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…