Thursday, October 22, 2009
The Problem With Politics
Politics in fantasy and science fiction, that is. I'm not going near the tar pit that is modern politics in any country.
Something you notice when you read a lot is that most people haven't got a clue how politics actually work, leading to what could be described as Tough Guide to Fantasyland political systems (If you haven't read the Tough Guide, find it and read it. It's hilarious, and boy does it skewer shoddy the fantasy cliches). Sadly, the same kind of thing also shows up way too often in science fiction, complete with the fantasy memes of the Evil Empire - it doesn't matter what it's actually called, if it functions as an Evil Empire, it might as well be one - the noble, heroic anti-imperial forces, usually horribly outnumbered/out-weaponed and so forth.
Part of the problem with imagining other forms of government is that English is actually a very egalitarian language. Over centuries we've lost any distinction between formal and informal address, much less anything more complex. Compare this to some of the European languages where there are formal and informal forms of "you", or some of the Asian languages which have multiple forms of address depending on rank, level of intimacy, level of formality, and so forth. To most native English speakers that kind of distinction is beyond confusing and heads rapidly into the realm of utterly incomprehensible - with the result that we find it very difficult to truly understand the kinds of protocol that go with any highly class-conscious society.
A rather length aside here - even English royalty is remarkably egalitarian. The rule for speaking with any member of the English royal family is burned into my memory, courtesy an incident from when I was part of a choir in Australia. The choir was singing at a college graduation where the Duchess of Kent (as patron of the college) was presenting the degrees. One of my sisters was graduating, so naturally the whole family was there - me and my mother in the choir, the graduating sister in with the other graduates, and the rest of the horde in the general audience (Yes, my family is a horde. I'm the oldest of 5. Back in the bad old days when the Queensland Government restricted public gatherings, we used to joke that we needed a permit to go anywhere as a family). Security, naturally, was tight, but we choristers were told that if by chance we did end up speaking with the Duchess, the rule was to address her as "Your Grace" the first time you said anything, and "Ma'am" after that. I wouldn't remember this except that... mum is a mad keen photographer and she wanted a photo of the Duchess. So, after the graduation is finished and everyone else has gone home (it was well after midnight) mum manages to find out which elevator the Duchess is going to be using and positions herself there - and gets permission from the security people, who basically said photos were fine so long as she stayed behind this line. I'm hanging back - figure painfully shy mid-twenties in dorky choir uniform and you've got it. Besides, mum's the outgoing, impossible to embarrass one, so if any of the horde gets to talk to the Duchess, it's her. The elevator opens, the Duchess sees mum with camera and pauses long enough for mum to get a nice photo, then heads straight to me. I'm not sure how long I was the very picture of gobsmacked, but it was probably a lot less time than it felt like! There was this moment of pure panic followed by a thought along the lines of "Oh, crap, what were the rules?" Fortunately the Duchess is a very gracious lady who knows how to talk to painfully shy, overwhelmed people - we ended up having a short but relatively sensible discussion about the choir she's a member of, the policies of both choirs about what jewelry the women can wear for performances, how much fun it is to sing certain works and so on. But after being singled out - I suspect because she saw me hanging back and I was in the choir uniform (so was mum, but she was waving the camera around, too) - I'm never going to forget that rule!
Anyway, back to fictional governments and forms of protocol that go with them. What you could call the 'default fantasy' setup involves a king, some number of usually not very well defined nobility, mostly parasitic, and everyone else. It doesn't take too much thinking about the setup to realize it not only doesn't work, it can't work. Part of the function of class distinctions is to define responsibilities - the higher the class or rank, the higher the responsibility. Slaves are responsible for whatever their job happens to be. Serfs (slaves tied to land rather than people) are responsible for feeding themselves and their families fed and usually having enough surplus for the land owner's requirements. Free farmers are responsible for feeding themselves and their families, usually providing at least one armed man for whatever purposes are needed, and paying taxes to their lord in either money or goods. In towns, the various merchants are responsible for making enough profit to keep their families fed, paying taxes to both the town upkeep and the lord, and usually some form of guild association as well. The 'noble' class - ranging from relatively small land owners to control of several cities - are responsible for keeping everything they own in good running order, collecting the taxes for those higher up the chain, enforcing the laws and where necessary making their own laws for problems specific to their regions. Royalty is responsible for keeping the nobility in order, relationships with other countries, maintaining law and order, and generally keeping the whole thing running - which is a huge simplification. In a fantasy setting, the effective limit of a country's size is based mostly on how long it takes to travel from one end to the other. Anything more than a few days becomes very difficult to manage unless there are trusted governors/nobles/whatever in each district who can act as royal proxies if needed. China overcame the distance issue by imposing a common culture on conquered peoples. Russia didn't reach its full extent until the late 1800s, when rapid communication by telegraph was possible. The British Empire managed to hold on to territory all over the world by a combination of local governors with vice-regal authority (that is, they could act as if they were the monarch) and relatively fast shipping which allowed them to reach pretty much any part of the Empire in six weeks.
To successfully deal with all the complications that arise in anything like this, you need to know who is in charge of what, because the actual distribution of control/responsibility gets pretty diffuse in anything large or complex. The whole system might be pretty much invisible to Joe Average - but it needs to be there, or you get the Tough Guide effect where it all seems to exist on tourism from adventurers.
On the science fictional side of the coin, it's often even worse. Those star-spanning civilizations connected by whatever macguffin is used to permit space travel? Impossible, even with the handwavium of faster than light/wormholes/whatever. Here's why: in any sufficiently technologically advanced society, knowledge is the key to wealth, and currency is typically a nominal unit of value rather than the 'hard' currency of less technologically based cultures. One of the things that makes this possible is effectively instantaneous communication, which can be done on a single planet. Over several light years? Not likely. To have a functional currency through a multiple star empire, you need to be able to withdraw money from a bank on planet A, and have that balance reflected instantly in the database on space station Z. I've yet to see anything that takes this into account.
Then you have the lunacy that is standard SF trope interstellar war. By using a quasi-Napoleonic environment, some authors make this sort of limp along, but space is effectively boundaryless. Your space empire or republic or whatever is effectively a collection of discrete islands surrounded by a whole lot of buggerall. If you've read anything about the problems of naval warfare during World War Two, you've got some idea - just extrapolate to three dimensions instead of two, and expand the scale from "big" to "so utterly freaking huge it's mind blowing". The Napoleonic analogy is probably as close as you can get, but even so, the assumption behind that analogy is still one of scarcity of resources when most planetary systems have more than enough of everything for a sufficiently advanced technological base to leverage - and that's without the extremely high likelihood of some degree of replication or fabrication.
Without near-instantaneous communication, there can't be any viable star-spanning anythings - instead there'll probably be a series of effectively self-sustaining/self-contained settlements and settlement clusters, each with its own economic systems and rules - making life very interesting indeed for the space traveler. The likelihood of this generating any kind of empire, much less an Evil one, probably has so many zeros after the decimal point it might as well be zero - except that there's a 100% chance some lunatic will try to form one. (There's a large historical precedent for this. Practically every attempt at building a utopian society anywhere falls into this category, because people aren't perfect and trying to make them fit the vision usually ends badly.) Not to mention that, like the fantasy realms, they're not going to be homogenous. There'll be misfits, eccentrics, leaders, followers, predators and prey, because every society has them.
All things considered, I'd better leave it here, because if I get into economics and how that works - or doesn't - in the vast majority of science fiction and fantasy, I'll have to write a book-length rant, and I'd much rather just write a book that does get it more or less right. I hope.
Who do you think does get it right, or close to right? What do they get right?