Writing a Speculative Political Novel That Takes Place in the Next Decade
Design Dares #1 and #2
I wrote a book in two volumes called Design Dare, where I’d take on design challenges and think out loud about them. For example, how would you design a luxury bathtub for the Japanese market? How would you design a product for storytelling online? How should Microsoft’s campus buses work?
The joy of Design Dare wasn’t that I ever solved anything, but that I got to start understanding all the complexity behind seemingly simple things. It’s easy to say things are poorly designed, but as you get into it you realise where all the tradeoffs are. That work is really fun.
Near Future Field Notes
I run a publication called Near Future Field Notes and I’m really proud of it. It’s similar to Design Dare, but specifically aimed at future technologies with a positive twist. I often tell my kids “problems have solutions,” and Near Future Field Notes is where I get to roll up my sleeves and think about wicked problems in the world and how they might be solved better. It’s a joy to write.
I also love to write and think about politics, especially trying to forecast what might happen in the future. For example, I wrote How the 2020 Election Will Go in January, almost a full year ago, with this premise:
“I have a single goal for writing this, which is to hold myself accountable for my predictions, which will probably be wrong. That’s it! I want to look back in December 2020 and compare what I wrote here to what ends up happening, just to see how I did.”
So those are the sorts of things I like to write, and today I saw a fascinating tweet that got my gears turning:
Oh, this is speculative fiction GOLD. He’s pointing out that if 36,174 Biden/Democratic voters had moved to Alaska, the state would have flipped to Biden. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s seismic. Not because of their 3 electoral votes, but because states elect two senators. And two senators would make an outsized difference in the current gridlocked Senate. So let’s dive in, where we quickly run up against a fascinating speculative fiction wall.
Diving into this storyline
Let’s say you wanted to write a short story or novel with a plot of “A bunch of Democratic activists move to Alaska to flip the state.” The first thing you’d do is check when the next senatorial election is up. It turns out we won’t have to wait long. Lisa Murkowski, a famously independent Republican, is running for her fourth term. Trump has announced his displeasure with her, and that he will be openly campaigning against her in the primaries. Oo, spicy.
But that’s not all. Alaska just moved to an open primary, as well as a ranked-choice voting system for the general election. What does this mean?
- An open primary means the top four vote-getters will advance to the general election. So instead of having a bunch of Democrats compete to be the single Democrat going against a single Republican, you could end up with four Republicans in the general election. Or four Democrats. And what’s more likely is something like three Republicans going up against a single Democrat. That could mean “splitting the vote,” where maybe the three Republicans get a total of 60% of the vote, but none of them get more than 30%. Meaning the single Democrat could easily beat them. Could this happen? Well yes, if Trump is trying to campaign against Lisa Murkowski with a Trump-sanctioned candidate. It’s almost a given that there will be a brawl, and it’ll be fascinating to watch.
- Ranked-choice voting is fascinating. (Vox explains it here) In today’s system, you might prefer a third party candidate but not want to feel like you’re wasting your vote. So you’ll hold your nose and vote for your favoured big party candidate. But ranked-choice means you vote for your first choice (a huge boon for third party candidates), but then list your second, third, and fourth as well. There are no more wasted votes in this system, which has big implications, notably for independents.
Let’s sketch out Trump + open primary + ranked-choice
We know Alaska has more registered Republicans than Democrats. We know as of today that Trump is popular with Republicans. We know Trump doesn’t want Lisa Murkowski to win. And we know Alaska as a new system for voting. So how would that build itself into a story? Let’s say these are the people who run in the primary:
- Murkowski (Republican)
- Trump Candidate (Republican … or third party?)
- Five other Republicans
- Six Democrats
We can make a pretty good guess that Trump Candidate and Murkowski are going to get into the top four. So let’s say the next highest numbers are two Democrats, or maybe a Democrat and an independent. Let’s guess at the order of votes:
- Trump Candidate
Some facts about independents
A common misconception is that the country is divided into two equal halves. In the conventional wisdom, Democrats have nearly 50%, Republicans have nearly 50%, and everything is deadlocked, with no hope for common ground. Not quite. That’s not what the data tells us.
Independents (which I’m going to call indies) represent a whopping 38% of the country. Here they are, with the purple line:
There are more of them than Republicans or Democrats! Think of the implications of that. When you add it all up, Democrats have almost a third, Republicans have almost a third, and indies have more than a third. We’re not divided in two, we’re divided in three … but drill deeper and you see why that division actually means we’re more united than we think. Bear with me.
See, indies still “lean” towards either the left or right, as shown in this graph:
The Democrats get about 31% in this graph, and Republicans get about 26%. 5% is a pretty big difference, enough to lose elections.
But when you factor in the indies and their lean, the Democrats get 48% and the Republicans get 39%. That’s a yawning 9% spread. That’s enormous.
I don’t know much about Alaska politics. But I know this:
Republicans are decreasing, and are at about 50%. Democrats dropped in 2016 but otherwise seem to be trending up. And indies are having a bit of a run recently, registering over 10% of the vote in 2016. So I don’t know what all that means, but it’s interesting. Enough to build a story from.
Getting a bunch of people to move
This is another topic I know almost nothing about. I’ve been checking population growth numbers and it seems crazy to move 36,174 people anywhere, even over a period of four years. And I don’t mean logistically, I just mean figuring out their motivations. What gets people to move in those sorts of numbers? So I checked out Austin. Here are their stats since 2017.
And the years before that, it was even higher, in the 59k range. (Side note: what are the chances that four years of population growth would be almost identical each year? That’s odd.) So that means in four years, Austin added over 212k people. So it’s possible, on paper. But Austin is not a good example, because it’s such an outlier. In fact, it’s the number one fastest growing city in the United State of America. (As a comparison, San Francisco lost 6k people in the same timeframe, and Chicago added 32k.)
And what are these moves motivated by? From what I gather, it’s a lot of people from California moving to Texas in order to keep their same high paying tech jobs but pay a lot less in rent. That’s a highly motivating reason, and “let’s get more Democratic Senators” isn’t really in the same category.
Let’s pause there. Do we have a story?
We’ve got a country deeply divided, but united in their indepedence from dominant political parties. We’ve got Alaska, a famously independent state that’s been trending more independent and then passing a law to accelerate the trend.
We’ve got a messy open primary and ranked-choice voting system, which leads to wildly unpredictable results, and benefits third parties. And then, playing the villain, we have an ex-president who is hell-bent on revenge against a long-standing Alaskan Republican senator in an election year that will be her most vulnerable yet.
And then we’ve got the concept of a bunch of Democrats moving to Alaska to try to swing the state into the Democratic column. Do we have enough for a story? I think we do. I think we definitely do.
The bones of the story
There are three patterns in literature:
- Person versus person
- Person versus nature
- Person versus themselves
And this story could smirkingly tie them all together.
The main plot is some crazy liberal commune concept, like a tech billionaire that’s going to pay Democrats $20,000 to move to Alaska and build a community. The idea is floated, it gathers steam, it moves in unpredictable directions, and it looks like it might actually work. (With conflicts and issues of course. The depth depends if it’s a short story or a proper novel.)
So that’s the primary plot. The conflict playing out against all of that is the realities of moving a bunch of people to Alaska at once. The citizens won’t be thrilled, and a backlash will emerge. It’s hard for one person to find housing, get a job, and get acclimated in a new place, but the story can multiply that times tens of thousands of people doing it at once. Plus who are these people who can afford to just move somewhere without a plan or any connections? That’s enough for a rude awakening story all by itself. Several, in fact.
Then we factor in the actual political races. The open primary, the ongoing internal skirmishes and external difficulties with the citizens of Alaska, the ranked-choice voting, Trump’s salt-the-earth approach conflicting with the GOP’s strategic goals. And of course, because it’s a story, a lot of people are going to learn and grow. Like a bunch of the Democrats will end up voting independent and find other ways to splinter off and cause headaches for the project.
Who wins in the end? That’ll be sort of irrelevant. The story will write itself, and it won’t be about the final vote count as much as the route they take to get there. Person versus person is obvious because of the political races. Person versus nature is obvious because it’s Alaska. And person versus themselves is obvious because everyone will grow and get their comeuppance.
But the really interesting bit will be the deeper details on each of these. There’s more to people than elections, more to nature than Alaska, and more people personal growth than learning things. The book could be a hoot.