My nation (which may not be yours) is in the midst of another election. On the one hand, it’s a glorious celebration of our right to choose who runs the nation for the next four years. On the other hand, many of us view with dismay the endless election—thirty-six full days of bloviation and punditry!—and the sinking feeling that it is all an exercise in deciding which of our colourful array of parties is least objectionable. Still, even if it feels like one is being asked to choose between the Spanish Influenza and Yersinia pestis, it is important to remember one take-home lesson from Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War: even undesirable outcomes can be ranked in order of preference. The Spanish flu is bad. The Black Death is worse.
All of which led me to consider how elections have figured in speculative fiction novels.
It’s easy enough to find examples from what I might call near-future speculative history. No aliens, no spaceships, just a “What if?” in a recognizable future. Here are a few that I remember; readers can doubtless remember more.
Michael Halberstam’s 1978’s The Wanting of Levine shows a Democratic Party poised to win the 1988 election. They hold the White House and incumbent President Bigelow is popular. An easy win! Except that Bigelow refuses to run again. The obvious choice for a back-up candidate, Senator Rackey, has just murdered his wife. The Party needs to find a new candidate soon. But who?
Hilarity ensues when backroom party functionary A. L. Levine’s name is inadvertently added to a list of possible candidates. Polling indicates that Levine is surprisingly popular for someone who has never sought the spotlight. Levine becomes the Democratic Party’s candidate. But is America ready for a Jewish president? And are Levine and his family ready for the spotlight?
I found this a charming but naive little tale. Halberstam seemed to have believed that given a choice between a decent fellow with a few flaws and someone who might bomb foreign cities for the yucks, Americans would go for the nice guy. An interesting hypothesis, which you can discuss in comments—but let’s keep it light, shall we?
Richard Hoyt’s 1982 spy comedy Trotsky’s Run also imagines an America in which the Democrats hold the White House and the incumbent is widely popular. Alas, he’s terminally ill. He suggests charismatic politician Derek Townes as his successor. Townes has the edge.
What the incumbent doesn’t know is that Townes is a Soviet mole! If elected, he will be a disaster for the US. But not for the reason you think. The strain of years undercover have driven Townes quite mad. He’s convinced that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and yearns to take revenge on the Moscow bosses who ordered his death in 1940. His finger will be on the nuclear button and catastrophe will ensue.
Enter disgraced British double-agent Kim Philby, who knows that Towne is a mole. He doesn’t know that Towne is mad. He alerts the US intelligence agencies, which are understandably unwilling to take a known double-crosser at his word. They send a few second-string field agents to investigate his claim. Hijinks ensue.
Like many of the spy novels of its era, the novel is sexist. But there is some fun in seeing how various intelligence agencies deal with a candidate who is both a Soviet agent and possibly the worst threat the Soviets have ever faced.
On to post-apocalyptic election fiction…
In Robert Merle’s Malevil, Emmanuel and his friends survive a nuclear holocaust because they were down in the wine cellar of Malevil, a sturdy Anglo-Saxon fortification dating back to the Hundred Years War. Emerging to find utter devastation, the survivors set about building a new world in the ruins of the old.
Post-apocalyptic settings are not known for their democratic leanings. Malevil is an exception (at least at the start). Most of the survivors are old drinking chums and discuss decisions before putting them to the vote. It never occurs to the men in this group to involve women in the process. Author Merle does not appear to have been entirely on board with his male chauvinist pig protagonists here, however, because while the men endlessly discuss the Matter of Woman and How Best Women Might be Managed, these discussions never have the slightest effect on what the women actually do.
C. L. Moore’s 1957 Doomsday Morning also starts with a nuclear exchange. However, the Five Day War that struck America crippled but did not destroy the country. Elections are held. Repeatedly. President Raleigh has been re-elected five times! Thanks, no doubt, due to his control of Communications US (Comus), which guides voters towards the only right choice.
But Raleigh is only mortal. When he dies, who will become President for Life? Comus boss Tom Nye intrigues to take power through a patsy, an actor who can play a politician and take directions. The actor tapped, Howard Rohan, is a self-loathing drunk who…but any more would be spoiler.
I know, I know. The idea of an actor playing a significant role in politics is completely ludicrous. What made this Eisenhower-era dystopia stand out for me is the way that Comus manages the US. For the most part, they eschew the standard midnight raids. Instead, they control communication, telling each American just what Comus wants them to know. It’s rather 1984, except that Comus is secure enough in its position to allow voters access to the voting booth. Why not, given that it won’t affect the outcome?
I can think of a few SF novels in which elections figure (SF defined here as novels with spaceships). Novels like Heinlein’s Double Star and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Bujold’s A Civil Campaign. Perhaps another essay? If you can think of SF or fantasy novels that I should consider, tell me in comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.