While many politicians running for president think they’re superheroes, most are not. But what if they were? This is the premise of Brian Cato’s pre-dystopian urban fantasy novel Candidate Spectrum (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Cato discusses what inspired and influenced this story, and why Ex Machina had nothing to do with it.
To start, what is Candidate Spectrum about, and when and where does it take place? I know it’s about a superhero named Spectrum…
The novel covers the 2020 United States presidential election, from the events that lead Spectrum to enter the primaries to about a week after the election, in a universe almost exactly like ours except for the presence of Spectrum.
There are two interwoven threads to the plot. The first follows the election from Spectrum’s point of view. His campaign starts really strong, but soon encounters problems. Having spent most of his life as a superhero, Spectrum is politically naive, idealistic, and headstrong. Predictably, those traits cause him problems. Also, some negative element often comes to dominate the narrative around a presidential candidate. Many come to see Spectrum as a bit too remote, as not quite American enough, and not quite human enough, to be president.
The second thread I think of as a kind of mystery. So many people, myself included, feel like America is off-track. Spectrum runs for office because he wants to help people on a massive scale, he’s very invested in figuring out what’s wrong and trying to fix it, trying to make America the best it can possibly be. He has the feeling that neither party has the answers, isn’t really asking the right questions, so he seeks out a wide array of people with very different opinions searching for an answer to that very fundamental question: What’s wrong with America?
It seems obvious, but I’ll ask anyway: Where did you get the idea for this story?
The concept of the book came to me in 2016 while I was thinking about the election. I was just kind of baffled that the voters from both parties thought that the candidates they nominated were the best from their party. I started thinking about what an ideal politician would be like. Someone who was immensely popular, whose intentions no one could doubt, and yet who was very earnestly concerned with the problems in our country. It occurred to me that a superhero would be a natural fit for that role, but that the public might not respond as one would hope to the “perfect” candidate. Things just kind of snowballed from there.
I was working at the time, and didn’t have the time and energy to start writing, but I did outline the plot. When I began writing, not much changed from that outline, but as I fleshed out the details, I did find myself surprised at just how intractable our problems are, and I think that definitely affected the tone of some of the later chapters.
So, did you set out to write something topical and this is what you came up with or did you start out writing this story and it just naturally became topical?
Oh, I absolutely started with the intention of writing something topical. I know so many writers will say that they don’t believe in overtly discussing ideas in their novels. I’m not sure why this happened, but I grew up believing that an artist’s responsibility is to engage with reality as it is, to criticize it, to react to it, to reflect it back to readers in a new light. It’s great that we have a lot of novels that seek to entertain, we need that, but I find it really troubling that our society seems to be turning away from art that challenges to the extent that even Martin Scorsese has trouble getting his films made.
That said, it was extremely important to me that I not just produce something that parrots and amplifies partisan talking points or my own personal political beliefs. I worked incredibly hard to write something that would at once welcome people from both sides and challenge their beliefs. Part of the outlining process was thinking about what kinds of problems aren’t being discussed in politics today but are making our lives worse, because as messed up as, for instance, our health care and immigration systems are, I don’t believe that fixing them would fix America. I did my best to leave my preconceptions behind, to take this journey with Spectrum understanding that no one has all the answers, that anyone who claims to is either lying or delusional, and try to explore important ideas and possibilities that might point the way to a better America.
The press materials for Candidate Spectrum call it a “pre-dystopian urban fantasy novel.” What does “pre-dystopian” mean?
At first pass, it means simply that the world is not quite so bad, not yet a full-fledged dystopia, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how it might become one. For modern America, it’s pretty easy to see how the almost militant partisanship that afflicts us today, replete with people living in alternate truthy-realities, might continue to divide the country almost right down the middle. Really bad things, like Covid-19, happen, and no one can do anything about them, they just kind of fester.
I want to convey something slightly more with the term. I kind of feel like dystopias are an easy way out, they show a kind of irresponsibility on the part of the writer. Artists are supposed to be visionaries, they’re supposed to be able to see and imagine things no one else can see. I felt it was important to offer people a vision of how things might get better in Candidate Spectrum, even if that vision is flawed and limited. In using the term pre-dystopian, I want to indicate I’m taking that search for an off-ramp from the path to dystopia seriously.
So, what books do you think had an influence on Candidate Spectrum?
While the writing in Brave New World is sometimes overwrought, and the plotting is virtually non-existent, the idea that humanity would willingly give up its freedoms, depth in art, any kind of higher purpose, everything that makes life worth living right down to family itself, in exchange for drugs and endless entertainment, is at once horrifying and prescient. I definitely wanted to capture that sense that the prison we’re constructing for ourselves is of our own making, we’re actively embracing it as the walls go up around us.
As for Foundation, while it felt to me like Asimov — a notoriously prolific writer who never bothered with a second draft — I found the idea that history can be solved fascinating. For those who don’t know, the wide theme of the series is that disciplines of human knowledge form a kind of ladder: physics > chemistry > biology > psychology > sociology > politics >history. If you understand enough about one discipline to essentially solve it, you can predict the principles and laws of the next rung up on first principles. The novels are then about people who understand psychology, sociology, and politics well enough that they can set in motion events that will guide and shape history for hundreds of years. This idea was influential in a lot of the outlining that went into Candidate Spectrum, I did a lot of thinking about cultural and social trends that have led us to where we are now.
I should probably add the Federalist Papers as something I read to help me think about the values and problems the founders were concerned with, what they might think and worry about if they were alive today.
What about non-literary influences; was Candidate Spectrum influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
In my research phase I was casting desperately about for anything that could help me shape Candidate Spectrum. The thing that helped probably more than everything else put together was The West Wing. It has an obvious center-left political slant, but it was kind of eye-opening how directly it took on a lot of very serious, weighty, supposedly dry, and uninteresting topics. The last season, which follows the campaign for Bartlet’s successor, was particularly relevant to what I was trying to do, even if it was still quite different.
There’s also a realist branch of modern American superhero movies that I took to heart. For me, the two most relevant entries were The Dark Knight, which I’d never seen and found surprisingly oriented around politics and public relations, andUnbreakable, which had the kind of raw realism I was aiming for.
Speaking of comics, what about Brian K. Vaughn Ex Machina comic books, which were also about a superhero turned politician. Was that series an influence on Candidate Spectrum?
No, I hadn’t heard of the Ex Machina comic books before now. Reading a little about them, I would say that they’re more about a superhero who happens to be a politician while Candidate Spectrum is more about a politician who used to be a superhero.
And in regards to him being a superhero, did you base Spectrum on any existing ones?
Spectrum himself discusses how influential the Superman comics were on his life. It was really important that Spectrum evoke the Big Blue Boy Scout to generate that sense that (I assume) we all have about Superman: that he’s morally pure, indefatigable, that he has everyone’s best interests at heart.
But more than any other superhero, even Superman, I was most influenced by Doctor Manhattan [from Alan Moore’s Watchmen]. To aid with making Spectrum as realistic as possible, I gave him powers that have as solid a grounding in science as possible. Doctor Manhattan was a basis for brainstorming what those powers might be and how they might work.
Though what was more important was the way Doctor Manhattan is at once deeply concerned about humanity’s fate, and ironically, totally indifferent to it. Spectrum feels intensely a remoteness, a separation from humanity. He’s alienated in a very fundamental sense. From the moment I conceived of the story, I wanted him to exhibit those traits, and, as I was shaping him, it was fascinating to see how Doctor Manhattan embodied them in Watchmen.
Has there been any thought to doing a Spectrum comic book, stories from before he became a politician?
I’ve not thought about it until now. This might disappoint some people, but I’m not really interested in writing something like that. I’ve got three novels bouncing around in my head competing to be the next one to be put to paper, and none involve Spectrum.
That said, if Spectrum really inspired someone and they came to me and wanted to do it, I’d be pretty open to licensing the character to them and let them run with it.
Anyway, as you know, Hollywood loves making movies about superheroes, and they love making movies about presidents. Do you think Candidate Spectrum would work as a movie?
I would love to see Candidate Spectrum as a movie, but it doesn’t have nearly enough action for Hollywood to be interested. I think it would be better as a TV show. The political crises that hit one after another and the topical nature of many of the issues Spectrum explores lend themselves better to an episodic format, but I’d still love to see it as an independent movie.
I should probably add that if someone from Hollywood takes to the novel and wants to rework it from the ground up so it would play better on the big screen, I’d be really tempted to sell the intellectual property rights and see what they do with it.
If someone wanted to make a movie or TV show out of Candidate Spectrum, who would you want them to cast asSpectrum?
The obvious big-name actor, although he’s currently embroiled in scandal, is Kevin Spacey. He’s got a tremendous range, he’s got the intellectual chops for the role, and his stature is about right for Spectrum, who, unlike many superheroes, is supposed to be physically unremarkable. Aside from scandal, I think it’s a major strike against Spacey that he’s already played a president, as it’d be hard to look at him as a politician and not see Frank Underwood.
To be honest, if it were totally up to me, I would like to find someone who’s relatively unknown to play the role. For one, I believe in giving opportunities to new faces. I also deeply admire what they did for Star Trek: The Next Generation where they took a bunch of really talented stage actors, character actors, and bit players, cast and directed them well, and watched them make something really amazing.
Finally, if someone enjoys Candidate Spectrum what pre-dystopian urban fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I’m afraid I don’t have anything to recommend that meets those genre constraints. I don’t read nearly as much as I would like, in part because whenever I pick up a book my brain goes into writer mode and tries to dissect the plot, the characters, the grammar, the humor, and figure out how it all works.
I mostly read classics, and would recommend Camus’s The Fall, or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The three towering dystopias, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, are all worth reading. In science fiction, I really enjoyed the Foundation series and what I’ve read of H.G. Wells, say The Time Machine. In traditional fantasy, you can’t go wrong with Eddings’ Belgariad series or anything by Tolkien.