This post is the first in an occasional series about elements we wish were more included in speculative fiction today. They do exist out there, but if they were incorporated more, they could help shift how we think about the future and social change. Today’s topic: good government.
Speculative fiction and political intrigue go hand in hand, yet we tend to see the same few stories about the same governments, over and over. In fantasy, you have your monarchies (benevolent or corrupt) or the occasional oligarchy, mostly based on hereditary power structures. This is your Game of Thrones territory. In science fiction, there’s only slightly more variety: oppressive dictatorships like Big Brother (our nightmare), or weak and corrupt democratic republics (our criticism of our present situation), or more rarely, various takes on socialism, ranging from deeply critical to cautiously optimistic.
Only rarely do we see other systems of government represented in our fiction, and it’s distressingly uncommon to see government working effectively for the common good — especially governments that resemble our U.S. system. In pop culture, democracies are corrupted by moneyed influences, elected officials are power-hungry, inept, or both, and government employees are bureaucratic drones who’ve had the joy sucked out of their lives by their dull work and sterile offices.
We can do better. Here are a few ways speculative fiction could turn these tropes on their heads, or abandon them altogether, and give us better stories about governments.
Show us better heroes
Governments can never be perfect, but they aren’t all the same, and neither are the people in them. In our current political system, damaged and partisan-gridlocked as it is, we still have leaders we admire — just look at Bernie Sanders. Sanders isn’t alone, and there was a time (not so long ago, though it’s hard to remember it) when it was possible for our leaders to work across party lines to accomplish basic things that most people believed were good ideas. And even now, in worse times, rank and file government employees are taking heroic measures, from attending protests to archiving at-risk data on climate change to going rogue on Twitter (and sparking the upcoming Science March in the process):
Fun Fact: Badlands NP today is home to 39 mammal species! (As part of budget restructuring, that number will be reduced by half by 2019.) pic.twitter.com/4UZ74LUyff
— BadlandsNPSFans (@BadIandsNPSFans) January 25, 2017
The thing the dystopian novels could never predict was the sudden rebellion of the national park social media managers
— David Hoyt (@DavidJHoyt) January 25, 2017
In our speculative fiction, where are our role models like these? The well-intentioned, fallible-but-principled leaders, the courageous civil servants? They are few and far between in speculative fiction. We often see heroes taking down corrupt governments from the outside, but far more rarely see the hard work that goes into fixing a system from the inside. It might not be as dramatic as Katniss going after President Snow with her bow and arrows (or who knows? It could be) but I’d love to read the story of Snow’s staff secretly undermining his worst abuses and trying to support the rebellions in the districts without getting caught.
Worldbuild for an actual, functional government
In our current obsession with dystopian sci-fi, most stories end with our heroes taking down the oppressive regime. But what comes next? In the Handmaid’s Tale, how does society recover from its wounds when the Republic of Gilead falls? How to Katniss’ erstwhile allies govern better than President Snow? (Not well, we presume, but we don’t get to see much either way.) How does Aragorn, having recovered his throne, go on to rebuild his kingdom and heal his people?
The task of building back to a functioning, effective government, avoiding the mistakes of the past, contains plenty of good stories in its own right, and we could use more good examples of this process in our cultural consciousness. It’s usually glossed over in fiction, often with long gaps in time if it’s explained at all. But the messy, trial-and-error, fraught process of putting the pieces back together, while not the stuff of blockbusters, contains compelling characters and difficult decisions, all the ingredients for a good story. Plus, it provides plenty of room for creative worldbuilding.
Which brings me to…
Throw away the tropes — let’s imagine new types of governments
Why does our fiction contain so few models of government in the first place? Our imaginations are drawn to dictatorships and monarchies. Many of our oldest stories focus on them, and I suspect writers like them because a monarch makes a great individual hero or villain. But just as speculative fiction shows us new technological possibilities — many of which have sparked scientists’ imaginations and inspired real scientific advances, and have also served as cautionary tales for the potential uses of new technology — it could also show us possibilities for making our society function better through better government.
I love when I come across a clever new system of government in a story. Malka Older’s Infomocracy, which I’ve written about here before, is my favorite recent example of a thought experiment in new forms of government. But stories don’t need to invent entirely new forms of government to be more interesting than the usual tropes. Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful Vorkosigan series is one example of a universe big enough to contain myriad examples of possible governments.
The Vorkosigan series takes us to numerous worlds populated by humans, each with highly distinct cultures and systems of government to match, based on how each world was colonized and by who. The series focuses on Barrayar, the home of the Vorkosigans, where we see government not only through the stories about the military, but also civil service and bureaucracy. Barrayar is a militaristic, traditional empire with a colorful history and a mix of emperors benevolent and evil, wise and inept and mad: a government that would be more in place in a fantasy novel than a space opera series.
Beyond Barrayar, the series depicts a diverse spectrum of human societies. There’s the liberal but resource-starved Beta Colony, which has strong rights for non-binary people and clones but puts strict limits on many activities, including procreation, to keep from over-extending their resources. One of the joys of the series is watching Cordelia, a Betan who marries into the Vorkosigan family, critique Barrayaran society with her shrewd outsider’s perspective. In the adventures of the son Miles, we visit numerous other worlds: corporate-dominated Jackson’s Whole where profit is the only law, the aggressive and factional Cetagandan Empire which draws fascinating similarities and contrasts with Barrayar, and even old Earth. Unlike much speculative fiction, Bujold makes all these societies feel organic and nuanced, never like stereotypes based on a single dominant trait (Klingons and Vulcans, anyone?).
The Vorkosigan family play a key role in keeping the Barrayaran empire stable, making compromises and seeking solutions that give the best path forward, often when there are no good choices. I adore the gruff, principled Aral Vorkosigan, who rises to become the family patriarch and dedicates his life to the good of the empire. Sometimes that means a secret and thrilling plot to protect the throne from a madman, and sometimes it means long days at the office, counting parliamentary votes, and negotiating difficult policy changes. While the paperwork and drudgery are never at the heart of the novels (because yes, that would be boring), they’re always there in the background, a necessary and thankless part of saving the world.
That’s just one example of a series that does government well. There are others out there, but not nearly enough. What other speculative fiction do you like for providing new and different views of government? Would you read a novel about rogue agency social media managers fixing the system from the inside? What else would you like to see in a story?