Worldbuilding and the Police

Building Worlds Beyond Cops (and also some life updates)

Hi everyone! Thank you for being patient during my hiatus – I just finished another pretty brutal quarter at school and a lot of my personal projects fell by the wayside. I’m taking a minimal courseload this quarter and will be prioritizing my own work, so hopefully you’ll be seeing more of me soon!

This month, I want to talk about something of a heavier topic: worldbuilding and the police. Why do so many interesting worldbuilding projects use cops as protagonists or perspectives? Why do so many others assume a law enforcement system similar to our own even as they make conceptual leaps and bounds in other areas? Amongst calls to abolish the police in our own world, why do they keep popping up in our fiction? That’s what I want to wrap my head around in this issue.

But first:

An Article and an Update

I have some news! My ongoing project Worldbot was recently featured in a piece in Hyperallergic about Discord-based art and community work. (That’s my artwork in the byline, too!)

On that note, hello to my new followers from that very article! Many followers, old and new, are probably waiting for an update on Worldbot. What is it up to now? When will it come to Earth, and when can you play it?  

The short answer is I don’t have an update just yet. Worldbot was one of the many projects that fell by the wayside in the midst of school. This article has really reinvigorated my interest in Worldbot, though, so I’m excited to get back to it, hopefully later in April or early May!

I may also need more playtesters at that time. In case that’s something you’d be interested in, I’ll make sure to post in this newsletter first!

Worldbuilding and Police

CW: I won’t be discussing police violence directly, but if you don’t want to think about the police, feel free to skip the rest of this newsletter.

Also, right upfront in case it is unclear: we need to abolish the police, abolish prisons and make reparations for the harm these systems have done (in particular to Black and Indigenous people).

Last quarter, I took an excellent course on literary worldbuilding and research. We read and discussed several short stories that involved speculation or worldbuilding, one of which was Philip K. Dick’s classic The Minority Report. I watched the film a few times as a kid and I’m still quite fond of it, so I was a little surprised when the original story made me so frustrated. The story is outdated in a “written by a conservative jackass in the 50s” kind of way – the protagonist repeatedly refers to his “slim and attractive wife” and reader, I truly cringed. But I have a more fundamental problem with The Minority Report that might be more extendable to worldbuilding more generally. Namely: there are too many world-focused projects that use cops as their main point-of-view characters.

On the surface, police are pretty compelling protagonists for a world-focused story, particularly in a speculative setting. They work within, and can describe in detail, systems that say a lot about the morality and politics of their worlds. They tend to be active agents in shaping their worlds. And they have easily justifiable, plot-motivated reasons to move through different locations and speak to people from different walks of life. Besides, they come with their own compelling plots almost built in. The Minority Report, for example,makes use of the classic "wrongfully-accused cop finds himself on the wrong side of the system" with its protagonist Anderton. It even finds time for a little smattering of "older cop and new recruit have to work together and settle their ideological differences" on the side.

But cops as point-of-view characters can bring with them a lot of baggage that both impacts the worldbuilding and limits the kinds of things you can show to readers in your world. Not only does it limit the forms of conflict-resolution and legality that you can depict, but it carries implications for the society's history (considering that police in a North American context grew out of union-busting and slavery), class structure and social organization. Punitive justice backed by a state monopoly on violence is so familiar to us that it can be hard to imagine alternatives, but using the perspective of a police officer tends to further limit you in this respect.

In The Minority Report, Anderton and the story are so preoccupied with the ethical question of precrime ("should we arrest people before they commit a crime, even if it means we reduce crime? or should we let people make their own choices?") that other possible forms of justice that make use of precognitive abilities (for instance, dedicating resources to helping people overcome the circumstances that lead them to consider murder in the first place) are simply not considered.

Police officers also tend to place some belief in the system in which they work - whatever the specifics, they likely chose this profession because they believed in a model of justice that involves police officers - and so even when stories go to great lengths to call their characters' perspectives into question, it can be difficult to consider alternative forms of justice.

In The Minority Report, Anderton frames social conflict as a series of top-down conspiracies between armed forces in which civilians are powerless and inactive. There are no civilian characters in the story, and there is no discussion of the popularity of precrime, the context in which it became a widely-used system of criminal apprehension, or any popular resistance against it.

On a personal level this form of speculation is uninteresting to me (and on a political level I want to imagine worlds beyond policing so that we can think of ways to dismantle a police-centered justice system), but it's also bad worldbuilding - it results in a world that feels flat, in which real people do not seem to live. Anderton's perspective limits Dick from showing us more than this, and it results in the feeling that this story could have been so much more interesting if only it was told from outside the precrime division itself.

I realize that Philip K. Dick did not share my political goals when he wrote The Minority Report. But it’s an interesting case study because he approaches some of the moral questions at the core of police abolition, and it’s clear that Dick thinks Anderton is a pompous asshole, too—but he can never quite make get to a real critique, because he only shows us the world through the eyes of a cop.

Exercise: Imagining Abolition

So how do we imagine worlds without police?

The first step – and one I am still working on myself! – is to do research and to listen to the work of police abolitionists. Worldbuilding is a significant part of activist work, and fictional worldbuilders would do well to learn from the toolkits, resources and theories activists have used to help their communities imagine and collectively build other possibilities.

So on that note I recommend starting with Building the World We Want, a platform for abolitionist worldbuilding run by Robyn Maynard and Pascale Diverlus that runs events and releases toolkits for grassroots campaigns in Canada.

You also might check out the Abolition for the People series on Medium, which involves some really interesting pieces on the imaginative work of abolition.

Finally, I’ve been looking forward to reading Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, a book about shifting design processes to center marginalized communities and social activism. I think of worldbuilding as a kind of design, so this is really useful!  

As you read any of these pieces, you might think about your own worldbuilding. What assumptions have you made about the law, legality, enforcement and justice within your world? What moral questions do you center, and what do you ignore or sideline? Whose perspective do those questions center? Whose perspective do you/your reader/your process documents imagine these systems through, and whose perspectives do you ignore?