Science fiction is an ideal genre for exploring politics. Sci-fi novels ask “what if?” questions about humanity and the future and these are perfect for exploring political issues. Our world is messy and difficult to understand, despite our attempts to use politics to understand it. It can be much easier to comprehend a political argument when the entire world can be reconfigured for that purpose. For these reasons, there is a rich history of sci-fi novels tackling political issues and below are five of my favourite.
But, before we get started, if you are interested in seeing me talk about some political non-fiction then watch this video from Claire Rousseau’s YouTube channel where I choose my favourite political non-fiction books:
Right, now onto the sci-fi novels:
Look To Windward by Iain M Banks (2000)
Iain M Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels had to appear on this list and it was difficult to choose one. Look To Windward is one of my favourite of the nine novels that Banks wrote in his utopian Culture universe. These are sci-fi stories that show what humanity is capable of, and that we can rise up from the hatred and greed that stains our world.
Set after the Idiran-Culture war that was the focus of Banks’s first culture novel, Look To Windward is a profound meditation on the effects of war. Banks’s work (both sci-fi as Iain M Banks and literary as Iain Banks) is always overtly political and asks a lot of interesting questions. What makes this book (and the other Culture novels) so effective is the political debates are summed well by characters voicing different views that never come across as lecturing the reader.
The Uplift War by David Brin (1987)
Politics has rarely been done on such a galactic scale as in David Brin’s Uplift novels. These are not so much novels about exploring politics in our world through the prism of science fiction, but novels about how politics might work in the future. After humanity makes contact with alien civilizations we discover the fact that we evolved without the guidance of another race is abhorrent to most other civilizations in the galaxy, who were raised to sentience through a process called Uplift.
The novel takes place on Garth, a human colony that is invaded by an alien species who hate humans because of our origins. What follows is not just a military conflict over Garth, but a political one as humans use diplomacy, espionage, subterfuge and guerrilla warfare to hold onto Garth. Brin’s novels explores how politics would work between different species and all the complexities that entails.
Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh (1981)
If space exploration was a commercial venture than war between Earth and the stars would be motivated by profit. Such a war is the background to Cherryh’s seminal sci-fi novel set on a station that is 12 light years from Earth, which rebels against the wealthy Earth Company that has a monopoly on space colonization.
Many great science fiction TV shows and films owe a huge debt to Earth Company, not least Babylon 5, another show that deals with diplomacy in space. The politics of this novel are much more corporate than the others on this list, but it is still a hugely engaging sci-fi novel.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
Ursula K. Le Guin is well known as a great writer of political science fiction. Her Hainish Cycle books ask many daring “what if?” questions about humanity. Le Guin is an expert in describing the different routes humanity could have taken, which makes the point that so many of the exploitative power relationships of our world did not come about because they are natural but because we chose to go down this road. If unequal power relationships are not natural then we choose to perpetuate them, and if we choose to perpetuate them then we can choose to stop them.
The plot of the Dispossessed touches on many political themes from when it was written (published in 1974), such as the rivalry between a capitalist patriarchal state and an authoritarian communism. It also looks at anarchist societies as an alternative to the authoritarian communism practiced by the USSR. Le Guin is a great writer and her gift with language brings these debates to life. This novel is a must read for sci-fi fans and those interested in politics.
The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig (2014)
There are many science fiction stories that explore the power dynamics of our world through a fictional one. The Fire Sermon is a great book about how those with power use it oppress those without. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where every woman gives birth to twins, one strong Alpha and a weaker Omega, the novel follows Cass, an Omega, trying to find her way in a world ruled by brutal Alphas. The sci-fi analogy of a society divided between weak and strong is a great way to explore the power dynamics of racism, sexism and homophobia.
The Fire Sermon is also a powerfully written book. Cass and her twin Zach, who becomes powerful in Alpha society, are well realised characters that sum up the power dynamic of the book. Author Francesca Haig is also an academic who studies Holocaust poetry and she has brought her knowledge of the darkest aspects of power dynamics to this incredibly engrossing sci-fi novel.
Those are my choices. Let me know what political sci-fi novels you enjoyed in the comments below.