Friday, March 22, 2013

Will the Joker Have the Last Laugh?

I’m not normally a fan of prequels, either in print or on the screen. After all, I know how they will end: they’ll end where the original novel (or script) begins.  Still, while I don’t seek them out, I don’t make it a hard-and-fast rule to avoid them. A few even can pleasantly surprise, e.g. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or (sort-of) the 2009 Star Trek reboot. I haven’t seen the prequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939), but Oz the Great and Powerful (presently in theaters) has generally positive reviews and seems likely to help Disney’s bottom line.

So, after some hesitation, I picked up Cold City by F. Paul Wilson, a prequel to the 15-novel Repairman Jack series, the full set of which I own. In The Tomb, the first novel of the series proper, we meet the central character fully formed and at the top of his game; we are provided with just enough back-story to make him understandable. Jack is a sort of urban mercenary who unintentionally runs afoul of the nefarious schemes of a secret society that (sometimes through unwitting agents) is actively seeking to bring about the end of the world as we know it. There are a lot of similarities between the Repairman Jack novels and the novels of HP Lovecraft, though Wilson has a more readable style and his dialogue is much more appropriately colloquial. I recommend Cold City only to existing fans. Newcomers are likely to be baffled by the inside references. For the old fans, though, Cold City is a fun treat; we get to see the young, inexperienced, freshly-dropped-out-of-Rutgers Jack discovering the path to his future career and lifestyle, and often bumbling along the way.

While all of this is fiction, the series brings to mind the thought that there really are people trying to bring about the end of the world as we know it. For some, the motive is religious, for others ideological, and for others philosophical. I don’t go in for convoluted conspiracy theories about prominent assassinations or terrorist acts, by the way. I think those acts, by and large, are just what they seem to be on the surface (9/11 for instance), and I think they were, by and large, committed by the people who seem to have done them. But conspirators are precisely who seem to have done most of them: for example, the plotters against Lincoln, the original bombers of the World Trade Center in 1993, the Weather Underground revolutionaries who bombed the US Capitol in 1971, and the Aum Shinrikyo cultists who launched a coordinated sarin gas attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. We shouldn’t let the nutty conspiracy theorists out there make us deaf to the real conspirators, who rarely are entirely quiet about their intentions. Some groups have narrow aims; others seek broader chaos, while still others seek the end of civilization. That’s not hyperbole. The Church of Euthanasia is not suspected of doing any harm to anyone, but it does openly advocate suicide (“suicide, abortion, cannibalism and sodomy”) in order to save the planet: . I think we can assume that plenty of less mild-mannered folks (the Unabomber, for one) favor a more activist approach.

“OK,” one might say, “there are always fringe elements who will resort to violence. They can do some damage, but society as a whole is too robust to be seriously affected.” There is something to this. The wars of civilized nations and natural disasters (such as the Indonesian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina) do far more harm than any terrorist ever has done. Society at large always has survived and recovered. There is a new ingredient being added to the mix, however, and the sarin incident in Tokyo might well have been a prequel of things to come.

Manufacturing techniques radically different from traditional industrial processes are becoming available. 3D printers allow customized parts and products – including working machines – to be made to order. New methods allow the assembly of new chemicals a molecule at a time, rather than by old batch brewing or processing techniques. They allow us to tinker with individual cells and viruses. More importantly, the cost of these techniques is dropping. Home 3D printers already are available and affordable. While the home versions are limited in sophistication, authorities are worried that they already are good enough to home-produce functioning handguns. The printers quickly will get better and cheaper.

The cost of production facilities always has kept so-called NBC weapons (nuclear/biological/chemical) the domain of nation-states – and of manufacturers with an interest in the stability of nation-states.  Nuclear weapons will remain that way, since upgrading uranium never can be simple or cheap. True, a single stolen weapon somehow might get into private hands, but, while the results of that could be horrific, it still would be a one-off local event, survivable by broader society. No one ever will produce Bombs from scratch in his basement. The real risk is biological and chemical. The production techniques used by the Aum Shinrikyo cultists in 1995 were primitive and the product wasn’t very good, but the attack sickened thousands and killed 13. Had they a better product and delivery system, would they have hesitated to kill millions? Is there any shortage of wacky individuals and groups who would do the same? They’ll soon be able affordably to whip up what they need with their home printer and chem-kits.

It took 15 novels for F. Paul Wilson’s fictional secret society to create the chaos it wanted. Perhaps we face a similar delay before any real ones can do the same. Let’s hope so, anyway.

The Joker explains his special brand of anarchy
Tokyo 1995

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