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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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Magic and Technology/Science and Religion


In the context of a fantasy story, can magic and technology coexist? Can they occupy the same world with the same set of natural laws? If so, can they be practiced by the same individual? Or does magic interfere with technology or vice-versa?

As fantasy fiction reflects spirituality, being in fact the ancient art of mythcrafting, the way this question is answered (of course there is no one correct answer) resonates with another question: Are science and religion compatible? The fantasy question is open ended. One may do anything in fiction as long as the end result is a good story. But for fantasy as mythic enterprise, the story should have relevance to the world we live in and, at best, spiritual resonance.

The religious/scientific question is the place to start for that reason in my opinion. The more so as it touches upon a number of core questions for the spiritually inclined in modern society.

Let’s begin with the question of why there has ever been a conflict between religion (or between some religions, I should say) and science. The answer is twofold. Part of it is that prior to the development of scientific method, there was no clear distinction between the two or between either one and philosophy. As a result, scholars associated with religions often approached questions like the origin of the human species or the configuration of the visible universe, which today we would call scientific questions.

What is a scientific question? (I pose the question because the answer may not be obvious to everyone.) A scientific question is a question of fact, first of all. It’s an “is” question, not an “ought” question. It’s not a question of values, morality, or aesthetics; it answers how, not why (unless we’re talking strictly about human or animal behavior, and even then it’s more a how question than a why question, exploring the mechanics of motivation for animals with brains capable of being motivated — “Why do monkeys kill each other?” rather than “Why are we here?”). There is an enormous range of questions that cannot be asked, and therefore can’t be answered, using the methods of science, not because of their subject matter but because of the type of question they are. The domain of science may seem large (and it is), but as a subset of the set of all possible questions, it’s also fairly restricted.

The second criterion for a scientific question besides being a question of fact, is that it must be about something that is (at least in principle) observable. Science is empirical. It is based on a person standing at a realistic distance from a phenomenon and observing it. This is the first step in the scientific method. It is followed by someone coming up with an idea that describes what has been observed — a hypothesis. This is followed by further observation (incorporating bells and whistles like experimental controls where possible) to confirm the hypothesis or call it into question, followed by more thinking and hypothesizing and predicting, followed by more observation and so on. So if something is in the jurisdiction of science, it must be possible (at least in principle) to stand at a reasonable distance from the phenomenon and observe it. We don’t actually have to be able to do that in practice, but we have to at least be able to speculate that one of these days we might, as we develop better instruments or find better vantage points. (For example, it was acceptable to speculate about planets orbiting other stars long before we were actually able to observe any of them.)

So scientific questions are questions of fact about observable phenomena. All such questions are in the domain of science. Scientific method is the proper method for approaching such questions. It’s by far the best, most reliable method we have for doing so. Approaching them by any other method — such as raw intuition unverified by scientific method (which is not to say that intuition doesn’t play a part in science), or (even worse) the voice of authority and tradition, is not appropriate and leads to error. And this is the source of conflicts between science and religion: religion attempting to answer scientific questions by unscientific means. Religion shouldn’t do that. If religion doesn’t do that, there will be no conflict between science and religion. But does this leave religion with any questions to answer?

Yes, it does. First, there are all those questions which are important but not questions of fact. Religion traditionally attempts to answer moral questions, for example. These are definitely outside the zone of science, but still there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and moral questions, while they are outside the domain of science, aren’t really in that of religion. They may be approached from a non-religious perspective. Moreover, many religions become both authoritarian and conservative, and lock moral answers in stone so that they cannot adapt to changing material circumstances.

So what else? Well, there’s the second criterion of scientific jurisdiction, that the subject must be an observable phenomenon. It must be possible to stand a reasonable distance from it and observe it. Anything which is not an observable phenomenon is outside the reach of scientific method. Is there anything which is not observable, but which nonetheless we know to be real? Indeed yes: two things.

One of them is consciousness in the sense of qualia or subjective experience. We cannot observe our own consciousness experiencing the world, because it is always the observer and cannot be the observed. Nor can we observe the consciousness of someone else experiencing the world, although that’s less intuitively obvious. We can observe the workings of the brain of another person, or his behavior which suggests consciousness to us, but his consciousness itself is impossible to see, or to objectively verify its existence. (This is in fact a mystery. We should be able to observe another person’s consciousness if it were part of the world, even though it makes sense that we can’t observe our own. But we can’t. Therefore the other person’s consciousness isn’t part of the world. Back to this in a moment.)

The other thing that we know to be real, but cannot observe, is the universe as a whole. We can observe the parts of the universe and the processes of those parts, but the whole — encompassing not only all of space but all of time as well — can only be thought about, and perhaps experienced in another way besides observation. Why? Because again, observation requires standing at a reasonable distance from the phenomenon to be observed. We cannot do this with the whole universe, because the universe includes us. We cannot stand at a distance from everything and observe it, because that would require standing at a distance from ourselves. (This suggests a possible answer to the riddle of why we can’t see another person’s consciousness, too.)

Throughout history, these two things — the cosmos and consciousness — and the relationship between them, have been the subjects of spiritual understanding. This is the proper territory of religion. It cannot be approached by reason, let alone by scientific method. The universe cannot be observed from without, but it can be (and is, constantly) experienced from within, subjectively. Consciousness cannot be observed from without, but it can be (and is, constantly) the point from which experience happens, and its relation to the universe can be understood intuitively through that subjective experience, particularly in the course of expanded consciousness, spiritual experience, and mystical awareness.

This is the proper domain of religion. All else is politics. And this sort of thing is obviously compatible with science. The two have little to do with each other, except that science can provide new vistas on the wonders of creation, and new images for myth-making, and — most important of all — an intellectual ethic that rejects rigidity, authoritarianism, and dogma. As our world continues its metamorphosis from classical to advanced civilization, and as the ancient religions continue their upheavals, this will become more and more true, and the supposed conflict between science and religion seen more and more for the error (on religion’s part) that it always was. The change will come about from religion surrendering to science those questions which are properly scientific, and adopting the open-mindedness and anti-authoritarian intellectual ethic of science in regard to those questions which are properly religious, even though adopting the scientific method itself for those questions is impossible. (Otherwise they would also be scientific questions.) This is not an easy transition to make, and traditional religions are fighting it very hard and, alas, sometimes violently. But it is happening, and will continue.

Now, back to fantasy, magic, and technology.

Magic is something that partakes of both religion and science. Magical powers tend to arise in conjunction with spiritual awareness, and the techniques for developing magical powers are in many cases similar to those used to induce spiritual experience. At the same time, though, magic is itself an observable phenomenon, a part of the world about which questions of fact may be posed, and therefore in the domain of science. So in a sense, magic is the coexistence of religion and science, and it’s proper that it should coexist with technology.

Now, for a period of time in the past, this was (and in some works remains) not a convention of fantasy. For a long time, fantasy fiction separated magic and technology absolutely. There were various devices for doing this. Magic was sometimes placed in another world — it worked there, but not in our own world. Or sometimes this was not explicitly stated, but the world of the story (where magic worked) was low in technology, with the implication that magic was a primitive art not compatible with modernity. Sometimes it was asserted that both can work, but they are in fundamental conflict and cannot both work at the same time.

None of this is a literary requirement; none of it is necessary to tell a good story. So why was it done? Because it was a mythic requirement during a certain phase of the transition we have been making between the religions of the past and those of the future. A desire existed on the part of many people (including many readers and writers of fantasy) to preserve traditional religious beliefs and at the same time to keep the material benefits of modern science and technology. In real life, the two were compartmentalized, not in the natural way that recognizes the limits of scientific method, but in an artificial way that roped off certain ideas that could and should be proper subjects for scientific investigation and preserved them under religious authority instead.

The separation of magic and technology in fantasy fiction at the same time reflected this separation of religion and science in real life.

It’s a hopeful sign to me that today’s fantasy is beginning to abandon that separation. The idea that magic is a part of the world we live in — this modern world that also includes technological marvels — is asserting itself. While the skills and talents involved in developing and using magical powers versus those involved in engineering and the use of technology are different, they are perfectly compatible and exist in the real world.

Image credit: catmando / 123RF Stock Photo


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World Building: Revolution!

Napoleon Crossing the Alps


In my current work in progress, I’ve got a revolution going on in a fantasy setting, and this brings up the whole topic of world building, which has been much on my mind lately.


World building is an essential part of creating a fantasy story (or a science fiction story or a historical story or an alternate history or any other type of story where the world inhabited by the characters is in any way different from our own). (It’s even part of storytelling when the world doesn’t differ from our own, since the world from the characters’ perspective will still be different in some ways from that of the author.) To some degree, world building happens organically, as do many other parts of storytelling. You have maybe a character or two and a plot element or two and you write some scenes displaying the characters and advancing the plot lines, and you realize that this means your lovable thief comes into contact with a priest of the god Nunk-Noo, and so you have to consider the status of the priesthood, the doctrines of Nunk-Noo’s worship, whether the priests have magical powers and if so what they are, whether the god himself ever puts in an appearance, whether there are competing religions, whether this one is an officially-sanctioned cult, and so on.


But in at least the broad strokes, it’s probably best to have your world pre-planned. The details can be added later, as you write, and the only hard and fast rule is that you have to be consistent, and you can’t go back and change anything you’ve already published.


One way to do world-building is to start with either present-day reality or something historical as a template, and then change things and add things and figure out what would happen as a result. In doing this, it helps to have some understanding of both politics and economics, as well as science and the impact of technological change on society. (This can even help with the impact of magical change, although of course the magic itself you can make up.)


Which brings me to my work in progress, Goddess-Born, a companion volume to The Green Stone Tower.


Goddess-Born is set in the Kingdom of Grandlock, which I had already described in the first section of The Green Stone Tower. It’s a society that:


  • Has an early-modern level of technology: smoothbore, single-shot firearms, sailing ships and navigation, gas lamps, some steam-engine applications, horses as the main transportation vehicle, printing, no electricity.
  • Has a constitutional monarchy for a government, but with no democratic representation; the King and the Noble Council rule the country; nonetheless there are provisions in law protecting rights and a growing democracy movement.
  • Has very little in the way of magic. There are some magic users but they operate secretly and, although this changed at the end of Tower, magic was prohibited by law and a capital offense. However, the Green Stone Tower itself is a reminder of magic and a link to an alternate world where the magic users were banished ages ago, becoming the faerie — many of whom have since returned.
  • Has an established religion, the monotheistic worship of the Good God who gave people the secrets of farming.
  • Historically was part of the High Vance Empire, but broke away from it and established an independent kingdom; for this reason there is tension and frequent war between the two countries.


That’s more or less the way things stood at the end of the first book. But in Goddess-Born, two major changes are happening. One arises naturally from the level of technology enjoyed by the people of Grandlock: this is incompatible with the governing structure of the country. It’s not an accident that in the history of our own world, the development of printing and the early stages of the industrial revolution coincided with a wave of democratic reform and revolution that swept Europe and European colonies (such as America). Grandlock faces the same. The nobility have used the new technologies to force farmers off their land, creating a pool of unemployed people and forcing wages down; the people are suffering economically and, with printing, ideas about self-government and equality are rapidly distributed among them. Revolution looms.


For the Grandlock Revolution I used the French Revolution as a template just because it makes for good drama, so I put in a nice storming of the palace, the troops turning on their masters, and the rise of a provisional government that initiates a bloodbath, hanging noblemen and anyone they perceive to be a threat to their power. I’ve also got a brilliant general in the wings who, after winning some victories, will be poised to take over the government as Napoleon Bonaparte did in France.


The other major change began at the end of The Green Stone Tower, and that’s the return of the Old Gods and the repeal of the witchcraft laws, with a consequent surge of magical activity. Most of my main characters, although not all, are sorcerers, and the gods themselves play a subtle role in the unfolding drama. There is for example a nasty priestess come from the other world, a devotee of Malatant, God of Shadow, and her machinations are behind much of the ugliness that occurs. The head of the provisional government is one of her pupils and a sorcerer in his own right. The two most important characters are children of the Old Gods fostered with a noble family and a merchant family in Grandlock — hence the title of the book; these two are called “goddess-born” because each had a goddess mother — and their opposition to the priestess is perhaps the most important defining plot line. A noblewoman who, for personal reasons, is a part of the democracy movement receives a gift from the God of Art and becomes an eloquent writer of political tracts, and receives guidance from the Goddess of Wisdom about her role in crafting the new government.


As always, the main story is personal, but the background and backdrop are important, and the world in which the personal stories occur impacts the stories themselves. It should all fit together and move logically from one place to another as the story unfolds.



Beginning with your template, as you add each element, fantasy elements included, ask yourself:

  1. How will people react to this?
  2. What will the people involved with it do in the world?
  3. What will their interaction be with the holders of political and economic power, or with ordinary people?

Any changes in material circumstances will always have potential political, economic, and social consequences, and understanding those consequences (whether or not they are an immediate part of the story) is a lot of the art of world-building.


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Where is Publishing Going?

The publishing world is in upheaval. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that. The upheaval in publishing, like so much else going on in our world, is driven by developments in technology, in this case print on demand and e-publishing. But as always happens, there are ramifications of these technological changes beyond the technologies themselves.

Consider the impact of a much earlier technological development, the printing press. Printing with movable type first emerged in Europe in the 15th century. The first book printed with the new technology was of course the Bible, in the officially approved Latin. Nothing revolutionary there, right? But as printing spread in use, the price of reading material dropped to the point where ordinary people could afford books, and that meant literacy held advantages suddenly for people who were neither scholars nor wealthy. As a result, literacy spread widely. With the ability to read came the demand for reading material, including the Bible translated into local languages, and from this demand arose in less than a century after Gutenberg issued his printed version of the Vulgate the Protestant Reformation and the sundering of the monolithic Church. But that was only the beginning. In addition to books, newspapers and other periodicals, and political tracts and pamphlets could be printed and widely distributed. Dangerous ideas spread among the people and sparked a wave of revolts against entrenched hereditary privilege, leading eventually to the downfall (either entirely or by reduction to figurehead status) of all the monarchies of Europe. What’s more, widespread literacy increased the pool of talent from which scholarship could be drawn, and this eventually sparked the scientific revolution, which led to the industrial revolution, which completely transformed the character of civilization. All that from an invention consisting of nothing but metal letters arranged on a tray and coated with ink.

The Internet and its associated features (social media, e-publishing, and on-line book distribution being the important ones for purposes of this article) are perhaps as important an invention or cluster of inventions as the printing press, and we haven’t seen all of the ways in which the changes it brings will play out. Nor am I going to go into here all the thoughts I have about how that will take place (which is not to say I don’t have any). But the ways in which these inventions have changed publishing (and also music, and perhaps film) are clear enough. They have democratized it. They have removed control of distribution from the major publishing houses and bookstores. It’s now possible for an author to bypass both publishing houses and bookstores and e-publish a book for on-line distribution, keeping complete control of the process in his own hands.

There’s been a lot written about that from the point of view of the author in terms of how to best take advantage of it. That ground’s been well covered and I don’t see any point in going over it yet again. Instead, I want to consider the likely impact on the publishing industry, by which I mean companies in the business of getting books from authors to readers. I haven’t seen much written on this outside of angry (and fully-justified) diatribes by authors against the publishing industry and predictions that the whole industry is going to die, which — while that would be poetic justice — is in my opinion not very likely.

Here are the facts feeding into the future as I see them.

  • E-publishing will come to dominate the publishing world more and more, until paper books become a niche, so that when we think of “publishing” we will think of e-publishing. Many books will be published in electronic form only, and even those published in print as well will see e-book distribution as the bulk of their sales.
  • The default assumption for authors will be self-publishing. Publishing companies will never regain the lock on distribution that existed before on-line marketing. As a result, authors will always know that they can publish anything they write themselves, and do not have to sell their work to a publishing company.

Those are the facts, but in terms of the future what do they mean?

First and foremost, they mean that the entire paradigm of traditional publishing (print runs and distribution to bookstores) will become increasingly obsolete. The new paradigm of publishing will be formatting of e-books and uploading them to online distribution outlets. This is much less capital-intensive than the old paradigm and so is necessarily decentralized, with authors fully capable of doing it all themselves or hiring out the parts they can’t do for an affordable price.

Secondly, and following from this, it means that publishers will need to woo authors by offering them something they can’t easily do for themselves, for a cost (in shares of royalties) that they will feel is justified by what is offered. With the obsolescence of the print-runs-and-bookstores paradigm, printing a book and getting it into bookstores (which is what publishers have offered in the past) obviously won’t do it. Nor will the attendant services such as cover design and editing that publishers have offered up to now; those are important but authors can obtain them for a few hundred dollars (or in some cases even free) and so publishers aren’t competitive when offering these services. Instead of looking at a publisher as someone who controls the future of his book, and therefore someone whose approval must be sought, an author will know that he can self-publish his book, that this is the default and the baseline, and evaluate the publisher in terms of what is being offered and what it will cost — as an option, not a necessity.

In other words, the bargaining strength between the two parties has radically shifted in the favor of the author.

We are already seeing an interesting change in the behavior of publishing companies. Where in the past they waited for authors or their agents to send work for them to choose or reject, publishers are beginning to scan the work of self-published writers and try to obtain for themselves either existing self-published books or new ones by authors who have done well. This makes sense from the publisher’s point of view, because it’s a low-risk enterprise. The successful self-published author has a proven track record and an established fan base.

The question is whether it is a good move for the author. As things stand today, the answer is usually no, in my opinion. But will things stay that way? Will the Big 6 publishers all go bankrupt because their current best-selling authors get old and die and they can’t find anyone to replace them?

One can find this prediction out there. I think it’s probably wrong, and that, given the financial resources of publishing companies and their parent corporations, they will have the time and space to change their paradigm of operation once they’re convinced that they have to. (Which, of course, they do.) There is, in fact, one service that a publishing company could offer an author which is very difficult to do oneself (although not impossible in this age of social media): marketing.

This is in fact sometimes touted as an advantage of going with a publishing company now, but at least with regard to the big publishers it isn’t one; all of the “marketing” efforts of publishers for anyone except their best-selling front-list goes into getting bookstores to order the books, which is declining in value towards worthlessness. Publishers who actually market to readers, though, will be offering a service that is worth a reasonable share of the revenue. Not, to be sure, the preposterous share that the big publishers take on e-book sales today — but a reasonable share, say twenty-five or thirty percent of net (so that a publisher-published e-book on Amazon would earn the author somewhere around 50% of the sale price rather than the 70% he earns as a self-published author). In return for that, the publisher would provide guidance on use of social media, help in website design, a host for the website itself, presentation of the book to reviewers, and a certain amount of paid advertising, all of which a self-published author must do for himself.

The scornful authors out there who have been  burned by Big Publishing before may scoff at the idea of publishing making these changes to the way it does business. But it seems to me that, when faced with the choice of change or extinction, business has proven itself willing to change in the past, and I see no reason to believe that publishing will be any different. This is the only model of the industry that is viable in a world where authors don’t need publishers, but I believe it is viable, and therefore it will exist.


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