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.

Rio de Janeiro to continue in hardline direction

The Brazilian presidential elections may be only at the half-way stage – with Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, not quite securing the 50% she needed to avoid a run-off, largely due to a late surge by the radical Green Party candidate, Maria Silva – but the results of the elections for Rio de Janeiro’s Governor were much clearer. The incumbent, Sergio Cabral, was easily re-elected with just over 66% of the vote. Second was, once again, a Green Party candidate, Fernando Gabeira, with almost 21%, followed by a slew of minor candidates.

Cabral was expected to win as he is supported by the growing middle classes who have done well due to the economic bouyancy of Rio in the last few years. However, it is by no means clear that this result will do much good for the poorest in society. Cabral, along with the Mayor Eduardo Paes, favours a hardline approach to the favelas and their inhabitants, favouring a law-enforcement and crime-control approach to a social one – what Paes calls the choque de ordem. In this sense he is out of step with the national government, however for the middle class of Rio reading their copies of O Globo behind the doors of their secured apartments, the favelas represent not an unfair city which is still unable to close the massive gap between the rich, growing ever richer, and the poor, but a spectre of criminal disorder and a source of fear

The upcoming mega-events, particularly the FIFA World Cup, 2014, and the Olympics in 2016, have only strengthened the feeling amongst the privileged that Rio must simply crack down on violence rather than dealing with the underlying problems (poverty and the international drugs and small arms trades) that fuel the violence. What this means in practice is ‘out of sight, out of mind’: walling off favelas, installing surveillance cameras, stopping the illegal street vending that gives many in the favelas some small hope of a livelihood, and demolishing high-profile new construction.

*For more on my work in Brazil and in Rio de Janeiro, see the entries from January to April last year…

Tokyo Elections and Urban Development

Pretty much as predicted, the LDP lost badly in the Assembly elections for Tokyo. They ended up with only 38 seats to the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) 54. The LDP will continue to be part of the largest bloc in the Assembly thanks to the 22 seats held by the Komeito, the party of the Soka Gakkai, a lay organisation of the large Nichiren Shoshu evangelical Buddhist sect. The Komeito have almost single-handedly kept the LDP in power in Japan for years now, and seem to have no point to their existence at all, apart from ensuring that laws on religious organisations are kept as light as possible. Nevertheless, even as a bloc, the LDP / Komeito no longer have a majority in the 127-seat Assembly.

Under pressure, unpopular LDP Prime Minister, Aso Taro, has now called elections to the national Diet for August 30th. Normally one would expect a wipe-out of the LDP, but that’s not how Japanese politics works. With very strong rural and regional support, the LDP will most likely win again, but a different faction will get their man (and it will most probably be a man) into the PM’s office. There has been a non-LDP government before, but it happens so infrequently as to be almost unheard of…

Whilst Aso is unpopular and LDP’s response to the recession has been both predictably unimaginative and unsustainable (in short, “more concrete!”), this wasn’t just about national issues, despite what LDP spokespeople in Tokyo would have us believe. There are some serious economic and urban development issues in Tokyo. More people seem to have lost patience with long-standing Governor Ishihara, who is backed by the LDP on the whole, and in particular the almost collapse of Ishihara’s subsidies for Tokyo banks affected by the global collapse of financial services, and the latest mega-scheme to free up land for private sector redevelopment, the proposed move of the famous Tsukiji fishmarket from its convenient and historic location at the edge of fashionable and expensive Ginza to some remote toxic waste dump in the middle of nowhere. 20 years ago, even 5 years ago, such ridiculous schemes to aid private capital were routinely forced through, but in the current climate, this may not be possible. Finally, like Rio de Janeiro, where I was earlier in the year, Tokyo is candidate city for the 2016 Olympics with all the financial (and social and security) implications that bidding for and hosting such a mega-event implies, and people are starting to wonder whether the city can afford it.

Still, the relentless march of redevelopment continues elsewhere: the old Koma Theatre in Kabukicho, which I predicted would be targeted by developers as soon as they started trying to secure the area with CCTV cameras and intensified policing a few years back, is now almost demolished (pictures soon)… apparently Shinjuku’s red light district is now officially safe for more mainstream and less obviously dirty forms on capitalism.

Tokyo Elections

Tokyo goes to the polls today. I have to say that there doesn’t seem to be much excitement, although it is widely expected that the almost permanently-in-power Liberal Democratic Party (who, as is the way of these things, are neither particularly liberal nor overly democratic!) will be given a severe kicking by the electorate. This may even cause the Prime Minister, Aso Taro, to step down. Aso is perhaps the most unpopular leader in the democratic world, with personal approval ratings that threaten to drop into single figures. He makes Gordon Brown looks charismatic, and has been best known overseas (although not so much within Japan) for making silly, often verging on the racist, remarks.

However, while these elections may be nationally very significant, they will have no bearing on the real power in Tokyo itself, Governor Ishihara Shintaro, an independent populist. He’s tough on crime, tough on the supposed causes of crime (foreigners, of course) (who has also pushed CCTV quite hard) and seems to have been Governor forever. The main reason he got elected originally was connected to the fact that he had a more famous brother, Yujiro, who was a very well-known film star, but it’s Shintaro who’s been the leading man for over a decade.