Not the Homogeneous States of America: Political Engagement and Place in Near-Future Science Fiction

The recent election season in the US highlighted simplified views of place1, especially views of the “flyover states”: that red swath running between the blue coasts and joining the red southern states. For national media, this simplification is indicative of how little time can be devoted to local issues and how they’re resolved (or not) in the run-up to the national election2. Texas, for example, may get some time in the national media as home to certain presidential candidates past and present. But how often do we hear about how our lack of state income taxes affects our education funding?

I think this points to something easy to gloss over. Why, as a Texan, would I want to hear about local issues in Kansas, Wisconsin, New York, Oregon? A couple reasons. First, these states may be facing similar problems as we are here, and they may provide examples of how (or how not) to approach these problems. And second, understanding how the people in these localities interact with their state and local governments (or not) gives us clues as to how demographics complicate these problems. As a blue voter in a purplish enclave in a very red state that has the potential to turn if not violet then a little less scarlet in the coming decades, I’m interested, for instance, in how change has taken place in other states through political and demographic shifts.

So what do local politics and national media have to do with science fiction?

Here’s where we loop back to the ability of science fiction—particularly near-future science fiction—to act as political commentary on the present. National election coverage parallels the sort of science fiction that has as its setting “future America.” We don’t need to know where we are, be it coasts or middle plains, because the country as a whole is target of exploration. We may miss subtleties of local social and political issues, but these aren’t the point3.

Science fiction that uses very specific locales as settings, on the other hand, allows for the cross talk that focus on local politics does. We can see how changes in local government, environment, landscape, local culture, language, and so on affect the people and places in those localities. This, in turn, gives us a better grasp on the variables that go into the sorts of thought experiments science fiction can walk its readers through so well.

Place as Problem: The malls of Houston (or what happens when metro-sprawl meets a lack of zoning laws)

In the Lightspeed: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue, Gabriella Stalker’s “In the Image of Man” shows us a near-future Houston taken to some extremes. Like so many other urban areas, present-day Houston has its share of malls. And like so many other urban areas, it has annexed much of the surrounding unincorporated areas. Where Houston currently differs from other major cities is that it lacks zoning laws: stores, schools, and neighborhoods sit adjacent to each other in ways they don’t in other cities.

Stalker’s version of Houston offers readers two problems to grapple with. The first, on a broader level, is the way in which out-of-control capitalism makes for younger and younger debtors: teens in Texas may take out $60 loans from easily accessed ATM-style kiosks. Of course, these loans are quickly spent and add up to extended debt in adulthood. The second, more local issue is the way in which schools, neighborhoods, and houses of worship are wedged between stores in mall-style buildings. Teens are thus given much to buy and easy access to money to buy expendable goods with. Only a church that sits outside a mall offers some escape from the world of easy consumption the young protagonists live in. We readers get a glimpse into these elements taken to the extreme.

Place as (Possible) Solution: On the side of an Oklahoma highway

Localities can offer solutions as much as they can offer problems. In the December 2014 issue of Analog, Ken Liu’s “Saboteuruses rural Oklahoma highways as a possible solution to the automation of truck transport, which threatens to take away jobs from long-haul truck drivers. The landscape is bleak as the narrator describes it: agricultural land lies “humbled by the persistent drought” and is marked by a roadside cross and flowers to memorialize the narrator’s uncle.

All this looks like this could be Oklahoma as it is today4. The remoteness of the highway is essential to the narrator’s plan to act against the impending job losses: he chooses the location as a solution to the problem of potential damage and loss of life to make his stand against automation of his industry. His plan does not quite go as expected because of a situation out of his control, and this fact points to the trouble with assuming one can line up the variables of location and agents to achieve a desired end. At the end of this thought experiment, we’re left wondering as readers and as citizens what assumptions we make when we embrace a certain view, speak out against another, or act on either of these.

Voting as World Building: Starting with the here, if not the now

Seeing where certain choices will take us as they are made in our given localities is a task for both the science fiction writer as well as for the politically engaged. Matt Wallace notes in his blog post “My 12 Most Important Thoughts on Futurism in Fiction” that “[t]he most difficult task of the futurist is creating a world extrapolated from the one in which we find ourselves today.” It’s difficult for the writer and voter both. Why?

Wallace’s advice points to what writers can do with regard to people (language and bodies included), governments, corporations, etc. to jump-start their thought processes. The most striking for me is his last item: “Always ask yourself if your futurism is based on our world, or on the worlds of your favorite futuristic stories.” There’s an intellectual honesty here that is necessary for both the writer working in the near future and the voter considering the consequences of choosing one candidate or side over another.

While there are systemic, nation-wide problems in the USA as there are in any country5, there are other concerns facing us that are better considered locally. For some issues, the tighter the focus on place and population means more specific and effective solutions—or deeper explorations of the consequences of those issues should they be left unresolved.

1. By place, I just mean a smallish area (think states, counties, cities, etc.), along with its particulars: the landscape, environment, demographics, government, and so on.

2. I’m using the USA as my example, but I think this would apply to any sufficiently large region.

3. And some problems are so systemic and widespread that focusing on one place may act detract from the idea to be explored.

4. Point taken that this could be a number of drought-ravaged locales dominated by farms, ranches, and the highways that cut between them. But we can extrapolate and say the cautionary tale applies to these places as well.

5. We can easily say some of these are global in scope, of course.