By Meredith Conroy
Today on the blog we are featuring new scholarship from Boise State political science professors Michael Allen and Justin Vaughn. Their new edited volume entitled Poli Sci Fi: An Introduction to Political Science though Science Fiction (Routledge), brings together a series of thoughtful, provocative, and entertaining essays to explain fundamental political science theories and concepts through science fiction. The 16 chapters are organized into six different parts, with each part covering a core topic of political science, such as political institutions, behavior, and identity. Moreover, each chapter concludes with a set of readymade discussion questions, making it an easy to adopt text for political science faculty who want to liven up their course with the use of film, literature, and television.
I asked Michael and Justin a few questions about this innovative and exciting book. Below are their responses.
Meredith: What was the inspiration for the volume? Did this idea come up one day at the office, or was it a long time coming?
Justin: Michael and I have offices right next door to one another and often would talk about various sci fi things, like the run up to the new Star Wars movie, for example. I’m only really casually interested in sci fi – I don’t have the appreciation for or sophisticated understanding of the genre that Michael has, but I think I said “We should put together a volume on sci fi and politics” enough times that he finally gave in.
Michael: Justin and I came to Boise State at the same time in Fall 2012 and, as he mentioned, have been neighbors since the start of our time here. While we had discussed research quite a bit, our substantive interests are quite distinct (he studies the presidency and I study asymmetric relations in international relations) and so collaboration was not an obvious option. However, early on, Justin proposed working on a chapter for another book at some point and we struggled a bit to come up with a jointly interesting topic. I think our last discussion suggested a paper on the different leadership styles of various Star Trek captains as they relate to presidential leadership styles. While a very fun topic, we never got further than the initial idea. Eventually, Justin suggested that instead of a single chapter, we should use our joint interests to create an edited volume which seemed like a great idea. We went from a stalled conversation to immediately drafting a proposal and talking with publishers. We quickly decided that using science fiction as a platform to understand introductory political science concepts would be a great way to attract beginning political science majors as well as non-majors who may be tangentially interested in politics, but may find a standard political science course daunting.
One of the neat things about this volume is that we decided to have a laser focus on visual media. Typically, when people discuss science fiction in the classroom, they discuss established books and require students to read one or several novels throughout the semester. We wanted to enable instructors to be able to assign films or shows for homework (or show them in class) and use the book as a way to motivate discussion about serious political science courses.
Meredith: How difficult or easy was it to find political scientists to contribute to the book? I put myself in your shoes and thought about what it would be like to pull together a volume on gender and politics (my subfield), and realized I could probably do this because this subfield has a built in network, plus I have been on numerous panels on this topic, and coauthored with others on this topic etc. Yet I wouldn’t think this built in network exists for sci fi in our discipline. Am I wrong?
Michael: We used our existing networks of political science friends, and friends of friends, to identify and contact people who seemed both capable and willing to contribute to such a volume. I tend to be very open with my hobbies and interests and they are quite nerdy (e.g. science fiction, fantasy, board/card/video games). Given my openness, it is not too difficult to find people within the discipline that share similar interests as long as you (and they) are not guarded about their non-academic pursuits. So, some of the co-authors are graduate school peers, friends from conferences, or friends of friends from either of those categories. We also reached out to people who have written on the topics before if we saw a gap in the book and wanted an additional author. Ultimately, we ended up having too many chapters for the book and had to cut a few potential contributions. I think each section of the book could very well be their own edited volume if were a demand for it in the respective subfield. Of course, since our goal was targeting first- and second-year political science undergraduates, we wanted to have a breadth of coverage.
If we imagine our current network of peers, friends, and colleagues within the discipline, some subset of them will have an interest in science fiction and, even if a particular person does not like science fiction, they generally will know other people who do and can point you in that direction. A special challenge of this particular book is that it transcends several subfields within the discipline and requires experts on many different topics; however, I think we were successful in getting solid contributors who both could speak well to a particular work and how it relates to the field they write about.
Meredith: The book is divided into 6 parts that cover core topics in political science. When designing the book did you have this organization in mind, or did the submissions inspire the organization? Is there any subtopic that you did not include in the volume that you would have liked to include, or thought sci fi would lend itself to even though it didn’t get addressed in this edition?
Justin: From the start we envisioned this book as one that could be used in an “Intro to Political Science” class, and would probably be assigned alongside a more traditional textbook on the topic. So we gathered up the leading handful of those more traditional texts and mapped out all the key concepts they covered. Almost all of the books had the same core topics covered, with each one taking its own spin in one way or another. Once we had an idea of what we wanted covered, we sought out the submissions.
Michael: A consistent feature of introductory political science books is that the books devote only one or two chapters to international relations topics. Given that I am an international relations scholar, I certainly would have liked to add more depth in that regard. We had two additional chapters lined up that ultimately did not make it into the book due to length, style, and coverage considerations. We initially planned to have a chapter that covered human rights and used Elysium as the medium to discuss pivotal concepts through that film. We also wanted to have a comparative regimes section that considered how we typify and analyze governments and having a similar task for various science fiction governments. The latter chapter was a bit more difficult to include as every chapter pairs with a specific movie or television episode and that chapter would not fit as neatly into a single viewing for students. K. Chad Clay, a graduate school friend now at the University of Georgia, had a pretty good article on the topic back in 2011. The Quantitative Peace is a blog I started with other Binghamton University graduate students back in 2008 (it now includes posts by many others and several of the blog contributors also contributed to the book) and we occasionally wrote on the intersection between political science and science fiction. I had likewise written on The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Star Wars, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and The Hunger Games over the course of the last 7-8 years.
Meredith: The chapters of the volume cover popular television shows like Futurama, Deep Space Nine, and Battlestar Galactica, as well as books (turned films) like the Hunger Games, Starship Troopers, V for Vendetta, and Ender’s Games, and films such as Idiocracy. Admittedly, I am not a sci fi buff, but I wanted to see something about Harry Potter! And I suppose this is because Harry Potter is fantasy, and not sci fi. So, what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy, and what, if at all, makes sci fi more accessible to political science concepts and theories than fantasy?
Michael: I think this is a good question and one that Justin’s and my introduction partially tries to answer in a novel way. Part of the reason we chose science fiction is that, often, science fiction operates within the rules of our universe, but chooses a few variables to tweak to imagine a different set of outcomes. We argue that science fiction allows to attempt to observe the counter-factual we often find in our quantitative models, game theory equations, and comparative case studies when we postulate the important “What-if?” question of our research. Science fiction writers are often doing that work for us and it facilitates students, scholars, and teachers to argue whether an author’s particular interpolation of the changed variables conform to the theories we have.
In some ways, there can be a very thin line between science fiction and fantasy. People will often, accurately refer to Star Wars as high fantasy as, while it clearly is in a science fiction setting, it contains elements of fantasy both in character roles as well as having a form of magic (the Force). In many ways, I think the dividing line is between what is possible/feasible within the rules of the physics of our universe (perhaps with some bending or close-to-breaking changes) versus rejecting some set of limitations. A quick rule might be, “does it contain the supernatural?” The boundaries, however, even with a rule like that gets murky. Arthur C. Clarke establishes a well-known maxim back in the 1970s that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. While this applies quite well to how people may not understand really how their smart phones or computers work, it also applies to blurring the lines between science fiction and fantasy. Part of our inquiry to draw imaginary lines between the genres, then, may be, whether the creator of the piece attempts to explain the technology/supernatural force and root it in relatable physics or science. The much maligned midi-chlorians in the Star Wars prequels were certainly an attempt to bring the Force from the realm of magic to the realm explained phenomenon—or to make the supernatural into just the natural.
So, in our project here, we really did want to go with visual science fiction pieces that showed a strong comparison to our political reality. We can explain part of the choices a writer, director, or actor made and discuss how it compares to what we understand about these processes from political science. In addition to loving science fiction, I also enjoy fantasy quite a bit (I certainly read fantasy novels before I did science fiction), but included fantasy would make the book a little too broad and might make it seem directionless or inconsistent to some. Certainly, fantasy readers such as yourself would be disappointed, but perhaps this just means we know what our next project ought to be.
Meredith: Justin, your chapter in the book analyzes bureaucracy through the lens of the animated television show, Futurama. What led you to make the connection between this show, and bureaucratic politics?
Justin: I have to make a confession – that was totally my co-author’s (Scott Robinson) idea. Scott is a tremendous scholar of public administration and enjoyed the way Hermes portrayed the stereotypical bureaucrat. I hadn’t even watched the series before, so it was a really fun (or at least the political science version of “fun”) way to get introduced to a new program. By the end of the essay, though, I was a fan.
Meredith: Michael, your chapter explains civil war through Star Wars. How did this idea develop?
Michael: My first science fiction love was Star Wars. My parents were fans of the movie and I remember having Star Wars action figures as a kid. When Disney announced that it had acquired the film rights to Star Wars back in 2014, I was overjoyed as I saw the potential for the series to re-emerge from the prequels and leave a stronger legacy then ending on a whimper. The announcement inspired me to take up a pen and write a brief blog post about what we know about civil wars and how that relates to the Star Wars universe. My chapter is much more detailed than what I originally wrote in 2014, but it initially served as one of the pieces we used when sending the proposals to publishers.
Since we are discussing science fiction, I do feel compelled to add a quick note on an obvious tangent: I am of the mind that you do not have to be either a Star Wars or a Star Trek fan. I have seen every episode and movie of Star Trek and enjoy the series for very different regions than Star Wars. They both serve very different roles and are not really in competition with each other. As such, Ray Carman’s chapter on the Cardassian’s protection of civil rights (lack of, really) is a fantastic read on my favorite television series within the Star Trek universe (DS9). Likewise, the chapters on various Star Wars movies are enjoyable reads that cover their topics well.
Michael: Thank you, Meredith, for inviting us for the interview as it was enjoyable to put some of these thoughts down and share them. This is my first edited volume (though not Justin’s) and the whole process has been pretty exciting and I am happy to see it out in print. Naturally, I hope other instructors find it useful in their classes to explain difficult political science concepts as well as, hopefully, enjoy the book themselves.
If you’d like to feature your book on our blog, please contact blog co-editor Meredith Conroy at firstname.lastname@example.org