One of the strangest gifts the current political situation in the U.S. has given us is the concept of the “Deep State,” a so-called shadow government of lifelong bureaucrats who subvert all elected authority and steer policy as they see fit, comfortably ensconced inside the machine. Apparently. As attractive as that conspiracy theory might be to folks who don’t read sci-fi and fantasy, for those of us who do, there’s a good chance concept is familiar—probably because it has shown up plenty of times in SFF novels, albeit under different names, and often within alternate or far-future universes.
The eight books listed here alternately view the Deep State with humor, suspicion, admiration, and cynicism—and they all remind us that the real world is often more science-fictional than we realize.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
If you think of Adams’ legendary humorous sci-fi quintet as merely a series of smart gags in a speculative setting, you’re not giving Adams enough credit. Behind the jokes, the ridiculous names, and the elastic nature of Adams’ fictional universe is a good deal of serious philosophy and real science—and more than a little sly political commentary. Case in point: Zaphod Beeblebrox, cool dude, space adventurer, and president of the galaxy. His disastrous administration—which he seems more or less totally unqualified to head—is actually a total triumph, at least to those who are really in charge. As is revealed during the course of the books, the office of the presidency is a distraction designed to keep people from finding out how the real decisions are made (spoilers, it involves a slightly confused old man on an isolated planet). In other words, the entire galaxy is run by the Deep State, and the chief executive is only there to make sure no one ever notices.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
This delirious omnibus book is basically what results when two authors do a lot of drugs and start wondering what it would be like if every conspiracy theory they’d ever heard was assumed to be true, and then did a lot more drugs before sitting down to write. Epic in scale and wild in execution, this classic trilogy isn’t always easy to parse, but it is frequently hilarious, and sometimes even thought-provoking. It imagines a world where a global Deep State—the Illuminati, naturally—are working towards a planet-wide human sacrifice in the service of rendering themselves immortal. Or something; anyone who can pull a crisp plotline out of these books is either trying too hard to see the fnords, or just having some fun with you. All that matters is that the story is essentially a battle between the Illuminati and the Discordians (who are beholden to what is either “an elaborate joke disguised as a religion, or a religion disguised as an elaborate joke,” depending on who you ask), weaving in and out of every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of, and adding in Adolph Hitler, a golden submarine, and an enormous sea monster. That’s all you need to know.
The Dread Empire series, by Glen Cook
The Deep State is most often found in sci-fi, but it exists in fantasy novels as well, as Cook’s Dread Empire series proves. The Shinshan Emperor should be pretty powerful, since his empire is considered dreadful, but in reality, the emperor is controlled by a group of sorcerer generals. Being a sorcerer general running a dread empire ought to be pretty cool, except they’re being controlled by a small conspiracy of highly-placed individuals spread across society in service to a demi-god, who in turns answers to an eternal and infinite dark power. In other words, it’s Deep States all the way down.
The Destroyermen series, by Taylor Anderson
Mirroring real-world history—as much as one can mirror real history in a series about a Great War-era United State naval vessel, the USS Walker, being transported to an alternate Earth where two different warring species evolved, and humanity did not—the Governor-Emperor of the New Britain Isles is ostensibly in control (having been established by the crews onboard two ships from the East India Company that also made their way into the alternate dimension a few hundred years before the Walker. Much like the British East India Company did in our dimension’s history, the Honorable New Britain Company of the Destroyermen dimension is really pulling the strings. The Company isn’t actually a hidden node within the government, and doesn’t officially govern in any way. It’s just that the economic weight and power of the Company means that whatever it says, goes, no matter what the rather splendidly-titled Governor-Emperor thinks might be best. In our book, this makes the Company a de facto Deep State operator.
The Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov
Perhaps the most ambitious Deep State of all time is in evidence in the multiple Foundations Asimov imagines being set up by the genius Hari Seldon. Seldon, able to predict the broad strokes of future events through the science of psychohistory, sets the wheels in motion to mitigate the inevitable fall of the Galactic Empire and the Dark Age that will follow. Without intervention, that Dark Age will last thirty centuries. With the steady, invisible hand of the Foundation (and the even steadier, more invisible hand of the Second Foundation) the Dark Age can be reduced to a mere thousand years. Over the course of centuries, the Foundations deal with a series of predicted galactic crises and nudge events in the direction they wish without once having any direct authority or control. In fact, it’s only the emergence of a wild card—in the form of a mentally-empowered mutant known as The Mule—that threatens to upset the delicate math Seldon bet on. And even then, the Deep State proves fairly robust.
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The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin’s multi-award-winning science fantasy trilogy is set in a world that makes the Dark Age of Asimov’s Foundation novels seem like simply a bad day. On the continent of the Stillness, the apocalypse has become a deeply ingrained way of life. Every few generations, the people who live there must suffer through a “fifth season” (summer, fall, winter, spring, apocalypse)—one sort of cataclysmic event or another, from skin-melting rains, to volcanic eruption, to poisonous fungal clouds, each with the power to end civilization forever. To combat this, a system of cultural memory has been established—lore and practices handed down over the generations that ensure the population is ready to deal with the next fifth season, whenever it should occur. But the cataclysm that begins the trilogy isn’t like the others, and there’s good reason to believe this fifth season with be the last—until the trilogy’s protagonists begin to dig into the history of this ever collapsing world to discover the reasons things are the way they are, and unmask the immortal, questionably human Deep State actors behind it all.
Though it’s primarily a TV series, there isn’t a sci-fi universe out there as drenched in Deep State shenanigans as The X-Files, which has, for more than two decades, explored a universe in which the Deep State is basically all-encompassing. Not only the U.S. government, but essentially the entire world is run by a shadow government preparing the Earth for alien colonization. Every time FBI agents Mulder and Scully learn something new about this huge conspiracy their efforts are blocked by that selfsame Deep State. You won’t find a more paranoid universe anywhere in fiction; remarkably, if you didn’t know any better, you might assume the Federal Bureau of Investigation was the U.S. Government, based on this show, since other public authorities are rarely even referenced.
What’s your favorite SFF-nal conspiracy theory?