Painful Truth: Explaining politics with sci-fi

If thinking about U.S. politics is driving you crazy, you can find some solace in reading a 17-year-old novel that predicted, well, most of it.

It’s not that Distraction, by cyberpunk legend Bruce Sterling, foretold the rise of Trump. It’s that only Sterling’s bonkers novel captures the spirit of an election deluged with rumour, frenzy, partisan fury, ennui, and madness.

No other science fiction novel has grappled with the failure modes of politics as well as Distraction.

A quick summary: Distraction’s hero is a campaign manager and political fixer. In 2044, in an America growing increasingly chaotic, he takes a job investigating the budget of a massive pork barrel research centre in East Texas. The rogue (and possibly actually insane) governor of Louisiana wants to control the research centre. Things get very, very complicated as both sides maneuvre for political advantage, employing public stunts, strikes, influence, and rival armies of highly technological hobos.

It’s a weird, weird book. But only a book this weird could come close to predicting just how weird politics is – and will become.

Let’s not look down our noses at the politics of the Americans. Let’s look closer to home.

Try explaining recent Toronto politics to someone who thinks of Canada, and Ontario in particular, as being fairly dull.

How did Rob Ford, a manifestly unfit populist prone to racist outbursts, get into the mayor’s office? Heck, how did he entrench himself as a councillor for a decade before that?

Or just look at Canada’s federal politics in the 1990s.

One of the original ruling parties of Canada, the Progressive Conservatives, collapsed utterly, and never really recovered. We had five major parties – including an official opposition dedicated to the secession of one province.

In the intervening years, we’ve had everything from Peegate to jet-skiing party leaders. Give us a few years, and we’ll spawn half a dozen new political movements, strange scandals, and find out exactly how odd the intersection of technology and politics can be.

Right now, we have seemingly returned to more-or-less normal. The Liberals face a Conservative opposition, the NDP remains in third place. It all has a veneer of normalcy.

But make no mistake, things are not going to go back to business as usual. Weird is the new normal. I suggest you read Distraction now, while most of it is still fictional.

 

 

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