June 26, 2018

Of Drones and Death: Mohsin Hamid's Terminator is all types of pointless

Sometimes when I read Mohsin Hamid, I can’t tell if I actually like his stuff, or if my admiration is just a by-product of all the praise the world heaps on him. This is a sort of bizarre upending of the usual high-expectations road which makes me dislike what might be quite passably good writers. But with Hamid, I’m balancing on the uneasy line where I can’t separate the author from the words.

With his short story The Terminator, Hamid takes on Pakistan’s more dangerous areas, which have already been done to death in literary formats, so it’s not like Hamid is doing anything new. Told from the point of view of a young boy, the story is primarily about our nameless protagonist’s encounter with a drone, and at such a short word length, that really is all that it’s about. 

There ain't many of us left. Humans I mean.

Drones have slowly killed off a major part of the population of the area where the boy lives. The politics behind the presence of the drones themselves are irrelevant to this story. Not once does Hamid mention the larger world view about the arguments for and against these killing machines. With our perspective clearly centred on our protagonist, what is more relevant is his father’s death at the hands of such a drone. 

You can't see 'em at night. Sometimes you can't see 'em in the day neither. But you hear 'em all the time, huntin'. They'll go away for days. Sometimes weeks'll go by and you ain't heard 'em once. Then they'll be back and there'll be a burial.

Mohsin also slightly touches on sexism and social hierarchies, in the way that you can’t escape it when you read about tribal areas, with their dangerous gender stereotypes. 

They said you'd better run when you hear those machines comin'. But what do they know. They're just girls. They get so scared sometimes they go pee inside when they're supposed be asleep and Ma has to thrash 'em. I only done gone pee inside once, and 'cause I'm the man now Ma ain't thrashed me much that time.

But that’s all just social commentary on the side. Our main story is about how our boy is heading out in the dead of the night with another young friend with a dangerous plan in mind. Grabbing a hidden Kalashnikov and a mirror to use as a distraction tool, the boys want to bring down a drone. 

And of course, wanting to bring down a drone with a Kalashnikov that you don’t know how to operate and a broken mirror that might or might not reflect properly is never a good plan, as is proven in the sudden and terrifying climax. And even though I knew what was coming, because this plan was idiotic in the extreme, it makes for an interesting discussion. With a father dead and a village emptied by these drones, do plans made out of desperation and anger need to be well thought out? And even more, since we never actually hear the boy have an internal monologue which focuses on his feelings about the dead father or the lost friends, does the unspoken take away from the story, or add to its depth?

It’s hard to decide what Mohsin Hamid was trying to do when he was writing this story. Because on the one hand, it’s not that great. The language is a mess, the ending feels too abrupt, the characters too sketchy and paper thin. On the other hand, maybe the minimalism has a point? Maybe this is an earlier piece of writing? Maybe I don’t need to justify bad writings by good authors, and accept that sometimes they just aren’t that great.

My point is, I didn’t see the point of this story. It wasn’t well-written, and it served no purpose. For someone who wrote Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it’s hard to see what this piece of writing was meant to say. I’d say give this a skip.