My colleagues in other sections of ThinkProgress have been providing comprehensive coverage of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, looking at everything from how multinational organizations are responding, to the impact on energy supply and prices. As the U.S. and Russia have faced off, I’ve been thinking a great deal about literature, and how various novels have worked through different fantasies of Russia’s (or the Soviet Union) future. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any of these books as substitutes for news coverage, particularly not in a fluid situation like this one. But if you’re considering a resurgent Russia from the outside, these thought experiments, which get at the power of Tsarist glamour, to the role of absolute rulers in Russian history, to the cultural impact of a bipolar world, these novels are a great deal of fun to curl up with:
1. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card: To preempt any objections, let me start off by reminding everyone of how I feel it’s best to approach Card’s content. Now that we’re beyond that, Ender’s Game makes for fascinating reading today for its smart attention to Earth-based geopolitics, even as it’s setting up an epic conflict between humans and the alien race known as the Formics. Ender Wiggin, the novel’s main character, grows up in the United States, which hovers in bipolar opposition to the Second Warsaw Pact, a confederation of states based around Russia, which practices censorship and has a different approach to population control. As long as the Formics present, or appear to present, a threat to humanity’s continued existence, the two poles keep the peace. But the question of what might happen if that balance were upset hovers over much of the novel.
2. Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo: Bardugo’s novel, the first in a trilogy, jumps back in time to take Tsarist Russia as the inspiration for a country called Ravka, which has both a powerful scientific tradition that manifests in a form of magic called the Small Science, and a powerful popular religion. Bardugo isn’t writing alternate history, but her novel is a strong exploration of how charismatic leaders with expansive goals can influence the course of nations, and what happens to people, especially to women, who aren’t exactly sure they want to comply with the expectations set out for them.
3. Rupetta, N.A. Sulway: I’ll have more thoughts on Sulway’s novel, which I liked very, very much, tomorrow. But for now, know that it shares with Shadow And Bone the use of Tsarist Russia as an inspiration for a fictional world. In Rupetta, science, not magic, rules. A robotic woman named Rupetta, who was invented by a young woman, and who has passed from Wynder to Wynder, comes to be the adviser and close companion of an ambitious young ruler of a Russia-like country. Inspired by Rupetta, the young woman helps establish a series of laws established by her predecessor, and in trying to save the young ruler’s life, Rupetta helps bring about scientific advances with enormous consequences for the people who have to live with these legal, cultural, and medical changes centuries later. Ultimately, it’s the story of how culture changes even as regimes and ways of governing fall, an important lesson for this moment in Russia’s attempts to reassert itself.
4. Neuromancer, William Gibson: It’s a sideline in Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, but one of the characters in Neuromancer has been deeply affected by his experiences as part of an attempt to test Soviet cyber-defenses that ends up getting him embroiled in tensions between the Soviet Union and Finland, with extremely nasty consequences. As the U.S. tries to figure out what its next play is, and the situation in Ukraine offers up new insights into the military capabilities of both Russia and its former satellite, these sections of Neuromancer make for interesting re-reading, especially as a counter to folks who are eager for some sort of American show of force.
5. The Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson: I know, I know, I’ve been poking y’all about these novels for years. But at the moment, they’re a very interesting reflection on the differences between Russian and American styles (and between various American styles, too) in everything from engineering, to media, diplomacy, terraforming, and sex. Ultimately, everyone ends up adopting a homegrown religion invented by a Japanese and living pretty much forever, which at this moment, seems like a pretty strong outcome.
6. The Bear And The Dragon, Tom Clancy: I’ve written before about Clancy’s uncanny powers of prediction. The Bear And The Dragon makes for an amusing re-read because of how wrong he got it all. In this scenario, China invades Siberia for its energy reserves, the U.S. and Russia team up to stop them, and live feeds of Chinese forces end up convincing Chinese students to lead another successful democracy movement, which goes dandy this time because the People’s Liberation Army is occupied elsewhere. Ahh, optimism. None of this is to say that China won’t be a regional aggressor at some other point, but the idea that Jack Ryan would make all the tensions between the U.S. and Russia disappear seems like even more of a dream these days than some of his other adventures.
7. The Foundation Series, Isaac Asimov: Vladimir Putin seems driven less by Communist ideology than by the former raw scope of Soviet influence, paired with a resurgent Orthodox church. But that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining to revisit Asimov’s vision of an empire built around the idea of psychohistory, a means of broadly predicting the future.