How science fiction predicted President Trump: a warning from alternate history
Octavia Butler’s Parable of Talents, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers
The 1997 film adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a 1959 celebration of authoritarianism dressed up as a man v aliens space opera
As the world stares into the void of a Trump presidency, readers of science fiction may be forgiven a shudder of déjà vu. A charismatic loudmouth sweeping into the Oval Office on a wave of populism is a recurring trope of speculative writing, with consequences invariably far more disastrous than any number of alien invasions or zombie apocalypses.
One of the most harrowing visions of what Trump’s America might look like was offered by the late African-American writer Octavia Butler, who, in her 1998 novel Parable of Talents, imagined a buccaneering Commander In Chief pleading “to make American great again”.
Parallels with Trumpism are as uncanny as they are unsettling. Butler gave us a straight talking senator railing against liberal “elites” and Muslims while promising to unleash economic armageddon against a troublesome neighbour (here Canada rather than Mexico is the bugbear).
The bad news is that things do not end well under President Andrew Steele Jarret, with anti-Muslim uprisings across the United States and the country dissolving, slowly, then rapidly, into internecine conflict. In November 2016 it does not make for happy bedside reading.
The ascent of a red, white and blue Strongman was likewise predicted by Philip Roth in The Plot Against America, his 2004 foray into alternative history. Once again, the resonances with current events are extraordinary and unsettling.
Roth chronicles a successful 1940 run for the White House by pioneering airman turned fascist apologist Charles Lindbergh As with Trump, Lindbergh’s campaign is initially perceived as a joke by the establishment , even as his anti-Semitic rhetoric inflames the masses. When he wins by a landslide, the Jewish community wakes up outcasts in an America that has remade itself overnight in a despot’s image.
Though warmly reviewed The Plot Against America was regarded as an eccentricity from Roth, its meditation on 1930s extremism deemed irrelevant to 21st century America (recall that George W Bush, disdained as buffoon rather than feared as potential tyrant, was in the White House) Now the novel feels horrifically prophetic – a warning that intolerance and populism are not historic quirks but aspects of the human condition against which society must be eternally vigilant.
But for the most apocalyptic portrait of what an authoritarian American might look like we must turn to that great laureate of dystopia, Philip K Dick, and his 1963 masterpiece The Man In The High Castle. The book is generally read as a counter-factual romp where the Axis Powers have triumphed in the Second World War and divided the United States into zones of control.
Yet beyond the novelty of an America where swastikas flutter from every flagpole, The Man In The High Castle, has much to say about the forcefields of alternative reality each of us has the capacity to construct around ourselves – bubbles of insularity that are violently popped when something like Brexit or Trump happens.
A driving conceit of the novel is the existence of a secret alternate history of the United States in which is posited an Axis defeat and a Free America. However, this vision is rejected by a populace unable to take seriously the idea of a vanquished Germany and Japan. The media has so thoroughly convinced the masses of the inevitability of a Nazi-dominated America that they are blinded to the possibility of events taking a different turn. As the global punditocracy wrestles with its failure to diagnose the forces tapped into by Trump, Dick reminds us of the dangers of believing history can take but one, preordained path.
Where President Trump is about to lead us all is difficult to predict. One of the more disconcerting potential scenarios is vividly sketched in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a 1959 celebration of authoritarianism dressed up as a man v aliens space opera.
Here, citizenship is not a right but a privilege to be earned through military service and equivalent patriotic displays (Heinlein, a potty right-winger in his later years, entirely approved). If you’re not explicitly with the quasi-fascist regime, you are irrevocably against it – a stranger in a deranged land. Today this flight of nightmarish whimsy has taken on the chilling aspect of a prophecy.