What to read to take your mind off the US election.

1) If you want the absorbing story of a different election to stop yourself from refreshing fivethirtyeight.com every ten minutes, allow me to recommend Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star. There are many reasons why I admire Heinlein, but one of them is the way that he was capable of looking beyond his parochial concerns. He was an American, but in Double Star, probably his best novel and certainly one of my favourites, he wrote accurately and enthusiastically about an election in a solar system-wide parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. There are Martians, human bigots, a vain actor, a politician, and an election. And it’s short, too. You could read it in two hours and find out how the new polls look.

2) If you want to get as far away from the very concept of elections as you possibly can, then I’ve noticed that Joan Aiken’s Armitage stories have been collected by Small Beer press under the title The Serial Garden. This is a delightful whimsical set of stories about young Mark and Harriet Armitage and the fantastical things that just happen to them, where if the lawn is full of unicorns you can count on their father to rush out and try to stop them eating the roses. These stories are funny and often unexpectedly poignant. They also don’t have a wasted word or scrap of information. They’re both charming and genuine in a way that few things manage.

3) Cicero once said of Cato that he wanted to live in Plato’s Republic and not in the dunghill of Romulus, meaning the real everyday Rome. If the election is making you Cato-minded, then you could do a lot worse than reading the two ambiguous utopias I discussed here earlier, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Delany’s Triton. One of the things SF does really well is show us the points of view of people who grew up with different expectations of how the world works.

4) If you can keep your head, while all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

5) For everyone who is out there toiling in the complicated trenches of democracy, making it all work—do you ever wish it could be simpler? Try Asimov’s “Franchise,” originally in the collection Earth is Room Enough, and still available in The Complete Stories I. In “Franchise,” polls and computer models are accurate enough that only one typical individual needs to be selected to actually vote. Mostly, it wouldn’t be you, but imagine the responsibility if it was!

6) If you take the position that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in, or if you try not to be partisan but to remain fair and balanced in all situations, then (as well as reminding you of Churchill’s maxim that he refused to be impartial between the fire engine and the fire)  I’d recommend reading a whole lot of alternate history. Harry Turtledove is a master of the subgenre, and you might also want to seek out Silverberg’s Up the Line,  Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, my own Small Change series, and indeed as much of it as you can find.

What alternate history demonstrates when done well is how contingent history is, how it only looks inevitable in retrospect. Everything we do makes a difference, and history is built from individuals acting together or alone. You aren’t the one person Asimov imagines in “Franchise,” but nevertheless, US citizens, get out there and make what difference you can.


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