If this election cycle has taught us anything, it’s that politics is strange enough, even before you mix in magic and futuristic technology. Granted, this hasn’t stopped anyone in science fiction or fantasy from adding their own unique flourishes to the political process, but with the baseline set so high, it’s pretty much given things will only get weirder from there. It also gives authors a chance to highlight what’s wrong with our existing political process, while building their own strange new worlds. Here are six of the most intriguing political systems in fantasy and science fiction.
Pax Democratica Elections, Infomocracy by Malka Older
In Malka Older’s debut novel, a global search engine and social networking concern called Information (think a lawyer-friendly version of Google) has divided the world into districts known as “Centenals,” which vote every ten years for both the ruling party in their district, and for the world-governing Supermajority. Adding to the frenzy are the incentives that each party secures for their voters—essentially gifts for voting a specific party—which are seen to influence the way the public votes. Older has deeply considered how this system would work on a global scale, and the Pax Democratica never seems entirely like it’s going to collapse under its own weight, even though the election season that kicks off the plot does contain at least one server crash and an attempt to hack votes, making it seem a little shakier than it first appears.
The International Assembly, Icon by Genevieve Valentine
While the IA was introduced in a previous novel, Persona, Icon gives the reader a much better idea of its inner workings. Think of it as a combination of the United Nations and a red-carpet event: each country or region in the IA is assigned a public “face” who acts as its representative in both public and state matters. The “public” side of things involves going out to nightclubs, fostering contracted relationships with other faces, and winning over the paparazzi assigned to follow the faces. It also involves every moment of their lives being planned down to the last detail, managers who force potential faces through a rigorous PR training regimen, and a life of only ever showing genuine emotion in private. For purposes of writing an exciting novel, it’s also a life fraught with political assassination attempts, since faces are required to be in public almost all the time.
Azad, The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
On the planet of Azad, the setting of Banks’s black-hearted political satire, the population determines their social rank and political standing via the incredibly complex board game that lends its name to their entire planet. While the nuances of the game of Azad are mostly kept vague (because if it was that easy to describe, how complex could it be?), Banks describes a massive, multi-leveled board with shape-shifting pieces. The grand prize of this particular planetary tournament is, of course, the position of planetary Emperor. In the final round, played on a unique board, everything that happens in the game echoes on the planet itself. Which can lead to a rather dangerous game, if one player decides to implement a scorched-earth strategy. Where Azad gets truly terrifying, however, are the side-bets, which could turn a loss of rank into a loss of limbs, or even a loss of life.
Karthain Election, The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
The third book in the Gentlemen Bastards series sees its con-man protagonists forced into a scheme to influence the election in the city of Karthain. The election takes the form of an odd game of political power plays, with each party of mages using agents to influence the vote and make sure one of the two parties—the progressive Black Iris and the more conservative and aristocratic Deep Roots— wins the day for the “side.” While the city itself believes that it’s voting on its future, all the major decisions are actually made by the Bondsmagi who run the place, rendering the election less a power struggle for real issues and more a combination of a long-standing sports rivalry and a dinner-table political debate. Which, granted, can be just as deadly as a real election.
Darknet Society, Freedom™ by Daniel Suarez
In Suarez’s unusual suspense novel, society is destroyed and then rebuilt under the all-seeing eye of a computer program known as “the Daemon.” The result is a kind of collectivism based on the ideas of a massively multiplayer roleplaying game, with each citizen completing tasks based on an assigned “class” so they can access more functions of the network and earn currency. From this, it directs human beings into sustainable communities using alternative energy, and even manages its own defense force. While the system as seen in Freedom™ is far from perfect (for instance, its defense force is commanded by a sociopathic black hat hacker and a literal cartoon Nazi), even in that state, it’s made great strides to free itself from corporate interests and other issues that plague centralized governmental structures, making it arguably the closest thing to a utopia on this list.
Lady of Mazes, by Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder’s brain-altering hard-SF-meets-space-opera grand opus is basically a 400-page political thought experiment. In the far future, humanity exists almost universally within self-selected “manifolds,” virtual reality simulations that are based on a specific set of social values, with their resulting different levels of technology, the strictures and bylaws of each enforced by perception-altering brain implants. So, one manifold may be organized around the ideals of the Renaissance, for example, and everyone may live in fine homes draped in tapestries. Another may include those who eschew technology altogether, and live “off the grid” as hunter-gatherers. There’s even a manifold for those born with impaired mental capacities, which operates by its own sort of cartoon non-logic. The book follows Livia, a diplomat who is one of the few able to perceive multiple manifolds, on an adventure that takes her beyond the confines of the worlds—both virtual and real—she knows and into an altogether more complex system of perception, and a political system with implications so mind-altering, we’re loathe to spoil them here, and not only because doing so would give away the secrets at the heart of this intricate, ambitious novel.