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).
More than anything, Martin’s books are obsessed with political legitimacy (in at least two senses- looking at you, Joffrey! ZING!). The books are packed with multiple examinations of what gives a ruler power. The uniting theme comes from Varys’ fable about the king, the priest, and the rich man all locked in a room with a mercenary; power and legitimacy are a moving target, subject to the exigencies of a moment. Whoever can convince the apparatus of government (the mercenary, in the fable) that they’re the ones in charge is in fact in charge, whether their argument is based on constitutional or institutional rules, the use of force, corruption, or whatever. This naturally means many examinations of the nature of loyalty, which is as much a Martin obsession as it is for Herbert.
The sprawling nature of the series gives Martin ample chances to game out political parables. Thus, we get to see Ned Stark’s stupid trust in rules and institutions get him killed, and get to see Cersei Lannister misgovern herself into oblivion once she has successfully removed all of the institutional safeguards around her that were holding her book (that chunk of A Feast for Crows should scare the piss out of anyone living in the United States in 2017, by the way). The Meereen sections of book five make no sense unless they’re looked at as an examination of Daenerys’ abilities to thread the needle of pleasing (or minimally pissing off) a series of opposed constituencies.
The apparent positioning of Tyrion Lannister as the books’ most talented politician tells us a lot about what Martin thinks makes a good ruler: a rough equilibrium between pragmatism and principle. Tyrion has principles – this is the thing that differentiates him from his father – but is willing to bend them to get things done. On the other hand, he has lines he won’t cross and knows when an outcome isn’t politically feasible. Keep this mixture in mind; we’ll be seeing it again.
High Society, Dave Sim
I see High Society get mentioned a lot as a political book, but I don’t think that’s strictly accurate. I think there’s some narrative sleight of hand going on. The book seems like it’s about Cerebus’ navigation of the political world, but what’s actually being said? If you try to follow the ins and outs and shifting stakes, it doesn’t add up to much. Cerebus as a character gets tossed around without much agency (maybe that’s the point) as other characters and situations come and go. Crises pop up; they resolve arbitrarily. As you’re reading, it seems like something’s being said, but ultimately I think that’s just an illusion created by Sim’s astounding cartooning talent (I mean, god knows Sim and Cerebus come with a dump truck full of very grave issues, but the guy’s raw ability in the comics medium is just jaw-dropping). In the end, I don’t think there’s much of use here other than “money and debt are big in politics” and “Groucho Marx was so funny that even a well-executed impersonation of him in another medium is still pretty funny.”
Lincoln, Gore Vidal
It’s tempting to look at Lincoln as resembling High Society in being less than it appears, but I don’t think that’s true. Vidal has stuff to say about pragmatism, flexibility, and the limits of power. As portrayed by Vidal, Lincoln is always struggling to get a portion of what he wants in adverse circumstances, and being condemned by ideologues for his flexibility (the just-below-the-surface message here is that you should just try to imagine Vidal’s Salmon P. Chase navigating the waters Lincoln does, and predict how well that would go). This is immensely valuable, especially for people who don’t understand why a president who theoretically shares their goals doesn’t always achieve them or even pursue them to the fullest extent (I recommended this book a TON during the Obama years).
Vidal says that pragmatism is a path to greatness, and that more people should recognize that. Conversely, Vidal also shows the real-world utility of having idological hardliners hold a pragmatic leader’s feet to the fire to at least determine the bounds within which a compromise will be hammered out. Vidal’s Lincoln also shows flexibility-within-bounds on the moral front; he is absolutely guided by moral principles, but is willing to indulge in patronage almost (but not quite) to the point of corruption in order to get things done (again, the ready comparison here is with Chase, who does deeply corrupt things while constantly congratulating himself on his moral rectitude; Chase is up there with Thomas Jefferson in the pantheon of people portrayed as hypocritical horse’s asses by Gore Vidal).
On the surface, Lincoln appears to be a very different book than George Martin’s medievalish-fantasy-and-dragons series, but they wind up saying remarkably similar things about effective political leadership.
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
I kid! I kid!
OK, but: Atlas Shrugged is stinky garbage on political, economic, and moral matters (pay close attention – or don’t – to Rand’s amazing lack of understanding of how the government of the United States actually functions, or is even structured). But it does occur to me that in a different book, The Fountainhead, Rand does offer up one (and only one) useful observation: that media titan Gail Wynand appears to be immensely powerful in creating public discourse, but that this power exists only when he goes with the flow of public opinion, and erodes drastically the second they swim against the stream. This is very astute, and I think is a good explanation of why prominent media figures often stick with lines of argument that they obviously don’t believe; they know that their public believes it, and don’t want to lose their megaphone.
But aside from that one observation, everything else is garbage.
All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
Is this really a political novel? I’m not sure. The actual stakes of the novel have to do with Jack Burden’s sense of morality, which is an internal struggle but I guess is politics-adjacent. Willie Stark is a politician, of course, and his pursuit of goals drives the action within which Burden’s struggles take place. But does this all wind up giving us any useful insight into real-world politicking?
Warren is interested in corruption and its uses. Willie Stark is useless, politically, when he tries to play the game straight. But when he accepts corruption and populist pandering as tools, he succeeds – until these things boomerang back onto him and destroy him (and Warren goes out of his way to make it very clear that Stark’s corruption fatally taints everything he touches, even the things that are supposed to be clean). Corruption and blackmail are his tools of control, and it’s clear that in Warren’s world this is a systamtic problem, much larger than one man.
So I guess the useful takeaway here is that for a politician, corruption is a sharp scalpel with a slippery handle.
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Do we really need to talk about this one, given all of the recent kerfluffle? It’s very simple. Well-intentioned (or not) political violence will spin out of control and lead to disaster. People who profess good political intentions can’t always be trusted (Cassius absolutely screws Brutus over). Stability is nothing to sneeze at, and things can always get worse.
The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks
I see the argument made that this – and other Culture novels – has interesting, applicable political thought, but I don’t really think that’s the case. The book makes it pretty plain that Akkad is supposed to represent our society in a funhouse mirror, and that it as a society is grossly inferior to the Culture. But what does that really tell us? Everything’s inferior to pansexual hedonistic post-scarcity anarcho-communism presided over by benevolent AIs. I love Banks, and do think that he has a lot of useful things to say about other spheres (lots of Culture books work as interesting critiques of interventionist foreign policy, as many people have pointed out), but the Culture requires too many special-case givens (limitless free energy, benevolent Minds who love humanity) to provide much in the way of guidance you can apply to the real world.
Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein
Good god, no. Maybe it works as a reductio ad absurdum of a terrible idea, but that’s it. That’s where Verhoeven took it, and he had it exactly right. Do you want to know more? You do not.
Honorable mentions: I haven’t read It Can’t Happen Here and 1984 recently enough to have anything intelligent to say about them, but I should go back and give ’em both a reread when I feel like I have the gumption for it. And I thought about including Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 on this list because, while it’s not a novel, it’s hardly straight nonfiction and while I love it to death I’m deeply torn on how useful it is towards actually understanding politics.