Political Science Fiction

by Chris Borgen

In his book Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, former diplomat and Yale professor Charles Hill argues that

The great matters of high politics, statecraft, and grand strategy are essential to the human condition and so necessarily are within the purview of great literature. Tolstoy’s War and Peace treats them directly. What has not been much recognized is that many literary works read and praised for insights on personal feelings, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, possess a dimension wholly apt for statecraft—in Emma’s case, the gathering and misanalysis of intelligence. (p.4)

Hill’s book is a treatment of the lessons in statecraft that one can glean from great literature. (However, note this criticism of Hill and his book.) If it “has not been much recognized” that those books can have lessons in statecraft, I’d like to propose that it has been even less recognized that there are some great insights to be learned from fantastic fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, books described in this way are rarely described as “great literature.” And when they are, it is sometimes as if they are great despite the fact that they are fantastic. I will set that literary debate aside. Instead I want to focus squarely on what we as international lawyers and foreign policy wonks can glean from sci-fi.

Hill argues that:

1)Statecraft is protean, incessantly assuming different forms and presenting new predicaments beyond the ken of established methodologies; 2) some of the greatest classical texts—the Iliad, the Aeneid—deal with such challenges through their unboundedness, intertwining what would be later labeled as history, theology, psychology, literature, and philosophy before those modern disciplines were formalized; 3) literature, however, largely has remained unbounded, able to probe realms of statecraft which other disciplines have placed off–limits… (p.7)

This is all the more true with the realm of science fiction which probes areas that today are becoming science fact all too quickly: the expansion of the surveillance state (Hallo, Huxley! How do you do, Mr. Orwell?), cyberwarfare (Paging the U.S. Cybercommand: William Gibson would like his future back), and the use of drones (Are we waiting for Godot or for Skynet?). But science fiction is not just about technology, it can be a way to see the present from a new angle. It can be political science fiction and political science fiction at the same time.

What fiction can bring to international law has been on my mind a bit these last few weeks. The ongoing “revelations” about the massive surveillance program that modern technology enables our (and I’m sure, other) government to undertake has caused a “we are living in a sci-fi world” meme to pop-up more and more often in the main stream media. Last week, Christopher Warren blogged here about the relationship of international law to the humanities. But this topic was also on my mind because on the author Iain Banks died last month. His novels provide a fine example of how literature can provide an optic through which we can consider international law and policy.

Among many novels spanning a broad range of genres, Banks wrote the “Culture” series, books that use the tropes of star-faring science fiction to mess with Big Ideas about good and evil, moral relativism, and ends-based justifications. Stuff like, is torture ever morally justifiable? Is targeted killing ever sound policy? The role of covert ops undertaken by a supposedly freedom-loving and peaceful society. And can you make the world (perhaps I should say “a world”) a better place by invading it and replacing its government? Banks wrote fiction that gave no easy answers to most of these questions.

Analee Newitz of the blog io9 wrote a great appreciation of Banks, listing eleven rules of writing good sci-fi that one can glean from his books. She describes him as an “astropolitical” writer as opposed to a writer of older-style space operas. Take, for example, this lesson that Newitz finds in Banks:

Your intentions are only as good as your weapons
Given that the Culture (and Banks himself) are interested in using peaceful rationality to stamp out war and oppression, it might surprise you to find that most of the Culture books are full of killers. The more peaceful your civilization is, the better defended it has to be… Peace is complicated. So you’d better carry a big stick…

Banks was no fan of the U.S. invasion of Iraq but this lesson that Newitz gleans from Banks put us right on the horns of the dilemma of Liberal Interventionism and Neoconservative Interventionism. These are, of course, political distinctions. As international lawyers, we would look to relatively technocratic issues like Security Council mandates or justifications based on self-defense. But why we get to that point, the jus ad bello argument, has to do with what we view as a moral drive to use, or not use, weapons. Those are the types of unbounded, intertwined questions in statecraft that so interest Charles Hill.

So with summer upon us and people turning to “vacation reading” here are some thoughts on how you can go to a galaxy far, far, away, but still think about things very close to home. (Actually these are mostly based on Earth, but you get the picture.)

For example, I’ve written previously about Peter Watt’s Malak, a clenched-fist of a short story about drone warfare and autonomous weapons. On the issue of drone warfare, I have also heard good things about Daniel Suarez’s novel Kill Decision (perhaps better described as a techno-thriller than poli-sci-fi). See his recent TED talk here.

Given my interest in international law and secessionism (especially in the former Soviet Union), how can I not be pulled into Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game, which is about a the self-determination struggle of a fictional minority in post-Soviet Georgia and some other stuff (the nature of reality, murderous artificial intelligences on Mars, that sort of thing). MacLeod uses verisimilitude to weave the history of the mythical Krassnian people into a tapestry that includes references to actual post-Soviet conflicts (such as over Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia), metaphysical mysteries, and sci-fi tropes. This passage does a great job of summarizing the feel of secessionist politics:

There is no such place as Krassnia. If you were to draw it on a map, right where the borders of Russia, Abkhazia, and Georgia meet, and then fill it in, you’d need a fifth colour. On the other hand, Krassnia is a real place. I know, because I’ve been there; heck, I was born there. It has an official name, for the day when everyone’s embassy recognizes it (they won’t): the Former Soviet Autonomous Region of Krassnia. FSARK.

A brief section that he has satirizing the language politics of the post-Soviet Union reads like a funhouse mirror reflection of the dispute over defining Moldovan as a different language than Romanian. A fast, fun, read that does a good job of giving you the feel for what happens when empires collapse.

If the ethnic politics of the Caucasus is not your thing and you want something closer to home, there’s Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels, a rumination on CIA intervention and “regime change.” The kicker, though, is that the U.S. has devised a portal to alternate realities… alternate Americas… and the CIA is intervening and altering other USA’s in multiple universes. It is a strange loop in which we watch Americans intervening in the political processes in other Americas. A covert op against itself (or at least it’s sibling). America, subverted or helped by its own intervention? I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not this is a timely, or accurate, metaphor.

Another one of my favorites is Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan, a very black comedy on the relationship between international capital and conflict in the developing world (and the limits of the UN and international law in regulating either). It is a satire that is like the collision of the films Mad Max and Wall Street in which future investment banks directly invest in brushfire wars around the world in order to profit on the conflict itself and to be well-positioned to finance post-conflict reconstruction and broker lucrative natural resource concessions. Our “hero” is an up-and coming account manager, supplying mercenaries and economic development advice in a variety of lesser developed countries (though not necessarily to their governments). One of the themes of this book is the tension between private capital and international organizations and it includes one of the funniest scenes in poli-sci-fi: a knife fight between a senior UN diplomat (a Scandinavian, if I remember correctly,) and the investment banker anti-hero. The battle has the physicality of a Bourne movie fight but with the fighters simultaneously talking about the tension between community norms and regulation on the one hand and the free market and economic power on the other. Yes, really. I told you it was a satire.

For more on the speed of technological change and the lag of regulation, see Accelerando by Charles Stross and The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (actually these two books have so many big ideas per page that the tag line I used for them is fairly useless.)

And there are so many others:

We have had posts on Opinio Juris about Andrew Guzman’s new book on international law and climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson looks at the politics and policy of addressing climate change in his “Science in the Capital” trilogy, beginning with Forty Signs of Rain.

Offshore datahavens? Try Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (and you also get a nice history of WWII cryptography and some counterintelligence theory to boot.)

“Virtual” currencies like Bitcoin, and gold farming (see also this)? Try Stephenson again, this time REAMDE. This novel was the focus of a roundtable with Stephenson at the University of Washington Law School. Here’s the video.

Surveillance and the national security state: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow or the WWW trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer. (Sawyer’s trilogy even includes a subplot about an NSA employee going rogue and exposing agency secrets.)

Biotech and intellectual property rights in a world of scarcity? The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Much of this story also looks at the implications of the effect of developed country norms on LDC’s.

Pipeline politics, nanotech, and the transformation of Turkey: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. Brilliant novel.

And, of course, there are all the international relations issues that stem from the zombie apocalypse. I’ll leave those to Dan Drezner.

For related more books that can fit broadly into poli-sci-fi, see Science Fiction Novels for Economists, a blog post by finance professor Noah Smith.

I invite readers to include other suggestions in the comments section.

And now I will set aside this talk of science fiction and pull out my tablet and return to the 24/7 news feed about ubiquitous surveillance, cyberwar, drone attacks, patenting genes, asteroid mining start-ups, and the disappearing Arctic.

And I say ave atque vale, Iain Banks. And long live political science fiction.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/07/17/political-science-fiction/

5 Responses

  1. Hey Chris. Excellent write up, appreciated across fragmented geekdoms. I have long wanted to put together a panel or conference on science fiction and international law, and once talked to (international lawyer and science fiction/ fantasy author) China Meiville about the possibility. We discussed PIL, IR, and utopian authors as well as “posthumanism from Cordwainer Smith to Giorgio Agamben.” (Cordwainer Smith is the pen name of the late Dr. Paul Anthony Linebarger of Johns Hopkins an IR scholar and expert on on East Asian and warfare).
    To hold the place of an actual bibliography, I put together a paltry list of secondary readings on Amazon years ago, and it remains here archived:
    http://www.amazon.com/science-fiction-and-global-governance/lm/R2Q91UT7L9TU4X/ref=cm_lm_byauthor_title_full
    Anyone is welcome to take this as a starting point for a fuller project. 
    VK

  2. Thanks for your comments, Vik, and for the great bibliography. I’ll need to read Cordwainer Smith.  And, any discussion of international law and fantastic fiction would be incomplete without noting China Mieville, and I had neglected to in my main post.  Thank you for remedying that.

    And I also think this is an excellent topic for a panel discussion!

  3. Thanks for the suggestions – you’ve significantly expanded my Amazon wishlist!
    A few more:
    Waging war via remote control: Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman.
    The book from the man who coined the term ‘cyberspace': Neuromancer by William Gibson.
    A nanotech future: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (again)
    Genetic engineering run amok, among other things: The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood.

  4. And I almost forgot – some of the best SF I’ve read in a while – The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. Like LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a great tale about the importance and difficulty of understanding other cultures.

  5. Great suggestions, Rebecca; thanks!  And I especially agree about how Mary Doria Russell’s books are evocative of how well-meaning people can completely misunderstand a situation due to cross-cultural mis-cues.

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