORTANT science fiction can do.