Before the State: Egalitarian Bands

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

The very earliest groups of people in prehistory, as far as we can surmise, were small bands of nomadic foragers. Such bands have continued to exist down to the present day, though they are becoming increasingly hemmed in by powerful states who prefer people to be stationary, formally employed, and taxable. Still, many of our social intuitions were formed in an ancestral environment of such nomadic bands, so we should discuss them first and foremost.

Assuming that a band does not possess livestock, its members can only own what they can carry. As a result, the social structure is relatively flat; there are no wide class distinctions as are typical in “civilization.” (Civilization does have its advantages, of course, but that is not our present topic.) That is not to say that people are equal; all primates are acutely sensitive to status distinctions, humans included, and any social group will have its pecking order. More successful hunters or warriors will accumulate trophies, jewelry, or marks of prestige, and probably higher-status mates as well. Still, compared to more complex societies, we can still describe such bands as broadly egalitarian.

That doesn’t guarantee that they will stay that way. Commonly, such bands will have a leader or big man (as the anthropologists would call him—and barring magic or some other equalizer of the sexes, he will almost certainly be a man), who has the respect of the others even without having formal authority or privileges. Over time, a canny big man can formalize his position and even pass it on to his sons, becoming a true chief. Initially, the chief or big man would be expected to use his power to redistribute possessions among the band, rather than enriching himself; but with enough political skill, a chief can build a cadre of supporters who will back him as he does in fact become more wealthy (as will they!). Thus does an egalitarian band develop political structures and social classes.

Those bands that remain egalitarian usually manage the feat because of an explicit aversion to hierarchy. To prevent hierarchies from emerging, or to constrain nascent hierarchies as they form, egalitarian bands often discourage inequality with several strategies. The first is an overwhelming social environment of envy. Anyone becoming conspicuous by gaining social power or wealth could expect to be the subject of malicious gossip, petty acts of uncooperation (in James C. Scott’s term, “weapons of the weak”), and later, public disapproval, political opposition, and even magical curses or physical violence. Attempting to dominate an egalitarian band is a risky business.

Second is expecting those with many possessions to be generous with them. This could be through public feasting, or socially required gifts to others, or sacrifices to the gods. (The anthropologist David Graeber has a long and amusing discussion of such mandatory gift-giving.)

This expectation persists even in a hierarchical setting. In most societies, the wealthy and powerful are expected to foster patron-client relationships, in which the powerful patron is served by the weaker clients, and in return the client can expect the patron’s support and protection. You can think of feudalism as a formalized patron-client relationship; the vassals owe taxes and service to their lords, but the lords are expected to defend the rights of the vassals in return. Another example would be large landowners in places like precolonial Southeast Asia; the landowners often took very high percentages of the crop from their sharecropper farmers, but if times were bad, the farmers would expect the landowners to give them food from their storehouses (or risk getting lynched!).

Third, if conditions within a band became intolerable for some of its members, they would simply leave. The band could split, with the dissidents moving somewhere else and leaving any would-be strongman with a vastly diminished pool of manpower. (In the literature, this is called fission.) Obviously, this would be traumatic to the people involved, and would only be a last resort; but the threat of fission does much to keep ambitious leaders in check.

It is no accident that developed states often arose in cramped geographic areas that made it hard to escape, or else at a time when the society was facing outside invasion, which would likewise make it difficult (practically as well as morally) to simply leave. Mobility gives choices; choices constrain political domination. The lack of choice means that band members have little recourse when their chief decides to cement his power. (This concept is applicable even within developed states; the American West played the role of an escape valve for the urban centers of the Northeast, threatening a population drain in response to the more obnoxious schemes of politicians. See James C. Scott for more examples, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.)

The concepts here offer much to authors. Here are a few thought-provoking questions, in building your setting: What social expectations does your society place on the wealthy? How far are they tolerated, before risking violence from those with less? If the society is egalitarian, how does it stay that way? What role do gossip, threats of violence, or malicious charms and curses play in keeping powerful figures in check? Do political leaders risk driving off their populace if their policies are too harsh, or foolish? Did your protagonists come from somewhere else, and if so, why did they leave? What attitudes or personality traits does that convey, or were taught to them by their experience?

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Who Rules? Part Four—The Clergy

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

So far, we have discussed three of the four potential ruling groups in a Polity (regime), according to the model of Samuel Finer: the Palace, the Nobility, and the Forum—as well as a few of the possible hybrid Polities such as Palace/Nobility. Now, let’s discuss the fourth potential ruling group: the Clergy (or as Finer designates it, the Church).

A pure Clergy polity is vanishingly rare—Finer identifies only the Vatican and the historical Tibetan theocracy as pure Clergy polities. Far more often, a Clergy is joined with another ruler type and gives it legitimacy; the most common of these is Palace/Clergy. This is perhaps because the Clergy’s own legitimacy depends solely on religious justifications, and usually excludes a justification based on political or military power. (Indeed, a Clergy that actually justifies itself based on its coercive power is probably in the middle of a collapse of its authority.) Instead, endorsement by the Clergy turns obedience to the Palace into a religious virtue.

That said, the potential power of a Clergy should not be underestimated. There were times in Medieval Europe when the Pope was able to raise up kings and cast them down, and when the Catholic Church had the most powerful bureaucracy and intelligence systems around. (Largely because few Christians outside of the Church could read.) But while at times the Church could call on military forces of its own, typically its power depended on its moral authority—the widespread belief that the Church’s dictates ought to be followed, even among the nobility or monarchs. Maintaining that moral authority usually requires that the Clergy act and make sacrifices in accordance with its religious teachings, and demand such sacrifices from the populace and other rulers—at least in public!

A Nobility/Clergy polity would be unusual, since a fragmented nobility would coexist uneasily with a centralized Clergy; but Finer does note one example, the Teutonic Order during its bloody rule of East Prussia and the Baltic, starting in the 1200s: ”The Order consisted of three classes of brethren: the priests, the serjeants, and the knights. These knights had to be both noble and of German blood. There is no mistaking the religious nature of the Order; no brother might hold private property or marry, and all had to follow a very harsh discipline and rule.”

For Clergy to rule along with the Forum would be difficult, since rule by God often exists in tension with rule by the people. Finer suggests one exception: Congregationalism, when the people choose their own religious/political leaders, almost always in small communities where people know their neighbors face to face. I would add another possibility: when the Clergy sees its role as maintaining a religious rule that underpins effective rule by the people, such as a taboo against monarchs or military dictatorship.

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As authors, here are some key questions to keep in mind: what religious/spiritual beliefs does the Clergy base itself on? What personal sacrifices does it make to distinguish itself from “normal” pious nobles? How does it secure compliance from the rulers, even without an army? What would make the Clergy lose its moral authority and threaten its influence? Does the populace take the Clergy seriously? Do the elites? How can a member of the Clergy exploit its moral authority for personal gain, and how many members actually do so? Does the Clergy have any tangible basis for power, like land holdings or a military force? What happens if someone (Clergy or otherwise) has a crisis of faith? What would happen in a religious schism?

The Importance of Theme in “The Incredibles”

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I recently saw The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2 back to back. The Incredibles is a brilliant film: a master-class in storytelling and a lot of fun. The Incredibles 2 is a good film: enjoyable with exciting action sequences and several hilarious bits about parenting. However, in my judgment it does not approach the brilliance of its predecessor. And a big part of the difference, I think, is in the two films’ treatment of theme.

[Spoilers ahead!]

The Incredibles was built from the ground up on the interplay between two strong themes: excellence vs. conformity-enforcing authority, and “going alone” vs. one’s responsibilities to others. Every incident in the movie plays into these themes. For the “excellence vs. authority/conformity” theme, consider the lawsuits forcing Supers to retire; Mr. Incredible’s new job in a soul-crushing insurance company, with a sociopathic control-freak of a boss who wants his employees to be gears in a machine; the children having to suppress part of their identities, with Dash acting out from frustration and Violet using her powers to fade into the background; and the recurring arc-words “When everyone is special, no one is.”

But at the same time, the other theme is constantly present. Mr. Incredible embodies the “going it alone” impulse; he refuses to take “Incrediboy” seriously, despite the latter’s obvious talent and need for a mentor, setting up the main conflict of the movie. He retreats from his family and spends his days trying to relive past glories, making him an easy mark for Mirage. (The initial sequence when he is late for his own wedding turns out to foreshadow this very conflict, between his drive to excel personally and his commitments to others.)

Elastigirl, meanwhile, represents both the “conformity” side and the “responsibility to others” side. While she is introduced with a gurrl-power persona in the beginning, she quickly subordinates herself to her new mundane role as a normal person, with a family to take care of. She takes this too far, forcing Dash to conform even when it clearly does not suit him, and giving up all of her agency in the face of Mr. Incredible’s apparent betrayal (before some well-timed smacks upside the head from fabulous suit-designer Edna Mode). Both sides need to realize their weaknesses and embrace what is best about the other, until finally the whole family becomes a true Super-team.

The villain as well is the perfect foil to these themes. Learning from Mr. Incredible not to rely on anyone else, he uses people instead of forming true relationships (which comes back to haunt him). His revenge on Supers is to use his inventions to make everyone special, and thus no one. (Aside from all the murder and such.) But his own drive to excel is actually a drive for approval, first from Mr. Incredible, then from the entire world. This too leads to his downfall, in the form of a flamboyant costume complete with (gasp!) a cape.

There is more, but you can see how all the parts work together and strengthen each other. This is not the case in The Incredibles 2.

First, we should point out that the filmmakers put themselves in a trap with the character of Jack-Jack. Simply put, he is far too powerful. At the end of The Incredibles we see that he can change his makeup, turning into a lump of lead, then a demon, then living flame. This itself is impressive, but would at least obey some limits which a screenwriter can work with. But in the short film Jack-Jack Attack!, he becomes story-breaking. Laser eyes, teleportation, walking through walls? Suddenly, Jack-Jack can do anything. At this point, any sequel is forced to either keep him as a baby (thus uncontrolled and unpredictable), or somehow depower him. For him to even be 4 or 5 years old with all of his powers would make him basically omnipotent, and remove any real plot jeopardy (unless he became the villain, which would lead to a fan revolt).

But back to theme. Seemingly, the core of the movie attempts to be the role-reversal between Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, who finally gets her time to shine as her husband is relegated to full-time parent. This could have been interesting, but is used merely for comic relief, didn’t actually go anywhere, and didn’t come to any conclusion. Violet’s conflict was unrelated to the theme other than giving Mr. Incredible a mess to deal with (and Dash didn’t even get a conflict!). Jack-Jack too remains comic relief, by necessity, but regardless manages to bring the whole movie to a screeching halt and upstage everything (though given the other flaws of the movie, he is still the best part—at least for parents).

Meanwhile, much of the movie revolves around efforts to legalize Supers once again, but unconvincingly. The end of the last movie is implied to have dealt with this issue, which necessitates a clumsy restigmatizing in the beginning of Incredibles 2. And again, this theme is not fully developed, becomes a mere pretext for the last set-piece battle, and doesn’t tie into the other themes jumbled through the movie.

Worst of all, the villain’s themes are completely disconnected from the role-reversal, and even from each other. Ostensibly, Screenslaver is protesting the increasing vicariousness of modern life, an interesting topic which could have been explored more deeply. Instead, Screenslaver is given a minutes-long monologue in the middle, and then the theme is dropped entirely and never comes up again. Later, we find out that the villain actually has a personal grudge against Supers, because her father relied on a Super to save him instead of… hiding out in a safe-room? This is the big conflict between relying on others and taking personal responsibility? (Plus, why not have his hotlines connect to the safe-room?)

If it were me, I would have made Jack-Jack Attack! non-canon (or not have made it at all), allowing for more flexibility. The family would not suddenly be ripped apart just when they had achieved harmony, and Mr. Incredible wouldn’t be removed from the field entirely—but he would still have to deal with Elastigirl taking center-stage. Then, the core of the conflict could have been the effort at Super-legalization versus a more natural villain: someone, perhaps in government, who would be threatened by the reemergence of Supers. This allows the themes from the first movie to be reprised, while allowing Elastigirl’s arc to have more resonance. And the details would be crafted with an eye toward making all the themes and sub-themes strengthen each other.

Theme is not simply something to be bolted onto a plot; theme actually gives the plot direction, focus, and most of all meaning. And that is a big part of what makes great art.

Who Rules? Part Three—The Forum

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Some time ago, we mentioned the four potential ruling groups laid out by Samuel Finer, and discussed the Palace Polity; in the second post in this set, we discussed the Nobility and our first hybrid polity, Palace/Nobility. Now, let’s add the Forum into the mix, along with the Palace/Forum.

While in the Palace it is the autocrat who rules, and in the Nobility autonomous aristocrats hold power and scheme jealously against each other, in the Forum, power is vested in the people. In earlier posts, we have briefly noted egalitarian societies in which no true state exists, in which the people of the society share a voice in the major decisions of that society. In the Forum, the rule of the people is explicit and formalized. State institutions exist to carry out the needs of society, but they are subject to the people and depend on it for their orders. Formal mechanisms such as voting, written law and public law courts, and public debate translate the opinions of individuals into a collective imperative, that is sovereign over the government administrators.

Forums can take several forms, of which democracy is only one—and they need not include everyone in the population. In Greek democracy, for example, the vote was restricted to free males who were heads of their households, and often who met certain criteria of wealth. Most of the time, fewer than 10% of the residents of ancient Athens were eligible to vote. But for Finer, that is sufficient, because the franchise was broad enough to go beyond a narrow aristocracy or oligarchy, broad enough to include significant parts of the people itself in its self-rule.

Ancient Israel, which Finer believes was the very first Forum state in history, was not a democracy; but it was a tribal society in which decisions were made by a consensus of elders, until the rise of the monarchy—and even then, the kings had to be careful not to ignore public opinion or the tribal leadership, as could be seen by Ahab’s hesitance to simply confiscate the land of Naboth, or the secession of the northern tribes from the obnoxious rule of Rehovoam, successor to King Solomon.

In both cases, and in pretty much every durable Forum, the political power of the people rested on a foundation of popular military participation. Usually, a Forum was made up of a nation in arms. One of Finer’s main arguments is that political power tends to correspond to the distribution of military force. In early pre-state societies, all able-bodied men (and occasionally women) were considered warriors. Weapons tended to be simple and were widely available, so that the distribution of power between people was fairly even. This is one of the factors sustaining an egalitarian social structure. (By contrast, one of the key processes involved in the emergence of Danish chiefs, over a society that had previously been egalitarian, was the chiefs’ strategic control over the new technology of iron swords, and their careful distribution of swords to their favored supporters.)

Popular military power was true of the Greek polis, where to be qualified for citizenship you had to be able to serve as a hoplite, a spearman in the famous Greek phalanxes. But it was also true of the tribal confederation of ancient Israel. In its earliest, pre-kingly phase, the Israelites served in the popular militias, largely on foot and without heavy armor. (Thus, in the Biblical account of Deborah’s war against the Canaanite general Sisera, the Canaanites possess heavy chariots which the Israelites could not match. They therefore forced battle in the hill country, where the light infantry of the Israelite militia could negate the Canaanites’ advantage.)

The power of the popular militia restrained the growth of centralized political structures in Israel, for a time. Later, the arrival of heavy armor, chariots, cavalry, and foreign mercenaries provided increased military power to those wealthy enough to afford them, creating the basis for a ruling class; the first monarchy emerged shortly after. (I discuss the social effects of weapons technology in a bit more detail here.) But even during the time of the monarchy, Israel was unique among any polity for over a thousand years in that the Forum remained important. The king was the first limited monarch in history; he was subject to the Divine law, and was not its author or above it in any way.

More recently, the Forum polity of the United States was founded on the colonists’ successful rebellion against the British, made possible by the widespread ownership of firearms; the French Revolution, too, was sustained by the invention of the “citizen’s army,” which resisted the combined invasions of the other major powers of Europe. But wait—the French Revolution was hardly a Forum, you may say. It was a cruel totalitarian regime, soon overthrown by self-styled “Emperor” Napoleon! So why include it here?

The French Revolution may not have been a pure Forum, but it was a classic example of a very important hybrid type: the Palace/Forum. In this regime, though most power resides in the Palace, the legitimating ideology is very different. While a pure Palace draws legitimacy from itself or from the gods, the Palace/Forum claims the right to rule on behalf of the people. In principle, the autocrat is simply a trustee of the people, rather than its master. In practice, this might even be true; the modern United States is effectively a Palace/Forum that, even though imperfect, is far better at actual representation (for now) than are other Palace/Forums such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or any one of a dozen caudillo rulers in South America. But as my examples make clear, even nominally democratic Palace/Forums need not remain so for long, if too much power accretes in the hands of the Palace. As long as the Palace claims legitimacy as a trustee of the Forum, its behavior will be markedly different from a pure Palace. (But not necessarily better.)

(On a related note, popular legislatures today are a poor protector of the rights of the Forum. In the early history of legislatures, the rulers had to pay attention to them because it was the legislatures who collected taxes. Ignore the legislature, and the ruler went broke. But ever since rulers have been able to build their own tax-collection machinery, the “power of the purse” in legislatures has become more and more attenuated.)

Rebellion, Part One

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Many fictional stories are built around rebellions against some sort of tyrannical overlord. Such stories provide readymade underdogs to root for and compelling conflict with high stakes; they also mesh well with American culture, and the cultural memory of any society that has ever broken free from external rule (which is most of them, these days).

But as I’ve noted before, these stories often have very little to do with how rebellions actually work. That’s not necessarily a problem, per se; good fiction does not require realism. But it does require a consistent internal logic, and some stories violate their own rules when discussing rebellions, simply because the author had a particular mental model for how rebellions are “supposed” to work that was a poor fit for the story.

Again, the purpose of studying real rebellion is to allow you to tell more stories, broadening your range. If it also dissuades you from writing wildly unrealistic rebellion stories, I’d take that as a win; but that’s because I’m a polisci nerd, so don’t worry about it overmuch.

First, let’s arbitrarily distinguish between four types of rebellions, each with very different goals. These are: violent contention, secession, government overthrow, and revolution.

In violent contention, as I’m using the term, the initial goal is not necessarily to overthrow the government, or to create your own country (although these things could become goals later). Instead, all the rebels want is to improve their own condition. It could be a peasant movement groaning under the tax burden, or agitating for a cancellation of debts, or simply desperate for food which the regime is keeping for itself; it could be a local militia that wants official recognition and a royal salary. It could be the local longshoreman’s union trying to get more sick days.

Such outbreaks of violence could be planned in advance; the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico would be a good example, or any number of large-scale mutinies in the Congo—led by generals who want a government ministry or a promotion. Or, the rebels could coalesce spontaneously, without prior planning or even intent; riots often start this way. The key point is that the initial goal is not to break free of the government or overthrow it, but simply to improve your own condition.

Think of it as a form of bargaining. If the regime or the local moneylenders are oppressing you and refuse to listen to your appeals, you might decide that violence is the only way to get their attention. By taking up arms, you give the regime the choice between meeting your demands, or incurring the costs necessary to put down the rebellion.

Consider the situation in the American Colonies before the Battle of Lexington. Most of the colonists did not want a full-blown war; the very idea was novel. For a colony to break free of its mother country entirely was almost unprecedented in history. (And when Carthage broke free from Tyre, it was because Alexander the Great had wiped Tyre out—not because the Carthaginians had rebelled.) But the colonies had over a hundred years of precedent for small-scale rebellions again the royal governors, launched by people suffering from mistreatment such as dispossessed farmers and slaves. (Few people are taught of these episodes, but you can find a good discussion of them in Murray Rothbard’s “Conceived in Liberty,” starting with Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.)

So the colonists used violence to make their case. They had very specific grievances they wanted addressed by King George: taxation without representation, arbitrary rule by military officials, restraints on trade, et cetera. Had Britain developed some way to include the Americas in Parliament, it is possible that America would have remained part of the British Empire to centuries to come.

But Britain did not compromise, and instead declared the Colonies to be in rebellion, to be crushed by force. At this point, the rebels faced a decision: either they accept defeat, submit, and try to avoid punishment (the fate of many episodes of violent contention), they continue their relatively low-level campaign of violence and hope that Britain reconsiders, or they broaden their goals into a true rebellion. To take this last option, the rebels typically would need to be strong enough and well enough organized to have hope, however faint, for victory—which the Americans were.

Thus, we come to the second type of rebellion, secession. I call the American Revolution a secession because its goal was not to overthrow King George, or to conquer Britain itself, but merely to break free of it and form a new country. Secession is the kind of full-scale rebellion we see the most of in the real world, probably. And it is the one that best illustrates a key feature of rebellions: they often take the form of competitive state-formation.

What does this mean? In rebellions, each side is trying to project power over a given populace. Both sides want to collect taxes, to control behavior, to deny resources and free movement to the enemy, and to recruit soldiers and inspire loyalty. In short, rebellions feature all the usual problems of wielding political power, but magnified and sharpened because you are competing against an enemy that is trying to do the same thing, to the same populace. Battles and strategies are important, of course, but for a rebellion to even get that far, it must first have managed to build competing state institutions, with all that implies, to raise and support its army. That whole process is what usually gets called “insurgency.”

Secessions usually take place in a peripheral part of the state, where the regime’s control is weak; this gives the insurgents the opportunity to build institutions of their own. And the populace is faced with two would-be rulers, each of which wants to be obeyed; setting aside ideology or ethnic ties, individuals will tend to listen to whichever side offers the more compelling mix of threats and benefits. Assuming of course that the individuals don’t try to play one side off against the other for personal benefit!

Rebellion and Authority by Leites and Wolf is a fantastic, free examination of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, written by scholars at the RAND Corporation during the Vietnam War; they thus had strong incentives to get their analysis right, and the resulting study is fascinating. Authors will find it invaluable for the richness of detail it provides; definitely check it out.

Later, we will discuss government overthrows and revolutions.

How to Make This Editor Happy

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During the submissions period for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, my current anthology project, I received around a hundred submissions. Some were of beginner quality, which is not a bad thing per se, since it means that the authors can improve their work through feedback. Other works were of higher quality, but didn’t mesh well with my own particular aesthetic preferences; other editors may well accept such work, even if I didn’t. Unfortunately, between the sheer number of submissions and my own time constraints, I did not give individualized feedback to the submitters—which is not fair of me, since they did put in the work.

I think it’s worthwhile, therefore, to write up a post discussing some of the common patterns among work that was not accepted for the anthology. That way, authors considering submitting their work to me in the future will know more about my preferences, and whether their story fits with them.

(I should emphasize that not all stories that were turned down fall under one of these categories. If you submitted work, do check if anything in this discussion resonates with your experience; but there’s no need to jam your story into a category just because it’s here.)

With that, in no particular order:

Unpracticed Writing

Mark Twain once said words to the effect of, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Some of the submitted stories had prose which lacked fluency and smoothness, or had frequent errors of meaning or grammar. This does not necessarily disqualify a story—in my previous anthology I accepted more than one story that needed extensive editing, because the plot and characters were strong enough to justify the work needed to fix them. But it took a lot of work on my part to fix these stories, and I’ll only accept a rough story if it has great merit otherwise. Often, inexperienced prose was accompanied with some of the plotting flaws discussed below, which is not surprising.

The solution here is simply to write, and write, and write, and study what good writing looks like so that you can improve your prose over time. As you develop your technical ability and prose style and it becomes instinctive, you will be able to transcend the need to labor on your prose as much—so you can spend more effort on plot, characterization, and so on.

Infodumps

Common in stories that were trying to introduce an entire elaborate setting or magical system, an infodump (also called “expository lump”) is an explanation or exposition that is not smoothly integrated into the scene action, “as if a page from an encyclopedia accidentally got shuffled in.” For example, a story might spend several paragraphs on the precise details of how to enchant magical rings, most details of which do not actually affect the present story.

Figuring out how to provide vivid detail or to introduce the rules of your setting to the reader without bringing the plot to a screeching halt is a difficult element of the craft; a good rule of thumb is to give background information one or two sentences at a time, interspersed with plot action or dialogue. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course. Another rough guideline is to introduce setting details only if they actually affect the plot (though some authors create powerful literary effects through their intricate ornamental details). In any event, the more sensitive you get to the flow and pacing of your scenes, the better you will become at this.

The “And” Plot

In this story, something happens, and something else happens, and something else happens… but each event seems disconnected. There is no progression from one episode to the next. A character might face several challenges, but they lack a connecting thread or any lasting consequences. (In D&D terms, it’s a series of wandering-monster encounters, rather than a coherent adventure.) Common examples were stories in which the proprietor interacted with several customers one after another, but without learning anything from each or being otherwise affected by them, and without each customer contributing to the plot progression. If you could shuffle the customers and rewrite in a different order without the story changing much, it’s an indication that you have an “And” plot.

Especially in a short story where you have very little space to work with, every word must build toward the conclusion. Every element of the story should build dramatic tension, should contribute to the theme, should drive us toward the climax. There are a few different techniques for how to do this; you might compare Deborah Chester’s “elemental story design” with the method of Holly Lisle to see which fits your style better.

No Conflict

The story has characters, and description, and a narrative—but there’s no drama. People have no goals, or else they accomplish their goals without real opposition. This showed up several times in stories that tried to introduce a larger setting; so much effort was spent discussing the setting that there was little actual plot drama.

One symptom of not having a real conflict is characters being nasty to each other for no reason, and with no consequences or story importance. This is a strong tell that the author realizes that the story isn’t dynamic enough and so tries to inject “conflict” without understanding the role that conflict is supposed to play in the story. Conflict is more than characters snapping at each other for no reason. It is about characters with fundamentally opposing goals, or interests, or desires. It is about one character striving to achieve something and another character trying to block him, or kill her, or get there first.

Conflict is what makes the story interesting, and not only because it creates story tension. Characters need conflict, need obstacles and opposition, in order to reveal what they are really made of—to give us someone to admire.

No Conclusion

After a great deal of plot, the story ends with a thud. It might be someone ruminating on life and fate and belly buttons; it might be two people talking; it might be an exciting battle of some kind. But the ending does not actually resolve the conflict established earlier in the story.

A story begins by asking a sort of question. In its simplest form, the question could be: will the protagonists achieve their goals? In more ambitious works, the question could be: do the protagonists understand themselves better, and understand why they chose that goal to begin with? Other questions exist, of course. Whatever it is, the question is elaborated and complicated over the course of the story, and finally answered by the end. If the ending is not connected to the fundamental question of the story, it means that the author does not yet know what question the story is raising.

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So far, so good. But most editors want capable prose and well-structured stories. What about my own idiosyncratic dislikes?

Undeserved Endings

A protagonist ends the story in total defeat, despite doing everything right. Or she has victory handed to her on a silver platter, via deus ex machina or a sudden change of heart by the antagonist or intervention by a bystander. In short, the resolution of the story had nothing to do with the efforts of the protagonist (and therefore was not the culmination of the story’s theme, but that’s a more advanced point).

I like stories in which the protagonist succeeds because of her efforts, or fails because of her mistakes. Meaningless suffering leaves me annoyed, unless it is handled very skillfully indeed.

(Note that intervention by a third party can be justified if the intervention is inspired by the protagonist’s utmost attempts. For example, suppose Sir Haldric the Hapless attempts to vindicate an innocent man through trial by combat, and he suffers horribly at the hands of Sir Robard the Ruthless in the arena. Yet every time he takes a wound, he gets back up; his honor and commitment to the accused man require no less. Finally, when Haldric’s death is at hand, the magistrate suddenly rises from his seat and stops the combat. Though Haldric was the lesser fighter, he says, he is surely the greater knight. The innocent man is freed.

I would not consider this ending to be undeserved; Haldric earned his ending by his self-sacrifice and courage. Admittedly, the ending would have to be carefully set up or it would be implausible; but that’s a different issue.)

Unsympathetic Protagonists

We need a reason to want the protagonist to win. Evil protagonists are not always unsympathetic (though that depends strongly on who the alternative is, in my view), but merely being the viewpoint character isn’t enough to justify them.

When I read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, despite all of the deft prose and imaginative prefigurings of the Internet, I was left cold by the protagonist. We are told early on that at his lowest point, he murdered innocent people for their pocket change; to me, that takes a hell of a lot of redemption for me to care about what you are doing—unless the stakes are high enough, like end-of-the-world high. In Neuromancer, they were not. So to me the whole book fell flat.

Nihilism

Good stories mean something, and they mean something worth the effort. To me, the world and its suffering has meaning. We can disagree on what that meaning is; but I dislike stories that assert the futility of struggle, of growth, of virtue. Other publishers like them better, and if such stories are your metier then submit to those other publishers.

*****

So there you have it. This doesn’t cover everything—for one thing, I have my own unconscious biases, as does everyone—but if you want to submit a story to one of my future efforts, this list is a good place to start in deciding whether your piece will attract my attention.

Who Rules? Part Two—The Nobility

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Some time ago, we mentioned the four potential ruling groups laid out by Samuel Finer, and discussed the first “polity” (or regime type), the Palace Polity. Now, let us discuss the second “pure” polity—the Nobility—as well as our first hybrid polity, the Palace/Nobility.

What makes the Nobility unique is not that they are powerful or influential. In any polity there will be influential figures, even in the Palace. But for a group of powerful people to be considered a Nobility in the sense Finer means, they must first have autonomy from the central government, and from each other. Aristocrats attached to the Palace, and deriving their power from it, may be noble in the class system of their society; but Finer would not consider them “Nobility,” merely courtiers (typically the rivals of the autonomous Nobility). Nobility are able to resist the central government, because they control their own power resources—land most frequently, but also the people on that land.

(One might consider a vast fortune to count as a power resource as well, though historical nobles usually had land as the source of their power; but money by itself does not yield power if the rich are vulnerable to state coercion. Furthermore, a state with enough money to make large fortunes possible is unlikely to have autonomous nobles; the central government is usually strong enough to force some sort of dependent relationship, often in the form of a corporatist system. Bill Gates cannot simply decide to stop paying his taxes. It was the historical lack of coin, and thus the need to pay retainers in land grants, that typically led to the emergence of nobility in the first place. Still, one can imagine other potential sources of autonomous power.)

Second, a Noble is distinguished by his absolute control over those in his domain. No higher authority, no central government, may interfere with a Noble’s lands or vassals. Not even other Nobles, which is helps to explain why nobles were constantly occupied with feuds and intrigues against each other. On the other hand, Nobility could often arrange themselves hierarchically or even fractally, so that many petty lords could be vassals of a more powerful lord, who in turn would be one of the several vassals of an even more powerful lord, all the way until you reach a handful of great nobles who dominate their politics. Finer gives the example of Bakufu-era Japan, with its samurai class aligned under the daimyos, in ever-shifting coalitions and factions.

A pure Nobility polity is extremely rare and not very stable. To qualify, it would have to lack a strong central government entirely. But the nobles would still have to be bound together in some form, or else it would not be a single polity but a patchwork of smaller principalities. The only example that Finer locates is that of 16th-17th century Poland, where the great nobles sat in a council together, under the nominal rulership of a king who nevertheless was nearly always controlled by the noble council. Such polities would tend to either coalesce into a stronger central regime over time, or else fragment entirely.

More commonly, strong nobles coexisted uneasily with a central Palace regime, leading to the Palace/Nobility polity (naturally). This was the situation during the Feudal era of Europe, in which a nascent centralized government had to deal with lesser nobles who could stand apart from the Crown, and on occasion present a real threat to its power.

If the independent nobility is relatively weak and more easily controlled by the Palace, then while Nobles have their ancient privileges, those privileges might be closely circumscribed. Palace administrative structures may be imperfect, so local control depends on the cooperation of the nobles, but the nobles themselves would have small armed forces if any; they pose little threat to the Palace in the long run. And unless there is a dramatic change in the balance of power, the Nobles’ position will erode over time. Perhaps the independent nobles are being challenged by other “court nobles,” whose prestige depends on the largesse of the Palace alone.

If the central monarch faces a powerful set of nobles with strong militaries of their own, he or she must scramble to keep on top of them via careful alliances and shrewd politicking or risk losing power, or being made nearly irrelevant. Think of the early French kings, or of King John of England (who was forced to sign the Magna Carta by an alliance of barons). The king remains powerful in his own right; otherwise, if the king were a mere figurehead or first among equals, we would be left with a pure Nobility polity as in the case of Poland. But the nobles are strong enough collectively to restrain the king’s power or even to bring him down, if they ever manage to put aside their own rivalries and oppose him as one.

This circumstance can have several long-term outcomes. In the case of England, the rights that the nobility extracted from the king (the Magna Carta) laid the groundwork for the later English experiment in broad political rights, the forerunner of the more explicit American political rights that created the modern liberal-democratic society. That did not happen in France, where the nobles focused not on rights but on privileges—chiefly, the privilege of taxing the populace. As a result, even when the French monarchy grew in strength, it still had to depend on tax-farming for revenue; the resulting abuses of the people were a key factor leading to the French Revolution.

For a weak ruler to strengthen his position is a long, perhaps generational, project. It took the Capetian kings of France hundreds of years to slowly, patiently, methodically chip away at the power of the nobility, and they were never assured of ultimate success. The same could be said of the English kings, who suffered periodic overthrow and wars of succession. A strong nobility can defend its own position quite effectively; still, the king has the advantages of a central political position and the ability to divide and conquer, given the opportunity.

A final possibility is that a weak Palace can strengthen to the point that the polity becomes evenly balanced. Or, a previously powerful Palace can have its position diminished so that the nobles reach parity. In either event, such a Palace/Nobility polity features an unstable, delicate balance between each side, so that the future trajectory of the system could go in either direction.

For authors, opportunities for conflict abound. Independent nobles can scheme against each other or even make open war, the king can intrigue with one faction against another, or they could intrigue against the king or rebel; country aristocracy could come into conflict with dependent courtiers, each side resenting the privileges of the other. Feuds between nobles and a weakened king could risk fracturing the polity altogether, leaving it open to outside invasion; or the threat of such invasion could be exploited by the Palace to augment its own power and force the nobles in line. If court politics is your thing, then the possibilities should make you downright giddy!

Last Day to Submit to Ye Olde Magick Shoppe!

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Today is the published deadline for submissions to Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, my second anthology. If you have already submitted and haven’t heard back, it’s because I’m being blizzarded by submissions, thankfully!

Don’t let that dissuade you, though; my goal is to see all quality stories published, either in this anthology or in some other venue. Good luck, and I look forward to your submissions!

How Not to be Overthrown by Your Army

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Being a ruler can be hazardous to your health. The safety of your country depends on you having a strong enough army to repel invaders, and the safety of your regime depends on that same army being able to deter rebellion. But an army strong enough to do that is also strong enough to overthrow you by itself; history is full of ambitious generals who did just that. So what is a ruler to do?

There are many strategies that can be employed, such as keeping your soldiers fat and happy with tax revenue, or using ideological indoctrination to secure their loyalty. Here, I want to focus on army composition, and how it can be used to secure the regime.

By “army composition,” I don’t mean how much infantry you have versus cavalry, or battle mages versus dragons, or whatever—though that is clearly important. And if you do want to think about that kind of thing, questions of unit type can easily fit into the model we are about to discuss. But as Samuel Finer discusses, a ruler fundamentally must build his military from among three kinds of armies: popular militias, a professional national army, and foreign mercenaries.

The popular militia is the cheapest and easiest option, if your objective is to defend against invasion (or, sometimes, to do a spot of invading yourself). Responsible for their own training and equipment, the populace does not represent a drain on the treasury as other types of soldiers do, and they can be raised quickly when needed. However, they tend to be relatively poorly trained and armed, and are therefore less effective in battle than a standing army. More importantly, to the ruler, is that the popular militia is loyal to their families foremost, their nation second, and the regime a distant third—if at all! Especially if you plan on being a squeeze-the-peasants sort of ruler, allowing the people to organize into armed units would be the last thing on your mind.

A standing army remedies many of the defects of the militia. Soldiers are better equipped and better trained, dependent on the regime for their pay, and also more easily indoctrinated politically (if that kind of thing is a feature of your regime). However, professionalized armies take a long time to train up, and are fantastically expensive; Finer estimates that the vast majority of state spending throughout history was on maintaining armies. Moreover, while soldiers in a standing army may be more loyal to the regime than your average peasant is, they will still care more about the nation as a whole—and might decide that the ruler needs to go for the public good. Alternatively, one of your commanders may decide that he wants your job, and convince his men to back him. A standing army thus represents a permanent threat to the regime, more urgently than the populace as a whole does.

Finally, we have mercenaries—they come pre-trained, only care about getting their pay, and have no sentimental attachments to the populace. Indeed, the populace may view them with resentment or hatred, deepening the mercenaries’ dependence on the ruler who signs their paychecks. On the other hand, mercenaries are notorious for their lack of fight-to-the-death commitment, are prone to switching sides, and even are known to overthrow the regime and take over—as Machiavelli notes in great detail when discussing the Italian Condottieri.

One classic way that tyrants would mitigate these risks is for the ruler to have a small number of mercenaries as his personal guards. They would not be strong enough to credibly challenge his rule, and would be at risk of massacre by the locals if the ruler ever died; but they can still keep him safe from the standing army, and indeed their own welfare depended on it.

Likewise, most regimes would maintain a relatively small standing army as the core of the military, along with a much larger popular militia to be called up during wartime. The standing army would serve as shock troops in battle, improving the effectiveness of the military as a whole, and would also defend the capital city from any restiveness in the outer provinces—all for a relatively low cost, compared to an entirely professionalized force.

Of course, a wealthy enough regime that was not loathed by its people could have the luxury of a powerful full-time army; the United States is one example today. But even the U.S. still maintains a distinction between the Army and the National Guard, which could be seen as a rough parallel to the “popular militias” discussed above. A better example would be the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein; the bulk of the military was poorly equipped and paid, while the smaller Republican Guard—recruited exclusively from Hussein’s own clan—was a relatively elite force whose performance, and loyalty, were more assured. Meanwhile, several small African or Pacific Islander states relied in recent years on mercenary groups such as Executive Outcomes or Sandline, because they were viewed as more reliable than the regime’s own military. With good reason; these regimes tended to have a long history of military coups.

So the militia/standing army/mercenaries model is broadly applicable. In your worldbuilding, consider the strategic problems that a regime faces from its own military. They are sure to generate some gripping stories, if you want to write them. Key points to consider: the cost of an army, its loyalty, the loyalty of its commanders, the need for more loyal units to deter mutiny by the more marginal ones… and trading off all of the above against military effectiveness. Remember too that some rulers can more easily survive defeat in war than they can a military coup—and will therefore treat their own military as their greatest threat.

******

(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. There are only two days left! Check out the announcement and start writing!

Plus, the associated Kickstarter project is now live! We’ve got a fancy video and everything…)

Who Rules? Part One—The Palace

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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Up to now, we have spent a lot of time discussing the constraints that any political regime has to deal with—the problem of legitimacy, taxation and legibility, power projection, and so forth. There are still more areas to discuss, such as the strategic problem of having a standing army (which can pose a threat to its own political leadership, and often does); but for now, let’s switch gears and discuss the differences between regimes, starting with a fundamental question: which elites rule?

Rather than exhaustively catalogue the relatively minor differences between presidential democracies and parliamentary democracies, or sultanist dictatorships and technocratic dictatorships, here we will follow the work of the eminent political scientist Samuel Finer. In his model, there are four possible groups of political elites who could claim the right to rule a regime (or polity, as he terms it): the Palace, the Nobility, the Church, and the Forum. Pure types exist, or you can have hybrids such as Palace/Nobility or Palace/Church; but per Finer, these four contenders for power are it. (This is convenient for worldbuilders, because we can figure out the broad type of our regime without being excessively constrained in the details that we love to invent and tinker with.)

Before examining each, we have to ask: what about the military, or the bureaucracy? Both of these group can hold tremendous power in a regime, and indeed become the de facto rulers. Yet to Finer, neither of these groups is capable of ruling legitimately, because the justification for their power derives from one of the four groups: a military junta may claim to rule on behalf of the people, or a labyrinthine bureaucracy can claim to represent the Emperor. The military and bureaucracy in themselves lack a legitimating ideology, which is what the four main elite groups sometimes possess. Additionally, as Peter Feaver notes, if a general overthrows the dictator, he ceases to be a mere general because he is now responsible for the entire regime, not just the interests of the military, and the problem of civil-military relations begins anew (even if his fellow officers may trust him more, initially). In effect, he himself becomes a Palace autarch.

(I wonder, however, if we are not in our lifetime seeing the rise of an ideology justifying the rule of expert bureaucrats, on the grounds that the people are too stupid to rule. At the moment, though, this ideology has little purchase in the broad society—which is why the rulers of the European Union, for example, pay lip service to democratic ideals even as they cheerfully ignore the will of the people as a matter of course.)

With that, let us begin by looking at our first pure type, the Palace polity:

In the Palace there is only a single controlling will—that of the ruler, the center of the Palace, the nexus from which all decisions flow. The ruler could be called king, emperor, dictator, president, or any number of possible titles. He may preside over a nobility or other sorts of important people, but what distinguishes the pure Palace polity from the Nobility polity (to be discussed soon) is that nobles are totally dependent on the ruler—they do not have autonomous power, and their privileges depend entirely on carrying out his will. Within the state, the ruler has ultimate, arbitrary power, without procedural constraints of the sort we expect in a liberal democracy. The power of all others depends entirely on their proximity to, privileges from, and influence over the ruler.

In the Palace polity, Finer notes, legitimacy always derives from some form of charisma or tradition. Charisma could be “routinized” and shade into tradition, as when the hereditary ruler claims to be a god or otherwise supernatural. Rulers could also claim the divine right of kings, or the Mandate of Heaven, or some other transcendent blessing justifying his rule. But whatever the exact form of legitimacy, the ruler is ultimately responsible only to the power or beliefs grounding his rule: the gods, or God, or the harmony of the universe. This might require that the ruler spend much of his time in rituals and ceremonies befitting his cosmic role, especially if he is seen as the intermediary between Earth and Heaven. (The Chinese emperors were so perceived, for example, as were many rulers of the Ancient Near East.)

But the ruler is not required to justify himself to anyone else—especially not the people. Finer states that all of the types of legitimacy claimed by a [pure] Palace polity are, “without exception, authoritarian. There is no question of popular sovereignty. The monarch’s authority descends on him from a Higher Power and sets him above the people.” This is definitionally true; if the ruler does claim to represent the people, or actually is elected by them, he would no longer rule a pure Palace polity. Instead, this would be a Palace/Forum polity, a tremendously important type which we will discuss later.

Again, within the broad category of “Palace” the details of two different regimes could vary considerably; the Han Empire’s regime is quite different from ancient Persia, for example. But as you craft your setting, Finer’s typology can keep you grounded in the essential features of your regime.

******

(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!

Plus, the associated Kickstarter project is now live! We’ve got a fancy video and everything…)