The US presidential debates are eroding our souls, and the partisan mudslinging has only just begun. That’s why it’s time to escape into the world of the future, or alternate history, to see how truly twisted politics can get. Two new novels will take you there.
Austin Grossman, author of the melancholy gamer novel YOU, is back with Crooked (Mulholland Books), a weirdly depressing secret history of Richard Nixon’s political career. It turns out that the working class kid who grew up to be our country’s most despised president (well, other than Andrew Jackson) wasn’t just a power mad reactionary. He was also fighting a terrifying force of the demonic dead. Oh, and he was a spy for the Soviet Union.
What’s clever about the novel, recounted by Nixon years after faking his own death, is that Grossman has completely reimagined the Cold War as a Lovecraftian spy novel. To fight the forces of darkness, Nixon teams up with a group of Soviet spies who wind up being his only friends in a world where he is constantly lying–as a politician, but also as a secret warrior in the battle between the living and the dead. For a book about monsters, though, Crooked focuses less on reanimated bodies and X-Files-esque government experiments than it does on Nixon’s scarred sense of self.
Nixon knows he’s a fraud, and he hates himself for it. All of his political power comes from sorcery and betrayal. Even his first high-profile gig ferreting out commies for the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the 1950s is the result of a spell gone wrong, and a dark deal he cuts with the Soviets. Grossman gives us an unflinching look at what it feels like to utterly despise yourself for what you’ve done, to be aware of your own destructive lust for power, and to carry on with the horrorshow anyway.
And the most disturbing part? Even though he was elected via black magic, Nixon is still a kind of hero. He joins forces with one of the most powerful dark sorcerers the world has ever known (Henry Kissinger, of course) to rid both the US and the USSR of true malevolence. There’s a lot of sardonic humor in the retelling of Nixon’s career as a supernatural thriller, leading up to the ghoulish apocalypse of Watergate, But there’s also genuine insight into what motivates politicians, and how a lifetime spent clawing to get to the White House will drive people mad as surely as Cthulhu does.
Linda Nagata’s The Red is also about power-mad politicians in a time of war, but her futuristic tale is hyper-realistic. Still, many of the players in both novels are the same: They’re full of shady nation-states with dark alliances, and feature an otherworldly intelligence that seems to be pulling all the strings.
Nagata focuses on an elite group of soldiers known as LCS or “linked combat squad,” who wear robotic exosuits and networked brain implants to fight whatever group the politicians are calling “insurgents” this week. The Red is the first book in a trilogy that gained a big following as a self-published e-book, and is now out in paper from Saga. It introduces us to reluctant hero Shelley, a former anti-war activist who chooses to join the military rather than serve jail time after being arrested at a protest.
Once Shelley learns to use his smart armor and gets fitted with an EEG skull cap that eases the trauma of battle, he discovers to his surprise that he’s well-suited to the military. He’s the kind of good soldier who is a staple of military SF, a person who would give his life for his comrades, and who genuinely wants to improve the lives of people in the unnamed African country where his unit is deployed.
Shelley and his LCS team just want to keep the peace. The problem is corporate magnate Thelma Sheridan, an Alaska weapons magnate with incredible political influence. As long as there is war, she gets richer. So she does everything in her power to keep global conflicts going strong–including secretly funding militia-style groups who want the South to secede from the US.
But there’s another power in play too, which Shelley and a few carefully-chosen military insiders know only as “the Red.” Using subtle cues sent via computer networks, and not-so-subtle emotional signals that arrive directly in Shelley’s skullcap, the Red is influencing the course of events. It saves Shelley’s life repeatedly, by giving him early warning when there are incoming hostiles. But the Red also appears to be influencing many people’s lives, steering them into careers they’re best suited for, or pushing them to make better decisions by feeding them carefully-curated information.
Is the Red an emergent AI? A group of secret do-gooders? An alien intelligence that wants to save humanity from itself? Mostly, it appears to have prosocial motivations. But it’s awfully hard to tell what its endgame is. And Thelma Sheridan is desperate to control it.
The Red delivers intense action, leavened by a genuinely sympathetic portrait of soldiers caught up in battles they never chose. Best of all are Nagata’s well-informed representations of future military tech. This is hard science fiction at its finest, full of devices like bionic limbs, exosuits, autonomous drones, and brain implants that are being developed in labs today. But you’ve never seen them like this, at play in a realistic field of battle, controlled by people you actually care about.
But Nagata doesn’t just deliver good tech porn and leave it at that. She explores all the unexpected ways that this tech would actually be used. Shelley’s skullcap and implants, for example, allow the military to see everything he’s seeing and feeling. They can also sell Shelley’s feeds to the highest bidder, which they do in order to create a reality TV series promoting the military.
So Shelley has become a pawn in a PR game, as well as a political game. And the Red seems to be playing along, helping bring Shelley to the right place at the right time to get the perfect shots of explosions and feats of courage.
Nagata gives us a refreshingly nuanced perspective on how the military actually runs. But she also gives us a fascinating glimpse of how today’s “war by remote” politics might evolve in the future. Meanwhile, Grossman’s Crooked gives us a deliciously weird look at our recent political history. These novels are perfect palate cleansers after you’ve gagged your way through another political attack ad.