Directive 51 by Barnes, John, 2010

Directive 51 by Barnes, John - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I cannot tell you how tired I am getting, especially lately, of disguised right-wing propaganda disaster fiction. In the last few months I've come across several examples of this type of literature (see One Second After, and The Unit (review forthcoming)). I'm still not quite sure what is pushing so many of these things to market lately, but I do see a lot of them around. With that in mind, it was with suspicious eyes that I first gazed upon John Barnes' Directive 51, which I knew only to be "a new kind of disaster thriller, from blurbs on the web. Barnes was the one time collaborator of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their three-way colonization novel The Legacy of Heorot. That book I consider to be excellent - a Heinlein inspired take on slow-ship colonization - but I had paid little attention to Barnes since the 1980's, when Legacy was first published. His latest book, Directive 51, is a confused, near-future Clancyesque thriller that ostensibly is about a very unique kind of terrorist attack, but is really about the survivability of our Constitutional government, particularly how well it can withstand the chaos that is likely to erupt in it after a successful attack destroys the American way of life. It also started off with a right-wing focus, but as you shall soon learn, took a simultaneous turn to the left, and the worse.

Though the author did not exactly ignore the effect of the attack on the solvency of the government early on, the first half of the book was dedicated entirely to the ways in which the complex, convoluted and absolutely impossible terrorist plot unraveled. Directive 51 is a terrorism thriller. Middle East terrorists only made a brief pass through the plot of this book. Instead this is the story of a movement that started on the internet called Daybreak. The Daybreakers preached a path to happiness to the disenfranchised, the bored, the apathetic and the forlorn. Daybreak was essentially an idea-mill; the Daybreakers preached that one should do whatever one could do to topple the "Big System," or the mechanized, electronic, soulless way of life that prevents us from being happy. Daybreak preached that the modern infrastructure was the only thing that existed to keep real people from finding happiness; that a simpler and happier way of life could be achieved if society could somehow be moved back in time to a pre-industrial lifestyle. Barnes was obviously trying to press certain psychic buttons that exist in most of us. Daybreak preached simplicity in one's personal life, not by ignoring complexities, but by destroying them. The Daybreak movement inspired millions, and here is where Barnes ran into his first major believability problem. Daybreak inspired people from all different ways of life - Middle East terrorists, disenfranchised hippies, dissatisfied yuppies, anti-corporate slackers, disgruntled middle-management, anti-establishment nutjobs - and all of them somehow managed to work together to accomplish the same thing, which turned out to be a coordinated terrorist attack of nanotech and biological plagues that destroyed almost all forms of plastic, rubber, and silicone that they encountered (which recalls Theodore Judson's The Martian General's Daughter). Obviously some of the Daybreakers were inspired by the methods, and others by the goals. Barnes' answer to how these disparate groups could ever manage to come together was, to his credit, interesting, but ultimately as believable as Hilal carnitas.

The surviving government scientists theorized that Daybreak was never in the control of any one person or group. Daybreak as a virtual concept which, born from the precedent of message boards and virtual communities, had become essentially its own self-fulfilling prophecy. People got involved in it on line, then gradually started contributing ideas. Those ideas captured more and more people until a form of internet site addiction occurred, and those user's concepts of self worth and self esteem became dependent on being Daybreak oriented. This seems to me the way that some revolutions start, but the point here is that because it does so over an electronic medium that eventually attracted skilled persons, musicians and idealists, it did not necessarily need a leader to run the day to day operations. In fact, the system that predominated online was one of "AGs," or "Affinity Groups." Most of the affinity groups were populated by people who viewed each other as equals, and who came up with their own ways to strike out. Daybreak was originally conceived as a socially useful concept that embraced a necessary, limited form of violence. Those AGs self policed to keep the nuts from gassing hospitals, or bombing airports or other overt acts of terrorism where the goal was death of people, not the destruction of infrastructure and technology. But eventually more violent nuts got in and did some real harm by co-opting the system. One in particular that Barnes for the most part introduced then ignored was an AG in the southwest that was put together by someone known only as "Aaron." Aaron's group attracted the attention of a Indonesian terrorist group called il'Abl il-Jihado. il'Abl started off the Daybreak attacks by kidnapping the Vice President, then they took Air Force II and flew it to Anaheim where they planned to detonate a fusion weapon over the seventh game of the world series. Barnes' second big credibility problem manifested itself here: The terrorists and Daybreakers had gotten a hold of technology that nobody else in the world had, including nanotechnology and fusion technology. Putting those concerns aside, the attack was successful, even if the bomb attack failed. Within five weeks of dispersal very little technology existed anywhere on Earth. Just over a month later six time-fusion bombs went off around the world, targeting major cities where the Daybreakers though that civilization would creep back up.

While all of this was going on, the US government was going through some serious shakedowns. Following the Vice Presidential assassination the President declared himself incompetent to continue leading the nation. Under a presidential order, Directive 51, a "National Constitutional Continuity Chairman" ("NCCC") was to be appointed to marshal in the next government and guarantee a return to constitutional government as soon as possible. With the President out of the picture, the VP dead, and a foreign-born Speaker of the House, the interim Senate pro tem was appointed to the office until an election could be had. Prior to that election the senator, who was wholly incompetent and trampled all over constitutional protections, attempted a coup. The coup was put down and the president elect was put into office early, but the scars of the whole affair deeply wounded the NCCC, Cameron Nguyen-Peters, the administrator of the Office of Future Threat Assessment at the newly formed Department of Future ("DoF"), and the boss to just about all the important characters in the story. In the five week interim between the nanoplagues and the automatic detonation of the fusion weapons many in the government thought that things had calmed down. Then Washington DC was wiped out, and the whole succession issue came rearing back to the forefront. This time the NCCC interpreted his job differently; he thought that the Daybreakers campaign against the US was still an active one. His boss, the Secretary of the Department of Future thought differently; that they bombs were on timers, not actively triggered, so the NCCC refused to endorse his succession to the Office of the President. Yet another succession conflict erupted, this time not because an incompetent attempted a coup, but because the virtuous men and women of the DoF could not agree upon the scope of the NCCC's job.

There is definitely room for a sequel, as there are some pretty big unanswered questions. The first fusion bomb that went off was planted in the boat of a Daybreaker patsy. It was placed there by a contractor who build a hidden vault in the bilge of the patsy's boat. That bomb was purposefully triggered (readers know this because the patsy got a taunting satellite call right before it went off), but the other six were set on timers. A debate erupted in the US government over whether the Daybreak movement was as dead as the technology that was used to mount it in the first place. As that debate raged - and tore the government apart - EMP fusion bombs started falling from robot factories on the Moon (yet another technology the Daybreakers beat the governments of the world to). The question remains whether the Daybreak movement was as headless as the experts made it out to be, or if it is actively managed and in a war with the world's governments. There was also another Daybreak patsy, named Ysabel Rand, who shot a missile from the roof of her apartment complex at a stationary aerostat while Air Force II was approaching the world series in Anaheim. Her act was plotted to divert attention from Air Force II so that it put the fusion bomb on board together before being shot down. After shooting the missile Ysabel was caught in Mexico, then moved to a series of city-state castles that rich hermits had established in California before Daybreak even started. The FBI agents who debriefed her discovered that every time she started talking about Daybreak she would have a seizure; a form of post-hypnotic suggestion. All of this suggests that Daybreak did have some management controls, which of course means that if they survived the destruction, they may still be plotting actively against the new US government.

The problems with this book were legion. In addition to the terrorists overcoming some seemingly uncrackable scientific mysteries, Barnes let himself get way too bogged down in the right/Republican vs. left/Democrat debate. Virtually all of the political action in the book fell along those two lines. Now I personally can easily see that debates along these lines would flare up in times of national crisis. Ordinarily authors choose one side or the other and disguise their books as right-wing or left-wing propaganda. Barnes took a different track by switching sides depending on which way the wind was blowing. At various and different places in the book he sounded like a propagandist for both sides. It took me almost to the end of the book before I realized that what he was advocating was a centrist, non-political position. The details of the dispute are too dense to cover here, but suffice it to say the NCCC ran a Republican government from Athens, Georgia in the east (the right side of the country) while the sole surviving Cabinet level administrator from the US government, President Graham Weisbrod, a Democrat, ran another government from Olympia, Washington (on the left side of the country). In the middle was Pueblo, Colorado, where another main character, Heather O'Grainne, who was a former employee of both Weisbrod (former Secretary of the Department of Future) and Nguyen-Peters established an arm of Weisbrod's government that distributed literature from the Government Printing Office, instructing American citizens how to rebuild using Victorian Age technology. (Imagine that, if you will: Olympia vs. Athens, with Pueblo - the people - caught in the middle. Sounds mythic, doesn't it?). I don't think that he could have drawn a more simplistic picture.

The problem was, the Pueblo idea was pulled right out of Barnes' butt, about thirty pages before this sizable book of almost 500 pages ended, and before that, there was really no clear political message. It was as random and unexpected as the introduction of the robot built EMP fusion bombs. Consider this: The people who ran the DoF were almost all Democrats. Pendano's opponent in the election that was coming up when the Daybreak attacks started, Norcross, was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican whose campaign jet said "Low on Taxes, High on Jesus!" Once Pendano stepped out they started to get to know Norcross. He did pledge that if elected he would set aside his Christian agenda until the country was set right, and eventually won people over (but with an opponent like Shaunsey, he really could not have lost). So after election day in rides the victorious Republican knight, who has not only won the election, but with the DoF has put down Shaunsey's coup. Everyone loved this guy, the Republican savior of the masses. Later on the DoF had been moved to Athens so if the Daybreakers perpetrated another catastrophic attack, there would be someone to take over. Then Washington DC was utterly destroyed in one of the fusion bomb attacks. Norcross was killed before he had a chance to do anything on stage. After that, the pendulum started swinging back and forth; pro-Republican rhetoric, then pro-Deomocrat, back and forth, back and forth, until this centrist idea sprouted from nowhere and won the day within twenty pages or so. Barnes probably tilled the field properly, but worked out the solution very sloppily and unexpectedly.

I was also put off a bit by the quality of the writing. Directive 51 is a big book, and there were a lot of strings to tie up in the end (many of which were not, but since this seems to be the start of something bigger, I'll forgive that. For now). The characters in this book were for the most part upper-echelon government employees. All of them were knowledgeable in their fields of expertise and equipped with strong, straight and true moral compasses, and with the exception of Shaunsey (who was not really an important character, he was just a problem for the correct-thinkers to resolve), all of them always did the "right" thing, even months after the attacks when normal people would have been worn down to nubs. I don't know about you, but whenever I read a book that is populated by characters like this - totally unaffected super beings - I get turned off. This is apocalyptic fiction; this is the end of the world, and nobody is doing anything selfish? Reading end-of-the-world books like this makes me realize why other books, like Disch's The Genocides or Cronin's The Passage, are so good; because they deal with the human element in a more believable way. Directive 51 instead tells you clearly what the characters do, but rarely delves into how they feel about it.

Barnes' book felt to me like it was striving for a Tom Clancy/airport traveler kind of customer, even though it did a few unique things decently well. It's too bad that the bad things have to stand out so glaringly. I wish Barnes luck with this series (I sense that he has already had a great deal), but I don't think I'll be returning to the next installment.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)

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