Sci-fi for wonks

As any readers (do I have those?) may have guessed, I’ve become a bit of a political junkie. Cast your eye through the audience of concerned citizens at a City Council meeting and you can easily pick them out: scribbling notes for a possible post to pitch to one of the big Toronto blogs; tapping out tweets on their iPhone or scrolling through the #TOpoli hashtag; typing away on a netbook. It’s totally new to me—until three months ago, I’d never even set foot in City Hall, and when it comes to urban affairs I am not very well-read. Well, unless you count science fiction. There’s a lot of political sf—and some of that you could even call policy wonk sf. Here’s what I would put on a wonks’ reading list:

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Mathematician Hari Seldon pioneers the science of “psychohistory”, which can predict the long-term future of societies, but is suppressed by the Powers That Be. The Foundation he creates grows immensely in power as it uses technology to shape the course of history. The Foundation series is a classic example of science fiction that’s conceptually brilliant but stylistically plodding, so not everyone’s cup of tea. Among the many people it influenced is wonk extraordinaire Paul Krugman, who cites it as the reason he went into economics.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga (1986-present)

This long-running series, which combines military sf, political intrigue, and space opera, centres on Miles Vorkosigan — a diminutive, hyperactive, physically disabled nobleman-turned-mercenary-turned-diplomat. Born into the militaristic, feudal culture of the planet Barrayar (to a mother from freewheeling Beta Colony), Miles compensates for his lack of physical prowess with his ability to talk himself into (and out of) anything. And thanks to his aristocratic connections to Barrayar’s Imperial family, he often finds himself in the middle of high-stakes political plots. Bujold is a smart, witty writer who handles humour and deep psychological themes equally well. I’m reading my way through the series now and enjoying it very much.

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996)

Wolfe is one of the most gifted writers in the genre, and his take on the classic generation starship story (where after many years the passengers forget the outside world and end up worshipping the ship’s computer or whatever) is profound and unique. In the city of Viron in the vast “starcrosser” Whorl, a priest from an impoverished neighbourhood finds out that his manteion (church) has been sold off to a wealthy gangster (who, no doubt, is going to build upscale condos). A divine epiphany commanding him to save his manteion causes him to take drastic measures. He ends up leading a popular uprising against the Ayuntamiento, the deeply corrupt city council, and (eventually) delivering the citizens of Viron to their new planet. There’s also robots, blasters, prostitutes, animal sacrifice, lesbian legionaries, exorcisms, airships, gods, and the nastiest city councillors this side of Mammoliti, but it would all take too long to explain. It’s also deeply and unashamedly Christian, but more like Lord of the Rings than Narnia. Just read it.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998)

In a Toronto devastated by economic collapse, the government and everyone else with the means have moved to the suburbs, leaving the downtown core a postapocalpytic urban wilderness. While enterprising denizens farm in Allan Gardens, eat squirrel meat, and take over running the libraries, hired thugs lurk in the shadows seeking to kidnap people for their organs…and even more sinister rituals take place at the top of the CN Tower. Young mother Ti-Jeanne, who leaves her no-good boyfriend to live with her grandmother at Riverdale Farm (RIVERDALE FARM!), must master spiritual warfare to save her family from zombies. And stuff.

This was Hopkinson’s first novel and it’s flawed as first novels tend to be, but no Torontonian—especially on the East Side—should pass this up. Even if it hits a little close to home lately.

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Evil killer robots from outer space, who rebelled against their human creators long ago, come back and bomb the shit out of the planets called the Twelve Colonies. Only some 50,000 humans survive due to being in space at the time, including aboard the titular battleship. The first season in particular deals with the political fallout: the highest-ranking member of the government left is Laura Roslin, the Secretary of Education who is now automatically the President and must go from resolving teachers’ strikes to, you know, defending humanity against evil killer robots and finding a new place to live.

In subsequent episodes BSG explores resource shortages, labour strikes, the uneasy balance of power between Roslin’s administration and the military, ethically sketchy interrogations, a terrorist getting elected to public office, martial law, black market economy, abortion law, and presidential elections. Among other things. Political junkies will have a ball. Personally I think the series goes downhill after the end of Season 2 and didn’t even bother watching season 4, but your mileage may vary.

Stuff I just thought of but am too lazy to recap because I’m going to an election party soon:

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (2006). Cozy English murder mystery in a world where Britain made peace with Nazi Germany. First book in the “Small Change” series.
  • Star Trek: DS9 (1993-1999). Do I even have to mention this?
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (1998). Parable of the Sower‘s brutally depressing sequel. A new religious movement struggles to survive in a dystopian America where the Tea Party won.

What I’m Reading, #24-26

#21-23 will take a little while longer to write up.

24. Samuel Delany, Babel-17/Empire Star

I like my Sapir-Whorf hypotheses like I like my coffee: very strong!…no? Tough crowd. What I like about Delany is how central poetry and song and storytelling are to him. Poetry doesn’t seem really important nowadays, at least to me. You can’t make a living as a poet or anything. But in Delany’s stories (and maybe especially in Babel-17) poetry is vitally relevant. Rydra Wong, as a poet, can see the world in a different and valuable way, and her work makes a tremendous difference to people.

I liked Babel-17 well enough but preferred the convoluted timeline of Empire Star, which follows a boy coming of age and ascending in consciousness, and in which there’s fewer characters than first appear to be.

25. Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

In a postapocalyptic Sudan where magic coexists with (sparse, deteriorating) technology, a “child of violence” is destined to reshape her society. Brutal and uncompromising. Fills my head with vivid unearthly colours. The prose could be better, but it gets the job done.

(I have many more thoughts about this book, but they’re kitchen-table thoughts, not impersonal-Internet thoughts.)

26. Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

Enjoyable but not terribly memorable. Miles solves a mystery while he and Ivan are on a diplomatic mission to the heart of the Cetagandan empire, which is ruled by a genetic elite—ruled, in turn, by women working behind the scenes. I laughed out loud at “I don’t think it was ripe, Ivan.” I wondered if Bujold even knew about epicene pronouns.

One interesting aspect is how Miles uses disability stereotypes to fly under the radar—or, if you’d like, cover his ass:

“You would have taken the investigation away from me, you know you would have, sir. Everyone in the wormhole nexus thinks I’m a cripple who’s been given a cushy nepotistic sinecure as a courier. That I might be competent for more is something Lieutenant Vorkosigan would never, in the ordinary course of events, ever be given a chance to prove.”

Sadly, the library system has only one copy of the next book, Ethan of Athos, so it seems that I’m not going to be continuing the series for a while.

What I’m Reading

These three books were published together as Young Miles (1997); Warrior’s Apprentice and The Mountains of Mourning are available from the Baen Free Library.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Warrior’s Apprentice (1986)

After spectacularly failing the military entrance exams, Miles creates his own mercenary company out of chutzpah and sheer bullshit. Far-fetched almost to the point of contrivance, as a caper should be. A cracking good read except for a few bits that I expect will always make me cringe. (I’m thinking of the treatment of a non-binary-gendered minor character here, who is referred to with a quaintly bigoted term and dehumanizing, if not outright hostile [and thankfully rarely used] pronouns. I know it’s ignorance, not malice, but still.)

Warrior’s Apprentice had some very dark parts, of course, but it’s hard not to be carried along by Miles’s “forward momentum”—an irrepressible confidence that he can talk his way out of (or into) anything.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Mountains of Mourning (1989)

But it’s a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation.

I confess that as I read this novella, in which Miles is sent out to the backcountry to investigate the murder of a disabled newborn—I was dreading that it would go an entirely different way. Can you blame me? Eugenicist sympathies pervade even the most genteel liberal milieus, in our world and even Bujold’s half-parodied, half-idealized Beta Colony (where parents require permits to have children, and disabled fetuses are routinely aborted if they can’t be made “normal” with galactic-standard medicine). Which is why I was both relieved and frustrated by the end, where Miles proposes that a primary school be founded in the hill-country, because a little elementary education will end centuries of infanticide—and more importantly the motives for infanticide. Really?

Lest anyone think I’ve stamped a giant red “PROBLEMATIC!” label on the entire Vorkosigan saga and am boycotting it from here on out—well, no. I think Bujold’s treatment of disability is extremely interesting thus far, the failures and successes alike. For example, the discrepancies between her depictions of physical and mental disabilities are thought-provoking. And that the series is centred around a disabled hero and thus issues of ableism, disability, and the body take centre stage is remarkable in its own right.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Vor Game (1990)

After graduating from the Imperial Military Academy, Miles gets a posting on a remote, frozen island to learn subordination. Instead he ends up getting arrested for mutiny, then sent off to regain control of the Dendarii Mercenaries and avert an interplanetary war. (And rescue a very important hostage and outwit a villain nearly as fiendishly manipulative as himself.) Enjoyable, but I couldn’t help feeling that the MilSF-style cozy murder mystery The Vor Game was shaping up to be would have been just as fun.

What I’m Reading

Shards of Honor (1986), Barrayar (1991), Lois McMaster Bujold

…collected as Cordelia’s Honor (1996). Why yes, I hadn’t read any of the Vorkosigan books till now, and now I’m kicking myself. Shards of Honor centres around my weakness, Sensible Middle-Aged People Romance; Barrayar is political intrigue that builds to some truly badass action. Disability is very much present and important, which I’m not used to seeing in fiction.

The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee (2010)

A young Aniw spiritwalker is taken captive by the colonist-descended Ciracusans, who hope to use her powers in their nascent war against the overseas nation of Sairland (Britain to their America). From part of a review that I may or may not finish or publish, this book is “a rarity: a novel featuring a frontier setting and an indigenous protagonist, thoughtfully exploring a side of colonialism that is generally invisibilized.” I’d classify it as Weird North. My only gripe is that it feels more like half of a longer work truncated for publication rather than a complete novel with a cliffhanger ending.