There was a good panel at last year’s Eastercon where Charles Stross, Juliet McKenna and others discussed the diversity, or otherwise, of political structures in fantasy fiction. One thing that came out was that there is a very heavy reliance on the hereditary feudal system in the genre – kings, aristocracy, inheritance by the primogeniture (male or otherwise).
It’s not necessarily fantasy’s fault, of course. That system, wearing a variety of hats, has been prevalent over much of the world during a lot of its history. Emperors, kings, pharoahs, caliphs, a hereditary ruling family, often pre-eminent amongst a military/land-owning class, is hard to avoid. And there are reasons for this – it’s a system very heavily selected for by a combination of evolution and human nature. We want our kids to succeed, after all. Each generation does its best to provide for the next. When you’re in charge, that means working towards making your kids in charge of everyone else’s kids in fifteen years’ time. Give that sort of ambition long enough and it’s easy to see how social and religious structures arise to preserve the rights of the people at the top – their rights to rule, and then their rights to be considered superior, superhuman, divinely mandated, or just plain divine. The feudal aspect is simply an easy way to delegate and manage power once the man at the top has gone from chief of a tribe to king of a kingdom.
This situation, rooted in the inbuilt drive to maintain success within a genetic lineage, is strongly self-perpetuating, usually aided and abetted by other social structures in an orgy of backslapping between the law, the church and the group of individuals that govern the state.
David Brin has gone into some detail on the long-term problems of this sort of 'family-based oligarchy'. One of these is that you have no control over any ruler’s fitness to rule, and history is full of mad kings and psychopathic emperors who coupled divine right with all sorts of flavours of crazy. Also in issue is the simple resistance of any established overclass to change. The sort of improvement and innovation that we see as key to any progressive view of history is something often resisted at every turn by the conservative monoliths of rule – church, state and all, because any change – especially a change that gives more power or freedom to the people as a whole – will erode away the ingrained privilege of the powerful and the wealth (and if this sounds familiar in the context of recent US politics, that of course is Brin's explicit parallel in the link above).
No mystery, then that feudal systems are such a fantasy staple. What is sometimes disappointing is that they are so often unexamined, being presented as automatically good things. The writers all too often seem to buy into the old medieval lies – divine rights of kings, the special nature of princes, the inherent benevolence of people who in history were far more often spoiled dictators willing to throw away the lives and happiness of their subjects on whims and personal vendettas. Where there are evil states, the tyrant is often a usurper, an immortal dark lord, or just a single evil prince (perhaps illegitimate or otherwise marked out as 'wrong') being a bad apple in an otherwise sound barrel.
One of the things I’ve tried to do with Shadows of the Apt is provide a varied and considered political spectrum. The states of the Insect-kinden work on a number of different bases, and the hereditary model doesn’t come out well.
In fact few states have a single hereditary ruler. The Wasp Empire is the chief antagonist, and the difficulties of having an unfit or unstable ruler are very much on show with both Alvdan, and then his sister Seda, although the nature of the Apt means that it is at least partly responsive to innovation. On the otherhand the Commonweal is supposedly a far more enlightened and benevolent monarchy, but the events in Heirs of the Blade make it plain that it is simply falling apart, and individual nobles in the feudal hierarchy have a very free hand to oppress and tax to their heart’s content. The oceanic colony of Hermatyre also suffers from a hereditary ruler, and the weak and conniving Edmir shown in The Sea Watch is an example of why people who want to rule should really not be allowed to do so.
A lot of other states can be said to be oligarchies. The Spiderlands appears to be ruled by a shifting, jostling host of great families - a 'family-based oligarchy' with no single leader -- dominated by over-elaborate machinations and inter-family rivalries that mean they find it difficult to adapt to respond effectively to change outside their borders; the industrial powerhouse of Helleron is run by a council of its most wealthy solely interested in further lining their pockets; and the secretive Moths appear to operate a meritocracy, with those of greatest magical skill calling the shots.
In contrast, the various Ant city-states are styled as kingdoms, but are what we would recognize as communist utopias (utopian if you happen to be an Ant). With a telepathic populace constantly aware of each others’ needs, leaders are selected by popular acclaim, and no positions are hereditary. It is, in a way, a very science-fictiony state of affairs, and the drawback for the rest of the world is that, if you’re not one of them, then you’re likely to be seen as their enemies. Even the Sarnesh Ants, who are allies of Collegium through most of the series, are absolutely ruthless when they feel they’re under threat. This downside of the socialist wonderland will become increasingly relevant in War Master's Gate.
Lastly, Collegium itself is ostensibly a democracy, except that this boils down to 'most of the people get to elect about half of the government.' Even so, during the early books this seems to work relatively well. Stenwold Maker is able to win the popular acclaim he needs to bring his city into the fight against the Wasps, and his ally Jodry Drillen wins out as the Speaker of the Collegiate Assembly against the treacherous Helmess Broiler. As the pressure on Collegium increases, though – as seen through The Air War and on into this year’s War Master’s Gate – the Collegiate political machine begins to rupture. The brutal efficiency of the Wasps’ military dictatorship is more than a match for Collegium’s home-grown soldiers and their inefficient chain of command, and worse, Stenwold and his allies more and more take the roles of dictators themselves, unchallenged and unexamined and riding roughshod over the Collegiate traditions – as the student agitator Eujen Leadswell is quick to point out. In this way, the last three books of Shadows of the Apt expand from the clash of heroes and personalities of the earlier books to encompass a clash of political ideals – the Collegiate, the Sarnesh and the Imperial Wasp battling for the hearts and minds of future generations.
* * * * *
The Air War, book eight of The Shadows of the Apt series, is out now. You can see re-reads of the whole of the series up to this point starting here.