MIND MELD: Current Politics In SF/F

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

2012 is an election year in the United States and you can bet we’ll be inundated with all things political. Our question is –

Q: How should SF writers respond to the politics of their time, if at all?

Here’s what they said…

Heather Massey
Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author: Her latest sci-fi romance is Queenie’s Brigade from Red Sage Publishing. To learn more about her published work, visit www.heathermassey.com.

For me, it’s very, very simple: I love a good wish-fulfillment fantasy. One of my favorites is the idea of a female President in a futuristic setting. Battlestar Galactica’s President Laura Roslin ranks right up there at number one.

The concept of a female President defies expectations, invites readers/viewers to question their assumptions about women, and serves up an empowering character.

It’s disheartening to think that in my lifetime, the only place I can experience a female President is in fiction. But I’m grateful that authors and filmmakers have dared to dream and have pushed those characters into the spotlight.

We certainly need more female Presidents in science fiction (and women in other political positions). Fictional female Presidents explore and celebrate the idea that women can wield power and do so effectively. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Courtesy of an article at io9 and a Wikipedia entry, I’ve compiled a short list of futuristic female Presidents:

  • Madame President (Project Moonbase)
  • Chelsea Clinton (Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century)
  • Elaine Nakamura (Time Trax)
  • Malia Obama (Life on Mars)
  • Elizabeth Richardson (Special Report: Journey to Mars).
  • Eleanor Richmond (Interface by Stephen Bury)
  • Elise Rochelle (Coyote by Allen Steele)
  • Elaine Sallinger (Better Than Life, a Red Dwarf novel)
  • Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons; “Bart to the Future”)
  • Veronica Townshend (Moonfall by Jack McDevitt)
  • Mary Rose Tremane (Deadlands: Hell on Earth)
  • Oprah Winfrey (Century City)
Paul Graham Raven
Paul Graham Raven is a freelance writer and media critic, and a research assistant with the Pennine Water Group at Sheffield University. He’s mid-way through an MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University, and is wondering where all the spare hours in the day went.

Short answer? “Honestly.”

Long answer? Well, disclaimer first: it’s really none of my business what an author chooses to put into (or leave out of) their work. I am not in the business of policing the expression of others… with the caveat that I retain that same right to expression for myself when it comes to responding to any work for whatever reason. In other words: it’s open mic night, but don’t dish it out if you can’t take it back, y’know?

That said, this question ties in to one of my main beefs with the intentional fallacy, namely that I remain very dubious of the notion that a text must not be read in the context of its author’s life, beliefs and philosophies. I’d add, however, that I can certainly see the value gained by that sort of reading, in using it as one critical lens among many… but the persistent dogma of the Dead Author strikes me as disingenuous in a way.

I think it takes considerable conscious effort to not let one’s politics bleed through into one’s writing at a deep (but quite possibly diffuse) level, and the more fiction I write myself, the more convinced of it I become (though I’m assuming there’s a fair bit of confirmation bias at play there, too). One’s politics affect the way one observes and ascribes meaning to the interaction of human beings with each other and the world(s) they exist in; at a subconscious level, that same perception of meaning must be occurring during the imagination component of the writing process. I’m sure it must be possible to write a sizeable work of fiction with a political theme that was sincerely opposed or orthogonal to one’s own beliefs, but I’m at a loss to know why one would choose to do such a thing as anything other than an experiment or a satire. (Confirmation bias rears its head again, perhaps.)

Personally, I like to see writers responding to the politics of their time, and especially in sf/f; the genres are ideally suited to the concretisation of political metaphors, and I like art that makes me think, that challenges me and the world in which it exists. (Indeed, I suspect that this is why I fell for sf/f in the first place; it’s certainly the thing I miss the most when reading more ‘mimetic’ fiction.)
Not everyone likes art that challenges them, of course, and I must confess that while I make a point of reading stuff from all across the political spectra, there are some themes or political underpinnings which are sufficiently repugnant or opposed to my own that I am unable to get any pleasure out of the reading. I suspect I’m not alone in that, either; everyone has their limits.

And everyone has their politics, too, even if they’re the politics of political apathy – to remain undecided is still a decision, y’know? Indeed, I suspect that those who claim not to like fiction with politics in it actually mean that they don’t enjoy fiction that portrays a politics other than those of the status quo within which they live.

To go further still (if one was going to be puckish about it), one could claim that the choice to keep one’s politics completely absent from one’s fiction is in itself a fairly radical political statement, in that – for the person making said statement, at least – art doesn’t have to (or maybe even flat-out shouldn’t) partake of politics. And while I don’t have any problem with anyone declaring or living out that dictum if they want to, I still believe that art holds up a mirror to society; I don’t mean that is art’s duty, I mean I think that’s what art does, by definition, without any need for political intent on the part of its creator(s). Much like the mythical apolitical reader, I think the writer of supposedly apolitical fiction can’t see politics for the same reason that a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.

And that is, I suppose, a statement of my own politics of art… or is it my aesthetics of politics?

[We’re sorry, but a fault has caused this critic to crash. Error code #174a3dcc3: infinite self-referential metaphysics loop declared.]

Rachel Swirsky
Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and been nominated for a number of awards including the Sturgeon, the Hugo, the Locus, and the World Fantasy Award. In 2011, her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” won the Nebula Award. Her first collection, Through The Drowsy Dark, a slim volume of prose and poetry from Aqueduct Press, came out in 2010.

I don’t think there’s any *should* about it, actually. I’m a big fan of the idea that multiple approaches aren’t only inevitable, but a very good thing. I think it’s great and necessary that there are authors who tackle politics directly, and ones who write with politics that inform their work more subtly, and authors who try to avoid politics altogether.

I’ve gone on record a few times as saying that I think politics are unavoidable, though. The political (and social and cultural…) assumptions of our time creep into our writing whether we want them to or not. Especially when we claim we’re writing about future worlds, in which we could imagine any wide variety of social norms, when we default—particularly unmarked or unintentionally–to the ones in our society, we’re helping to entrench our social norms, which is just as political as writing something that opposes them. When science fiction imagines all-white worlds, or futures where gender roles default to the American 1950s, that’s a political statement. It could be an intentional one, expressing anything from white supremacy to satire about the way that many white, American writers default to all-white worlds. Or it could be an unintentional one that subtly, through repetition, reinforces white as default and gender roles as seen in Leave it to Beaver.

As far as the conscious discussion of politics, I’m strongly opposed to the idea which I see tossed around periodically that this is a bad thing, that it necessarily requires didacticism or is the sign of inferior artistic work. Among other things, it’s manifestly not true—Voltaire’s Candide is both art and philosophical treatise. Beloved and Kindred not only intelligently and emotionally consider racial politics, but gain their power as literary works from that deep, empathic consideration.

Personally, as a writer, when I’m writing political work that has a naturalistic tone, I try to write the characters as sincerely as I can. (More parodic political works are different; for instance, Adam Troy-Castro isn’t going for realistic character work in his short story “Arvies.”) I fail in that sometimes, I’m sure, but I think that when it’s done successfully, political work really benefits from having characters who are ambiguous—characters who hold the same political positions as the author who are flawed; characters who hold opposite positions who have both depth and emotionally true reasons for their beliefs.

I think the best political work is sometimes found where the author pushes the boundaries of their certainty, when instead of trying to present an answer to a political question in their work, they’re trying to articulate questions. To return to Octavia Butler’s work again for a moment, I think her work often reflects this sort of deep ambivalence. In Kindred, there’s the tension between how a modern, American black woman feels about her white ancestor; he’s both a part of her—necessary for her to exist–and abhorrent to her. Or there’s her short story, “Bloodchild,” which is often described as being about slavery, but which she described as being about love. Can love exist in a context where freedom is limited? If it can’t, can it exist anywhere?

I find that when I write stories with sufficiently complex political characters (or at least what some people perceive to be sufficiently complex political characters) that one sign I’m doing it right is that the reader will bring their own political beliefs to the situation and, seeing the complexity in the story, come away with their own way of reading the situation. It’s heartening to me to know that I’ve written something that’s complex enough that it can be read in multiple ways. In this situation, it’s kind of like I’m saying a particular political thing, and they’re hearing my argument, but we essentially have different perspectives; even when the reader is inside my point of view as an author, they see the facts falling out to reinforce their world views.

I have some funny stories about that which I’ll go into another time.

Anyway, back to the original question, the phrasing makes me wonder whether the original intent was to ask about whether authors should include electoral politics, talking about specific politicians and so on. I don’t really have an opinion about that, although I find that sort of story generally doesn’t appeal to me very much compared to stories that are about political issues. Turtledove’s “Bedfellows, describing a sexual relationship between George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, made a splash when it first came out in F&SF. I didn’t find that it made me think about the world differently (which is often what I’m looking for in fiction), but the story certainly provoked strong reactions, both positive and negative, and I think it played the role Turtledove wanted it to.

Peter Watts

Let’s start with how they do respond to the politics of their time. The easiest answer is to invoke John Clute’s concept of the “real year” of a novel — the idea that regardless of the time in which the story is explicitly set, its subtextual issues and fears (politics included) will be more reflective of those that were current when the novel was written. There’s certainly some truth to this — Neuromancer and The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, are both pretty clearly reflective of eighties-era political anxieties (which is not to say that those anxieties have necessarily stale-dated in the meantime). But it also implies a lack of authorial foresight, an inability to look beyond the automobile to predict the traffic jam. This can be a feature rather than a bug, at least in cases where the purpose of the story is to provide a metaphor for contemporary society or to lay out a cautionary if this goes on scenario. It can be a feature and a bug if the story is inhabited by sock puppets through whom the author simply funnels her own political beliefs (this is probably inevitable to some degree given that authors are all still human at the time of this writing) (except for the authors of Harlequin romances, of course) (and maybe the authors of Star Trek novelizations).

As to how we should reflect conventional politics, I have no clue. Conventional North American politics freak me right out. The only way I could even attempt to get a grasp on them would be to frame them anthropologically — looking past the superficial behaviors to the neuroeconomics, game theory, and parasite-host interactions that lie beneath. Because, really: the things that most front line politicos are saying on this continent, these days — what they evidently have to say, if they want to get elected — make no fucking sense whatsoever. As Harvard physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out, politicians who are perfectly comfortable taking about God and Religion shy away from questions about Science like Rick Santorum fleeing a gay bar.

I mean, seriously. I’ve got a bit of a reputation for envisioning whacked-out dystopian futures rife with sociopaths and neuroengineered freaks, but none of those characters ever took their marching orders from an invisible homophobic sky fairy and then boasted about it as though it were some badge of honor instead of a symptom of pathology. None of them would be brazen or stupid enough to flagrantly excoriate positions they’d enthusiastically endorsed mere months before. None of them would deny the most basic principles of biology while bragging about their ignorance of science. Hell, not one of my twisted protagonists even started a war of convenience to line the pockets of their friends in the oil industry. And if any of my characters did do anything like that, they wouldn’t get away with it; they’d be widely called out and ridiculed, because I just can’t bring myself to populate my worlds with complete idiots. I guess that’s why they call it fiction.

Politics on this continent are fucking insane.

This is not to say that they’re incomprehensible. We know how people can believe six mutually contradictory things before breakfast. We’ve identified Confirmation Bias and Pareidolia, we’ve researched the neurology and natural history of religious belief. We know how people who are utterly sane when it comes to counting calories or running heavy machinery can become batshit crazy when it comes to abortion or gay marriage or spirits in the sky, and we understand how Bambi syndrome and risk-aversion algorithms inspire people to fall in behind the well-coiffed sociopathic douchebags who so often seem to call the shots. As R. Scott Bakker points out, “The brain is … far more interested in sorting claims according to social criteria rather than evaluating them on their independent merits.”

But that’s not politics. Politics is pure epiphenomenon, the scum on the surface of a stagnant swamp. As a standalone entity, divorced from its roots, it makes no sense at all. Science fiction — or at least, the kind of science fiction I can wrap my head around — has to make sense. The only way to make sense of politics is to dig down and study the biology underneath.

So maybe that’s your answer. Maybe science fiction shouldn’t take that scum on face value. Maybe we should just skim it away, and pay more attention to the nitrates and phosphates underneath.

Chris N. Brown
Chris N. Brown (aka Chris Nakashima-Brown) writes fiction and criticism from his home in Austin. Recent stories include “Medusa” in Rudy Rucker’s Flurb #11, “Windsor Executive Solutions,” with Bruce Sterling (Futurismic, 2010) and “The Sun Also Explodes” in Lou Anders’ Fast Forward 2.” He is co-editor (with Eduardo Jimenez Mayo) of Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, publishing next month.

All science fiction is political. Any serious writer should try to be aware of the politics of their fiction, in the same way they direct character, plot, and theme. In science fiction, I think the duty of the writer is elevated by the potential of the form to imagine alternatives to the status quo—be they utopian, dystopian, or somewhere in between. American science fiction ended the twentieth century by obliterating the future it had previously imagined, and now needs to get to work helping reinvent all of our imminent presents.

Flash Gordon, the earnest American college athlete civilizing the universe with raygun and rocketship and a handy foreign scientist sidekick, was loaded with politics. His (and ours) was the putatively apolitical perspective from the City on a Hill, the kind of politics that considers itself the generic—forgetting that vanilla is a flavor. The science fiction of the past century was built on that paradigm, a fresh mythos of the past, present and future projection of American power through technology across time and space. At its best, twentieth century sf provided fantastic counterpoints to the hegemony of perfectly nice white guy pilots, but never really liberated itself from the semiotic vocabulary of the gadget magazines, trapped in the political context of an eternal 1947.

Just as all science fiction is political, all politics tell science fictions. The history of the world since the seventeenth century is all about people endeavoring to recreate the world in the image of their utopian imaginations, all the earthly heavens that the Reformation unleashed. All our progressivisms tell us to go To the Perdido Street Station, trying to hack human nature through the code of politics. And what passes for conservatism in contemporary discourse is just a retro-utopia, trying to construct Pleasantville from the equilibrium dream of neoclassical economics. Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama are both selling us extrapolated futures—isn’t it more fun to invent our own?

When the Berlin Wall fell, the last utopian counterpoint to the American meme died, and observations of the end of history did not seem fantastic. But now that the network culture incubated by the cyberpunks has taken over reality, it turns out the End of History was not its terminus at democratic capitalism a la 1999, but the end of “history”—the loosening of the screws that hold together the narrative structure of our societies, as all of the monolithic, top-down “reality-based” systems of human life are torn down and reconstructed in the image of our new communications networks. It doesn’t get much more political than that.

(For the seminal articulation of what network culture means for history, and what that means for writers, Bruce Sterling’s remarks on “Atemporality for the Creative Artist” are mandatory.)

The chaos of the current historical moment means huge quanta of liberated territory are there to be imagined and occupied. Granted, most of the territory is invented—the virtual space of the network. But the line between screen life and real life is no longer tenable, and by seizing the opportunity to create richer presents in the realm of the human imagination, writers can make every work a declaration of independence from the pasts and futures that would confine us. In science fiction, Guantanamo Bay is an experimental community where the residents hack biology, networks, laws, and all the other codes, striving to stumble forward into a better life. Wings Over the World are on patrol, waiting for the opportunity to repopulate the post-apocalyptic ruins and colonize the uninhabited planets.

The politics of sf will always be more Olaf Stapledon than Jon Stewart. But while alternate Romneys may not be the stuff of next year’s Hugos, don’t underestimate the power of sf as mode of commentary on immediate events—my favorite example being Jeff Vandermeer’s brilliant Goat Variations Redux, genius play with the narratives of the 2008 Presidential elections. The recent novels of William Gibson, which on the surface seem devoid of science fiction as well as real politics, are to me his most radical and visionary work: a fantastic trilogy that demonstrates the way we can use the speculative imagination and the open territory of the network to liberate ourselves, at least a little bit, from the alienated conditions of contemporary life. The most valuable, and most political, science fiction is that which illuminates the way in which current political reality is a constructed fiction, chipping holes in the Logan’s Run skydome of our minds and letting us make our own maps of what’s on the other side.

13 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Current Politics In SF/F”

  1. Ahhh this is the kind of article I find heartening. A few specific comments–

    @Paul Graham Raven expresses the idea (which other commenters also express) that even non-political writing is political, in that it accepts the status quo. One might even think it a form of propaganda–that the status quo is so good, why even question it? Don’t.

    @Chris N. Brown gets to the heart of the matter, in my eyes, when he writes “The most valuable, and most political, science fiction is that which illuminates the way in which current political reality is a constructed fiction, chipping holes in the Logan’s Run skydome of our minds and letting us make our own maps of what’s on the other side.” Exposing the constructed nature of the status quo is exceptionally valuable and honestly as a writer if I can even approach that goal, I will feel successful.

    @Heather Massey provides the antidote, that presenting a progressive future might reveal the regressive nature of the status quo. Women presidents is a great symbol of this, but there are any number of “positive imaginings” that can reveal contemporary problems. See further: Star Trek & a unified humanity.

    Finally, this discussion reminds me a quote that I cherish from an interview of two Belarusian activist artists: “If politics and art do not interrelate, both art and politics die. Politics must find approval through the media, civil society, and art. If art distances itself from reality, it becomes like a dead language, existing only in manuscripts that sit for centuries in the storerooms of libraries.” (Nikolai Khalezin and Natalya Koliada)

  2. What’s good novel with well written liberal and conservative characters? I’ve always seen one or the other, not both.

  3. I strongly believe in a writers right to write about politics– it’s an important freedom. But I prefer, as a reader, not to be bludgeoned by the authors opinions. If I’m taken out of the story by what seems to be a random interjection of bias, I will probably not like what I’m reading too much. My chances of subsequently buying anything else by that author decline considerably at that point.

    But if the politics seem appropriate and integral to a character, without an obvious agenda, then I have no problem with it. But that’s a hard, hard balance to strike.

  4. A writer cannot escape “responding to the politics of their time” even by turning away from politics entirely–that is a response.

    For a writer to create a full-realized culture–something SF/F writers often strive to do–the writer must engage with political ideas, and that engagement will reflect their own political experience (or lack thereof.) It is a writer’s choice whether the book is _about_ politics, or whether the politics in the book are a background feature (just as a book can be _about_ fashion or simply include fashion as an element of setting the scene. Characters, as well, at the writer’s discretion, can consider politics (or fashion, or cookery, or any other segment of reality) as of great or minor importance. It is the writer’s choice whether to present an imagined ideal, an imagined worse-case, or an imagined politics-as-usual.

    It is the reader’s choice whether to read books that feature politics, books that avoid politics, or books that use politics as scenery. One thing the reader cannot do (and should not try to do) is tell writers whether to write any of these forms, or what kind of politics to put in them. Writers must be free to write the stories that come to them.

    In real life, political structures and theories and plans of action arise from deep cultural roots, generations of experience. So writers with an interest in cultural worldbuilding will play with the building blocks of political theory, trying out combinations that may not exist in this world–political beliefs or dogmas that arise from different sets of experience, that seem true to the invented history and culture and to the characters generated by them. At the same time, the writer has not lived in, been influenced by, the political culture in the book…so the writer’s own cultural history will necessarily color (if not always directly control) these invented worlds.

    Fiction is most powerful when it is fiction, not lecture. Story, not polemical tract. If the story is powerful enough to carry it, stories certainly can carry opinion or message without losing their story-power. But the story cannot be subordinated to the message without losing its force; the story must control how prominent–and how nuanced–the message is. For the present, fiction’s readers are human, with human neurology, human emotions, human reactions. The fiction writer–the storyteller–can achieve a different kind of connection with readers than the writer of political pamphlets. The fiction writer can stimulate the reader’s own capacity to imagine things differently. The political writer wants to impose a particular view.

    Fiction writers always have the option of writing political tracts on the side; it’s even easier now that we have internet venues for such, if the current publishing climate isn’t welcoming. The more challenging task is creating fictional political systems that feel real within the invented worlds and cultures. SF/F has a wide range of invented systems, some taken whole-cloth from current society and some created with great skill.

  5. Having broad political themes in SF/F makes sense, because of a substantial body of work in the genre has some kind of a struggle for power as the central plot driver. But most SF/F stories that are explicitly political in content can’t do justice to the complexity of real political institutions and processes, either because the author is politically naive (the most common reason) or because representing the actual complexity would bog down the story for most readers. So usually the story presents a cartoon politics in which individual actors have vastly outsized influence and freedom from constraints, and where one faction is nobly intentioned and another is sneeringly evil or naively gullible. That may be why monarchies and other forms of dictatorship appear so often. In a typical modern bureaucratic government, a person gains the uppermost leadership levels only after a long period of finding patrons, securing funding, becoming a fixture of the social world of the other power players and their backers, assembling a team of advisors and gofers, learning how to conceal the parts of their agenda that run counter to their outward image, learning to (at minimum) ignore certain types of illegal activity that their peers engage in, etc.

    The idea of a female President in SF/F as being uplifting or desirable assumes the kind of naive portrayal of Presidents that are common in fiction. In reality, the Presidents of the most powerful countries may be kind to their pets, loving toward their families, and possibly still having some ideals in their own estimation, but they are still moral monsters. The paths they take to power and the actions required of them once holding it pretty much enforce this in a Darwinian manner. Is it an advance to have a female moral monster? Perhaps it’s an advance in realism, since we’ve already had a few (Mrs. Thatcher comes to mind) and almost had a few others (Mrs. Clinton), but it’s hard to see that as any more uplifting than the female version of Gordon Gekko or Vito Corleone. If we imagine our kindly small town mayor or local representative imported magically into the White House (or the imperial palace in stories with monarchies), then such a person might also be magically free to ignore all constraints and change the world for the better with an inspiring oration or courageous edict. But that’s not how politics works on the scale of large industrial countries, and it would be even more amazing for it to work that way on the scale of planets or galactic federations.

    1. Thanks for weighing in!

      >naive portrayal of Presidents that are common in fiction.

      Any type of fictional portrayal of a President is valid: positive, negative, shades of gray, naive, complex, etc. I didn’t specifically say I was hankering for a Pollyanna type of President, but it’s as valid as any other. Are some portrayals more plausible than others? Sure, but that’s all the more reason to have a wide variety.

      >The idea of a female President in SF/F as being uplifting or desirable

      For me, it’s desirable in the way a woman’s right to vote is desirable. You know, because once upon a time most women weren’t allowed to vote–for no compelling reason, I might add. That’s one reason why I find the idea of a female President so empowering in SF/F, because it speaks to the possibilities of changes in the real world that need to happen.

      1. Women gaining the right to vote was a real gain in power though. A particular woman becoming President in the US would be a symbolic victory, but the people who would prefer not to have any of us voting are very adept at using symbolism to their own benefit. For instance, we now have a black President, which seems like a great symbolic victory in a country that fought a civil war over enslavement of black people. But the symbolism is empty and even counterproductive, since the particular black person who became President is continuing most of the important policies and practices of his predecessor from the supposed opposition party–which was perfectly predictable to anyone who followed his career. Both of those two qualify as the sort of “moral monster” I mentioned, but it’s not even the sort of diabolical evil that is a source of drama in genre fiction. It’s more the sort of banal evil Hannah Arendt talked about.

        A Pollyanna President would be interesting to read about if you could construct a realistic scenario where such a person could come to power, without being owned by some unelected billionaire or conglomerate. In fantasy typically the closet idealist prince or princess inherits the throne when all his or her older siblings perish, and then struggles to implement all the wonderful reforms that are in tune with the social attitudes of contemporary readers. In reality it turns out more the way it did for poor Claudius in the Robert Graves books–even inheriting the throne isn’t much help when you’re surrounded by crooked advisors, have family members who can be threatened with death or actually killed, and have personal weaknesses that can be exploited. The dumbed down science fictional situation is something like that of the Bill Pullman character in the movie Independence Day, who goes from dashing fighter pilot to heroic President without having to dip his toe into the muck of politics. Uh-uh, it’s not that easy.

  6. Heather Massey: “It’s disheartening to think that in my lifetime, the only place I can experience a female President is in fiction.”

    Margaret Thatcher once said there would never be a British Prime Minister in her lifetime.

  7. Heather Massey: “It’s disheartening to think that in my lifetime, the only place I can experience a female President is in fiction.”

    Are you kidding me? To name a few:

    1979-1990 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, *United Kingdom*
    1979-1980 Interim Executive President Lydia Gueiler Tejada, Bolivia
    1980-1996 President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland
    1986-1992 Executive President Maria Corazón Sumulong Cojuangco Aquino, The Philippines
    1990-1997 President Mary Robinson, Ireland
    1994-2005 Executive President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka
    1997-2011 President Mary McAleese, Ireland
    1999-2004 Executive President Mireya Moscoso Rodrígez, Panama
    2001-2004 Executive President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia
    2007- President Pratibha Patil, *India* (Biggest democracy in the world, over 1 billion people)
    2011- President Dilma Vana Linhares Rousseff, Brazil

    And that’s just cherry picking a few notable ones.

    Fuller list here
    http://www.guide2womenleaders.com/Presidents.htm

  8. Looking forward to different political systems was one of the drivers for such works as Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and Orwell’s ‘1984’. One of the reasons I so thoroughly enjoy the genre is that variability of world-building and the politics running the different systems.
    Of course there are constraints, Paul Connelly’s apt observation, “…often the story presents a cartoon politics in which individual actors have vastly outsized influence and freedom from constraints, and where one faction is nobly intentioned and another is sneeringly evil or naively gullible. That may be why monarchies and other forms of dictatorship appear so often.”
    But amidst that general run, are some fascinating examples:-
    * Kage Baker’s Company novels depicting a cautious, risk averse future humankind who plunders the past for illicit thrills.
    * Posthumanity – among the genre, Dan Simmons’ ‘Hyperion’ and Alastair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space’ are standout series.
    * Adam Roberts’ ‘Yellow Blue Tibia’ set in Russia during the turbulent years of perestroika.
    * In Steph Swainston’s ‘The Castle’ series, her protagonists are not so much the wheelers and dealers, but far more the poor sods caught up in the middle of the mess.
    * Lauren Beukes’ ‘Zoo City’ – a fascinating alternate South Africa where the animalled are the social and political underdogs (pardon the pun…).
    * Mary Rosenblum’s ‘Horizon’, where Earth versus Space collides with elitist clan interests.
    I’ll accept that a whole swathe of the politics depicted is broad brush and crude – but given the fact that it is mostly nested within an adventure story, there are some enjoyable and varied slices of political thinking that reveal as much about our current preoccupations as a society as the author’s own beliefs.

    For what it’s worth, I echo Heather Massey’s wish fulfillment to see more women at the top of the tree. While I appreciate Dan Ballard’s efforts, given that there are currently around 195 countries around the world – that list is disgracefully small.

  9. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, democratically elected female president of Liberia and only female head of state in Africa?

    How about the prime minister of Iceland Johanna Sigurdardottir, who is also a lesbian (and got same-sex marriage legalized, then married her life partner).

    They’re not WASP but surely they still count? Or is the assumption that the civilization in BSG is (obviously) the continuation of the American hegemony, and just wishing for a female president here at home?

    Or if they were just unknown, I posit that sci-fi writers should stay out of politics because of lack of awareness of current events. ;)

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