On Politics in Speculative Fiction

I recently DNF-d a fantasy novel, in large part because of how poorly it dealt with the issue of politics within the author’s world.  Doing that got me reflecting on how politics is treated generally in speculative fiction, and how writers get it wrong so often.

The commonest trap I see – which is the one this author fell into – is where writers associate politics with villains.  It’s not something their noble hero/ine would dirty their hands with, because they are Pure and Noble and Fighting For Right.  Politics and the political becomes a lazy shorthand for self-interest and manipulative behaviour, which are qualities we like to associate with the bad guys.

That’s certainly one way of dealing with politics in fiction.  Done well, you get House of Cards (and here I am a hipster who prefers the original 1990 BBC version to the Netflix reboot).  Francis Urquhart back-stabs his way to power, but what makes it is the breaking of the fourth wall.  We can’t help but warm to Urquhart – his scathing critiques of his fellow politicians are incredibly funny and spot on.  The peek behind the curtain as he manipulates his way to power is what makes it such a joyous experience for the viewer: we are in on the game Urquhart is playing and therefore on the side of his rapacious ambition.

If you want to play an innocent into a situation like that, then you get something like my personal favourite, Borgen.  After a freak election result, Birgitte Nyborg finds herself as the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, and has to learn very quickly how to navigate the halls of power and get business done.  The vision and idealism that got her elected are not the skills she needs to run the country.  Principles are no use when the choice you are faced with is a pragmatic one between least-worst options.  Nyborg learns fast (the gloriously cut-throat episode about the constitutional status of Greenland, that ends with Nyborg effectively telling a politician he is dead to her, is a particular favourite), but at great personal cost to her family and her principles.  Or else you get Secret State.  The drama here comes from a man of integrity suddenly thrust into a position and world he was not expecting.  Tom Dawkins is the Deputy Prime Minister no-one expected would wield real power until the sudden death of the Prime Minister leaves him running the country.  The interesting conflict is the internal one: how far is Dawkins willing to compromise his integrity in order to tackle the corruption he has stumbled across?

And if you want to go full ingenue, then the joy comes from the player being played.  Step forward Les Liaisons Dangereuses, where Madame de Tourvel is the one to bring down the notorious rake the Vicomte de Valmont.  His bet with the Marquise de Merteuil to seduce Madame de Tourvel backfires when he falls in love with her.

Politics at its most fundamental is about people.  It’s about understanding what makes them tick, what they care about, and how to get things done.  Yes, that can be done in a manipulative way, to box people into corners and dispose of rivals.  But it can also be done with integrity, in a way that builds alliances and energy towards tackling a common goal.  The kind of approach seen in something like The West Wing, if you will.

It’s probably no accident that all of the examples I’ve given of the political done well fall outside of speculative fiction. Within the genre, it’s much harder to think of good writing about the sphere of politics.  (Though I would gleefully suggest that Joe Abercrombie‘s Sand dan Glokta is the Francis Urquhart of SFF.)  Which is a shame, because the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of conflicting aims and ambitions and the consequences of those choices.

Guy Gavriel Kay writes about the political incredibly well.  As I said in my review of The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan. Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances. Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced. In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.  As events take choices away from people, the powerful are forced down particular courses of action.  There are two particular moments in the book that underpin this for me – the first is when one of the Jaddite kings in the north realises that his indulgence of his wife’s strong religious faith has made it impossible for him not to declare a Crusade; the other is when ibn Khairan acknowledges that the events of the Day of the Moat forced his hand into the assassination of King Almalik.  In Kay’s novel, the powerful are all trying to act in their own best interests, but their interests are in conflict.

This is the approach taken in The Expanse, where the interests of Earth, Mars and the Belt collide.  War is never far away, and the discovery and development of the protomolecule is the disruptive element threatening a fragile balance.  Senior UN figure Chrisjen Avarsarala (who I want to be when I grow up) is forced to make hard choices to protect her own position and defuse conflict.  The path to her goal is never a straight one, but this is a woman who is undeniably using all her political skills in pursuit of the right aims, even if that is not something that she is always able to admit without compromising what she is trying to achieve.

Another writer who nails it is Michelle West.  The premise of her Sun Sword books is that demons are trying to take over the mortal world, and one of the only things that can defeat them is a magic sword that can only be wielded by someone from a particular lineage.  So, of course the demons conspire to have that entire ruling family wiped out in a coup.  Except for one remaining son, who is held hostage in a different country.  The discussions about whether or not, and on what terms, to go to war to restore this heir to his throne are beautifully written.  The cause at issue is not the demon world-domination plot, but the geo-politics of West’s world, and the risk-reward judgement about getting involved in a foreign coup.  The work done to carefully align big power blocks behind action needs painstaking work, and ultimately action only happens when they are directly affected themselves.  This is the right war, fought for the wrong reasons.

Of course, West’s Sun Sword books are at their heart about the Serra Diora di Marano, and her quest for revenge against the people who slaughtered her family.  The Serra Diora uses soft power and politics to her advantage.  She turns herself into a highly politicised weapon to bring down an entire country and its regime without shedding blood.  She uses cultural norms and symbolism in her favour to make herself the untouchable emblem of a nation.  And they are also books about Jewel Markess a’Terafin, who learns how to lead and make painful choices, transforming from a street child to a woman of power and influence.

Famously, Katherine Addison‘s The Goblin Emperor examines the question of whether it’s possible to rule with kindness and integrity.  Maia’s position is a fragile one, but like Birgitte Nyborg he seizes the opportunity unexpectedly thrust his way (though in his case the alternative is exile or assassination) and tries to rule in line with his principles.  He learns to pull the levers of power effectively, identifying the key influencers and opinion-formers within his Parliament, and structuring choices to lead to the outcome he is seeking to achieve.  The sequence where they debate and agree his choice of bride shows his growing skill and understanding of the shifting power dynamics of his kingdom.

But these books still feel like the exceptions.

Speculative fiction – and in particular epic fantasy – too often focuses on the cause.  It assumes that its inherent rightness is so obvious that all good and right-thinking people will throw their weight behind it.  Anyone who doesn’t must be a self-interested fool who deserves what’s coming to them.  But politics is how you get people on that right side.  It’s about creating shared visions and coalitions of the willing.  It’s about appealing to people’s better natures, their self-interest, their hopes and fears, and their images of themselves. To some that may feel like manipulation, but it’s just how you get things done.

An inspirational leader with a compelling cause can be a powerful thing, but it’s not enough by itself to effect change.  Assuming that it is – and ignoring the work that goes into persuading and influencing people towards a particular course of action, with all the messy deal-making that involves – may comfort our sense of idealism, but it is lazy writing.

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