Writers and speculative politics

As you may have already heard, Gore Vidal has passed away. He was, of course, a very political writer, and I usually found his writing reasonably entertaining. But I didn't agree with much of what he wrote, and it wasn't a simple, "Oh, he's on THIS side of the liberal-conservative political divide and I'm on THAT side" kind of thing. It was because Vidal really embodied a way of political thinking that I think a lot of fiction writers tend to embrace: His was a speculative approach to politics.

What do I mean by "speculative"? Well, think of something that's happening (say, global warming), and then imagine that it becomes this HUGE problem that more or less renders the planet uninhabitable. Congratulations! You've just written Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as well as any number of other fine dystopian novels.

Is that likely what's going to happen with global warming? Hmmm.... Well, the nation's decision-makers are based in Washington, D.C., and lately summers in D.C. have been quite unpleasant. Winters haven't been a picnic, either. Oh, and hurricane season's getting worse and worse--that affects them, too. All the carbon in the air is acidifying the oceans and causing the oyster crop to fail, so if you like fine seafood, it's going to be a rough year. Meanwhile, in the country as a whole, there's a big drought, which is going to drive up the price of all kinds of food--and voters just LOVE it when that happens.

In short: Carbon air pollution is starting to cause some really annoying problems. When a type of pollution starts to become a hazard and a nuisance, people actually do have a pretty good track record of halting its production--this is why we haven't all died from lead poisoning or acid rain, even though we're all still living in cities and driving cars and whatnot.

But that's the economist/journalist view of the future: You know, the one that's profoundly grounded in reality and that acknowledges the power of small, incremental changes. If you ask me, "What do you think is going to happen?" and you are asking that about the real world, that's the kind of answer I'm going to give you.

Writers like Vidal (and many other fiction writers) don't think this way, because it's not just exciting or dramatic enough. Vidal loved conspiracy theories--those are fun! He loved this idea that the world was teetering on the brink of collapse!!! Nothing ever made him happy: An African-American is elected president (something he thought Americans were far too racist ever to do), and he said, “We’ll have a military dictatorship pretty soon."

But while I really, really do not agree with Vidal's thinking as it applies to real life (if the choice is between changing out lightbulbs and committing suicide in a survivalist bunker, I'm gonna go buy me some CFLs), I can't argue that the speculative approach doesn't have value to the writer of fiction. I mean, Philip K. Dick made Gore Vidal seem like a calm and reasonable fellow. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell both wrote novels that they genuinely thought reflected what the future was going to be like. The imaginative habit of taking Trend X and extrapolating it to an extreme is key to speculative fiction--even fantasy creatures tend to be extensions of traits you see in yourself and other people. And what is an insane conspiracy theory other than a rip-roaring story?