TT: Genre Governments

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back for a discussion on series characters.  Then come and join me and Alan as we investigate interesting types of governments that have occurred in Fantasy fiction.

JANE: Having agreed that there’s room for a lot of different sorts of

A Question of Rulership

governments in Fantasy fiction, I think it would be fun to explore a few options.  Go for it!

ALAN:  I really would like to see more genre novels where the government is organised along socialist and/or communist lines. It’s not unheard of – William Morris used fantasy to as a vehicle to explore socialism.  (The Well At The World’s End invented most of today’s fantasy cliches, but it also has its subversive moments.)  Both Mary Gentle (most notably in Rats and Gargoyles) and China Mieville  (in everything) write from a socialist point of view.

And if I can introduce SF into the discussion, Ursula LeGuin’s utterly brilliant novel The Disposessed compares and contrasts anarchist, collectivist and capitalist societies.

JANE: Absolutely introduce SF – after all, I did last week!

ALAN: While socialism is a very viable political philosophy (I’ve lived under socialist governments all my life, to a greater or lesser extent), communism has never really worked at all in the real world (on a large scale anyway) and off hand, I don’t recall any SF or fantasy novels that deal with it. I’d be very interested in seeing if a bit of magic and mumbo-jumbo could make  it work…

I could easily imagine Tolkien’s dwarves organising themselves along socialist lines – social ownership and control of the means of production work well when heavy manual labour is involved. And I wonder if the wizards, with their huge powers and their deep sympathies would actually be able to make communism viable?

JANE: Interesting thoughts…  Let me play devil’s advocate, starting with the wizards.  Saruman  had huge power but not “deep sympathy.”  He had “deep panic” instead.

Really, when you look at the wizards in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is exceptional in his caring for other peoples – and even then he can be pretty brutal when wanting goals achieved.  Poor Frodo!  Only one other wizard is mentioned,  Radagast the Brown.  Is he ever on stage?

ALAN: I think Saruman was not typical of the Maiar. After all, he was corrupted by Sauron and he had very different goals than did the rest of his order.

JANE: Did he really?  I saw him as someone who started out liking being in charge, panicked, and gave in to the Power he thought would maintain his power.

ALAN: I saw Saruman as more selfish than that, looking to achieve more personal power over the races of Middle Earth. But either way, I don’t think his attitude was typical of the wizards. It certainly took Gandalf by surprise!

JANE: Excellent point.  Please, continue.

ALAN: The other wizard, Radagast, has only a small part to play in the events of Lord Of The Rings, but he seems much closer in spirit to Gandalf than he is to Saruman.  In the novel, Gandalf refers to Radagast as his cousin, so presumably they are quite close.  As an aside, Radagast will have a significant role to play in the film of The Hobbit.  (He’s played by Sylvester McCoy).

JANE: All right, moving on to dwarves…I certainly like the idea of socialist dwarves but, you know, Terry Pratchett had his dwarves be a monarchy – perhaps for much the same reasons I mentioned last time – it enabled him to focus on a few people as decision makers.

That’s the problem always faced with SF/F and new cultures.  How much of the focus of the story is on the world and how much on the people and events in that world?  If the story is not about discovering the world (as was so often the case in LeGuin’s more anthropological SF) then it’s hard to have a good story.  Note that her Earthsea books – which are more character driven than idea driven – returned to monarchies when governments are mentioned at all.

ALAN: And LeGuin probably did that for all the reasons that you’ve been emphasising. It is a good answer to that age old problem of fiction – how do you strike a balance between show and tell?

However, other points of view are certainly possible. Science fiction is sometimes thought of as the fiction of ideas since it encourages the exploration of “things as they might be” rather than “things as they are.”  Robert Heinlein was particularly good at this and he liked to explore other forms of government, most noticeably perhaps in Starship Troopers, though he flirted with it in other books as well. Perhaps we could talk about that next week?

JANE: Absolutely!


7 Responses to “TT: Genre Governments”

  1. Peter Says:

    For interesting communistic SFnal societies look at Iain M Banks’ Culture novels or even moreso Ken Macleod’s The Cassini Division (which is one of the all-time great title puns to boot). Macleod in particular excels at the creation of societies with political systems that go beyond the usual monarchy/corporate state/fascist options.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Pratchett had considerably more fun with the dwarves than that! His “Low King” was (if you read the books carefully) a combination of chief mining engineer and head magistrate of the court of last resort. And called the low king by other races.

    I tend to agree with the people who say that Pratchett was skewering China with the dwarves (as well as parodying Tolkien). According to the dwarves, they don’t have a religion, they don’t have a king, and so forth. They’re kind of communist, in theory. But when you see the coronation of the “chief mining engineer” and the way they treat their knockermen (who’ve been replaced by technology, not that they’ve lost their social standing) and the various types of darkness, it’s obvious that they’re as superstitious as everyone else. It nicely parodies the way the communist party acts in China, and how the Imperial system creeps in, no matter how much their ideology says it is gone forever.

    Pratchett pulls a similar trick with Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. Vetinari supposedly believes in democracy: one man, one vote. He’s the man, and he gets the vote. One could even point to a certain parodying of libertarian ideas about market forces providing social goods. In the older Ankh-Morpork books, policing was taken care of by the Thieves’ Guild (via a protection racket), but as that proved inadequate to deal with, oh, dragons and guns and weird crimes, Vetinari re-empowered the police force. The old system of the Thieve’s Guild Protection Racket is still in place (they can rob people if they have their licenses and their victims haven’t paid the Thieves’ fee on time), but increasingly, traditional police takes its place, under the hand of Vimes, who got retooled from an drunken night watchmen to badass police commissioner.

    Pratchett actually excels at something that isn’t done as often as it might be. He plays quite a lot with the difference between what people say and what they do, especially when it comes to government. Other writers certainly do this, with puppet kings and subverted presidents, but not so many have Pratchett’s playfulness with it.

  3. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    One interesting example is from “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, a free-wheeling, Wild West Anarchy vs. the rigid machine of the State.
    Also, “Starship Troopers” hints at the pseudo-arachnid “Bugs” as having been ‘pure Communist’ long enough to adapt to it by evolution- the Hive structure following prior practice.

    A deeper issue, is what is the source of ‘legitimacy’ ? In our world, we’ve seen ‘consent of the governed’, ‘divine right of kings’, most/biggest guns, ‘madate of heaven’, power of personality, and so on. Often, this must be the first decision made, then it can be elaborated and embroidered.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Good thoughts… It’s nice to see the SF/F does make people think, even while providing entertainment.

  5. Paul Says:

    I wish I could remember the story, in an old Astounding, I think. Pre-Analog, anyway. The U.S. had become so computerized that everybody could take a test for IQ and various leadership qualities, and that was how the country had started choosing its president. Except that, this time, it turned out that absolutely nobody in those who participated had all the necessary qualifications…

  6. heteromeles Says:

    Check out

    As for other SF government structures, I should also mention Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief, which has a government and society based on quantum cryptography and access to information.

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