Wanted Dead or Alive

With international terrorist networks still in the news, it's worth remembering that SF is full of dubious bomb-throwing characters – often presented as heroes. Shocking! Which recently reissued favourites will be banned when the Home Secretary gets around to removing our remaining civil liberties?

For example, Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination chucks a home-made bomb at the docked spaceship Vorga, for passing him by when he was marooned in space. However, Foyle soon realizes his revenge should be against the Vorga officers who gave and obeyed the fatal command, and he abandons bombs in favour of conventional murder, rape and torture. "Not really our problem, then," said an anti-terrorist spokesman.

In The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, the Osama bin Laden figure is Sunday, codename of the hugely fat President of the Council of Anarchists. This 1908 novel has some grimly prophetic insights: "The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody." It's a partly comic nightmare, though, and Sunday also proves to be the police chief who recruits detectives to infiltrate his own Council. An arrest might be difficult.

James Mowry stars in Eric Frank Russell's Wasp and is expert in all forms of sabotage, from deftly placed graffiti to assassination, letter bombs, and attaching limpet mines to helpless merchant ships. Since he's an Earth agent wreaking havoc on a world of the enemy Sirian Combine, he's clearly not a terrorist but a hero.

Working against Earth's galactic Alliance and achieving far more destruction than Mowry, the man called "The Butcher" in Samuel Delany's Babel-17 should clearly be banged up for terrorism and, as it turns out, treason. However, he was brainwashed at the time and not only gets better but falls for the gorgeous heroine, so it's unlikely that he'll come to trial. Some people have all the luck.

The case against the religious terrorist Paul Muad'Dib in Dune by Frank Herbert seems open-and-shut. Nuclear war is utterly forbidden, but Paul uses his "family atomics" in an attack on the land forces of the galactic Empire, including the emperor himself. His quibble is that he merely nuked a mountain range to clear the path for other unfair weapons like sandworms, but who can take that seriously? After careful assessment of the evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service comments: "On the other hand, since he's now running the galaxy, we'd better let this one drop."

Then there's the illegally proclaimed Luna Free State of Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which terrorizes all Earth by hurling big rocks that – assisted by gravity – impact with the energy of tactical nukes. Just like the old IRA, the lunar rebels give warning of each target, but there are still many deaths. Since they eventually win and gain independence for the Moon, it's evident that no terrorists were involved at any stage. They're all freedom fighters. A great relief for the lawyers, since no one is sure whether the artificial intelligence who aimed and fired the missiles could be successfully prosecuted.

In the High Court of Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the case against Baggins and Gamgee – the "Mount Doom Two" – is complicated by the unavailability for trial of their co-conspirator Gollum. The defendants plead that they believed themselves to be merely disposing of stolen property and were unaware that melting the so-called Ring would cause the total destruction of that desirable residence Barad-dûr and much valuable real estate throughout the Land of Mordor. The Court seems inclined to accept this argument, with only Judge Saruman dissenting.

Meanwhile, the young conspirators in Stephen Baxter's Time seem immune from prosecution despite the enormity of their crime, which consists of intentionally blowing up the entire universe, including the apparatus of criminal justice. Their lawyers Baxter, Baxter and Baxter filed an affidavit claiming this is a benevolent act, since it opens the way for a new and much better universe....

As for the miscreant Luke Skywalker and his terror raid against a respected government installation ... well, you can imagine the rest for yourself. The rule in science fiction is that no matter what dreadful things you do, with whatever frightful collateral damage, it wasn't an act of terrorism provided you're on the winning side. This shows the vast difference between SF's fictional simplicities and our real world.

David Langford says, "Cynical, moi?"