Like Aldiss’ 2002 novel, Super-State, HARM is a remarkably timely book, dealing as it does with matters we are only reluctantly beginning to examine in any kind of detail. With Super-State, climate change was the main focus. With HARM, Aldiss is looking very closely at the line beyond which the ‘West’ should or should not cross in ‘its’ ‘war on terror’. Of course, both books, typical of Aldiss, are about so much more, but it’s the examination of what governments decide is the acceptable course of action in protecting what they decide are the interests of its citizens that occupies centre stage in this novel.
Note the quote marks around ‘West’, ‘its’ and ‘war on terror’ in the above paragraph. As with all things Aldiss, nothing is ever quite that simple or necessarily what it seems. What constitutes the ‘West’ is open to discussion and the idea that this catchall misnomer somehow represents or speaks for all of us in the ‘free world’ is rapidly shown to be a very shaky concept. ‘its’ would suggest some kind of unified approach or strategy in the actions of governments occupied in combating terrorist activity. Again, this is open to speculation. And the very notion of a ‘war on terror’ is assessed throughout HARM.
Juxtaposed with the chapters dealing with the incarceration of Paul Ali by the Hostile Activities Research Ministry (HARM) because of a comic novel he has written, poking fun at English morés, are chapters featuring another world that Paul escapes to in his mind when the torture becomes too unbearable. On this other planet, Paul is called Fremant and is a member of a group of humans that colonised the planet an indeterminate number of years ago. Their interaction with each other and with the indigenous population in many ways mirrors what is going on in HARM. There is some indication that the manner in which the colonists were revived could link Fremant’s DNA with that of Paul Ali. So it’s quite possible that what is happening on this future world is real.
That aside, the remarkable effect of this entertaining novel is the way in which transposing the events of today into an alien milieu brings so many things into sharp focus, surely the whole raison d’etre of science fiction.