Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fugue for a Darkening Island

I read the PAN edition of Christopher Priest's prophetic novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island, sometime in the 1990s, and it made a lasting impression. The novel came to mind yesterday, just as I began reading a story in the GUARDIAN about African migrants massing in Libya. In "Fugue" Priest postulates a near future in which Africa has been blighted by nuclear bombs, resulting in a colossal move northward of refugees, supported by African troops. England, hobbled in its responses by civil rights legislation, is overrun to the extent that heavily laden ships steam up the Thames and refugees easily de-bus onto the docks. The protagonist in the tale is Alan Whitman, a white liberal with no particular interest in politics or any desire to confront the migrants. After losing his family to violence and being made a refugee in his own country, the change in his personality is profound.
Originally published in 1972 to excellent reviews, (in the U.S. it is known as Darkening Island, and won a Campbell Award) it was accepted as just one more dystopian prediction for England - no more outrageous than say, Orwell's Nineteen Eightyfour. But Fugue attracted vociferous critics on the Left during the period of the Thatcher ascendancy, which offended the science fiction writer. Still, his novel remains in print.
There is a short BBC documentary discussing the novel and the furor it created, on YOUtube. Listen to the author read passages from his novel.

In May of 2007 - twenty seven African migrants held a Maltese tuna boat captain's gear hostage in the Mediterranean. Each had paid a snakehead $1000 for safe passage into Europe. After a three day standoff, clinging to the net, the dehydrated Africans were granted admission to migrant processing facilities in Italy.

If the novel Darkening Island erred in its predictions, it was only in the naive assumption of a nuclear exchange in Africa. Today's sub-Saharan migrants are motivated by the need to make a living, not escape radioactive fallout. Black Africa long ago gave the boot to all European colonial powers, but that boot is now worn through and barefooted Africans are doggedly following the uprooted settlers home. This week a London newspaper warned the authorities of an unprecedented massing of illegal migrants in Libya, and they are about to overwhelm Europe's maritime and customs defences. "New estimates reveal that there are two million migrants massed in the North African country and that half of them plan to sail to the European mainland and travel on to Britain in the hope of building a new life. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there are currently most have travelled from sub-Saharan states such as Ghana and Sierra Leone, attracted by Libya's reputation as a centre for people smugglers. Most are expected to wait until the spring, when the seas are calmer, before making the crossing on un-seaworthy and crowded vessels."

The British Isles are now very densely populated and reached 60 million inhabitants by August 2006. Worse news, militant Muslim clerics in London are agitating to have the government abandon its centuries old ties with the Church of England, a cunning demand that may prove a fatal blow to the status quo. Unrest within the existing population is already a reality and the Brits seek to avoid even more destabilising events like Tex-Mex style border swarming.

Interviews by the I.O.M. have determined that England is the preferred destination for most of the migrants. Leaven that news with the fact that Libya's paramount leader holds a special animosity for the British. Gaddafi has no particular reason to interdict the migrants at his southern border, even if the European Union pays him to try. If anything, the destabilizing Europe makes for sound Libyan tactics.

According to Laurence Hart of the I.O.M., "It would be accurate to say you've got about a million people in Libya who are looking to get to Europe at some time in the future. The numbers setting sail from Libya are so great that half of the military budget of Malta -- 350km from North Africa -- is spent trying to deal with migrants sailing north."

Christopher Priest discussed only possibilities in his fiction, offering no solutions. It ends on a bleak note. Those Brits who have smirked at U.S. inability to stem the illegal traffic in migrants are invited to enjoy the list of their own diminishing options.

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