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.