So, today is the presidential election in the USA. It is possibly the most important presidential election in all of our lifetimes, given how close it has become at the last minute and if it goes the wrong way we all of us will suffer, whether or not we are American.
But let’s not try to soothe our nerves by looking at how American politics has played out in science fiction. Because sf writers have proved to be far from optimistic.
Let’s face it, from the late-1930s all the way up to the 1960s, there seemed to be a common conviction that America was on the verge of being taken over by either fascists or by communists. Not only that, but most writers seemed to assume that the vast majority of the population would be all too happy to go along with their new masters. Take a classic dystopia of the period, One by David Karp, which is all about ordinary people spying on each other and informing on each other on an institutional, almost industrial, scale. Of course, when nobody trusts anyone else, even those who are closest to them, it is easy to find yourself caught up in the Kafkaesque state bureaucracy accused of something you didn’t do. After all, in these circumstances there’s no way anyone can prove their innocence, and you can even start to believe that you are guilty.
Even if the exact nature of the authoritarian regime has changed in recent years, there’s still a belief that people will just go along with whatever cruelty and intolerance their masters decree. Take, for example, Margaret Atwood’s coruscating satire on the religious right, The Handmaid’s Tale, when women are stripped of all of their civil rights and nobody utters a word against it. Why should they: if they are men, then their authority has increased; and if they are women, then they don’t count for anything anyway. And if The Handmaid’s Tale makes you uneasy, as it should, then consider that a victory for the religious right in America today could bring that future one step closer.
One of the themes of this election has been the idea that the election itself is rigged (given what happened in the 2000 election, that’s not too hard an idea to accept, though now it seems to be the right who are making the biggest fuss about it). But science fiction has that base covered also. Take, for instance, Interface by Stephen Bury (Neal Stephenson and George Jewsbury), in which a network of business interests literally control the President through hardware installed unknowingly in his head while he was in surgery.
Even without that sort of hardware, there are other ways that American politics can be controlled, as we discover in Distraction by Bruce Sterling, which is perhaps the best sf novel about American politics. In this instance, the sort of political operator who is used to pulling strings behind the scenes finds himself caught up in a media war between a demagogue Southern governor, the US Air Force and a newly elected president. As a picture of the dirty business of politics while technology is advancing but the economy is in decline, this novel is unsurpassed.
Of course, most day-to-day politics for those involved is not particularly dirty nor is it particularly interesting; it’s more a matter of endless meetings and endless compromises. Of course, that means that things tend to get a little worse all the time, because nobody can afford to stand up for their principles so they are always having to settle for second best. Which is exactly the view of politics we get in Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson. The novel’s subject is climate change, but its setting is Washington, and the drudges caught up in the political machine who start to realise that they have become disconnected from their own emotions and instincts.
It’s not a flattering or a particularly positive view of politics, but then, that’s something we practically never find in science fiction. Of course, science fiction isn’t in the business of prediction; let’s just hold on to that notion when the results are declared tonight.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.