Politics – What Sci-Fi Writers Get Wrong

Speculative fiction is the genre of ideas, but often it isn’t clear where those ideas came from. In the case of government, our genre has an obsession with omnipresent, omnipotent, usually totalitarian governments. Two of the most famous political science fiction books – A Brave New World and 1984 – are examples of this. Phillip K. Dick does this quite a bit as well See Man in a High Castle for example. Almost all of Heinlein’s governments are totalitarian, or an awkward libertarian hybrid that makes me think the Grandmaster of Science Fiction never took a government class after high school.

Earth-wide[i] governments are ubiquitous as well, even though few writers go so far as to explain how 190+ countries unified into a single government entity. And don’t say the UN. I’d hit on nineteen before I would bet on the UN becoming a world government. The European Union is a better bet and has at least established a real-world template for large-scale, regional/continental sovereign entities. Additionally, if you can stomach the insipid dialogue and Mormon propaganda, Orson Scott Card’s post-Ender’s Shadow books describe a plausible scenario for the creation of the world-spanning Hegemon.

My point is that there are a number of tropes and clichés about government that inhabit science fiction and fantasy certainly has its issues as well.[ii] None of them are particularly accurate however, which is a long way to go to say that many authors do not understand how government operates or how politics operates.

That’s not really a criticism. Most citizens are clueless as well. We, and by ‘we’ I mean Americans, don’t even understand our own political system very well, and I think it inhibits our ability to create fictional governments. For a basic idea of what you don’t know, I recommend everyone read the article “Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don’t.” Only twenty pages and it will tell you a lot of things you didn’t know. Not that you’ll believe them (see #2 & 3), but it’s worth a read anyway.

But, you say, I don’t want to actually know anything about politics. It’s depressing and shameful and Congress sucks and the liberals/Tea Partiers/Republicans/Lynda LaRouche all make me so angry! Can’t you just give me the Cliff Notes?

To which I respond, yes, yes I can. Obviously, you shouldn’t write political sci-fi or fantasy until you’ve done a little research, or at least read the link above and maybe a few things from the references. However, there are a few tips that can help you think more appropriately about governments and politics operate, to avoid clichés and well-trodden paths. Keep in mind these three things: politics concerns the resolution of conflict, there are no ‘Great Men,’ and secrecy is impossible.

First, what is politics? Listen carefully: the purpose of politics is about the resolution of conflict. Nothing more, but nothing less either. Governments exist, whether they be tribes governed by a single chieftain (probably with a legislature, sorry ‘council’ of elders) or a planet-wide authoritarian dictatorship, because people disagree. Conservationists disagree with corporations, unions disagree with businesses, seniors disagree with youths. Hell, I disagree with my landlord about how much my DC basement should cost, but you can be sure that if I stopped paying my rent, a constable would eventually show up at my door with an eviction notice.

Government serves to adjudicate these disputes between groups within society – Madison’s famous “factions” from Federalist #10 for those of you who paid attention in government class. In short, that corrupt port official in your narrative is likely there because some business faction (e.g. domestic producers) wanted to stop the black market importation of cheap widgets. They advocated for a law, convinced (or bribed, bribery is fine) politicians to enact a law requiring inspections, and the Courts upheld it as a reasonable use of the government’s authority.[iii] Just keep in mind that any government hurdles or officials your characters run into is there for a reason. There was a dispute and somebody won and someone lost.

Which brings us to the second item: let us do away with the “Great Man” Theory of history. It is institutions and organizations that matter, at least in government. You can’t have a spy thriller without the CIA or Contact without NASA. Organizations and institutions control the resources – both monetary and human capital – needed to accomplish major undertakings. They are far more impactful than most people realize and always created purposefully. No one creates the EPA without a strong environmental movement and possibly some rivers catching on fire. Likewise, no one creates the Department of Human Planning, the agency in your world that enforces the 1-child policy, without good reason. A totalitarian state may be able to create it without public support, see China, but they don’t do it without a reason, lack of resources rather than actual overpopulation, but I doubt a democracy could ever enact such a policy.

In any case, remember this: institutions and organizations matter. I understand that we are writing stories and stories require characters. Stories require heroes and villains and faces to occupy the seats of power. Just remember, your government officials are operating within a system, a web of responsibilities and policies and stakeholders. They are trying to accomplish their goals and the goals of their organizations in the easiest, most efficient way possible.

But then again, so would anyone else in their position. France was ripe for imperialism with or without Napolean. If Stalin had died during the Bolshevik revolution, Russia still probably would have become a Communist dictatorship. The Presidential campaign is largely decided by the state of the economy in the year before the election. The Packers have a great offense but they’d score a lot more if the field were fifty years long. Our characters must be the focus of our story, but keep in mind the importance of the institutional context in which they are operating. No one, not even the President, can act completely unilaterally.

Finally, secrecy is almost impossible. Conspiracy theories are great and sometimes make for entertaining reading,[iv] but there are about 2.65 million government employees in the United States today. In the recent Wikileaks case, one Pfc and a flash drive beat the best military security had to offer. Nothing stays secret and every government agency I’ve even been a part of leaks like a sieve. Why? Because the government distributes resources and affects how resources are distributed in the market. You can’t keep a secret because the point of a secret is that you gain some advantage by retaining the information. Which means someone will profit by exposing the information. Which means that someone, with a vested interest in exposing “the truth” almost always exists. Your story may revolve around your heroes ‘exposing the truth,’ but in a modern society true secrecy on the level of aliens landing at Roswell and the 9-11 Truth Movement is almost impossible. Which doesn’t mean that most people don’t believe in these conspiracies, just that they aren’t at all likely.

To conclude, in Federalist #10, Madison said, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” This, I think, is the bedrock of many of the misconceptions about politics. Every society will have groups in conflict. It is inevitable. Have and have nots. Racial majorities and racial minorities. Wage workers and owners. Conservationists and outdoorsmen. Conflict is inevitable and government exists to mediate societal conflict, not necessarily operate its own agenda. The “state” creates institutions and policies and departments and positions for that purpose. These institutions may, and often do, advantage some groups over others, but they are never done without purpose. There is always a why (and a believable why for all you conspiracy theorists). Keep that in mind, and read a little bit about politics political scientists, people who study this stuff comparatively for a living, and your political writing at least be more believable than Lucas’s.

James Hedrick is a PhD Candidate in Political Science, has taught government at the collegiate level, and has worked in every aspect of government except the Judicial Branch. His nomination to the federal bench is currently being filibustered by Senate Republicans.

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[i] And the closely related ‘planet-wide’ governments.
[ii] Don’t get me started on the political organization of the Shire. See my blog post here: http://poliscifi.weebly.com/1/post/2013/05/the-devil-jrr-tolkien.html
[iii] If this is taking place in a U.S.-style government or at least a modern-ish democracy. Details vary depending on style of government.
[iv] I’m looking at you Dan Brown. And I said entertaining, not particularly good.

James Hedrick is a PhD Candidate in Political Science living in Washington, DC. He spends his days writing about politics and his evenings writing about anything but. He will soon self-publish the first book in his urban fantasy series Hell Against Texas entitled "Cauldron Bubble."

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Posted in Non-Fiction, Writing Advice
6 comments on “Politics – What Sci-Fi Writers Get Wrong
  1. misskzebra says:

    This is a really interesting post. I write Fantasy, but one of the things people liked about my novel was that the society I wrote about wasn’t rigidly structured.

    It’s written from the perspective of an unpopular monarchy and based in a society that is slowly becoming more suspicious and want their leaders to be more accountable.

  2. Scott Graham says:

    I must say, as someone who double majored in Political Science and International Studies, this is pretty spot on. As a fan of the political thriller genre, as well as sci-fi, that really is a huge difference I see in the two genres.
    I think, alot of times, sci-fi authors, and other non political-based genres just want to focus their research energy on more pertinent topics. I mean, conversely, authors like Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy probably get a lot of technological details wrong that a sci-fi author wouldn’t miss.
    But, I think too, it comes down to the issue of trying too hard. Sci-fi authors, in particular, try so hard to be ahead of the curve, so they picture a world vastly different than the current one- i.e. the same tried and true “one world” government, totalitarianism, etc. regardless of how unrealistic they may be to someone with a PolySci background. I think, too, it reflects on the time period it’s written. The two prominent united Earth sci-fi that come immediately to mind are Starship Troopers and Star Trek. Starship Troopers was first published in the 1950, when the UN was the big and new thing, and they’d just fought a “united” war in Korea. Star Trek was first drafted in the early 60’s, not far off this same era. Plus, it’s that utopian idealism that sci-fi is known for during the Cold War- what’s the ideal opposite of a polarized world? A united one, under one entity. This, I think is WHY, so many sci-fi authors swing and miss on the political side of things.

    • Scott Graham says:

      I meant to say “the 1950’s”

    • jhedrick82 says:

      Scott, that’s an interesting point about Starship Troopers and Star Trek. My thought about Heinlein’s ‘One-World’ government though was that it was a militaristic society with a very limited franchise, an early Cold War extrapolation/influence maybe. Heinlein was somewhat obsessed with Stalin and Communism. The bugs in Starship Troopers are pretty obvious communist stand-ins, at least that’s how I read it, and that was not long after the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon, iirc.

      Star Trek, I think, was more of a continuation of utopianism found in early sci-fi like some of Wells and Verne. Technology will conquer all social ills, kinda thing.

      Anyway, like you said, part of the “problem”, if problem it be, is that sci-fi writers want to explore BIG ideas, which usually means putting characters into extreme situations. They extrapolate further than any “true” society would ever go to make the risks/dangers/whatever more obvious. Tends to get a little tedious in my opinion, especially with a more extensive knowledge of politics.

  3. It’s been my observation that the vast majority of government business is reactionary in nature. Something happens, and then someone says “There ought to be a law!” It doesn’t have to be a 9/11 either. Food regulations happen when someone gets poisoned, tariffs are introduced when a foreign company undercuts prices, or there is a scandal that dominates the headlines and launches a series of hearings. Ninety percent of government is putting out fires.
    When world building, figuring out what the trigger for events was can be as important as the structure of the government itself. Why did a democratic country turn to fascism? Was it economic factors or race hatred? The world you create needs a history, not only to explain why events are unfolding the way you imagined, but to give your setting deep, rich character.

    • jhedrick82 says:

      Trigger events are good, but always remember that politics is “solutions looking for a problem.” What’s visible are the trigger events and they can add good, easy depth to stories. However, all those policy solutions – including the post-9-11 departmental reorg, the FDA, etc. – all existed as policy proposals/solutions prior to their trigger events. Anyone who’s interested can read Kingdon’s “Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies.” It’s not a great “scientific” theory (sorry Nicole) but it’s a reasonably illuminating description of the action of the public policy process.

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June 2013
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