One of the things that science fiction authors do best is world-building. They transport us to planets, societies, and cultures that are very different from our own. Arkady Martine, author of A Memory Called Empire, is a pro at this. In her latest, she takes readers to the stars and marries politics with mystery in a thrilling way. Here, Martine shares works of science fiction and nonfiction that have inspired some of her worldbuilding, particularly as it relates to government and society.
I’m a historian and a city planner, and I write science fiction. My “literature of ideas” is the universe of social science questions: What makes people human, and how do we tell? How do we organize ourselves, why, and what could be done differently? What are the purposes of culture, of governments, of stories? This group of books, both nonfiction and speculative fiction, have helped me think about the mechanisms and ethics of governance, a theme which informs my own work—both as a writer and as a civil servant.
Inspiration from SFF
Malka Older’s trilogy about future forms of democracy—“microdemocracy,” where groups of 100,000 people (a “centenal”) vote every ten years to see which geographically non-contiguous government they want to belong to—is one of the smartest looks at information technology, democratic principles, humanitarian aid, and what you can do with a katana and a dataset if you’re really determined since Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It asks us what future governments might look like, and to consider what democracy really means. It asks who gets to decide, and how those decisions get made. (Spoiler: It’s all about who gets to distribute information, and how.)
These books tell the story of Baru, a queer woman from an island nation which has been colonized by the eugenicist Empire of Masks, and her efforts to destroy that empire without destroying herself. In The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Baru allows herself to be educated by the empire and become its agent, all the while carrying within her two seditions: That she wants to have sex with women, and that she wants to destroy the Masquerade. She sacrifices the first desire over and over again for the second, and thus creates a sequence of seemingly inevitable atrocities, caught in the fallacy of sunk costs—she believes she has done such evils that to cease trying to become a creature of sufficient power to unwrite the Empire of Masks seems worse than going on. Reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant feels like sinking into a morass of wondering if you, too, would see the best solution to the ravages of empire in a mask shaped like your own face. But The Monster Baru Cormorant is a more ambitious project: It asks its reader to consider whether any actions can be taken freely. It is an investigation of behaviorism, ethics, and genetic compulsions, tied up in a fantasy novel where much of the action involves currency speculation and the complexities of maritime law.
Bear’s Carnival turns the 1970s social science fiction tropes of matriarchal planetary societies and ecotopias upside down. This novel is also about spies, sociopathy, and renewable energy. She draws two societies: the matriarchal planet of Amazonia, where rule-of-women has resulted in enslavement and dehumanization of men, while women’s roles expand to encompass every echelon of society, from hyper-militaristic to nurturing. This place is contrasted with a male-dominated interplanetary society ruled by artificial intelligences who enforce radical carbon neutrality on human beings by killing them with nanites if they use too many resources. Bear’s work lets us think about how eco-regimes might create conservative rather than progressive societies, and undercuts the idea, present in those 1970s feminist matriarchal visions of the future, that women are inherently different from men—given the opportunity, they are capable of absolutely everything men have been here on Earth, for good or ill. The book is refreshing, disturbing, and provocative. And that’s before you meet the aliens and their renewable energy technology…
This collection of 25 stories from speculative fiction’s sharpest voices presents visions of future Americas that are born, bloody and aching, from the peril and difficulty of this present moment. The collection’s editor, Victor LaValle, writes in his introduction about how this collection derives from the project of its namesake, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: The story of this place as told by all of its people. Many of the stories explicitly interrogate systems of governance, borders, surveillance, community, and democracy. (My personal favorites are Lizz Huerta’s “The Wall,” Tobias S. Buckell’s “The Blindfold,” Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Read After Burning,” and Malka Older’s “Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity [excerpted].”)
Inspiration from nonfiction
In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, with Byzantine political power scattered to Nicea and Epiros by the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, the Byzantine political imagination was forced to respond to the trauma of the loss of Constantinople. No longer was it easy to declare the Empire preeminent amongst states and the Emperor first amongst rulers; the empire was reduced to a second-rate land power in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Emperor one of several disparate claimants for the title, each with his own political backing and small territory. In this important contribution to the study of medieval imperial ideology, Dimiter Angelov demonstrates how Byzantine political thought became an ideology of loss in the 13th and 14th centuries. He shows us how the loss of Constantinople to the Crusaders caused a diminishment of the idea of universal empire, and when the Byzantines did take the city back, imperial propaganda had changed: No longer was the person of the emperor the seat of universal power. Instead, the city of Constantinople itself became the necessary component of political universalism. The book is also a kind and deeply-thought-out biography of a particular emperor, Theodore II Laskaris, who faced the question of what Byzantium might become straight on, composing political treatises on ethics which nevertheless did not change the ultimate outcome of his empire’s fixation on their lost city.
Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott
There’s a reason this list is called “Seeing Like A State,” and that’s because of this book—a piece of sociological exploration which looks in enormous depth at the ways that human societies and human forms of governance have tried to make the world more understandable, controllable, and beautiful—and how they have failed, much more often than not. Scott’s is a touchstone text for me: What he writes about how states render societies legible, i.e. readable—think about subdivision maps, about social security cards, about tax rolls, even about last names—all of those things exist so they can be kept track of, seen, analyzed by the mechanisms of one state or another. Reading this book is like having a key to understand how bureaucracy functions.
Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. Anna Linden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names, she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Martine’s debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, kicks off the Teixcalaan series.