Politics is a sticky subject. And I don’t just mean modern partisan politics; I mean politics in the sense of the discussion of power. What is power, how does it work, and how should it work? Whether you are more of the Leviathan type or if you’re firmly grounded in a representative Republic, discussions about power are important.
For example, and my professional life, it’s fairly close to a dictatorship. Now, the assumption is that it will be closer along the lines of a benevolent dictatorship, but that usually winds up being largely subjective. After all, there’s very few rulers or kings in the past who believed they were doing evil things, and then continued to do those evil things. Everybody pretty much thinks they’re doing a right. As we saw with our previous dive into ethics and morality, the definition of right is not necessarily something everyone agrees upon. So what is the key to creating a realistic political system within the stories that you tell, or speaking the truth about politics in general?
It depends on what your intent is for the story. I know, this may be a cop out, but it really does depend. You have to figure out what your desired intent is. Are you trying to tell a fictional story that is meant to be a warning? Are you describing your workplace or your professional organization in a way that exposes the current lines of power, and then passes judgment on them? Or are you firmly off in the realm of science fiction and trying to dream up new and different ways of governance? Or no governance at all!
Unsurprisingly, the masters of science fiction who build true and believable worlds have internally consistent and logical systems of governance. whether or not the reader, or even the author, believes these systems of governments to be correct they are nonetheless consistent. Perhaps the most widely known author for playing with forms of alternative government is Robert Heinlein. From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to Starship Troopers, he pretty much covers the entire gambit of liberal to conservative to libertarian to… Something else. I heard one joke that his political views largely reflected those of his current spouse, but I can neither confirm nor deny that…
Heinlein isn’t the only one to talk about politics and power. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire cycle. Without giving away any of the plot or juicy bits, he forms his entire system of governance around the idea that belief is power.
In this case, it’s a literal interpretation of belief equaling power, but if you look at examples from history that’s really not that far off of reality. The more people believe a thing, the more that thing is true and the more powerful the idea. Whether we’re talking about the collective good in the Chinese Communist party, or the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness embodied in the United States Constitution, belief in something truly can give it power.
When I was doing a lot of the world building (and I still am) for my Reckoning Cycle, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the geopolitical system would be. I started out with my assumptions on the technology of the universe, and what that would drive people to do and to believe. From those beliefs, I actually got a lot of great character building as well as a better idea of how the government might work.
Of course the fundamental thing you need to do before building any story about power and politics is to read about those subjects. And I don’t mean head over to your favorite news outlet, or if you’re smart one that you hate, and read as much as you can about partisan politics in the world today. Don’t get me wrong you can see a lot of the theories play out on the modern stage of application, but to really understand the deep background of power it’s best to, as Einstein put it, stand on the shoulders of giants. To do that, it all starts with reading.
Armed with our basic understanding of ethics and perhaps a few skills from our friends in philosophy, you can start this road relatively easily. I might recommend beginning with Machiavelli as one perspective, and then some Nietzsche. Just to make sure you’re not mired completely in a depressing world of absolutists, toss in a little bit of Russeau. From there you’ll want to move to John Stewart Mills, who is perhaps the most widely known Utilitarian in the field. He is not, however, the only one. John Locke is almost mandatory as well.
Of course, all of these authors write nonfiction. I’m guessing that if you’re here you’re much more interested in the science fiction. so what are some of the science fiction novels I would recommend with the best geopolitical systems? Say no more, I’ve got you.
I’m going to start with the two I mentioned above, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Starship Troopers. These are classics, so keep in mind that not all of the content is going to be strictly applicable to our modern interpretation of reality. But they’re fun to read and thought-provoking in their political systems that they describe. Next we’ll go to a much more modern series. The geopolitical system in The Expanse is actually quite familiar to us, because it is closest to what we’ve experienced over the last 20th century due to the relative levels of technology. For more on this, see my talk at NavyCon. Of course if you’re heading over there, don’t forget the Battlestar Galactica circa 2004 ish also has a really interesting geopolitical setup, again largely because of the technology that they have chosen to underpin the world building. Lastly on the realm of sci-fi that I’ll recommend to you here is going to be a series of three books by Chris Moriarty; Spin State, Spin Control, and Ghost Spin. They’re actually a few political structures in these books, and they are very interesting takes on power and what power might do. A lot of this is grounded in ethical decisions as well as a little bit of moral philosophy, as all great science fiction is. I’d be curious to know which books you have found interesting and useful, both on the fiction and nonfiction side. Let me know down in the comments!