By Alex Wallace
There’s a certain poetry, I feel, in reading old science fiction the year in which it is set. You see two mirrors, almost, one showing our world and the other showing the fantasies (sometimes demented ones) of years past.
This year, though, feels plenty demented already. I will admit that that was a major reason for why I bought Ralph Peters’ The War in 2020 and why I read the book now. I wanted to see what sort of nightmare a writer in the early 1990s could come up with, and how that compares with our current nightmare. War, pestilence, and death; what’s not to like?
What immediately struck me in this book was what Peters calls ‘Runciman’s disease,’ a deadly virus that killed many thousands of people. One of the most harrowing scenes of the book is a deployment of the US Army to bring order to a Los Angeles plagued by civil unrest and an epidemic, which gave me flashbacks to summer (in America, anyway). In other parts of the novel, Runciman’s Disease shows up as a fatal but not omnipresent threat; it’s what I suspect our current coronavirus will look like in a couple of years, after the vaccines come and we have restored something resembling normality.
The American foreign policy of the novel reads like the foreign policy of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush: a series of savage wars of peace that seem to have no end. In our world, it was Somalia and Afghanistan and Iraq; in this world is the Congo and Mexico and Central Asia, where in a particular twist of fate reminiscent of a dilapidated version of the CoDominium from the works of Jerry Pournelle, the United States is actually propping up the Soviet Union in a war against a coalition of Muslim-majority countries backed by Japan. Interestingly, Peters is very frank about American involvement in this war being explicitly for preserving a balance of power, not unlike Britain in the eighteenth century. He makes no romanticization of the actions of superpowers.
It’s Peters’ portrayal of Japan where he falters the most. He is clearly extrapolating from the Japanese economic boom in the 1980s, having not considered the possibility of their economy crashing and burning like it did in the ensuing decade in our world. His Japan seems to be wanting revenge for Midway and Hiroshima, having become the foremost geopolitical enemy of the United States. It is a Japanese general based in Baku that commands this anti-Soviet alliance; it is logical that they fight more with logistics and technology than with any real manpower. That resource is provided in abundance by the various Muslim-majority countries that form the rest of the alliance (there is a valid criticism that Peters portrays Arabs, Iranians, Azeris, and Central Asians as merely puppets of the Japanese without much else to do). Compared to our world, Peters’ Japan seems to be more like our China, which is said to have retreated into isolationism in the novel.
There are some other, more scattered predictions I found to be worth mentioning. For one, the American president in this world’s 2020 is African-American and elected on a promise of reuniting the country, paired with an established white vice president from a Southern state, which sounds more like 2008 than this year. One of the countries that forms the alliance with Japan to fight the American-Soviet detente is Iran, which calls to mind the whole war scare of the past two years with the fighting in the Persian Gulf and the assassination of Qassem Solemaini; however, the Iranians in our world are much more independent than they are in the world that Peters imagines.
Some other things, though, he got quite wrong. South Africa today has transitioned to a multiracial democracy, unlike the continued Apartheid that he predicts. One of his more interesting mistakes is he predicts the destruction of Israel by a coalition of Arab states, and that the Israeli Jews are resettled in new towns in the American West; they comprise a sought-after voting block in American elections. Some of the broad strokes of his technological predictions were right, but the most terrifying weapon in the novel is thankfully something human beings have not yet created.
For those of us who practice warping history (or the future, which is just history that hasn’t happened yet), reading books like The War in 2020 should have a valuable purpose. This older literature of our sort exposes us to the assumptions of the past and forces us to reexamine our own assumptions about the future. We as human beings have a deeply limited point of view by virtue of our own lack of knowledge and the impossibility of having a full understanding of all relevant events, given the sheer vastness of human endeavor. “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said the Bard, and that applies to us meager speculators as it does to everyone else.