Monthly Archives: January 2014

World Building: Politics and Economics

10440602_sThere’s a particular literary sin — or it’s a sin to my own nitpicking mind — that bothers me in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I’m referring to presenting a political or economic reality that, given the technology in common use, cannot possibly exist. This is the reason I can’t watch the TV show “Firefly,” which presented a world culturally and politically and economically indistinguishable from ours in space with technology that would insist on something new. It’s a flaw in Asimov’s Foundation series: the very existence of a monarchical Galactic Empire is absurd. It’s what made me grit my teeth in frustration on reading the Wild Card shared world series, which depicted a high-tech feudal monarchy and a high-tech robber-baron capitalist society, neither of which can exist.

To make the world you’re building or reading real, it’s important to take the prevailing technology (and also the prevailing magic) into consideration when determining the culture’s politics and economics. You can’t slap an ideal democracy onto your Bronze-Age empire just because you like it better than a monarch and his satraps. The latter can actually govern a Bronze Age empire, while the former cannot (unless of course you have some magic that replaces the technological underpinnings necessary for widespread democracy).

Government is the making and implementing of collective decisions and the resolving of disputes in a community. How that is done — how it can be done — and what disputes can arise are functions of material circumstances, and more than anything else, material circumstances are functions of technology. Of all areas of technology, the most important for purposes of governance are those related to communication.

Collective decisions are made by (at least tacit) agreement. It requires communication. As long as people are in the same place, communication travels at the speed of sound — they stand or sit there and talk to each other. Get past the range of talking and listening, and communication happens as fast as a message can travel, and as well as it can be repeated and understood. This limits the ability of people to participate in the making of collective decisions when they are distant from the conversation.

Democracy is very old in origin. It’s the most natural form of government, but in a low-tech society it only works in a small community, where people can gather in the same place, hash things out, and vote. Athens had a democracy. Alexander’s empire, though steeped in Athenian values and culture, did not. Why not? Aside from Alexander’s ego, it would have been impossible for all of the residents of the eastern Mediterranean region from Persia to Egypt to Macedonia to get together in a town meeting, hash things out, and vote.

For this reason, although there were a few exceptions such as the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, the prevailing government form throughout the ancient world was monarchy: a strong head of a privileged class that made collective decisions for everyone, that most people went along with because they weren’t asked for all that much, they got protection from bandits and neighboring enemy kingdoms, and they didn’t want to get their heads cut off by the king’s men.

Today, it’s quite different. Today, the prevailing government form is representative democracy. Why? Because of the advance of technology, with the most important inventions being the printing press and representation itself. The printing press led to widespread literacy, which made people less inclined to go along with collective decisions in which they weren’t allowed to participate. Representation allowed people to participate in a democratic government by proxy, when they were still unable to do so directly.

We have new communication technology now that is once again changing the nature of governance: the internet, which permits instantaneous, widespread participation in the global debate. Because of this development, governance in a hundred years (assuming civilization survives) will have a lot more direct and participatory democracy elements cutting through and dominating the remaining representative mechanisms. We will see economic changes, too, deriving from advances in computers and robotics that make it possible to produce wealth without human labor.

The end result of all this is that it’s anachronistic to have in a story a modern representative democracy governing a low-tech, illiterate society, or a feudal monarchy governing a high-tech industrialized one, or anything fully recognizable from any era in history governing a future society with more advanced technology still. It’s lazy, thoughtless world-building and should provoke snorts of disbelief and head-shaking.

There are constraints on world building that come from the prevailing technology and magic. Magic can change the basic picture derived from technology, but it should always be possible to see how it does so. Anything doesn’t go. It can (and should) be imaginative, but it all has to make sense.

Image credit: berkut2011 / 123RF Stock Photo

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Genre, And Departure Therefrom

22348052_sThis post began as a spin-off in my thinking from two things. One was the review I wrote last week for Hope and the Clever Man by Mike Reeves-McMillan. I had to think about how to place that book in terms of genre. It could be classified as either alternate-world fantasy or divergent steampunk. It’s a fantasy because it has two fantasy elements, magic and quasi-humans. The magic even behaves like magic usually does part of the time: a mage can cast a curse on someone, for example, or perform a healing spell. But it can also be used to create “gates” that serve as permanent energy sources, pulling heat in from another universe. This energy source can then drive machinery that obeys the normal laws of physics. This machinery can be used by anyone, not just mages, and its existence gives the story a steampunk feel. Yet steampunk normally doesn’t rely on magic as a power source for its fictional technology, so Mike’s tale departs from the genre template for both alternate-world fantasy and steampunk. Which is it? Both — and, strictly speaking, neither.

The other thing involves my own writing, which is mostly fantasy, with an occasional foray into science fiction (or, as in The Order Master, blending the two), but none of it adheres to a genre template. I’ve got four contemporary fantasy novels, none of them with a single vampire or werewolf. I’ve got two alternate-world fantasies, but neither of them involves a Medieval society. (One of the “Two Worlds” in the Tale of Two Worlds is roughly 18th-century and the other is so magical it’s hard to categorize, but certainly it bears little resemblance to any society in our own history.)

Genre fiction walks a fine line between being difficult to recognize as part of the genre and being overly formulaic. A reader who has enjoyed a story of a certain type will often respond well to similar themes and story elements in another story, but also becomes bored with the same thing replayed over and over. With respect to fantasy, here are some formula descriptions of the common subgenres.

Alternate world fantasy (AWF). This story is set in an alternate world with a low level of technology and social, political, and religious structures reminiscent of the ancient world or the Middle Ages. War is conducted on foot or horseback, wielding edged weapons and bows. Government consists of monarchies, hereditary nobility, and official priesthoods. Magic is an art wielded by the talented either in secret or in orders or schools, which may or may not be affiliated with a temple.

Epic Fantasy. (This is a sub-genre of alternate world fantasy.) The world is threatened by dark forces of one kind or another and the protagonists must deal with this either directly or indirectly. Typically, the protagonist is the hero of an ages-old prophecy that promises the demise of the dark forces at the hand of an ordinary commoner of extraordinary talents, or else is a True King in exile who must defeat the dark forces in order to regain his throne. Adhering to the AWF template, epic fantasy features a vast, world-spanning conflict with immense stakes and a battle against ultimate evil.

Contemporary fantasy. The story is set in our own world, with fantasy elements added. Quasi-humans out of horror fiction (such as werewolves and vampires) exist in secret in our world, sometimes accompanied by secret practitioners of the magical arts (who may or may not be human) and non-horror quasi-humans such as elves, pixies, etc. In most cases, these fantasy elements operate in secrecy, unknown to most people. In a few cases, the world has been transformed by some event and the fantasy elements operate openly.

Urban fantasy. This sub-genre of contemporary fantasy has many of the same elements, but also has a gritty, noir feel to it. The fantasy elements in urban fantasy is usually very dark, and the protagonist is either a hard-boiled person who is accustomed to dealing with that darkness but now faces an unusually difficult challenge, or a less-experienced person plunged into a strange milieu and having to deal.

Paranormal romance. Another sub-genre of contemporary fantasy, this is, as the name implies, a romance story in a fantasy setting. Archetypically, it involves a romance between a fantasy/horror quasi-human (such as a vampire) and a normal human being.

Now, strictly speaking and by definition, the above descriptions include many non-mandatory features. A contemporary fantasy, for example, by strict definition, is simply a story set in our own modern world that includes fantasy elements — any fantasy elements. It doesn’t have to have vampires or werewolves to be called a “contemporary fantasy.” And yet, because contemporary fantasy stories with vampires and werewolves were among the first such tales to achieve popularity, the template has imprinted and when readers browsing through books see the designation “contemporary fantasy” (or urban fantasy or paranormal romance), vampires and werewolves are the first things that usually pop into their minds. This may, of course, mislead.

Similarly, an alternate world fantasy doesn’t have to happen in a low-technology setting. Strictly speaking, an alternate world fantasy is simply a story set on a world other than our own, in which fantasy elements exist. The alternate world could conceivably be another planet with a science-fiction technological base. Or it could be anything in between that and the low-tech world that is the AWF template. Again, however, the first expectation that pops into people’s heads on seeing a designation such as “epic fantasy” is something similar to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy has such enormous potential to depart from the templates and achieve real creativity in world-building (as well as character-creation and storytelling) that it seems a shame to me to try to pigeonhole it into strict subgenres with exact descriptions of the type of story elements that are expected. And yet that happens — more for commercial reasons than any other, I think — and boundaries are placed on the imagination in the process.

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Book Review: Hope and the Clever Man by Mike Reeves-McMillan

HopeAndTheCleverMan_rev_58Hope and the Clever Man is the second volume in the Gryphon Clerks series or universe. The first volume, Realmgolds, I reviewed here. One of the main characters from Realmgolds, the Realmgold Victory, appears as a minor character in Hope, which like the other books in the Gryphon Clerks universe is an other-world fantasy with a steampunk feel (although it’s not true steampunk, as the technologies are mostly magical).

Hope is named for the main character, Hope at Merrybourne, a young student of the arcane. We learn of her troubled relations with her mother and her deep self-doubt that obscures her considerable talent, and that she is a very pretty woman who doesn’t know it. The story takes Hope through her school years and her conflicts with other students, which reflect both class conflict and the battle of the sexes, and puts Hope in a bind of her own making that limits her achievements in school. After graduating, she becomes part of the Realmgold’s project to nurture magical technology, and joins the Clever Man Works, where we meet Dignified Printer, the “clever man” and master of the Clever Man works, his gnome assistant Bucket, and other gnomes. We also learn of the enslavement of the gnomes to the dwarves, and this makes up a lot of the conflict and the story line as the tale continues.

The struggle of the gnomes to liberate themselves, along with Hope’s personal struggle to recover from her mistake during her school years, which has left her with an unpleasant curse, and the development of new technologies that feed into the gnome liberation struggle while resulting (as usual for new technologies) in unforeseen consequences, is the story that Hope and the Clever Man tells, but as is often the case with Mike’s work, that story is less important than the unfolding of the characters, particularly Hope herself.

The plotting in Hope and the Clever Man could definitely have been tighter and constructed so as to increase the flow of tension to a climax. On the other hand, the characters are deep, believable, admirable, and sympathetic, with enough leavening of flaws and shortcomings to make them human (or quasi-human in the case of the gnomes). The writing is also very good, as Mike’s style and abilities as a wordsmith continue to evolve and improve. The rather slack plotting prevents me from giving the book five stars, but it definitely deserves four.

Hope and the Clever Man is available for $4.99 from the Amazon Kindle Store.

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Book Review: Le Theatre Mechanique (Chroniker City) by Brooke Johnson

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Le Theatre Mechanique, the second book in Brooke Johnson’s Chroniker City universe, was a slight disappointment after the splendid achievement represented by The Clockwork Giant. It’s still worth a read, but it needs a round of copy-editing and the story could be better paced and developed. The characters and language are both superb, and for that I’m going to give it four stars.

Le Theatre Mechanique does not continue the story that was left unresolved at the end of The Clockwork Giant, but instead follows Petra’s adopted brother Solomon Wade in his pursuit of a career in acting. The situation is complicated by a sick child in the household which cannot afford the medicine and treatment she needs to have a good chance of survival, plus the situation of a young actress at the theater, who is being dominated and exploited by an actor who is also the son of the theater’s owner. The characters are all well developed. Solomon’s theatrical ambitions and his deep uncertainty and insecurity about them are sides of him that didn’t emerge in the earlier book. The reflections on the harsh cruelty and elitism of Victorian society are well played also: subtle and biting both.

It’s a good enough story, but lacks the tension-building that makes for a truly great story. Still, it held my attention all the way through, and I cared very much about what happened to Solomon, the little girl, and the actress.

The main reason I found Le Theatre Mechanique a bit disappointing is that the copy-editing seemed unfinished. A good example is the description of the young actress’ smile. Her smile “showed the gap between her teeth” every time she smiled. This was a good phrase to use once, or maybe twice. But it should have been edited out of all of her subsequent smiles, or at least most of them. I knew by that time that she had a gap between her teeth. I didn’t need a reminder, and that was quite distracting. There were a few comparable errors of style and wording scattered through the book, all of them fixable with a round of editing. This is entirely correctable, and hopefully it will be rectified in future editions.

I can still recommend the book, although not as highly as I can the first in the series.

You can buy Le Theatre Mechanique for $2.99 at the Amazon Kindle Store, and it’s also available in print for $5.99.

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