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Voting And Speculative Fiction

I don’t see democracy held up in fantasies or in science fiction as The Answer to the ills of the world. Rather, it seems as if democracy is not an option or it has led to a despotic take over, a la Rome or, in modern times, Germany. The Answer to the ills of society seems instead to be either the benevolent rule of a King or hero, or the anarchy of the individual.

I can’t remember a fantasy in which the governmental structure is democratic. In fact, I can’t think of a science fiction, either, but my reading in that field is limited, so that doesn’t say a lot.

This lack of democracy in fantasy shouldn’t be surprising. After all, epic fantasy hearkens back to Medieval days when the feudal system was firmly in place. Rule of law was created, administrated, and adjudicated by the king and his representatives. No one voted for his rule.

Urban fantasy, dystopian, or apocalyptic fantasy seem predicated on either anarchy or tyrannical despotism. Much of science fiction seems so inclined as well. The Star Trek series might be an exception. Apparently the Federation of Planets has some form of democracy because they have a President, as I recall.

Still, I don’t recall anyone ever voting. There are coup attempts and military councils, and certainly the rule of law is considered sacred (think, “Prime Directive”), but I don’t recall any campaigning or political debate or voting!

What does that say about democracy and what does it say about speculative literature?

Is democracy too tame for novels? I mean, when a political party disagreed with an election outcome in recent US history, the matter was settled by the US Supreme Court, not by an epic battle fought with swords and spears.

Perhaps democracy is the “holy grail” of governance. For years the US has painted it as such, standing against dictatorships in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and during the Cold War, the USSR.

Consequently, democracy would be the condition for which characters might strive, not that under which they labor.

But I don’t see democracy held up in fantasies or in science fiction as The Answer to the ills of the world. Rather, it seems as if democracy is not an option or it has led to a despotic take over, a la Rome or, in modern times, Germany.

The Answer to the ills of society seems instead to be either the benevolent rule of a King or hero, or the anarchy of the individual. Is democracy a failed experiment, then? Or is it simply lacking in the kind of conflict that makes for a good speculative story?

What does an absence of democracy say about speculative fiction? First, it appears that speculative fiction, if providing commentary about the world, disregards democracy as the true ruling force. Perhaps it speaks to the greater world than that which we experience physically, which, in my estimation, makes it True.

But perhaps speculative fiction’s commentary on democracy is that it is an interim state, a way stop between monarchy and dictatorship. Perhaps speculative fiction is mired in a hopelessness for this world to solve the problems of this world. But that, too, would seem to reflect Truth.

Of course, having said that, I immediately think of Star Wars which seems to find hope in the defeat of greedy power. Undoubtedly there are other stories of like kind. Evil loses, good—defined as a collection of people fighting evil—wins.

This question then comes to mind: is speculative fiction less concerned with portraying good than it is the fight against evil?

What are your thoughts?

I’ll conclude with this: those of you in the US, please vote tomorrow if you haven’t already voted early. Whatever you think about democracy in speculative fiction, it is the current law of the land, and consequently it’s my contention that we Christians have a responsibility to be involved in the process.

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Kerry Nietz
Member

I don’t recall that I’ve seen anyone vote in a science fiction context either, though both the Republic of Star Wars and the Federation of Star Trek seem to be, at some level, democratic. We rarely see anyone read in fiction either, but let’s hope that doesn’t mean that the future is illiteracy.
That said, it is undeniably the case that in the course of human history, democracy is an aberration. It rarely happens, and when it does, it doesn’t happen for very long. Human nature tends toward servitude. If it isn’t servitude to governmental power, it is to selfishness. I think that’s why John Adams said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
All the more reason to exercise our right to vote while it exists.

Paul Lee
Member

One science fiction TV series that featured visible democracy is Babylon 5.  The government of Earth is portrayed like an extrapolation from current American politics, with an elected President.  Of course, the government is shown to be corrupt and manipulative.  I don’t think the intent was to imply that democracy itself is bad, but it definitely isn’t a positive portrayal of modern democracy, either.

Sarah Parks
Member

In Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles (tween/teen fantasy) — spoilers! — the victory of the “good” or “mostly good” forces results in a diplomatic council (a la the UN, though hopefully more effective) between the various species, where each representative has a single vote. 

In The Hunger Games (young adult sci-fi), the dystopian government has a president, and while he is certainly evil and willing to manipulate politics to get what he wants, it appears that there is something of a democratic process to elect leaders. In the last book — spoilers! — that government is replaced by what is presumably a more just democracy, as there is a new president. 
 

Kessie Carroll
Member

I think fiction always deals with What If. What if our democracy collapsed? What if an Evil Empire ruled the galaxy? What if Islam took over and only Imams had access to the good technology?
 
I mean, if you’re gonna write a story, you want to write about Bad Stuff Happening. Right now, our democracy is working pretty well (there are always things that need fixing). As my father in law pointed out, America is one of the only nations where we can have a major regime change without bloodshed. That’s not fun to write about in speculative, although the political thrillers have a field day. Look at Ted Dekker’s Blink. All about modern politics.
 
So I do think folks write about politics. I imagine there’s books out there involving voting and all the chaotic fun of that. There’s just not many in the teeny tiny bubble of Christian spec fic. 🙂

Galadriel
Guest

You’re right–well, the Doctor gets elected President of Gallifrey(twice) in the Classic TV series, but that was a spur-of-the-moment attempt to avoid execution.   The Time Lords have rule of law, but it seems to be based on ancestry, perhaps more of an obligarchy

Austin Gunderson
Member

One of the central protagonists in Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy wrestles with the perpetual question of politics: Which is more important – freedom or security?  His conclusions provide valuable insight into the mind of a leader who possesses intentions both good and short-sighted.

The problem with democracy is that it isn’t very conducive for “getting things done.”  This perennial pet peeve of those who want the Parties to “just work together” is actually a huge plus for our style of government.  A system that pits people against each other at every turn is a system not easily hijacked by those advocating a radical agenda.  Yet it’s also a system in conducive 

Austin Gunderson
Member

Gah!  Why do I hit “submit” before I’m through?

Anyway …

One of the central protagonists in Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy wrestles with the perpetual question of politics: Which is more important – freedom or security?  His conclusions provide valuable insight into the mind of a leader who possesses intentions both good and short-sighted.

The problem with democracy is that it isn’t very conducive for “getting things done.”  This perennial pet peeve of those who want the Parties to “just work together” is actually a huge plus for our style of government.  A system that pits people against each other at every turn is a system not easily hijacked by those advocating a radical agenda.  Yet it’s also a sluggish system prone to logjams and generally ineffective when the time comes for swift, decisive action.  That’s why, I think, democracy is generally absent from speculative fiction: it’s represented by those stuffy deliberative bodies still cloistered in their council chambers while our heros take matters into their own hands.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Lol, I wrote my response and had it on the screen before you posted, or I would have just saved the time and agreed with you wholeheartedly.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Mostly because democracy is designed to counteract or slow radical change, and most speculative novels want radical change to happen. There’s also a love of the great man or expert; the single man or technocratic elite who by virtue of their superior intelligence bring new things into the world. Or a worry about that same elite. The bane of the speculative-minded is inefficiency, and democracy harnesses it into a positive force. 

Shannon McDermott
Guest

Democracy shifts power either downward, to the people, or sideways – to Parliament or Congress or free courts. By spreading power around, democracy dilutes it.

And that, I believe, is why we don’t often see it in fantasy or sci-fi. Speculative fiction naturally runs to the awesome concentration of power in despotisms and monarchies, because that is more dramatic. Emperors and kings do not have the limitations democracies impose on presidents. They can be so much more unilateral (and so much more dramatic!).

And speculative fiction loves big evil. Alien invasions! Space plagues! Sorcerers! Dragons! Absolutely corrupt people with absolute power!

Speculative fiction – fantasy especially – is also enamored with iconic good. And despots, both good and evil, serve that. When the government is corrupt and powerful … when the people have no chance of redress through elections, legislatures, or courts … when the government is not only evil but even illegitimate, having gained control through subversion or conquest … then the heroes can have all the daring of rebels and all the danger of outlaws – and still remain heroic.

Sometimes the kings are themselves the heroes. And then they are, in their own way, like the superheroes of pulp fiction – people who have great power and yet are good. I believe it was an Englishman who once said, “We flee from petty tyrants to the throne.”

And most of us are stirred by that. Usually the throne is where the big tyrant sits, but how wonderful it would be if it were our protector instead! Speculative fiction, in its benevolent monarchies, fulfills a great human ideal: the king who is our refuge.

Good topic, Becky. Thanks for the article.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I can’t remember a fantasy in which the governmental structure is democratic.

Becky, I’ve thought for a while that this needs to change. While I respect the origins of mythical fantasy, why should all the other nations and cultures — many of which are based in hereditary monarchy — claim exclusive dominance of fantastic cultures?

As many have said, science fiction seems to include many types of government.

Fantasy seems to be based mainly on monarchy, feudalism, and so on.

But of course, I think fantasy could use far fewer “lost orphan princes fight the villain who ravaged the land in order to become king” storylines. 😉

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

I can’t remember a fantasy in which the governmental structure is democratic.

That’s because you haven’t read my book. 😉  Of course, few have, because it’s not published yet.

Early on, one character says of a misbehaving politician, “I can’t believe I voted for him.” Later on, another character makes reference to a treaty calculated to boost the economy in an election year. The election doesn’t take place during the novel, but the heroine, a prophet, foresees the election results.

Also, although Mary E. Hall’s fantasy Amberly is set in a monarchy,  an anti-monarchy democracy movement figures prominently in the story. Mary sets up the monarchy/democracy debate in book one; whether it gets settled in future books remains to be seen, but she clearly shows there are no easy answers. That’s one of the things I loved about her book.
I think the main reason few fantasy novels are set in democracies is just because few fantasy novels are set in democracies. Monarchy, like orcs or dragons, becomes part of the expected “furniture” of the genre, and too few people think outside that box. Stephen is right that we need change. Or at least, we need less sameness and more different-ness.