The Jedi Council’s Reading List: Part 1

Posted: September 11, 2012 by kdatherton in Uncategorized

Over at leading sci-fi blog io9, Charlie Jane Anders has compiled a list of the 12 Greatest Science Fiction War Stories. There is much in the list to like. We’ve already delved into the strategies of Alliance vs Browncoats in Firefly and the approaches of Sith and Jedi in Star Wars, and intend to touch on many of the other properties mentioned in the future. As it must be, the list was incomplete, and if one is to fill a library with political science fiction, there is much more to add. Consider this the first part of an ongoing effort to compile a proper syllabus. (To see a similar attempt, John Robb has compiled a list of science fiction aimed at Global Guerillas.)

  1. The Mass Effect Series. Already featured on Blogtarkin, this is too time-intensive to assign as reading, but the epic scope, durable consequences, and  emphasis on the back end of getting ready for battles makes it the most worthy video game to include.
  2. Robotech. Jon Jeckell writes:

    Robotech should’ve been high on the list. Humans suddenly drawn into conflict far beyond their tech level when a ship containing key tech crashes on earth. Humans poorly reverse engineer and poorly use a tech far beyond their understanding to defend themselves. A vastly more powerful enemy must exercise restraint to avoid damaging something they desperately need war has dramatic effects on human social & political scene; tech & social regression as population devastated.

    One major plot element from Robotech I’ve not seen in other sci fi war stories is demobilization and post war stabilization. The second half of Robotech Macross era is all about dealing with marooned ex-soldier Zentraedi warriors who know no other life than fighting. Combine this with being 60′ tall, enhanced aggression, lack of any other useful skills (they don’t even have the ability to fix their own equipment, or logistics) and severe resource constraints from Earth’s devastation from the war, and you have a powder keg. Add xenophobic vets and civilian survivors of the holocaust these guys perpetrated on them, who keep egging them on and cynical politicians, and things get really volatile. Both sides face great pressure to complete the genocide of the other. Some humans, however, know the Zentraedi are basically slaves sent to fight them, with false memories implanted to make them aggressive and obedient to their masters, and potentially irreconcilable with peaceful coexistence with a former enemy. Humans lack the technology to do anything to help them though, and many wouldn’t even if they could.

  3. World War Z: as pointed out by Jedi Councilor Brett Friedman, zombie survival strategies lack a focus on taking initiative against the undead threat. World War Z, cycling as it does through the stages of such a conflict, shows an evolution of active counter-zombie tactics, weaponry, and most importantly grand strategy. There are lots of stories that focus on human adapting to an apocalypse, but fewer that show humanity actively working against it.
  4. The Matrix: Friend of the blog Andrew Welleford wrote in favor the Wachowski’s opus, saying

    “With the lack of a “Man vs Machine” example in the list, I think The Matrix would be a valuable addition. The first (and best) [Ed: only] film mostly focus on the actions of a group of guerrilla zealots, but the scale of the conflict is expanded on in the sequels. In addition, the backstory provided in the Animatrix highlights the uncomfortable idea only implied in the live-action trilogy: humanity was the original antagonist of conflict. Motivated by fear for our own creations we lead an aggressive and unprovoked attack against the autonomous Machine State. Facing defeat in the subsequent retaliation, humanity made another short-sighted gambit (blacking our the sun) that led to our own downfall and near extinction.”

  5. Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon. The primary Ender’s Game series deals with the consequences of war across galaxies, and Ender’s Shadow offers another examination of this reality from a character not forced to adhere to childlike innocence. More importantly, it sets the stage for Shadow of the Hegemon, which skips the inter-species conflict of the main Ender’s sequels and instead deals with the awkward and messy breakup of a coalition following victory. It is not terribly advanced IR theory, but I’m including it because the relation between warring nations on Earth and the multinational interstellar fleet that suddenly lacks focus are a good civ-mil/coalition politics discussion fodder .
  6. Superiority” by Arthur C Clarke. The tale of defeat by a technologically inferior foe in the face of hubris, mishaps, and a constant refusal to understand the enemy is as vital to the student of PoliSciFi as it is to the Moff’s acquisition department. Maybe if it’s lessons had been headed, the Ewok Insurgency would not have been as successful as it was.

Commenters: what other works would you add to a course on PoliSciFi? Any pressing questions of interspecies/interplanetary/technological conflict that has been left out? Is there a work of science fiction that itself gets at the heart of war in a way nothing mentioned in either list has approached? Let us know!

  1. James says:

    There’s the massive Universal Century Gundam timeline, where wars actually end and flare up again based on the consequences of how they end and the monolithic factions of the first war break up into multiple factions.

  2. Avelino says:

    It’s a long slog (and I know many of his fans were disappointed by it), but Neal Stephenson’s Anathem would be on my list. It does a great job of examining the uncertainty involved in society when aliens show up knocking on the orbital door, and Arbre’s unique civilization brings its own questions about the role of technology and science in citizens’ lives.

  3. norareed says:

    Most of the political stuff I’ve been reading lately has been more intrigue and diplomacy, and more fantasy-leaning, but I think Asimov’s Foundation series and some of the I Robot series hold up really well as poliscifi; they’re great for discussion (and would work great for a class as a result) and the idea of seeing a direction for the future and attempting to change it is an interesting one. I think one of the good kinds of scifi is the kind where we take one point of divergence and watch characters react to it, and though Asimov’s world in Foundation does have the trappings of a space opera, it’s heart is a story about attempting to create a better future.

    I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 yet, but as far as actual politics are concerned I think Dragon Age 2 is far more poignant than the first two volumes of the ME series combined. (Some spoilers hinted at in following sentences.) The paragon/renegade choices you get to make in ME are interesting but don’t change a whole lot. DA is, in some ways, similar, but somehow the inability to change what happens feels more like a feature than a bug in that series. The helplessness at its heart is integral to the plot, the idea that you can become a hero and really not change a lot by siding with one group or another. There’s an optimism in some of ME, and though there is moral ambiguity in the first two of them (and again, I’m not sure what happens in 3), it’s all related to the Shadow Broker and the Illusive Man, whereas in DA you’re really in charge of your own destiny, and your destiny still sucks. The idea that you can choose either side– oppressed, rebellious mages that also tend to be terrorists vs. totalitarian, rapey templars, you can choose to do so for good reasons or power-hungry ones, and really you’re fucked either way– it really resonated to me in an emotional way, because I felt like it was really reflective of the helplessness that the current political system has been throwing up on the youth.

    Also, I know it’s on the io9 list, but Battlestar Galactica is my favorite TV series of all time. I have given this some thought. It’s a great political drama.

    There are also a TON of great political short stories, the new Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling collection, After, has some fantastic pieces that are really applicable to the modern political sphere. The first one specifically stuck in my head as a great media criticism piece.

    Also I would really hope a reading list for an actual class would have at least one thing written or directed by a woman. I know BSG has some female writers on staff, but I don\’t remember any of the rest of them having woman creators. Some writers off the top of my head: Connie Willis, Margaret Atwood, Lois Lowry, Genevieve Valentine, NK Jemisin and Ursula LeGuin. (The SO, looking over my shoulder, says the Dispossessed by LeGuin specifically with good dissection and nonstandard POVs. I liked that one on Lightspeed magazine about cultural tourism with dimensional jumps.)

    Any modern class tackling these subjects should really pick up the Hunger Games, since that\’s what everyone’s reading right now: it’s such a gateway into dystopias for kids and it has a pretty decent revolution in it, complete with some serious personal prices paid by the heroine, and there’s some Big Themes about the media and the bread and circuses thing. Any class tackling these topics ought to discuss HG because its commentary is far from accidental and there is a reason that it’s resonating so heavily with today’s YA readers (both youth and adult).

    You could also get a pretty good unit on utopia, rather than dystopia, out of TNG.

  4. dnexon says:

    Too many to list, but one that probably isn’t on your radar screen is Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. My students don’t love it, but they do find a lot to talk about. Avoid the wikipedia entry, but let’s just say that there’s much for the Moff.

  5. kdatherton says:

    Great comments, all! Hopefully going to put out a part 2 this weekend, and add the evolving reading list as a separate page.

    @dnexon while I haven’t yet found a copy of Downbelow Station, Io9 has a really great write-up:

    @James & @Avelino will look into both!

    @NoraReed the all-male-author bias will be fixed with the next list, and I’ll be more mindful of that in the future. Also surprised I forgot Hunger Games, when it’s widely read and at least as worthy as Ender’s Shadow. I’ve heard it described that the first book is about dystopia and the second two are about PTSD, which more than justifies it’s inclusion, even if I found the actual war to be simply rendered.

  6. I’d say #1 is about dystopia and media, #2 is about energy, the beginning of revolution and the failure of heroes and #3 is about heroes being used as tools, PTSD, the high cost of war/revolution, the corruption of power, and the inevitability of boring conclusions to romantic subplots and irritating epilogues in YA novels. (That last part was sarcasm.) It has as many POC as the Ender series and they’re way less tokenized/generalized (though a lot of that is because it’s in a future that isn’t exactly post-racial but where race has different meanings).

    The Dreamstuff books by NK Jemisin are ones you might be interested in, since it’s sci-fi/fantasy stuff with an explicit racial premise by an actual POC as opposed to your standard SWM.

  7. […] The Jedi Council Reading List.  […]

  8. Michael says:

    1. I didn’t notice any mention of Babylon 5. Over the course of the series, J Michael Straczynski dealt with war, religion, politics, addiction and lord-knows-how-many other topics. Includes the most realistic depictions of space flight prior to Firefly itself.
    2. Anything by David Weber. My preference is his Honor Harrington books (Horatio Hornblower in space, essentially), but he’s done others as well.

  9. Jeppe says:

    I would add ‘Legend of the Galactic Heroes’ [‘Ginga Eiyū Densetsu’], a series of Japanese novels adapted into both anime and manga, which is one of the best example of the ‘epic space battles’ genre in any medium. It is chock-full of references to military history and numerous classic works of strategic thought, and well worth a recommendation – particularly the anime (110 OVA episodes). The two parties to the central conflict of the series (both human, as there are no aliens in this space story) are molded on Bismarck’s Prussia on the one hand and a bloated and bureaucratic mid-to-late-20th century democracy on the other.

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