TT:Speculative Governments

Break out the balloons and fireworks!!!  The Thursday Tangent is now officially just over one year old!  If you’re interested in owning an e-book containing all our posts until just a few months ago, Alan is offering it for free at

Oh…  And if you want to read my latest Wednesday Wandering, just page back one to revel with me beneath the glories of the Big Sky.  Then come on back and join me and Alan as we take a look at how SF/F are great grounds for experiments in alternate governments.

JANE: One of the things that makes for a good SF story for me is when the

Open for Speculation

author takes a look at the governmental systems we have and feels free to suggest a tweak or two.

In Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein introduces the idea that perhaps the right to vote should be earned.  He makes it relatively easy for this to be done.  Military service is one route, but if I recall correctly there are others.

ALAN: Yes indeed. Heinlein makes it quite clear that any form of government/community service will earn the franchise. The novel concentrates on the military aspects because that was where his interests lay (and of course it makes for a more exciting story than a novel about garbage collecting would have done).

JANE: The novel’s young protagonist comes from a family with money, so he is surprised to realize the extent to which two of his high school classmates – including the girl on whom he has a crush – will go to in order to earn the vote.

That made me think.  I am very aware of  the abuses that have been put in the way of those who wished to vote.  However, giving the vote to everyone of “voting age” hasn’t seemed to increase its value.  Sometimes I’ve wondered if perhaps – as with so many other things – people would value the vote more if they didn’t automatically get it.  As I noted a few weeks ago, growing up in Washington D.C. and realizing that I didn’t have a vote on some things made me value the right when I relocated.

ALAN: Universal suffrage is a relatively recent phenomenon (women have only had the right to vote for a century or so). I’d hate to see something that was fought so hard for disappear again…

JANE: So would I, but does it go away if everyone truly has the right to earn it?

Okay.  I could go off into some of Heinlein’s other governments.  He did a very good job with theocracy in “Revolt in 2100,”  for example.  But I’d enjoy hearing about other writers.

ALAN: I’m very fond of Cordwainer Smith’s stories about the Instrumentality of Mankind. They are some of the weirdest things ever written, and describe a very peculiar form of government, but they have an undeniable magic that makes me return to them again and again.

The Instrumentality itself is an outgrowth from a police force of “perfect ones.” It is a council of largely independent people all of whom seem to act in sometimes arbitrary ways to enforce arbitrary decisions, so to that extent it’s not a council at all! The Instrumentality is benevolent but certainly not benign, and it can often be extraordinarily callous. Smith takes huge delight in such contradictions – perhaps you could call the stories an investigation into the politics of paradox!

JANE: That sounds really interesting.  Could you suggest a title or two?

ALAN: Smith was not very prolific and he died quite young. He wrote one superb novel (Norstrilia) and a handful of short stories. My favourite of the short stories is “A Planet Called Shayol” which I think shows the Instrumentality at both its best and its worst. Incidentally, all of Smith’s work is available from NESFA Press in two very handsome volumes.

JANE: Thanks!   I have Norstrilia and I’ve read many of Cordwainer Smith’s short stories.  Needless to say, I find the human/animal Underpeople fascinating.

As I noted above, while I like the weird, I also like those stories where the familiar has been permitted to evolve.  In addition to being good at creating aliens, I think Larry Niven is very good with governments.  In his Known Space stories, the UN has become the dominant government of Earth.  Especially in the earlier stories, there’s a strong sense that humanity’s choice to move off Earth and establish colonies on the Moon, in the asteroid belt, and on other planets in our solar system has finally led Earth to move toward developing  a collective identity.

The Belt seems to be more parliamentary.  Its chief of state is the First Speaker.  I enjoyed the passing mention in Protector that the current First Speaker got into politics because “Aptitude tests said I had a high IQ and liked ordering people around.  From there I worked my way up.”

When designing alien governments, Niven is even more creative.  The Kzinti have a Patriarchy.  The Puppeteers are governed by He Who Leads From Behind.  The Protectors’ version of government is even more complex, rooted in their biology.   What I really liked was that these choices weren’t simply copies of human governments but evolved from the larger alien psychology.

When I think about them, I find myself thinking about how an alien  might come to conclusions – both right and wrong – regarding human nature from studying our various governments.

Okay.  Your turn!

ALAN: One of the more overtly political writers in modern SF is Iain M. Banks. He also writes mainstream novels as Iain Banks (and I must confess I prefer his mainstream work to his SF). However, in both incarnations he writes consistently from a left-wing perspective.

The Culture is his name for a galaxy spanning government that he has created for his SF novels. It is an anarchist, socialist utopia. I’m not sure how viable it is – certainly it seems to depend strongly on vast and powerful artificial intelligences in administrative positions. It also makes the big assumption that these artificial intelligences are benevolent. Neither of these assumptions bears  much resemblance to reality (yet). However it certainly leads to some entertaining stories and speculations.

Also I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that Iain Banks had read and enjoyed Cordwainer Smith in his youth. It seems to me that his Culture has many resonances with Smith’s Instrumentality.

JANE:  We’ve talked about several authors, but I suspect we’ve barely touched on what has been done with inventive SF (or Fantasy) governments.  I’d really love to hear what our readers have to suggest.  I know my reading list has already grown as a result of this conversation.


13 Responses to “TT:Speculative Governments”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    My first thought was actually of Changer and Through Wolf’s Eyes, not because of their strikingly original forms of government, but because of how well you brought them to life, Jane. To me, that’s more important than the theoretical structure.

    That said, I’d point to the whole Orion’s Arm project as an interesting example of theoretical governance. They haven’t done much with it for stories, but they’ve certainly done a tremendous amount of world-building much of which you may find interesting.

    Off-hand, some other books that get creative with governance are Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, and Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe, especially 40,000 in Gehenna and Serpent’s Reach. Brin’s uplift series has some interesting ideas too. That’s just off the top of my head.

    Great question!

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Weird, I thought I’d replied, but I don’t see it.

    Anyway, Orion’s Arm is at

    For additional novel government forms, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi has a social system based on quantum cryptography.

  3. Roger Ritter Says:

    Nevil Shute in (I believe) ‘In the Wet’ had a British Commonwealth government with both unearned and earned voting privileges. Here he abandoned ‘one man, one vote’, and allowed people to earn extra votes by various means. As I recall (and it’s been years since I read the book, so I’m not even sure that it was this title) each citizen got one vote for existing. Additional votes could be earned by completing a four-year college degree, serving a military enlistment, marrying and having children, and by special award of the Queen. That’s an interesting way of rewarding the productive citizens who are promoting society’s interests.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I must seek this one out. I generally like Nevil Shute’s books a lot, but that is one that I’ve not read. You make it sound extremely interesting.


      • Roger Ritter Says:

        I’m a big fan of Nevil Shute. He was a very good storyteller, even though most of his stories were rather quiet tales. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, I heartily recommend ‘Trustee From the Toolroom’, ‘Round the Bend’, and ‘Rainbow and the Rose’. Almost everything he wrote is worth reading.

  4. Patricia Kemp Says:

    The personal incorporation system in Dani & Eytan Kollin’s ‘Unincorporated Man” is really interesting. Not government exactly, but certainly a way of shaping and controlling society.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the additional details. I really like the one with both earned and unearned voting privileges. Like any system, it could be “gamed,” by the government in power, but it seems to provide a real incentive to vote — and earn the vote.

    • Roger Ritter Says:

      I went and looked things up – it is in ‘In the Wet’, but it was a bit more complicated than I remembered. One could earn up to seven votes by various means – completing a university degree, raising two children to the age of 14 without getting divorced, getting a commission in the armed forces, spending at least two years working outside the country, etc. I like the scheme because it has ways for practically every citizen to earn extra votes. It’s not just limited to the elite classes, although only the more intelligent would have a chance of earning all seven.

  6. CBI Says:

    In one of the earlier /Honor Harrington/ novels, David Weber presents a history of the development of the government of the Republic of Haven. I first read it about four years ago or so, and I had to double-check that he’d written it a decade prior, rather than as a commentary on current events. It is a rather creepy feeling when a once-speculative government appears to be contemporary.

    OTOH, maybe it just takes a study of history . . . .

  7. Says:

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