I’ve said before that, for a genre that so often finds its writers dealing with big political ideas, relatively few science fiction authors demonstrate any sense that they have a clue about how politics really works. This leads to things like the sci-fi revolution and improbable conspiracies (sci-fi governments are good at keeping secrets, real governments are crap – politics is a career for people who love talking) and half-arsed characterisation.
For someone who has been a political activist and worked on the edges of politics, uninformed ranting about politics sometimes makes me despair.
Not, of course that sf writers are alone in this. Politics is one of those things – like music, art and sport – where the fantastically incapable, the never-bothered-trying and the wilfully ignorant feel perfectly happy in putting forth opinions that the expect to be taken seriously and pass judgements on those who have devoted time and effort to developing skills and experience in the area.
People are entitled express their opinions – before anyone accuses me of siding with the experts against the plebs in the ongoing debate about professional versus amateur critics – in a democracy, people have the absolute right to complain about politics and politicians (and bands, artists and footballers) but opinions carry more weight when people bother to back up them up with research and experience and a modicum of intelligent thought.
It is, therefore, a matter of delight for me to come across writing that at least skims the outer precincts of credibility when it deals with politics. Recently I’ve read Sixty Days And Counting, the last book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capitol” trilogy and Ken Macleod’s The Execution Channel (which I’ll come back to that in a future post). Both men are more than capable of getting the political part of their writing absolutely right – though both come from quite different angles.
Robinson has an honourable record of wrapping speculative fiction around the individual and ideological conflicts that make up politics. The thing that, for example, the Mars Trilogy never loses sight of is that politics isn’t some machine that churns out governments and laws and rules – it is a personal business where individual personalities and individual relationships make a difference. That’s my experience of the actual work of politics. It is neither the implacable working through of the forces of history and economics – although those surely place constraints on actions – nor the overwhelming agency of “great men” that drives political change – though, again, very strong characters can have a disproportionate influence. But flowing around and through both are the patterns of cooperation and conflict between wonks, advisors, commentators, activists, journalists, pressure groups and the like. Individual characters and personal relationships can have a dramatic effect on how policy develops.
Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy gets a lot of this right. The two main characters – Charlie and Frank – are policy wonks of one type or another. Charlie is a political advisor to Phil Chase, the man who will eventually become US President. That makes Charlie a very important man – very few people are lucky enough to have access to politicians at the highest level. Normally in fiction (both the stuff that’s printed in novels and the stuff that’s printed in newspapers) such advisors are Machiavellian fixers, power-crazed madmen and Peter Mandelson. Robinson, therefore, does something rare by making Charlie an ordinary guy with a family and a life and a genuine interest in doing good – which, hard though it may be to believe, is the basic starting point for almost everyone in politics – even most of the ones you disagree with. Charlie’s journey through the novel is a shift from the conventional, aspirational Western lifestyle to a more green, more wild way of living – as personified in his baby son whose untamed wildness Charlie first frets over then, when removed, longs for its return.
Frank is the more unsettled personality. A scientist he has been unable to find peace in a world which he struggles to make fit to his empiricist worldview. Eventually, through engagement with a Buddhist sect driven from their drowned Asian home and the discovery of the work of American naturalist/philosopher/anarchist Henry Thoreau, Frank comes to adopt a more spiritual view of the world that enables him to (via a detour through a dangerous romance, spy story shenanigans and plot to overthrow democracy) come to terms with his life.
If there’s a weakness in Robinson’s trilogy it is that he can’t extend the humanism of Frank and Charlie to their opponents. Those who oppose the environmental agenda at the heart of the book do so because they are stupid or venal or downright evil. There’s no one in the trilogy who is allowed to present a contrary view from a position of honestly held differences in perspective.
Of course Robinson might argue that looking at the facts on global warming and environmental damage, there’s no room for honest dissension – that only one viewpoint can be regarded as reasonable. But, because we never have that argument within the books, the reader is denied the opportunity to be wholly convinced. And by making the main “villains” so one-dimensionally black-hatted, Robinson risks being accused of creating only straw men.
Worse, though, is the way the Washington trilogy teeters on the edge of saccharin liberal wish-fulfilment. All his protagonists are a little too earnest and too utterly without sin. And their leader, the honest, courageous, incorruptible President Chase also happens to be handsome and witty. There are echoes of The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett (although to be fair, Robinson’s president isn’t quite as impossibly wise as Bartlett) and even Frank Capra’s Mr Smith.
Yet, despite these flaws, the Washington trilogy is immensely enjoyable. It takes real political issues and engages with them with considerable thoughtfulness and dramatic flourish. Robinson is a very fine writer and he crafts a wide range of interesting characters even from those who might, elsewhere, have been mere window-dressing (the ex-girlfriend, the children, the Buddhist monks). It takes the mechanism of politics – the meetings, the turf-wars, the personalities – the working process that Bismarck described as being “the art of the possible” – and uses it as the backdrop for a high-stakes thriller.
The Washington trilogy is immensely optimistic. It believes that concerted efforts to rectify our current plight are possible and that they can be done before the deluge, rather than waiting for disaster then jamming our fingers in the dyke. That, in itself, is a radical statement of Robinson’s belief in the potential of politics. There is no shortage of writers who take for granted the failure of our current democratic systems and plenty too who relish the prospect of the tabula rasa that may come after.
Robinson has far more faith in his fellow man than the great majority of sf writers.