|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Earth has many states. Most of these have different systems of government. Some of them have different social systems. Earth is in this respect almost unique. Everywhere else the default is one government, and one social system, per planet - if not, indeed, per galaxy. At least, that's the rule in SF.
When we look at the ancient and mediaeval worlds, we see if anything a greater diversity of forms of rule than we see today. In fantasy, where we might expect a wide play of fancy, we see nothing of the kind. There are good monarchies, legitimised by prophecy or ancient artifact. There are evil empires, usually in the east. There are barbarian tribes. Here and there, if we're lucky, there are city states ruled by merchant princes. There are plenty of exceptions - Pratchett, Gentle, Pinto, Mieville - but that's the rule.
We can do better than that!
Let's start with SF. There, it's easy. All we have to do is junk the rule of one government per world. If you have a one-world government for a reason, that's fine. But let's stop making it the default. Even if a human settlement is derived from one colony ship (and why assume that, by the way?), there's no reason to assume that it'll stay united. In fact, there's every reason why it shouldn't, as the population expands and moves into new territories. The European settlements in North America existed for centuries as separate colonies before they became, with much upheaval, the United States.
If it's an alien planet, of course, there's even more scope for differentiation, yet here the one-government-per-world rule is more rigorously kept. All the more kudos to you if you break it.
If the social system or government isn't just background but central to the plot - to illustrate your pet political theory, say - there's a different rule to junk. That rule is that all foregrounded political systems work the way they're supposed to. This is true even if the way they're supposed to work is to not work (crush the human spirit etc etc). Just for a change, I'd like to see a libertarian writer depict a laissez-faire society with persistent social problems. I'd like to see a left-wing writer show a socialist society that isn't a utopia, but has real, nigh-intractable difficulties and internal contradictions (and not just, say, radio-borne viruses beamed at it by malevolent posthumans). I'd like to see the converse of these, as well, from the opposite (and other) authorial preferences.
With fantasy it's a little more complicated. So many plots, after all, turn on claiming rightful thrones or toppling dark lords that kingdoms and dominions can't be easily dispensed with. But there's no reason why these have to be simple. When your hidden princess at last ascends to her rightful throne, can she get away with relying on one or a few wise advisers? Mightn't she have to persuade a fractious parliament to come up with the money for the Defeat of the Dark Lord (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill? What if this parliament, like the real-world Polish Sejm, requires unanimous consent? Could her kingdom, like Poland, be in permanent peril of just vanishing from the map?
Could there be a whole school of thought that holds that mere possession of the Blue-Sapphired Sceptre of Snazziness is not, in fact, the basis of legitimacy? That instead, a pilgrimage to the Convent of Extraneous Plot-Device must precede an acclamation by the knights of the Realm? Can the Dark Lord, meanwhile, run his vast domain with a handful of henchmen, terrified minions and lickspittle courtiers? Doesn't he need, at the very least, some plodding but reliable bureaucrats? To say nothing of an arms industry and scientific - or magic - research, all of which will need some genuine enthusiasts. And all of this complication doesn't just add depth and colour to the background - it opens up plot possibilities. Does the Dark Lord's armourer never think of expanding his export markets? Might he not stoop to taking money even from the Forces of Good?
If you compare the map at the front of the standard fantasy trilogy with the maps in The Penguin Atlas of World History (for the Middle Ages, say) the contrast is striking. The almost fractal depth of mediaeval geographic complexity makes most fantasy maps look decidedly thin and unimaginative. A glance at the diagrams of state and social structures (for the various stages of the Roman Empire, for instance, or the mercantilist system) is likewise an eye-opener.
And with that opened eye, take a look down the Atlas's right-hand pages, which give the chronology and the exposition. If that doesn't get your imagination working, nothing will. There are lots of cool names, too.
[Note: This originally appeared in the BSFA magazine Focus, some time ago.]