Six Science Fiction Novels (and Then Some) to Read in the Age of Trump
I wanted to present a list of speculative fiction novels that have helped me understand the election of Trump, and inform my view of how things will unfold. This list doesn’t claim to be anything other than me recommending books to others, and is in no way definitive. It’s narrow due to only including books I’ve read, and because of my perspective as a pretty privileged member of society, and for focusing on a particular genre of fiction. Obviously non-fiction, literary fiction, news, history, political science, philosophy, sociology, and more should all be included in one’s reading line-up, but hopefully this reading list will expand that line-up a little.
Content warning: racism, sexism, violence, sexual violence, and spoilers.
1. Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
Most post-apocalypse and dystopian novels create a world that is purposefully different from our own. They are parables, analogies, metaphors, and so focus not on how we get to dystopia and how it feels, but rather what elements look like from the outside.
In truth, change isn’t something that is often felt viscerally. The human mind is very good at making whatever is the present also feel normal. So would an American apocalypse, a dystopia, really feel like one to its inhabitants?
Enter Soft Apocalypse, a story about an America a few decades in the future. Roving bands of liberal arts graduates wander the plains, collecting energy from portable solar panels to sell to the small towns they come across. They eventually settle in a city, trying to build their own society as American society and norms fall apart around them.
While the specifics feel like a potentially prescient look at a post-capitalist downturn, more important is the theme through the book that whatever is now feels normal. The story spans decades of the main characters’ lives, and they occasionally reflect on how they got to their current place, and how different and weird the past feels. But this is the important reveal: that past felt normal at the time.
If large-scale changes happen to American society in the coming months and years, it will be important to watch out for this normalization, and Soft Apocalypse offers a thoughtful sociological and psychological model for what that normalization looks like.
2. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
China Mountain Zhang is the Americanized name of our protagonist, a young American-born Chinese man who lives in an America where a communist revolution has put America firmly in China’s sphere of influence.
Zhang has many names: “Zhang Zhong Shan” in Chinese, “China Mountain Zhang” its English meaning, “Rafael” the name he was given at birth by his Hispanic mother. This mirrors the fact that Zhang has many identities. He is a Chinese-American man in an age where that imparts privilege. He is a half-Hispanic whose only safety from being labeled a “mongrel” is a poorly-done gene therapy his parents paid for at birth. He is a gay man in an age where homosexuality is looked down on, and even punished by the state. He is a bit of a party boy who enjoys betting on the kite races through the New York City streets. He is a hard worker who takes a job in the Arctic because the Communist system decrees he must.
While reading this book I was struck by the degree to which the setting acted almost as it’s own character in the novel. While it might seem strange to call a Maoist America prescient given Trump’s election, the echoes of authoritarianism are familiar from his rhetoric. The social conservatism, the police raids on dissidents, the race-based social hierarchy, and the policed political speech are all capstones of Trump’s promises to Make America Great Again. But so are the guaranteed housing, jobs available to everyone in a union-style system, and the strong community ties.
China Mountain Zhang paints a believable picture of American authoritarianism, while also offering hope. Zhang is hardly a political activist, but even he puts together a life with men he loves, work he finds meaningful. Zhang is an intersectional man, both privileged and oppressed, and the story of his finding his way through this society may offer some solace to those of us lucky enough to share some of his privileges, cold comfort it might be to those without them.
3. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
So let’s talk about those without the comfort of privilege. The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of HP Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” from the point of view of one of its African-American antagonists. Where the original story presents a number of white characters, and a background array of faceless, subhuman people of color, The Ballad of Black Top dives deep into the feelings, agency, and intentions of Black Tom.
The reason I choose this book is twofold. First, the juxtaposition with HP Lovecraft’s original story is important. Lovecraft was a masterful storyteller, but also a virulent racist, whose racism and xenophobia informs much of his work. Victor LaValle here unravels Lovecraft’s narrative, turning a faceless unnamed presence in the original story into a human being in his novella. In a world where noted white supremacist narrative builder Steve Bannon is the new Chief of Strategy and Policy of the Trump administration, learning how to recognize and unravel racist narratives is going to be a key skill.
The second reason is a shocking act of extreme police violence that happens half-way through the novella. Rare is the work of SF that grapples realistically with the abuse of power and its impact on individual lives. SF is largely power fantasy, where violence is glorified. Here, we see and feel the sense of powerlessness that a black man had against the police in 1920’s New York. For those of us whose experience with the police amounts to getting a warning and a head shake, reading accounts of police brutality is an important part of empathy and understanding of the fear many people of color faced upon Trump’s election, for this is what the words “law and order” mean for them.
4. Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
A linguist accidentally falls asleep then gets off a plane at the wrong stop, and finds himself in an overcrowded city he doesn’t recognize and whose language is completely unintelligible to him. So went the shock of millions of liberals to wake up in an America where Donald Trump is president, and so goes Metropole, when a man previously in the elite finds himself stranded in a city he doesn’t understand without food, money, or anything but the items he was carrying on his person.
I’ve especially noticed this on social media. At some point in the last few years, places and communities that I’ve been apart of for nearly a decade began speaking another language overnight. This language is one of casual hate and sociopathic uncaring for others. I’ve been particularly struck by the experiences of my jewish friends, as they have (as one recently put it) become “less white” as the year has gone on. The sense of displacement this causes makes me think back onto Metropole more and more.
5. The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliot
This year, a new genre of think piece emerged, one crying for empathy and understanding for the White Working Class Trump Voter.
Having grown up in a White Working Class Family in a White Working Class Town, I have felt that in addition to being condescending and tone deaf, these pieces have been 99% of the time wrong about the white working class in important ways. Time and time again drive-by journalists uncritically reported with a straight face what people told them: they were mad because their communities had slowly died, they were mad at the economy failing them, but they weren’t racist or hateful, they just thought Trump cared about them.
What this introspective psychological reporting misses is the unspoken, behavioral, and sociological perspectives on these communities. It should surprise no one that most people will claim not to be racist, whether or not they engage in racist actions. It should surprise no one that most people will not claim to hate others. It should surprise no one that most people will present the best possible interpretation of themselves and their communities to outsiders.
This is the problem with most of these “empathy” pieces. They ask for empathy for the WWC’s situation, but implicitly demand sympathy with their conclusions and beliefs. They ask for understanding, then uncritically present people’s own interpretations of themselves and demand we uncritically accept those stories.
Enter The New and Improved Romie Futch, a Flowers for Algernon story set in the 21st century rural south (where Elliott herself lives). Romie Futch is what an empathetic but critical work on the White Working Class can look like. Elliott does not make fun of, look down on, or despise her WWC characters. At the same time, she presents their contradictions and takes their actions seriously. The toxic masculinity, the casual racism, the alcohol and drug dependencies, the desire for but lack of financial independence. The mind enhancements makes a great metaphor for education as a gateway between the white working class and the coastal elites, and Romie’s obsession over hunting a genetically modified boar becomes a metaphor for trying to assert control over a life dictated by larger unhuman systems by attacking the negative local effects of those systems.
In addition, it’s a damn fun novel, one that’s gonzo, smart, and entertaining. You’re going to need some fun before we get to the last novel.
6. Blindness by José Saramago
Blindness is the most brutal work of fiction that I’ve ever read. There are extremely graphic depictions of violence and abuse, much of it sexual. It’s also a powerful work about the fragility of our social norms, and important work right now.
Trump’s win has been both celebrated and feared for the blow that it represents to many of our social norms as a country. The victorious count it as a blow against harmful “political correctness” thought policing. Those of us who cherish our norms fear that the situation in Blindness is all too near.
In Blindness, a disease hits a nameless city in a nameless country which causes those affected to go blind. At first it’s a trickle, but soon large swaths of the population are blind, with the local government is hard pressed to know what to do about it. They begin a program to quarantine the blind “until we can figure out what’s going on”. And so a long stretch of a prison sequence begins, where the blind literally lead the blind through an escalating series of humiliation and violence.
Eventually the remaining prisoners break out, to find the outside world is just as horrible as the world within. Everyone has gone blind, and within days there has been a complete breakdown of the social order. The Superego is defeated, and only Id remains.
The key of the book is how quickly society breaks down when we no longer believe in it. Society is a collective myth, and Trump’s new myths of white supremacy and authoritarianism are rapidly replacing the old ones of pluralism and democracy. It remains to be seen how quickly people’s actions will change, but Blindness long ago convinced me that when it does change, it won’t take long and it won’t be pretty.
Bonus: Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh
While this is more a book about colonialism than modern economic systems, there is an extended section of the book set in a refugee camp. One hopes that such scenes never resemble Hispanic or Muslim resettlement camps in the US, although if we really end up deporting 2 to 3 million people “immediately”, internment camps will become a real feature of the American landscape. In addition, the feeling of being an alien culture on one’s own planet (or country) will be the lived experience for tens of millions of people of color in America, and the plight of the native cultures of this recolonized planet resemble in many ways the fights that First Nations peoples are facing in North Dakota right now. It’s a nice speculative narrative companion to 1491 by Charles Mann.
My Own To-Read List & Honorable Mentions
My hope for the above list was not to be definitive, but rather to offer my own recommendations, some more relevant than others. I’d love if people told me what books they think I’m missing, largely so that I can add them to this to-read list and read them myself. I’m starting off with the few that I’ve already added while talking to friends about this article, but please comment or tweet or whatever and let me know what I should add, and why.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: A future medieval America where the government is religious and women are owned. In other word’s, Mike Pence’s fantasy America.
Short stories by James Triptree, Jr.: A woman writing under a male pseudonym in the 60s and 70s, largely about gender issues.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin: A utopian anarchist novel showing a clash between a socialist/anarchist society and a capitalist one.
Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett: A sequel to the wonderful Dark Eden, Mother deals with the development of powerful states on a colony planet that has lost contact with Earth, and the push and pull between authoritarianism and pluralism.
The Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson: It’s actually fairly embarrassing that I’ve never read this. Neuromancer is a classic of cyberpunk and modern dystopian literature.
And a few honorable mentions which didn’t make the final list, but have some relevant themes.
Cloud Atlas & The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: Both novels end with a chapter set in a far-future world ravaged by global warming. Now that America is set to pull out of various climate accords and to begin burning much more oil and coal, the effects of global climate change are something that we’ll have to deal with sooner than otherwise expected.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson: The last woman on Earth tells a spiraling first person narrative, often circling back to the same themes and events, that questions the ability of a person to stay say when there is no one else to communicate with. Pairs nicely with Metropole.
Foreigner by CJ Cherryh: A lone human, ambassador to an alien race, must navigate a strange, paranoid authoritarian political landscape while coming to terms with the fact that it’s impossible for him to fully understand the psychology of those he’s working with.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: A priest goes to a newly discovered planet to proselytize to the natives. The relevant part is the story-within-the-story of his wife, left back on an Earth that is slowly falling to global warming and a breakdown of the central state, told as a stream of emails to the priest.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Last time I read this, I remarked on how prescient the scenes with Ender’s siblings were. Before the internet existed, OSC predicted political blogging as a means to consolidating power around authoritarian government plans—as sort of rise of the alt-right media through blogs and small internet publications.
Short stories by JG Ballard, Robert Sheckley, and Philip K. Dick: All deal with the simmering elusive barrier between the real and the surreal. Each is a master of taking one small concept and building a world and story around it in order to explore it fully. Sheckley wrote about issues involving drones and ethical AI in the 50s. Ballard’s ecological disaster stories paint pictures of towns ravaged by global warming or drought. All frequently write about advertising and propaganda, the difference between the world as is and how we see it. These kinds of stories can be useful as a reminder that such differences exist, and to remember to take propaganda critically as such.