Electoral science fiction and the future of politics

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the formal politics of surveillance and control. Last year I edited a massive double issue of Surveillance & Society on the global turn to authoritarianism, and I’ve got a co-authored sociology / media & communication piece going through the peer-review process now about some of this but, as I usually do, I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of science fiction. This blog post may well form the basis for an article in the near-future.

What started me thinking about this specifically this week was the imminent publication of the last volume of Malka Older’s excellent Centenal Cycle out soon, I was scratching my head to think of other titles in the rather obscure sub-genre of electoral science fiction. Here’s what I came up with…

When science fiction deals with politics, it tends to be either in terms of either better (tending to utopian) or worse (tending to dystopian) post-democratic systems. Although one would think that elections could provide tension and drama, they are not that common even in political SF.

The McCarthy Red Scare period in USA did lead to some exceptions. As befits a committed socialist, Isaac Asimov dealt with elections in a famous 1955 short story, ‘Franchise’, in which America takes up Bertolt Brecht’s satirical call for the government to elect a new electorate by replacing them with a single lucky voter who votes via a conversation with a computer. There are fair number of other SF short stories that do dabble in electoral politics, but mainly I will concentrate on novels for this post at least. Robert Heinlein, who was significantly to the right of Asimov and his Futurian comrades, dealt with politics a lot, but rarely elections – the exceptions being a couple of stories also written in the mid-50s, Tunnel in the Sky (1955) and Double Star (1956), which centers on an election campaign, and rigged elections feature in the post-revolutionary society of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).

Also in the 1960s, while J.G. Ballard wrote short stories about Kennedy and more notoriously, the brilliant satire, ‘Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan’ (1968), these were more about media than elections per se, in common with all those other New Wave works that were profoundly influenced by the pioneering Canadian media sociologist and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan. Works of particular note here include Norman Spinrad’s, in retrospect inexplicably notorious, Bug Jack Barron (1969) and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), which on some days is my favourite ever SF novel.

Of the New Wavers, it was also John Brunner who dealt most effectively with democratic processes, probably because of his active political engagement — he was a committed progressive who was also vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain.  His later novel, The Shockwave Rider (1975) has a referendum campaign as part of its plot, although it is hardly the main focus. Like many political SF novels, it also assumes a global or planetary polity without any real sense of how we would have actually got there.

In the 1980s, Harry Harrison of course had his long-running protagonist stand for election in The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982), however, in the 1990s there were two highly enjoyable American electoral SF novels , both of which came out of the cyberpunk movement, which was very much political, but generally with a small ‘p’ rather than a big ‘P’. Realistic global politics (or more accurately post-politics) is a consistent feature of cyberpunk worlds. The first of theses novels was Interface (1994) by ‘Stephen Bury’ (Neal Stephenson writing with his uncle, George Jewsbury), in which a presidential candidate who suffers brain damage is fitted with a chip that transmits the findings of opinion polls directly to his mind, creating the perfect entirely un-ideologically committed American populist. I wonder who that reminds us of now…? Around the same time, Stephenson also wrote one of the best post-scarcity political SF works, The Diamond Age (1995). The other great 90s electoral SF novel was Bruce Sterling’s gonzo satire, Distraction (1999) which features American electoral politics gone super-stupid and largely held together by groups of super-smart spin doctors, who act more like gangs or guns-for-hire (they call themselves ‘krews’) than political party loyalists.

Into the 2000s, a lot of realistic politics feature in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels. His future California trilogy is basically three different alternative futures for the Golden State, and The Mars Trilogy doesn’t really disguise the fact that its largely about contemporary environmental politics on Earth. However, it’s only his ‘Science in the Capital’ trilogy that begins with 40 Signs of Rain (2004), that deals more directly with contemporary government and electoral politics, but unfortunately I would argue that these are his least successful works mainly because they do not make politics, in this case the politics of climate change, very interesting.

However, just recently, we’ve had some interesting political novels that use what one might define as more formal literary political experiments, to bring science fictional life to politic and elections. And all are written by women – yes, you should have noticed a distinct lack of women in this discussion so far, which perhaps mirrors the struggle of women to find their voices in electoral systems.

I am going to include both Jo Walton’s Thessaly sequence that begins with The Just City (2015), precisely because it is deliberately experimenting with anti-democratic and anti-electoral politics as advocated by Plato in his Republic and other works.  We are as the important Belgian political philosopher, Chantal Mouffe has argued, living in an age of ‘anti-politics’, which has led directly to the current resurgence of populist authoritarianism. Walton’s work, however, is much more an exploration of the moral philosophy of Plato rather than contemporary authoritarianism. It also has great characters who are, due to other aspects of the set-up based on the powers of Ancient Greek divinities, drawn from all historical periods. There are also stimulating debates about what counts as human and intelligent and much more. So it has something to say about contemporary politics, but as Emily Dickinson advised, it tells it ‘slant’. Similarly, Ada Palmer’s ongoing Terra Ignota sequence, that started with Too Like the Lightning (2016) presents a kind of post-democratic politics that is also based on formal experiment, this time with the political writings of British enlightenment political philosophers like Thomas Carlyle, but with a similar kind of post-scarcity technological context to that of The Diamond Age. It’s at once brilliant and infuriating, with interesting sexual and gender politics, highly mannered writing and speech consistent with its enlightenment revivalism, unreliable narration and a rather less successful element involving god(s) which I don’t think does always work in the way that Walton’s does. However, by the third volume, the multiple conceits have started to get tired and my heart sank rather than sang when I realized there was going to be a fourth volume. Unfortunately I think the same kind of sequence fatigue is a little in evidence in the third and final volume of Walton’s trilogy, Necessity (2016), but it’s still highly readable.

Finally, we return to Malka Older. Frankly, I have never been more excited by a novel about elections than I was with Infomocracy (2016). It shares the concept of a global polity with many older SF novels, but has a plausible premise for how we get there – to cut a long story short, it’s a kind of Google globalization, somewhat like a fictionalized version of Hiroki Azuma’s General Will 2.0 (2014). Its formal experimental premise is perhaps a little too formal to be entirely possible – the world is divided into political units of exactly 100,000 people (a ‘centenal’) in what seems sometimes like entirely arbitrary ways that do not conform to any historical, geographical or social contexts. But this does serve to highlight the arbitrariness of any political boundaries. Across the world, the particular local political organisations affiliate into broad thematic parties with names like ‘Heritage’, ‘Progress’, ‘Policy First’ or ‘Earth First’ which indicate their general tendencies, and these affiliations get to make strategic decisions at scales above the centenal. The novels follow particular party-affiliated and freelance electoral activists and troubleshooters as they deal with threats to the centenal system from natural disasters, political conspiracies, technological sabotage and more, mainly in Asia in the first novel, and then in Africa in the second, Null States (2017).

The final volume, State Tectonics (2018) is out very soon, and I can’t wait. If you haven’t got into Older (or indeed, Walton or Palmer) yet, you should.

Science Fiction post-9/11 (Part 2)

This combined social science / literary analysis lark is harder than it looks! Frequently asked questions of scholars who look at books or films at conferences always include one or more of the following: ‘why these books?’, ‘how did you sample?’, ‘what makes these films significant?’ and so on – indeed I had a bit of a go at an unfortunate PhD researcher at a conference last year on exactly this basis (sorry, Michael Krause, your paper was actually really interesting). So I have been trying to be systematic. So the first thing I did was to compile a longlist of English-language SF since 9/11.  Basically, I went through all the major US and British SF award shortlists for novels from 2002 onwards. The awards I covered were: the Hugo, the Nebula, the John W. Campbell Memorial award, Locus, the Philip K. Dick, the Arthur C. Clarke, the British Science Fiction Association award and the James Tiptree Jr.

The reason for using awards was to address the ‘importance question’. I could also have used ‘best of year’ lists from a number of online publications and bloggers but where would you stop? In any case, many of these awards are already crowdsourced and fan-based, at least in their nomination procedures. Inevitably, some smart alec will say ‘but you didn’t include ‘award X’. Again, there’s a limit. So although the PKD (which only covers new paperback fiction) and the Tiptree (focused on gender) are relatively minor, they are well-regarded and expand the ground to include a lot more edgy and innovative work, whereas the Lambda award (LGBT sf) is pretty small. Likewise I did not include Canadian and Australian association awards because they tend to have a very restricted pool to draw on and the best authors from those countries are published internationally anyway and, in the case of Canada at least, are very influential in the international associations.

All the shortlisted novels for all the awards added up to about 350 novels: too many to do any kind of useful analysis of any more than the most superficial kind with the time I have – although I may come back to this longer longlist later. So I tightened my criteria to novels that had either won any of the major award or been shortlisted for at least two. This leaves me with 117 novels, about half of which I have already read. I am now in a dilemma. This is still too many to deal with. I did produce a shortlist of just award-winners, 68 novels (there were a few ties in some years for some awards), but can you consider a novel that won the only award for which it was shortlisted to be more ‘significant’ than a novel that was shortlisted for 2, 3, 4 or 5 awards but didn’t win any? And here I also got into questions of personal preference: with this selection, and this is even more the case if I reduce the list further to only novels that won an award and were also shortlisted for at least one other (38), a lot of the novels that I find most interesting and which I would like to discuss because 1. they are good; and 2. they actually make some interesting post-9/11 points, for example, Lavie Tidhar‘s Osama (nominated for the BSFA 2011 and the JWCM 2012 but not a winner) and Kathleen Ann Goonan‘s In War Times (the 2008 JWCM winner, but not shortlisted for any of the other major awards) drop off. So, somehow I am going to have to do make some broad considerations of the 117, and select within these on the basis of either representativeness with regard to some particular themes I identify from the broad survey, or just because I think they are worth discussing in more depth.

Science Fiction post-9/11

I’m writing a piece right now on Science Fiction since 9/11, based around, but not entirely limited to, the themes of security and surveillance. I’ll be giving this as keynote at the Images of Terror, Narratives of (In)security conference in Lisbon on the 23rd and 24th of April this year – I am not sure where I will send it for publication yet. Because of this, I have been reading and rereading a lot of SF, but I thought I’d mention two recent works that have most impressed me. I will probably add more thoughts in the weeks to come on this topic.

intrusion-ken-macleodThe first is Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion (Orbit, 2012).  Ken MacLeod was a welcome participant at Mike Nellis’s excellent split location Glasgow / Jura workshop that marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four back in 2009, and many of his books have dealt overtly with security and surveillance themes, notably his near-future / alternative world novel, The Execution Channel (Orbit, 2007). Coming out of a period spent not only engaging with surveillance scholars, but more importantly being a Writer in Residence of the UK Research Councils’ Genomics Network, Intrusion takes place in a subtly nightmarish near-future Britain of oppressively caring forced medical intervention (in the form of a compulsory pill to cure genetic illnesses) and ongoing but nebulous terror threats, where even being seen to look too long at a piece of pro-terrorist graffiti is grounds for arrest and ‘torture-lite’ interrogation over where your loyalties lie. For a writer who has a well-deserved reputation as a pretty hardcore materialist and socialist, there are also unexplained hints of myth and magic at the edges of this work, and there is also a strong sense of what architects would call genius loci, the spirit of place, in both its London and Scottish island settings, which make the book all the richer and more satisfying as a piece of fiction. I think it’s his best novel ever, and that is coming from someone who was already a big admirer of MacLeod’s work – all of which is well worth reading.


In contrast, Lavie Tidhar’s Osama (PS, 2011) is all edge. It is slippery, slipstreamy and dreamy and reading it generally makes you feel like you’ve been drugged or waterboarded. This novel is dominated by the image of Osama Bin Laden, but not the ‘real’ Bin Laden, for this is a world separate but somehow connected to our own in which 9/11 (and subsequent attacks) never happened. As the novel progresses one realises its alternative earth is profoundly anachronistic, even non-modern: trains still seem to be steam-powered and there is no Internet. In that world, ‘Osama’ is the vigilante protagonist of a series of hard-t0-find cult pulp novels which detail Al-Qaeda’s fictional exploits, but which fill their most fanatical readers in this other world with the belief that somehow the events of the novels are more real than their own. There is a divergence point where everything changed, but it isn’t actually 9/11 at all, it’s much further back and has to do with the Sykes-Pichot agreement which formalized the settlement of the ‘Middle-East question’ in WW1. And Osama Bin Laden, it hints, is inseperable from the history of our own world, inevitable even. Osama is reminiscent of writers like Philip K. Dick, in particular, The Man in the High Castle, and much more so, the surrealism-influenced writers who came out of the 1960s British ‘New Wave’ of SF like J.G. Ballard and Brain Aldiss (I was reminded of that very underrated post-9/11 Aldiss novel, H.A.R.M) and particularly Chistopher Priest, both in terms of his slippy alt-history, The Separation, but also the atmosphere of earlier works like A Dream of Wessex and his ‘Dream Archipelago’ sequence of stories, which he recently added to with The Islanders. But at the same time, Osama is something quite unique, rich with pop cultural allusion, irony and bathos, and frequently seems to invert or counteract its own apparent intentions.

Towards Open-Circuit Television

The era of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) surveillance may be coming to an end. Surprised? Unfortunately, this does not mean that we are likely to see less surveillance, and cameras being torn down any time soon – quite the contrary. Instead a number of developments are pointing the way to the emergence of more Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) surveillance. These developments include technological ones, like wireless networking, the move to store data via ‘cloud’ computing, participatory locative computing technologies like CityWare, and the increasing affordability and availability of personal surveillance devices (for example, these plug and play mini-cameras unveiled at DemoFall 09). However they also include changes in the way that video surveillance is monitored and by whom.

Back in 2007, a pilot scheme in Shoreditch in London, which enabled residents to watch CCTV cameras on a special TV channel, was canned. However the project had proved to be incredibly popular amongst residents. Now The Daily Telegraph reports that an entrepreneur in Devon, Tony Morgan has set up a company, Internet Eyes, which is marketing what is calls an ‘event notification system’. They plan to broadcast surveillance footage from paying customers on the Internet, with the idea that the public will work as monitors. They won’t just be doing this for nothing however: the whole thing is set up like a game, where ‘players’ gain points for spotting suspected crimes (three if it is an actual crime) and lost points for false alarms. To back this up, there are monthly prizes (paid for out of the subscriptions of the organisations whose cameras are being monitored) of up to 1000 GBP (about $1600 US). Their website claims that a provisional launch is scheduled for November.

Mark Andrejevic has been arguing, most recently in iSpy, that those who watch Reality TV are engaging in a form of labour, now we see the idea transferred directly to video surveillance in ‘real reality’ (a phrase which will make Bill Bogard laugh, at least – he’s been arguing that simulation and surveillance are increasingly interconnected, for years). This idea might seem absurd, indeed ‘unreal’ but it is an unsurprising outcome of the culture of voyeurism that has been engendered by that combination of ever-present CCTV on the streets and Reality TV shows that came together so neatly in Britain from the early 1990s. It certainly raises a shudder too, at the thought of idiots and racists with time on their hands using this kind of things to reinforce prejudices and create trouble.

But is it really so bad? At the moment, UK residents are asked to trust in the ‘professionalism’ of an almost entirely self-regulating private security industry or the police. Neither have a particularly good record on race-relations for a start. Why is it intrinsically worse, if there are to be cameras at all (which I am certainly not arguing that there should be) to have cameras that are entirely open to public scrutiny? Is this any different from watching public webcams? Wouldn’t it actually be an improvement if this went further? If say, the CCTV cameras in police stations were open to public view? Would it make others, including the powerful, more accountable like a kind of institutionalised sousveillance?

In Ken Macleod‘s recent novel, The Execution Channel, the title refers to an anonymous but pervasive broadcast that shows the insides of torture chambers and prison cells, which functions as a device of moral conscience (at least for literary purposes) but also a Ballardian commentary on the pervasive blandness of what used to be the most outrageous atrocity. Accountability is in the end as far from this project as it is from Internet Eyes. Set up like a game, it will be treated like a game. It strips out any consequence or content from reality and leaves just the surfaces. What is ‘seen’ is simply the most superficial – and seen by the most suspicious. Participatory internet surveillance is Unreality TV. In any case, I don’t think it will either be successful in terms of crime-control (other such participatory surveillance schemes, like that on the Texas-Mexico border, have so-far proved to be failures) or useful in social terms, and may also be illegal without significant safeguards and controls anyway.

And there is nothing to stop multiple people signing up with multiple aliases and just messing the system up… not that I’d suggest anything like that, of course.

(Thank-you to Aaron Martin for badgering me with multiple posts pointing in this direction! Sometimes it just takes a little time to think about what is going on here…)

Surveillance in Science Fiction

There have been waves of interest in surveillance in fiction, and we are going through another one now, and not just in SF – I am currently writing a piece now on surveillance in post-9/11 fiction (which includes Doctorow, Stross, Macleod and other SF writers), and a discussion of this recently started on a listserv. I posted a quick message, which I will reprint here, as the first part of a catalogue of relevant novels in the genre.

Here’s my incomplete list of essentials in surveillance SF in roughly chronological order, which will be added to in future. The problem here is that SF abounds with dystopias of social control, and separating out the ones which say something interesting about surveillance is difficult…

Yevgeny Zamyatin – We which is pretty much the basis for George Lucas’s film THX-1138, so far as I can see, although it is not acknowledged. It was also read by Orwell, although for a long time he claimed not to have read it!
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World. Seems far more pertinent than Orwell in many ways, especially in terms of how control is best achieved by giving people what they want…
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course as chilling and brilliantly-written as ever…
Philip K. Dick – A Scanner Darkly (and indeed most of PKD’s fiction – he is perhaps the best writer ever on paranoia and surveillance from the pulp of Eye in the Sky to more developed works like Ubik – I have a piece out this year in the Review of International American Studies on Dick and surveillance)
Bob Shaw – Other Days, Other Eyes – a superbly poetic technology called ‘slow glass’ forms the basis of this fix-up novel (made from three short stories with a cliched plot spun around it – the original stories are better and more suggestive)
John Brunner – Not just the proto-cyberpunk, The Shockwave Rider, it’s very worth reading the other three of his amazing four dystopic novels of the early 70s Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit and The Sheep Look Up
David Brin – Earth. A quite frankly ludicrous pulp plot and Brin can’t write dialogue or characters, but a lot of great surveillance stuff in it that forms the background to his non-fiction, Transparent Society – his other novels have a similar interest in surveillance, if you can put up with his writing!
Paul J. McAuley – Whole Wide World – so far as I know, still the only SF novel to engage successfully with the UK’s CCTV system. It is also beautifully written and a cracking crime novel too. He is perhaps Britain’s most underrated writer… I have a partly-piece written about this, which I have never published!
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter – The Light of Other Days. Clarke’s idea written up by the much younger Baxter, this steals a short-story title from Bob Shaw and much of the plot from Isaac Asimov (see below), but then takes it a bit further. Still utter pulp though…
Charles Stross – Glasshouse. This is set on what is supposedly a ‘panoptic’ prison in space, except it turns out it isn’t as panoptic as it is supposed to be…
Cory Doctorow – Little Brother. A teen novel, but the only deliberately written fictional manual for resistance to contemporary surveillance.

Surveillance is also pretty much omnipresent in cyberpunk novels (Gibson, Sterling et al.) but it is not really foregrounded in any of them, although one could mention Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling as being a good example.

It’s also worth remembering that SF is and has been since the 1930s, a genre that is based primarily in the short-story, not the novel, and there are hundreds of interesting short stories on this theme, of hugely varying quality. Some are classics, like Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Dead Past’ or Bob Shaw’s ‘The Light of Other Days’ (see above – there is an interesting sub-genre of works in which surveillance tech emerges out of efforts to see into the past) or Frederik Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World’ or Damon Knight’s ‘I See You.’