The long 2016 presidential election should be coming to an end later today, and the uncertainty over the future that has dominated this election cycle has gotten me thinking about the connections between science fiction and politics.
Politics are woven into the genre’s DNA. Many of the genre’s best novels contain astute political insights that not only analyzed the governments of their time, but have remained politically relevant decades after their original publication. One of the genre’s early works, for example helped set the stage for countless work of political commentary thinly concealed as sci-fi speculation.
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, was first published in 1921. It follows D-503, a spacecraft engineer living in One State. The populace is carefully watched by the government to stave off any unrest or dissent amongst the people. It’s an intriguing, chilly novel that laid the groundwork for other great dystopian works, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and George Orwell’s 1984.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is another excellent example of a dystopian political world, one in which dissonant thought is banned and all books are illegal. The novel, and the short story “The Fireman” that preceded it, were inspired in part by the time Bradbury was stopped and questioned by a police officer for walking in Los Angeles. Bradbury later noted that he wrote the book because he was worried about America’s political direction at the height of McCarthyism.
Margaret Atwood also wrote her most famous novel out of concern over American politics. Disturbed by the right-wing rhetoric she was seeing in the early 1980s, she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, incorporating her interest in books like Fahrenheit 451 and references to the United States’ Puritanical origins. "My rules for The Handmaid's Tale were simple,” she noted in her essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. “I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime or for which it did not already have the tools." The story is told by Ofred, a handmaid in the oppressive, patriarchal Republic of Gilead, which assigns fertile women to produce children for the nation’s ruling class. It sounds medieval, but this is a modern-day society that emerged from the ashes of our own.
Speculative novels aren’t limited to liberal or progressive political tendencies: there’s a strong streak of libertarian themes in classic science fiction, especially in the world of Robert A. Heinlein. His novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is about a penal lunar colony revolting against Earth and explores the nature of revolution, rational anarchy, and one’s own responsibility to a group. It’s considered one of Heinlein’s strongest works, and it’s remained an enormously influential story since its publication.
On the other side of the revolutionary divide is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed. Le Guin constructs a wonderfully complex pair of worlds with competing political systems. She follows the journey of a physicist, Shevek, who travels from the anarchist mining world of Anarres to the well-developed colonial world Urrasti. Le Guin uses the book to interrogate utopian, revolutionary, and centralized societies, and it remains one of the best comparisons between political ideologies in print.
Space travel hasn’t been discussed in any depth this election cycle, though with massive commercial interests now in play, questions around space travel will be a concern for the next president. The Lights in the Sky Are Stars by Fredric Brown does an impressive job of capturing a realistic view of the general political environment around space exploration. In the book, space research has stagnated due to public disinterest. Getting to space isn’t a technical challenge, it’s a political one.
More recently, several books have presented a charged, nuanced view of our modern political state. Genevieve Valentine’s novels Persona and Icon each deal with a world where a unified world government is ruled by “Faces,” celebrity-like individuals who use their personalities and stardom to govern, aided by their powerful PR firms and aides. It’s a chilling satire on the current method politics and celebrity, and one that feels all too plausible.
But one of the best books about elections in particular is Infomocracy by Malka Older. Earlier this year, I called it an “intense and intriguing thriller” about the role of technology and communications in a global election, and the lengths political parties will go to influence the outcomes of an election.
If somehow you crave more election intrigue after this lengthy cycle, Infomocracy should be the next book on your reading list. And if all of this sounds too morose, too close too home, and too real, I have one more recommendation: Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Despite the title, it’s a wonderfully cheerful read, and it has nothing to do with politics. After a long election, perhaps that will be most refreshing.