I watched Zero Dark Thirty on the big screen about three weeks back, and I haven’t been inside a movie theater since. While it is undoubtedly director Kathryn Bigelow’s finest work to date–superior even to the Oscar winning Hurt Locker–I found it an extremely uncomfortable and depressing experience. Watching Maya (Jessica Chastain) slowly change from a reluctant observer of torture into a hardened interrogator is bad enough. Learning that she–and the real world intelligence community–obtained so little useful information with these methods, that torture saved so few lives…. It’s practically unbearable. Bigelow shows little mercy to the viewing public. Squirm-inducing moments pile up like rubble. The grin of dippy happiness on the face of Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Maya’s friend and fellow Agency analyst, right before a car bomb rips her apart…. The rant by Maya’s boss (Kyle Chandler) where he states that the the hunt for UBL is a meaningless waste of resources…. By the end of the film, Maya has become a friendless recluse, existing only to persue her obsession, finding and killing Bin Laden. And when the deed is done, when we, the audience, stare up UBL’s unbreathing nostrils, there is no feeling of victory, only a deadening lack of closure.
At roughly the same time, I began reading Osama, which had just won the World Fantasy Award. I had just finished with Tidhar’s Bookman Histories, a three novel steampunk / alternate history series which frequently amazed and occasionally confounded me. The SF&F community seemed to think highly of Osama, so I decided to give it a try. Though aware that the novel had something to do with UBL, I did not really know what I was letting myself in for.
Osama is the story of Joe, a Chandleresque private detective in the sleepy South East Asain city of Vientaine. Joe seems content to sit in his favorite marketplace café or chat with his neighbor, an aging bookseller, until a mysterious woman hires him to find Mike Longshott, the author of a controversial series of novels, at any cost. For you see, Longshott’s books describe the exploits of the fictional ‘vigilante’ Osama Bin Laden.
As quickly becomes obvious, Osama takes place in an alternate world, a planet Earth that has never known international terrorism. But it is also a world without computers, or any of the gadgetry or social changes that followed their invention. It’s a world with no Red China, possibly no Cold War, and a very different World War Two. However, the true extent of the differences is never made entirely clear, at least not until late in the story, when Joe reluctantly attends OsamaCon, a small gathering of Longshott enthusiasts in a fleabag hotel. This particular sequence in the book made me more than a little queasy. Having been to similar conventions myself, I felt disconcerted to read about obsessives like me pontificating–not about Doctor Who or Richard Stark’s Parker–but about 9/11 or the July 7 bombings in London.
It is this presentation of acts of mass murder as fiction that gives Osama its power. Excerpts from the works of Mike Longshott appear throughout the novel, short chapters that contain spare descriptions of real world death and mayhem. As one of the organizers of OsamaCon puts it, “…to read about these horrible things and know they never happened, and when you’re finished you can put the book down and take a deep breath and get on with your life.” Of course, the reader is not grated this luxury. For us, that sense of safety is the fiction.
In his search for Longshott, Joe encounters the ‘refugees,’ victims of terror attacks and subsequent retaliatory wars who have been thrust sideways into this brave new world. In the world of Osama–the ‘Osamaverse’ as the conventioneers put it–these people resemble ghosts, apt to fade away if reminded to forcefully of who they once were. Once again, I am forced to contemplate a notion I first encountered in Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, that life after death is more terrible to contemplate than simple oblivion.
While Osama has light moments–an American government suit interrogating a refugee expresses concern about ‘Asian Fusion’–it is a heartrending read. Later pages give us intimate descriptions of real terror attacks from the point of view their deceased victims. Even the ‘better’ world which Joe occupies is grimy and impoverished. While I recommend Osama and admire Tidhar’s achievement, it is a book that–like recent history itself–leaves scars on the soul.