Click to viewWe asked six political pundits, including Andrew Sullivan and DailyKos' Markos Moulitsas, to pick one piece of science fiction that you must read or watch before stepping into the voting booth next month. After all, science fiction often deals with some of the biggest what-ifs and alternate futures imaginable. So we couldn't imagine any better preparation for participating in democracy than six science fiction classics, as chosen by the experts. The pundit: Markos Moulitsas (DailyKos) What they recommended: "Franchise" by Isaac Asimov.
What it's about: This 1955 story is part of Asimov's "Multivac" series of stories. In the futuristic world of 2008, the United States has become an "electronic democracy." Multivac, the super-computer, chooses one lucky person to be "voter of the year." This person, Norman Muller, answers a series of questions and the computer uses those to decide what the results of an election would have been, if an election had happened. Why is this good election-season material? Moulitsas tells io9:
We live in a world that has accepted 1984's doublespeak as part and parcel of the political process. But that's too easy and cliched and answer. So how about Asimov's "Franchise"? A single voter, chosen by computer, decides the election, and he's proud that the citizens got to make their voice heard through him, except, of course, that everyone else didn't get to vote. Consider the modern political campaign, with robo polls which proclaim the electorate's choice after a few hundred responses, and robo calls and electronic voting machines and all that stuff, and maybe someone can torture out an analogy. In reality, this election season has been stranger than any fiction imaginable.
The pundit: Andrew Sullivan (Atlantic Monthly) What they recommended: Wall-E What it's about: In this Pixar animated movie, the human race has abandoned the garbage-strewn Earth, and our childlike descendants now live on a space liner, laying on floating barcaloungers and having all their needs met by robots. One garbage-compacting robot remains functional on Earth, and he discovers a single piece of vegetation, proving that the planet can still support life.
Why is this good election-season material? Sullivan didn't elaborate, but Wall-E is rife with political allegory. You can read it as a simple environmentalist fable about the dangers of mass consumption and unsustainable living. You can see it as a warning against the "nanny state" which would try to take care of all our needs and save us from getting our hands dirty. You can see it as an admonishment to be curious about the world we live in and how we got here. The pundit: Jonah Goldberg (National Review Online) What they recommended: Angel, season four. What it's about: An extra-dimensional being (played by Gina Torres) appears on Earth, and everyone who sees her becomes totally devoted to her and starts to worship her. She brings peace and prosperity, and only Angel's friend Fred can see that she's really a hideous monster.
Why is this good election-season material? Goldberg tells io9:
In the story, the world is mesmerized by a god from another dimension played by a charismatic black woman who truly does bring universal peace and love to the planet. Her only price: we all must worship her (and provide her with a statistically irrelevant number of humans to eat) and unify around our love for her. I don't think Obama is evil or a villain of any kind. But the lesson is pretty valid. Obama is the high priest of a cult of unity. Unity can be useful, but it is also very, very dangerous. That's why the founders conceived of a system of divided government, after all.
The pundit: Amanda Marcotte (Pandagon) What they recommended: Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid's Tale.
What it's about: This Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel takes place in a future dystopian U.S. governed by religious fundamentalists. Women are no longer allowed to learn to read. Because of declining fertility, fertile women (like the main character Offred) are turned into "handmaids," whose only job is to bear children for wealthy couples. Why is this good election-season material? Says Marcotte:
It probably sounds a little trite since it gets referenced so much, but in light of the promotion of a true-believer fundamentalist to a national ticket, I have to recommend Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. It's not just because it's a dystopia that shows what America would be like under a Christian theocracy, but also because the book brilliantly skewers other aspects of the right-wing culture. You have the female misogynist Serena Joy that finds out the hard way that she isn't exempt from the category 'woman' just because she was a stalwart soldier for the far right. You also are reminded that the conservative men who carry on about sexual morality in public all too often have their own closet full of secrets. The book is a reminder that right wing politics isn't so much about 'values', but about power and control.
The pundit: Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) What they recommended: Vernor Vinge, Rainbow's End.
What it's about: It's 2025, and enhanced reality is everywhere. People use contact lenses to interact with computer-generated artifacts, and people use "silent messaging" to communicate ubiquitously. Poet Robert Gu rediscovers this world after his Alzheimer's disease is cured, and gets drawn into a world of conspiracies and bioterrorism. And because everything in our lives is run by computer systems, including our cars, it's super vulnerable to hackers — especially artificially intelligent hackers. Why is this good election-season material? Says Reynolds:
It describes a near-future that seems to be getting safer as it is actually growing more dangerous. I think it is a must-read.
The pundit: Kevin Drum (Mother Jones) What they recommended: Frederik Pohl, The Merchants' War.
What it's about: Pohl's 1984 sequel to his 1955 collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants. In the first book, the Earth is basically taken over by advertising agencies, and we follow one exec who is trying to sell people on the idea of emigrating to Venus. In the sequel, it's 100 years later, and we follow Tenny, an exec who's addicted to Mokie-Koke and stuck marketing "intangibles," meaning religion and political candidates. But it turns out Tenny's boss is really a Venusian agent who wants to take over the Earth government and cause an economic depression on Earth, so Earth will leave Venus alone. Why is this good election-season material? Drum tells io9: "If you don't think it's about modern politics, read it again." He later elaborated on his own blog, noting that real-life political consultants have been developing "endorphin branding," the use of scents at political events, to create a positive emotional experience linked to a candidate. The scent "can be reintroduced at a later time to trigger and recreate the desired response." Writes Drum:
A few days ago an editor asked me which science fiction book I'd suggest people read before the election. I recommended Fred Pohl's The Merchant Wars. It probably seemed an odd choice, but here's an excerpt:
New York, New York!....I saw a miraculously clear stretch of sidewalk....I walked past — and WOWP a blast of sound shook my skull and FLOOP a great supernova flare of light burned my eyes, and I went staggering and reeling as tiny, tiny elf voices shouted like needles in my ear Mokie-Koke, Mokie-Koke, MokieMokieMokie-Koke! ...."I warned ya," yelled the little old man from a safe distance....He was still waving the signpost, so I staggered closer and blearily managed to deciper the legend under the graffiti: Warning! COMMERCIAL ZONE Enter at Own Risk ...."What's a 'Mokie-Coke'?" I asked.....There was a vending machine, just like all the other Mokie-Koke machines I'd been seeing all along, on the Moon, in the spaceport, along the city streets. "Don't fool with the singles" he advised anxiously. "Go for the six-pack, okay?"....Poor old guy! I felt so sorry for him that I split the six-pack as we headed for the address the Agency had given me. Three shots apiece. He thanked me with tears in his eyes but, all the same, out of the second six-pack I only gave him one. ...."Dr. Mosskristal will review your medical problem for you." And the tone said bad news...."What you have," she explained, "is a Campbellian reflex. Named after Dr. H.J. Campbell. Famous pioneering psychologist in the old days, inventor of limbic-pleasure therapy."...."Let's just say that you've had your limbic areas stimulated; under the influence of that great upwelling of pleasure you've become conditioned to associate Mokie-Koke with joy, and there's nothing to be done about it."
Doesn't seem quite so much like science fiction after reading about endorphin branding, does it?