As I write this, it’s June of 2017, which means that I’ve spent at least the last 18 months preoccupied with politics at a level that I’d never matched before; and I was pretty preoccupied with politics before. But now, for me and big chunks of the rest of the country, it’s saturation level.
In this headspace, I reread Dune recently and started thinking about how often I see it cited as a novel that has things to say about politics. And to me, that’s a really interesting question to poke at. Can a book about future feudalism and giant sandworms really help us understand actual nuts-and-bolts politics in our mundane world? Looking beyond Dune, what about other novels that get mentioned as “political?” Is it that crazy to look to fiction for insight when we appear to be living out a William Gibson rewrite of the Johnny Gentle stuff from Infinite Jest?
So, then, here’s my overview of books I’ve read recently(-ish) with a “political” reputation. Looking at it, I’m keenly aware that it skews towards books by men, and science fiction. For the former, that’s definitely a problem; I’ve actively been trying for a couple of years to read more books by women, but it’s a case of a few years of active effort taking a long time to counteract the sausage party that results from decades of reading guided by systemic sexism. And for the latter, hey, no regrets: science fiction is a perfectly cromulent area of fiction.
With that in mind:
Dune, Frank Herbert
As I mentioned above, Dune has a reputation for being a political novel. But is it, really? The book’s largely about schemes and counterschemes (I think you could argue that Dune Messiah is more actively concerned with politics, or with a mixture of politics and its close cousin governance); the action consists of a move, a sneak attack, an escape, and then years of acculturation and training before a battle. But insight into politics does undergird all of this. Most especially, Paul Atreides’ realization that having the power to destroy a resource gives you control over it is an apt crystallization of a real principle from strategic power politics (CHOAM is modeled after OPEC, after all). Along the same lines, the discussion of the three-legged nature of the Imperial power structure, where the interests and capacities of the Imperial army, the combined armies of the Landsraad League, and the economic power of the Spacing Guild all press against each other to create a roughly stable equilibrium is another good demonstration of a real-world strategic power politics situation. Moreover, Duke Leto’s exhausted dismissal of his own use of propaganda to win public loyalty doubles as an nice observation of the power of cultivated image (especially when contrasted with the just-below-the-surface examination of how the Harkonnens propagandize their own population in the chapter where Feyd-Rautha fights in the arena). This look at propaganda extends into a discussion of loyalty and how it is earned.
Overall, Dune winds up having a lot of good nuggets that may or may not add up to anything useful; it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump reading Dune and coming out of it any better at his job.
A Song of Ice and Fire (series), George R.R. Martin
I understand (and share) many of the frustrations and qualms about Martin’s series. But the fact remains that, buried in the thousands of pages of text are a great many astute observations about power, persuasion, and governance. The two core goals of the series are an examination of political systems and a deconstruction of standard fantasy tropes (I’d argue that the TV series retained both of these more or less by accident for a while, in greatly watered-down form, before just ditching them in the name of streamlining into an action-adventure narrative).