“Ah, we come in peace!/shoot to kill, shoot to kill, shoot to kill, men!”
If one believes a good chunk of the science fiction literary canon, diplomacy is the refuge of fools and cowards. Problems can’t be solved by “talking.” Negotiating a “peace treaty” is a fool’s errand. In the end, all problems are solved through the deployment of military forces.
After all – diplomats are vain, stupid creatures who think more about their precious negotiations than getting real things done. That’s left up to the (men) of the armed forces, who do the real work to bring peace into the world. There’s no room for niceties. Talks will get you no-where. The bombings will begin shortly. Violence Really Is the Answer.
Unless I’m really under-read, and I admit this could be an issue, SF seems to have a diplomacy aversion. There’s no action. No great clash of fleets. No brave armored marines standing against implacable alien foes. A negotiated solution doesn’t allow our hero, Slab Bulkhead, to toss a bad guy over a railing in cathartic excess.
I remember reading an anthology of powered armor related short stories and one, in particular, seemed almost archetypal in its handling of diplomats. The key diplomat and main staff of this embassy on an alien world were oblivious blowhards, unable to see that the assurances they received from the aliens that the embassy would not be attacked didn’t match with the near riot taking place outside.
It took the brave action of the marines, who not only read the sociologists report on the alien behaviors but also found a way round heavy arms restriction placed by the near-sighted civilians, to save the day.
Now, I could believe appointed diplomats being rather oblivious. I could even believe he hadn’t read the sociologist’s report on the alien’s culture, maybe skimmed the executive briefing instead. What I couldn’t believe was the rest of the diplomatic staff did nothing, said nothing and hadn’t even looked at the report. No one. No one even thought to say, “Hey, who’s our local expert? They think these guys are blowing smoke up our ass?”
I could see everyone I knew who worked for an embassy or the State Department sighing, and shrugging. Why the shrugs? Because this is typical of how they’re portrayed in popular media, much less in SF. Civil servants make great targets,apparently, but terrible heroes.
A while back, I asked around for positive examples of diplomats in science fiction and fantasy. The first one I received was Keith Laumer’s Retief – a character who, by nature, is designed to satirize the hide-bound upper echelons of the diplomatic service. Not exactly a shining example of the merits of statecraft.
Another person lauded Babylon 5. I love the show dearly, but as the show itself said – Babylon 5 was intended to be a place of diplomacy and commerce, so the powers of the galaxy could work out their differences in peace. It failed, and instead became a center-point for three different wars. But this is a step up – it does deal with more than just the big battles. And in the end, the great galactic conflict was solved not by force of arms, but by exposing the real motivations behind the fight.
The closest example I’ve found to a positive portrayal of a diplomat was in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. Jo Walton has a great re-read on Tor.com. You can check it out here. The central character is Bren Cameron. He is the phadi or translator/negotiator/diplomat between the technologically advanced humans who arrived on the world of Mosphera and the native Atevi. While he has two bodyguards, he is forbidden to carry a gun. Even when he breaks this rule, using it is his last resort. Through though all of the books the art of diplomacy – of understanding, negotiating, and seeing mutual benefit – is his chief weapon.
In one key part in the series, both the humans and the atevi are confronted with an immensely powerful race of beings compared to their own strength. It is Bren’s diplomacy, along with a well placed spot of tea, that prevents a massacre. And it is his efforts, along with Illisidi, one of the single most powerful atevi women on the planet, which time and again turn chaos and bloodshead into a hope for something better.
The book series is deep, but I’ve never seen or experienced any books where understanding – talking, learning, becoming proficient in a language – is the key to survival.
Another series which was recommended, and one I have barely touched, is James White’s Sector General books. Tor.com, once again, has a great write-up here. The series started in 1962, yet it’s still very unique as far as I’ve seen. There’s no medical SF genre, for example. I don’t see any stories about the interplanetary equivalent of the Red Cross, for example. And if they are out there, they’re hidden away.
How does this touch on diplomacy? Health missions – helping others at the expense of yourself – are prime examples of soft power, and one of the key tools of diplomacy. In White’s universe, Sector General was created to help build peace and understanding between races – it exists to save lives, not take them. It’s a shame the idea didn’t take wing.
But I’d like this to cease being a rarity. Where are the tales of diplomacy and intrigue? Where are the stories of dedicated professionals looking to build bridges, to understand and communicate? Where are the doctors without (galactic) borders?
I’d like to see more futures where the answer isn’t a quick tactical nuclear strike followed by Miller Time…