From “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels’, The Lion and the Unicorn (2004), 28(2): pp. 171-185
[This article in part draws on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that the self has to respond to the other’s right to be and to aid the other, even at expense to the self. This philosopher was central to my PhD. The other three novels were Gillian Rubinstein’s Space Demons (1986), Robert Westall’s Gulf (1992) and Gloria
Skurzynski’s Virtual War (1997)]
There is a moment in Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind (first published 1992) when the hero Johnny Maxwell watches some television: “There was a film on the News showing some missiles streaking over some city. It was quite good” (22). By comments in subsequent chapters it becomes clear that the military action being shown is the Gulf War of 1991, a war which Jean Baudrillard has argued did not take place, and which for the children who are central to Only You Can Save Mankind has taken on the shape of a video game; indeed, they hear that the bombers have grown up playing such games:
“There was a man on the box saying that the bomb-aimers were so good because they all grew up playing computer games,” said Wobbler.
“See?” said Johnny. “That’s what I mean. Games look real. Real things look like games.” (116)
The virtual Gulf War is counterpointed with the computer game Only
You Can Save Mankind, which Johnny has started playing and indeed
[Only You Can Save Mankind] features a twelve-year-old boy whose parents’ marriage is disintegrating and who develops an ambiguous relationship with a feisty female stranger, while the plot turns upon his playing of a brand-new game (Only You Can Save Mankind), here given to him by a friend. Johnny Maxwell is playing a Space Invaders–like shoot-’em-up, when the aliens (or ScreeWee) surrender to him and expect him to take responsibility for them, to the extent of escorting them to their home planet.
The novel is the first in a loose trilogy, each of which features several of the same characters, although each stands alone and continuity is not maintained. As the third volume discusses the notion of alternate worlds, “these are presumably [ . . . ] parallel Johnnies, in different versions of Blackbury” (Butler 74). War is partially discussed in the other two volumes as well: some of the dead Johnny encounters in Johnny and the Dead (1993) are World War I veterans; in Johnny and the Bomb (1996) Johnny and his friends travel through time to the Second World War, when his street was bombed. Peter Hunt has demonstrated the difficulty of pinning the books down generically: “They are, on one level, contemporary realism, but they all explore alternative worlds, in which science and philosophy and imaginative possibilities and impossibilities have equal weight” (94). In Only You Can Save Mankind […] divorce, strained relations with parents, child psychiatrists and class distinctions are described alongside space invaders, but the opportunity is also there to confront sexism and racism, as well as decaying housing estates built in the 1960s, joy riding and the Gulf War. The computer game and the war become linked in a number of ways, firstly because computer games might be thought to generate aggression and hatred or, alternatively, the games trivialize war so that it appears to be merely a game: “the game creates the mindset that war is harmless amusement” (Baldry 24). Because wars have rules—such as the Geneva Convention—they may indeed be played like games.
For Jean Baudrillard, the Gulf War was not taking place in part because it became an information event, an operation of electronic devices: “Their warprocessors, their radars, their lasers and their screens render the passage to war as futile and impossible as the use of a wordprocessor renders futile and impossible the passage to the act of writing, because it removes from it in advance any dramatic uncertainty” (34). The simulations, the projections, the images of war removed all reality from the event and offered a virtual war in its place. Later he argued that it had not taken place, that it had become a “War stripped of its passions, its phantasms, its finery, its veils, its violence, its images; war stripped bare by its technicians even, and then reclothed by them with all the artifices of electronics, as though with a second skin” (64). The Coalition pilots had run out of new targets to bomb, including Saddam’s decoys, and instead had to bomb and rebomb the same locations. The pictures released by the Iraqi side contained footage of bombed buildings, possibly destroyed by the Iraqis themselves, while in U.S. briefings there were satellite pictures allegedly altered to show less damage. Johnny and his friends seem instinctively aware of the performance of the news briefings: “‘He had to be Norman,’ said Wobbler, ‘otherwise he couldn’t be Stormin’. You couldn’t have Stormin’ Bruce’” (Pratchett, Mankind 44). Norman Schwarzkopf is constructed by the news coverage and by the teen viewers as the choreographer of the war.
But for Johnny the plight of the aliens is more pressing, which seems a turnaround from his previous practice of shooting them. As Baldry argues: “In the past—and in computer games—aliens have been regarded as the embodiment of the enemy. It’s OK to zap them because they are different. In presenting his aliens, Pratchett emphasizes the similarities instead of the differences. The ScreeWee may look like giant newts, but their aspirations are similar to ours” (28). For [Emmanuel] Levinas, of course, their difference or similarity should not be taken as reason to respect or disrespect them—the concern for the Other occurs because we are hailed by the Other. Even if we share the aspirations of the ScreeWee to a place to live or for food to eat, we need to be responsible for the fulfillment of their aspirations. It is not mankind that Johnny has to save, but the ScreeWee. As the ScreeWee Captain says, “ScreeWee is only the human name for us [. . .] Have you ever wondered what the ScreeWee word for ScreeWee is?” (Pratchett, Mankind 70).
Baldry notes that in many of Pratchett’s novels “the hero is an ordinary person, thrown into the center of the action without trying to be there or even wanting to be” (25). Johnny Maxwell is no different—in fact, the novel goes to great lengths to establish his insignificance. This is difficult to square with his status as the chosen one, to quote from the game: “YOU are the Savior of Civilisation. You are all that stands between your world and Certain Oblivion. You are the Last Hope” (Pratchett, Mankind 7). Baldry rightly observes, “it is never entirely clear why he [Johnny] should be chosen” (25). The temptation is to offer an anthropic answer—the story can only be told because he is chosen. Farah Mendlesohn offers another solution, which incorporates his insignificance: “Johnny becomes a hero in part because he is ill-defined. He is willing to let the virtual world around him define itself, to see the world through others’ eyes” (149). As a self which lacks self-identity, Johnny is able to empathize with the plight of the Other without reducing them to the same. To quote the game again: “If Not You Who Else?” (Pratchett, Mankind 71). Johnny is the one who is “there,” to the extent that such a virtual space, “prior” to being, can be “there,” and because he is there, he is hailed. Levinas chooses to see this hailing and seeking out as something other than science fiction: “the idea that I am sought out in the intersidereal spaces is not science-fiction fiction [sic], but expresses my passivity as a self” (Levinas, “Ethics” 105). Johnny’s ordinariness, his passivity, is that which allows him to become a hero.
- Baldry, Cherith. “The Children’s Books.” Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature. Andrew M. Butler, Edward James, and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. Reading, UK: SFF, 2000. 21–34.
- Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. and ed. Paul Patton.
Sydney: Power, 1995.
- Butler, Andrew M. Terry Pratchett. Harpenden, UK: Pocket Essentials, 2001.
- Hunt, Peter. “Terry Pratchett.” Peter Hunt and Millicent Lenz. Alternative Worlds
in Fantasy Fiction. London: Continuum, 2001. 86–121.
- Levinas, Emmanuel. “Ethics as First Philosophy.” The Levinas Reader. Ed. Seán
Hand. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 75–87.
- Mendlesohn, Farah. “Faith and Ethics.” Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature.
Andrew M. Butler, Edward James, and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. Reading, UK:
SFF, 2000. 145–61.
- Pratchett, Terry. Johnny and the Bomb. London: Doubleday, 1996.
- _____. Johnny and the Dead. London: Doubleday, 1993.
- _____. Only You Can Save Mankind. 1992. London: Corgi, 1993.