Nerds are hard to shop for, particularly when they put their politics into everything. You know the one—the unapologetic sci-fi superfan who always shows up late and hijacks the dinner conversation with a steady stream of commentary on events both current and those taking place in a galaxy far, far away. (see you at 6[ish], mom)
That doesn't mean, however, you're off the hook. Nerds need love too, and they'll be sad if their gift's place under the evergreen tree is empty. So what's the gift get? Clothing? Forget it. He has already got the requisite (ironic) Jar Jar Binks T-shirt and (non-ironic) Battlestar Galactica fanny pack. DVDs? Please. Anything she wanted to see, she bought advance copies. Memorabilia? Maybe, but how many life-size Storm Troopers does one human need? (In my experience, at least three, but not more than five.)
Allow me to help: No matter how deep into the sci-fi buffet your local politico has dug, there's always room for another book. But before you hit the shelves, a word of caution: Choose carefully. Politidorks are a touchy bunch, and it's easy to attempt to give a well-intentioned gift whose recipient will mistake it for your attempt to short-circuit the revolution. You may find Ayn Rand's anthem to be a clever work of fiction. Your aspiring socialist of a nephew will likely never forgive you.
You're running out of time, but I'm here for you. And as a person whose career is in political writing and whose heart is on Babylon 5, I think I'm (depressingly) well-qualified to make a few suggestions. Here we go...
For Your Democrat—The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
I once asked my dad what super power he would take if he could pick anything. He didn't hesitate: "The ability to make a mathematical model of any situation and access to the data to make it work." From this I take three things: 1) My own existence is a miracle. 2) I have come by my nerd-dom honestly. 3) My dad really wants to be Hari Seldon.
Hari Seldon is the offscreen star of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. He's also the inventor of "psychohistory"—a math, psychology, sociology hybrid that allows him to predict the path of human society with remarkable precision. That's what's going right for Seldon. What's going wrong for Seldon is that he has run the numbers and it's not pretty: The massive, galactic empire that has kept humanity peaceful and prosperous for time beyond memory is about to fall hard—like, "Visigoths with Star Destroyers" hard—and there's nothing ANYONE can do to stop the dark ages that are to follow.
All is not lost, however: Seldon's calculations tell him that the secret ingredient is love there is a way to shorten the post-fall dark age to a single millennia, as well as to lay the seeds for the next empire. All it will takes is a collection of the era's greatest minds, some furious calculating, and an eventual triumph over "the Mule"—a villain as intriguing as any the genre has to offer.
What does any of that have to do with Democrats? For one, the promise of psychohistory should be irresistible for the center-left: Seldon so thoroughly cracked society's code that he can, with just some tweaking at the margins, engineer a better one. It doesn't require soul-numbing medication, or an annual bloodbath among love-triangle-inclined teens, or whatever the hell they're up to in Divergent. It just requires a well-educated citizenry, large public investments in science and innovation, and the occasional policy push to keep the nation get on track. The Foundation is "Nudge" at a galactic scale—eat your heart out, Cass Sunstein.
Side note: I'm told that Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich are both Foundation fans, so perhaps—if you're looking to play it safe—this trilogy is the way to go. That's especially true if you're shopping for a teenager, as the rest of the books on this list veer further into adult content.
For Your Republican—Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson
Trying to pick the politics out of a Stephenson book is like trying to pick the color of a kaleidoscope, but Snow Crash is 1) jaw-droppingly prescient and 2) an pan-ideological joyride that includes plenty to love for a critic of big-government. Whether it's a sidesplitting (and at times painfully poignant) depiction of a day in the life of a federal employee, or an America where the government became so inefficient that chain restaurants have assumed the state's basic functions, Snow Crash will resonate will resonate with those endlessly vexed by the bureaucracy.
The story centers around Hiro Protagonist, a computer whiz, virtual samurai, and fallen pizza delivery angel, and his skateboard-toting ally Y.T. Following a happenstance meeting, the pair race to thwart a virus (both computer and biological) that threatens the new Internet world—and everyone on it. The story is gripping, the characters are endearing and the ideas are mind-bending, but—for me—the greatest joy comes from traveling through Stephenson's vision of a future Los Angeles that reads equally as satire and futurology.
Let me re-up my caveat here: Reading Snow Crash as a polemic for any political affiliation would be hopelessly simplistic, and that's not my assertion. I'm just saying there's plenty in there that resonates for a small-government conservative.
Also good for fans of: archeology, linguistics, swordsmanship, and rapid pizza delivery. Finally, it's a classic piece of cyberpunk from 1992 that envisions a future in which people spend a great deal of their lives interacting via Internet forums rather than face-to-face. Crazy, right?
For Your Green Party Member—The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Welcome to a breathtaking world of genetic engineering. Set entirely in a Thailand besieged by climate change, the book explores a world in which humanity has remade the world with its newfound abilities to manipulate DNA. It did so out of necessity: The Windup Girl's world is born out the great "Contraction"—a time when fossil-fuel shortages sent the "foreign devils "¦ scuttling back to their home shores." Now, circa a century later, humanity lights its homes with bioluminescent plants and powers its machines with kink springs wound by reengineered super-elephants.
But before greens protest, The Windup Girl is hardly a pro-GMO polemic. The reordering has created a mono-culture food supply equally at the mercy of plagues and the capriciousness of the "calorie companies." The natural kingdom is in shambles due to accidental GMO releases (birds and cats alike are all-but extinct thanks to ubiquitous chameleon-feline hybrids known as "chesires").
And then there's the windup girl herself, an early result of a scientists putting humanity itself under the splice"¦ just go buy this book, and if you don't have anyone to give it to, read it yourself.
For Your libertarian—The Circle, by Dave Eggers
The Circle isn't about government. It's about what governs our lives.
The book focuses on a company ("The Circle") that is basically Google on steroids, a ubiquitous tech company that has taken over every aspect of social media, search, and technology. And, in many ways, they've created a better world in the process. Government is more transparent, streets are safer, and citizens lead safer, more convenient, better organized lives. The Circle connects us all, and in a way, we can all help each other all the time to lead "better" lives.
We're also all connected to each other all the time. Life in The Circle—and increasingly in my social circle, for that matter—is a string of rapid-fire interactions with emails, texts, calls, GChats, and tweets (or "Zings", in Eggers' parlance). So what does any of this have to do with libertarians? From a government perspective, little. Nobody is being overtly forced to sign up for The Circle's endless suite of web services, people do it because it's fun, it's convenient and it provides a way to "keep in [perpetual] touch."
Instead, the book makes a powerful cultural argument for how a constant connection to community corrodes the individual, an attack on the mindset underlying much of the libertarian argument. And as the novel progresses, it presents an all-too-recognizable culture of shared everything—an experience is given meaning not because of how it is lived, but by how it is shared.
Sound crazy? How many different interruptions have you had since you started reading this story? Or pause a conversation with a human to check the conversation on Twitter? And when was the last time you truly had a moment alone?
P.S. Please tweet this story.
For Your anarchist—The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Remember that anarchist commune you lived in in college?* The one where everything was decided by consensus and you drank out of mason jars, except that far more was drunk out of mason jars than was ever decided by consensus? (And when you need consensus on whose turn it is to cook stir-fried-tofu-with-dandelion-greens for the third consecutive night, the consensus was often angrily driving a 1989 Honda Civic Hatchback to Taco Bell? But I digress ... )
The point I'm getting at here is that functional, leaderless societies are difficult to find, especially those that aren't subsidized by student loans and burrito supremes. But the idea of anarchy, and questions of how we'd get along without any person or people telling us how to get along, is compelling.
Enter Ursula K. LeGuin's four-decade-old classic The Dispossessed. It's the story of the moon Annares, a planet-wide anarchist commune with no leaders, no possessions—on Annares, it's not "your blanket," it's "the blanket you use"—and no laws. There's also minimal crime, zero violence, and mass cooperation. Annares is a moon of Urras, a world where a pair of capitalist and communist countries are engaged in a forever war (the symbolism here isn't particularly opaque, and it was even less so when the book was published in the 1974.)
But the novel is hardly a screed; all on Annares is not as it seems. And as the story unfolds (and holy Brian Herbert does it unfold in a cool way), LeGuin raises questions that will leave everyone—regardless of where they fall along the ideological continuum—with plenty to grapple with.
*Asking for a friend.
For Your Marxist—The Hunger Games, By Suzanne Collins
OK. Fine. Everyone has already either read these books or decided not to, so this probably isn't much of a stocking stuffer. But 1) aren't Christmas gifts a bit too materialistic for the hard-core Socialist in your life? and 2) I want to talk about The Hunger Games, and I'm guessing if you've made it this far, you're probably in-it-to-win-it (thanks Mom, and sorry Dad), so keep on reading.
The Hunger Games as a socialist screed isn't a particularly difficult knot to unwind.
For all the three people who haven't heard: North America is comprised of districts, home to massed laborers toiling on the edge of destitution even as they produce a wealth of resources. They owe their destitution to "The Capital", whose residents—we'll just call them "Capitalists"—are stealing labor's wealth to live opulent lives. From there it's a quick bit of labor organizing, some pan-Panem solidarity [forever], a teen love triangle rivaled only by Jacob vs. Edward, and presto: revolution!
Katniss' middle name is never listed, but it's probably "Marx," "Engels" or "Guthrie."
For Your anti-Marxist—The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
"¦ maybe we've got the Hunger Games' politics backward.
Sure, the labor revolt narratives work up to a point, but there's a model that fits better: The Soviet Union. Much like in the U.S.S.R., Panem's economy is heavily regulated and centrally planned. The Capital takes in resources and redistributes them in a heavily planned fashion. And Panem's natural resources? Well it's not corporations that own them: It's the government. It's all centrally planned, right down to the last mouthful.
And at the middle of all that, is the Capital. Sure, the Soviet Politburo wasn't traipsing around dinner parties in extravagant fashion, but when the state's food supply faltered, you can be sure the party's inner circle weren't the ones cutting their calories. And—and I mean this with all due to respect to those who endured one of history's most vile regimes—there's a similarly to the orgiastic violence of Panem's "reapings and quells" and Joseph Stalin's purges.
And you know who brought that system to its knees? An individual who wouldn't conform, who preferred to hunt for her dinner than to take her diet from the state, and who was certainly ready to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.
In the end, Katniss is less Karl Marx than she is Captain America. And the Capital may be in North America, but its best real-life resemblance? Well, that's Soviet Moscow.
Happy shopping. May the force be with you and the odds ever in your favor.