Many authors seek to incorporate contemporary themes and issues into novels that are set in the future. Here, Jay Schiffman offers five ideas to get your started if you’re interested in incorporating real-world politics into a futuristic narrative.
by Jay Schiffman
When I started writing my novel, Game of the Gods, I wanted to write about a futuristic judge who decides which teenage candidates will be granted citizenship in the world’s most powerful nation. The lucky few who are granted citizenship will live in peace and prosperity, while the others will be sent to miserable existences. I was attracted to this theme because I think humans are essentially defined by their collective identities—their “citizenship” in a group. I’m Canadian. I’m gay. I’m Muslim. I’m a conservative.
What interests me most about this idea is that group identities are rarely just about self-identification. Groups tend to have comprehensive social norms that define who’s in the group and who’s not. Defining who’s in by highlighting who’s out is an important theme in today’s political landscape. Citizenship is the classic example. It’s also a rich theme in some of the best science fiction and fantasy writing. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm jump to mind.
This discussion of group identity is a good starting point for suggesting ways to bring real-world politics into a futuristic narrative.
Tip #1: Think about the politics surrounding group identity and transpose them into a futuristic landscape.
In my view, there is no way to understand American politics without understanding the role race has played. Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama have uniquely shaped our national identity. Given the abundance of scholarship and literature on race, I suggest that writers use our complicated past as a template for writing about the power dynamics between different groups in the future. There is so much material to explore—so much truth to mine.
For starters, you may want to simply think about transporting Barack Obama and Donald Trump to some far-off futuristic world and see where your imagination takes you.
There are too many books to recommend on race and I am by no means an expert. But I will mention three that have influenced my thinking on what racial divides might look like in the future: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait.
Tip #2: Put a futuristic spin on political debates about the state of nature and role of government.
If you’re crafting a government on Mars in 2819, you should ask yourself what this society thinks about the state of nature and role of government. This is the classic Enlightenment debate between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes’ view of the state of nature is that “life is nasty, brutish, and short.” He believed that individuals hand over their rights to a sovereign in exchange for protection. Locke had a more optimistic view of human nature. Humans are endowed with natural rights and they enter into a social contract to protect these rights.
This centuries-old debate animates current Democrat and Republican arguments over the role of government. Conservative Republicans (Hobbesians) generally favor law and order, economic liberty, and higher military spending. Liberal Democrats (Lockeans) generally favor civil liberties and greater economic equality. Writers should ask themselves what their futuristic governments will look like. Current debates over military spending, economic equality, and civil rights will certainly have their place in futuristic narratives.
For writers who want a political toolkit filled with the building blocks of futuristic governments— I would recommend reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.
Tip #3: Tell a story about a heroic woman who stands up to her government.
Heroes are timeless. We could put Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Harriet Tubman into a time machine and they would still be heroes. I would suggest reading the biography of a woman who changed the course of American history (Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton is a good one) and use her to model the behavior of a hero in a futuristic setting. I would take the qualities of this real-life hero, and based on them, build a challenging futuristic political environment for her to overcome.
I’ve specifically recommended a woman because women heroes are underrepresented and I’m hoping that, at least in our imaginations about the future, that no longer needs to be the case.
Tip #4: Use examples of present-day political actors manipulating the truth to inform your future political setting.
In George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” he writes, “The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.” In today’s polarized political climate, words like collusion, immigrants, fake news, and deep state have widely different meanings based on one’s political affiliation. Polarization leads people to have divergent views on the meaning of words. Low turnout in primaries, 24-hour news cycles, social media echo chambers, psychographics, and gerrymandered congressional districts are partly to blame. We are inching closer and closer to a post-truth politics—one in which each side has its own truth.
The causes of polarization and its political consequences are ripe for the creative taking. In 1984, Orwell uncovered some of the more pernicious trends in political manipulation. But there is more to be done. Writers should reflect on these current trends and imagine how they will play out in the future.
Tip #5: Read work by the best science fiction and fantasy writers.
Here’s a short list of some influential books: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I also think the New York Times and other reputable newspapers are essential reading for writers trying to successfully bring real-world politics into their futuristic narratives.
Jay Schiffman went to the University of Michigan where he studied English and Political Science. After that, Jay received a law degree and Ph.D. in Political Science from New York University. He wrote his dissertation on competing theories of tolerance in American law and politics. He taught at NYU, published academic papers, and was a Bradley Fellow in American Government. Jay found the academic life a little too academic and so he committed himself to practicing law. As a practicing attorney, Jay worked on civil rights, children’s issues, commercial litigation, constitutional law, criminal law, and federal death penalty cases. Towards the end of his legal career, he spent a lot of time visiting prisoners in detention centers. Jay worked many hours with individuals accused of murder and awaiting death penalty trials. When his first daughter was born, Jay decided to leave law and start his first business, an educational learning company for children. A few years later, he sold that company to a large private equity firm. Jay had caught the entrepreneurial bug. Since founding his first company, Jay has been involved in a number of successful businesses in the digital, educational, technology, and consumer goods spaces.