Thursday, April 06, 2006

The "Duck of Minerva" on novels about theocracies

The Duck of Minerva is a blog run by some academics who specialize in international politics. I figured anyone who could riff on Hegel* that way just might have some interesting suggestions for our series on novels which illustrate what theocracy might be like.

Two of these scholars weighed in with suggested fiction.

Daniel Nexon:
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Series envisions--through the lens of SF/Fantasy--an alternate world where Calvinism triumphs in early-modern Europe producing a diffuse theocratic system. Pullman's books are, in essence, an extended rant against theocracy and religion itself.
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson:
I'm a fan of Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100, which is a collection of short stories rather than a novel. The stories in the book are part of Heinlein's "future history" sequence, an alternative future for the world (and for the United States in particular) which is marked by the election of a zealot named Nehemiah Scudder to the presidency. The stories are about the consolidation of his reign and its eventual demise—and its replacement by something quite different. The lead story, entitled "If This Goes On --" is in my opinion a better and more incisive analysis of the dark side of American national identity than almost any work of social science with which I am familiar. Indeed, it was that story that inspired me to put together a course on the interplay between social science and science fiction.

Not really religious as much as fascist is the dystopia presented in Alan Moore's brilliant V For Vendetta. Far richer and more complex than the recent film, Moore's graphic novel poses the political choice as fascism or anarchy, and brooks no compromises. V is a revolutionary figure, but also a prophetic one, and the regime against which he struggles has more than a few theocratic overtones. The solution that the novel preaches, a kind of radical existentialist transformation of the self, presents itself as the only reasonable alternative in such extreme situations: survival by transcendence of the spirit, as it were. That, and blowing a lot of stuff up :-)

For a somewhat different take -- this novel is not principally set in a theocracy but several of its major characters are either refugees from one or striving to reestablish one -- you might point your readers to Iain M. Banks' Look to Windward. It's set in a liberal-socialist utopia called the Culture which has intervened in a religiously-oriented society for the purpose of "improving" it; things went horribly wrong and that provides the backdrop for a sustained set of examinations of what is gained and what is lost when religion is replaced by technologically-enhanced hedonism.
Thanks to Daniel and Patrick for these suggestions. For other novels about life in a theocracy, see here, here, and here.

Daniel Nexon (PhD., Columbia) is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. He has published articles and chapters on international relations theory, globalization, and American foreign policy. His broad interests involve the relationship between culture and international politics, as well as on comparative-historical analysis of international institutions and politics, and he is currently exploring how the dynamics of historical empires do and do not shed light on the dilemmas of US international primacy.

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (PhD., Columbia) is currently Assistant Professor of International Relations in the School of International Service at the American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles; his book Stopping Asia at the Elbe: Postwar German Reconstruction and the Invention of Western Civilization is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.

--Marshal Zeringue
*"When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in." --G. W. F. Hegel, "Preface," Philosophy of Right