Read To Win

Eight works of science fiction that present tyrants (not all of them human)

The dictator lording over a dystopia is a staple of SF, and these novels and stories show the possibilities.

There’s always a weird tension underlining any science fiction novel or short story: do we focus on the individual or the collective? Oddly enough, it is this very tension that seems to fuel SF, while leading to much criticism against it as a genre, in the form of accusations of being too simple in its satiric tendencies.

Such criticism resonates most strongly when it comes to depictions of power. The way power manifests itself in one person is often rife with psychological conflict; this, with its resulting ambiguity, is arguably the stuff of good literature. But there is a notion that SF is averse to psychological depth and moral relativity, two of the primary facets of modernist writing. Indeed, legendary SF anthologist David Hartwell, in his introduction to The Science Fiction Century, stated it to be the opposite of literary modernism in its intentions.

But it would be simplifying the genre far too much to say call it entirely anti-modernist, seeing that so much of the really notable SF that has been written is obviously a consequence of modernist technique, among other inspirations. What SF did was not simply ape or elude modernism, however, but also rework it using a fresh vocabulary of images.

So, when tackling the theme of authority, you have your fair share of Dark Lords, but there is also that urge to do away with all those nameless, faceless, interchangeable Dark Lords for more imaginatively abstruse but rigorous forays into the type, which bring a material quality to the often abstract nature of tyrannical authority, as these tales will show:

Arslan, MJ Engh

This is a quite underrated novel, if not completely unknown, and it does not pull its punches. It opens in a most brutal way: a leader from a poor, third world country virtually takes over the US and in the process carries out one of the most shocking scenes in all of science fiction.

Arslan is ostensibly an invasion story where some of the deeper insecurities of Western culture are laid bare, and then progressively deconstructed. It’s been hailed by authors such as Samuel R Delany as one of the best political novels the genre has seen. Most tellingly, in making the tyrant out to be a nobody-leader from a nowhere-country, and then forcing the reader to sympathise with him, Arslan proves how the abuse of power has nothing to do with lineage, and perhaps a lot with it a kind of performance.

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

Earth is dying, everyone, and we need someone to ignite the failing Sun. Wolfe takes Jack Vance’s Dying Earth scenario and then pulls out all the stops when it comes to great writing and a very curious take on power dynamics in a semi-medieval culture. Severian, the protagonist, is a professional torturer on a quest, but soon finds himself in the unlikely position of the Autarch.

What is even more surprising is that he realises he’s just one person in a long line of emperors who have tried, and repeatedly failed, to save the planet before him. Apart from an excuse to revel in a gorgeous but decadent setting, Wolfe’s masterwork is also a sly critique of the often interchangeable, and ineffectual nature, of our rulers: figureheads who have always imagined themselves special, only to be replaced with yet another contender for the throne.

The Culture Novels, Iain M Banks

Much like Terry Pratchett ruled the roost when it came to humorous fantasy with novel after witty novel in the Discworld universe, Iain M Banks carved a strange niche for himself in SF, where he told giant, cosmos-spanning tales which centered on a utopian society of human beings, run and maintained by Artifical Intelligence. These are some of the most benevolent tyrants in all of SF: gone is the need, under Culture, to work or struggle.

The AI units themselves are always quite obsequious and often charming, even displaying signs of positively acerbic wit. But a more sinister intention lurks beneath the Utopian veneer: bringing other races in the Universe around to liking the idea of the Culture, or even the notion of a Utopia, often involves violent and underhand measures which undermine everything the Culture stands for.

Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

The allure of myth is much too strong to shake off, even for the technocentric fables of our age. Zelazny’s Lord of Light does just the opposite: it merges Hindu myth with space opera. What emerges was a strange ensemble of colonisers decking themselves up to look and act like the Hindu pantheon of gods using technology, all the while trying to keep the plebeians powerless.

Enter Sam, or Mahasamatman, who fashions himself the Gautama Buddha of this strange new world, its rebel. The adventures that ensue can be defined only as a cerebral, special effects- infused examination of the interconnections between power, myth and science.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s debut novel (part one of a trilogy, actually) took the SF scene by storm with its sensitive handling of space opera. But, like Wolfe, Leckie is obsessed with duplicity. The Radch Empire is a ruthless star-spanning civilisation which turns its prisoners into puppet soldiers. The narrator is an AI unit who once shared many bodies, often at the same time, boasting an omniscient perspective of the world.

Originally in the employ of the Radch emperor, she’s suddenly drawn into a strange conflict when the Emperor’s personalities find themselves at ideological odds with one another. Yes, a tyrant disagreeing with herself; it’s been known to happen! It’s probably fitting that this description of the novel sounds so surreal and confusing, as Leckie implies that’s what the abuse of power often feels like to an observer.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke

Clarke’s by now famous novel still manages to captivate and charm, and a large part of it is the beguilingly benevolent nature of its aliens. These aliens wish what’s best for us as a collective species…and they look like demons to boot: wings, horns, the works.

Which complicates matters a bit, since their ultimate purpose is heartbreakingly devious. Heartbreaking and devious – I’m sure you weren’t expecting those two words together, but that’s Clarke for you.

“Faith of Our Fathers”, Philip K Dick

Dick’s later work was obsessed with theology and madness, and it found its most profound interpretation in VALIS. But before VALIS, we had books like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and stories as outré as “Faith of our Fathers”, originally published in Harlan Ellison’s famous Dangerous Visions anthology.

All of Dick’s tropes are present here: the nature of (in)authenticity, alternate histories, and altered states of perception; but also god, or something passing for it, though nowhere near as comforting a figure as we have made him out to be. This is Dick’s take on that most supreme fictional tyrant of all.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, Harlan Ellison

Ellison’s spine-chilling story is about Artificial Intelligence gone nuts. Here’s the plot in a sentence: a group of humans finds itself at the whims of a supercomputer, who is a ceaseless experimenter and torturer. The title of this story derives from one of the many atrocities visited upon a character in the story by the godlike entity that is also a machine. It’s existential horror with a magnificent pulp veneer, and and one of the very few portrayals of machine culture as a force of outright negativity.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.