Take Me to Your Lady Leader

By Kristen Lillvis

Featured Art: Profile of Shadow by Odilon Redon, 1895

Contact, Carl Sagan’s best-selling 1985 science-fiction novel, tells of alien shape-shifters, wormhole-traveling spacecraft, and—perhaps the most fantastical element of the bunch—a female president. Yet Contact’s protagonist, Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, compares President Lasker to her predecessors with no acknowledgment of their gender difference, noting that Ms. President demonstrates an appreciation for science seen in “few previous American leaders since James Madison and John Quincy Adams.” Despite her tie to the presidential establishment—and regardless of Sagan’s attempt to make her gender unremarkable—President Lasker still fulfills the function particular to women world leaders in literature. Whether she erodes or extends existing gender stereotypes, the female president operates as a sign of the apocalypse or, at least, a harbinger of the unfamiliar, a reminder to readers that they have entered a world drastically different from their own.

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Of the People, for the People, by the Robots

By Christopher A. Sims

Featured Art: Triumph of the Moon by Monogrammist P.P., 1500/10

American fiction has its small share of memorable politician characters—Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Robert Leffingwell in Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent to name a pair—but there’s a strand of this tradition that is becoming more relevant in 2016: Artificial Intelligence politician figures in the work of two of our most prominent science-fiction writers, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick.

While SF traditionally serves as a space to explore futuristic ideas, Asimov’s 1950 I, Robot and Dick’s 1960 Vulcan’s Hammer can now be reread as prescient visions of the looming potentiality of an AI political leader (perhaps as early as 2024, if Joe Biden chooses not to run).

As the so-called “Internet of Things” takes shape and works to synthesize the physical with the cyber,  we can begin to speculate about how long it will be before AIs take over even our most complicated tasks, such as governance. But the genius of Asimov and Dick lies not in their depiction of the technologies that make AI leaders possible; instead, it’s in their assumption that we will one day, not too long from now, be faced with a critical choice between human and mechanical rule. That, it’s fair to say, will be a consequential election.

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