The hotly-anticipated fourth season of Netflix’s addictive political drama House of Cards has finally dropped in one big chunk, and we can’t wait to dig into another season packed with Frank Underwood’s devious political manipulation. The downside is, once we’ve gobbled up all ten episodes, it will be another long wait for season five.
Happily, there are a boatload of books that dive just as deep into the murky waters of political intrigue and backroom dealmaking—and, even better, a number of them also fit squarely in the science fiction section. SF is an inherently political genre, often exploring political movements allegorically or satirically to make a point. These novels demonstrate that the weight of their ideas can easily make politics as exciting as a splashy space battle.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
It’s impossible to imagine talking about political SF without mentioning Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel. It’s a dark look at a future in which fertility is a rare gift and those women who have it are strictly controlled, and treated less as human than as breeding stock. Atwood implicitly set out to write a deeply political novel after becoming interested in dystopian fiction and researching early American history. The result was a landmark work about how far governments can go to control their citizens.
The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, by Frederic Brown
When it comes to space travel, Frederic Brown’s take is an intriguing one: in this version of 1997, space travel to Mars and Venus is possible, but is being held back by political operatives who view the efforts as a waste of money. The narrative follows a rocket mechanic named Max Andrews who’s working to make his way to the stars. He marries a senator, Ellen Gallagher, and together, they push for funding for a new rocket that will go to Jupiter. Brown accurately predicts the present state of manned spaceflight, and certainly takes a hard turn from what one might expect from a book ostensibly about space travel.
Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
Max Barry’s second novel is a fantastic satire of globalized trade and the deregulation of industry. In this alternate future, the United States has taken over much of north and south America, with government and its services privatized. Citizens take on the names of their employers, and the titular Jennifer Government is an agent tasked with tracking down the perpetrators of a series of murders . The crime turns out to be an attempt by Nike to drum up notoriety for a new line of shoes, but the plot quickly escalated beyond what anyone planned. It’s a ridiculous, often funny book that shows off a very different, but scarily plausible, hyper-commercial world.
Up Against It, by M.J. Locke
In one sense, M.J. Locke’s debut novel is a race-against-time thriller, as the inhabitants of Phoecea, a remote human colony built into an asteroid struggle to contain the destruction caused by the infantile thrashings of a newly emergent artificial intelligence. But on a macro level, the story is about how much work it takes behind-the-scenes to get entrenched political systems to act in their own best interests—even to literally save their own skins. Jane Navio is the outpost’s resource manager, and though she’s the only one who realizes the extent of the danger the population is in, she has an extraordinarily difficult time convincing others of what needs to be done, and must use every ounce of political savvy she has to finesse the right egos and convince the right committees to act…before Phoeccea is just another dead rock floating out in space.
Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald’s latest novel is an intriguing political drama set on the moon. Five families control the satellite’s resources, and all of them are engaged in a covert war to edge out the competition. In the decades before the events of the novel, Adriana Corta built an empire from the ground up, taking control of the Moon’s Helium-3 industry. As she grows older and prepares to pass her legacy on to her heirs, her organization is at risk of collapsing due to internal and external pressures. This is an exciting and exacting novel about those who will do anything to maintain their hold on power in a ruthless society.
Persona, by Genevieve Valentine
Genevieve Valentine’s fantastic novel Persona takes a look at near-future international politics. The world is governed by the “Faces” in the International Assembly, publicly visible representatives of Earth’s nations and influential organizations. Suyana is the Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, secretly working secure the Face of the United States, as a potential ally. When someone tries to assassinate her, Suyana goes on the run, aided only by a hapless photographer. Valentine spins an incisive tale of politics and celebrity, exploring what happens when political puppets don’t perform as expected.