Warlords and Frontiers


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

We’ve previously discussed how a government’s control over territory is not a given; states have to spend great effort to project power and build institutions of rule. Frequently, a state’s rule is not absolute; far from the core of its power, state control diminishes even in areas that are nominally under its rule. In border areas, the reality of daily life might involve balancing off the claims of two states, neither of which can fully enforce its authority.

That does not necessarily mean that no one rules. Politics abhors a vacuum. Often, the true authority in a contested or peripheral area might be a criminal boss, or a local bandit, or warlord. Crime bosses and bandits are common fare in fiction, of course. Less frequently discussed, but potentially more interesting, is the warlord.

What do I mean by “warlord”? Let me answer with an example:

During the continuing civil wars in the Congo, the Kivu region of the country was wracked by violence and a severe breakdown in civil control. Instead, political power often devolved to the closest military force, whether government, rebel, or local militia. A typical brigade commander in FARDC, the Congolese military, had the benefit of military rank, which entitled him to a salary, logistical support from the capital Kinshasa, and formal legitimacy; but he would also have informal status in the local power relationships of his area, having de facto control over the local bureaucracy, extracting extra taxes from the hapless civilians, and using military force to control rich resources like bauxite mines or logging operations.

His loyalty would be very much for sale, notwithstanding being an officer for the government; he often collaborates with local criminal networks or directs them himself, using his troops and their logistical abilities to solve problems for the criminals. He will often play both sides in the civil wars, throwing in with one or another of the feuding insurgent groups, often with the full knowledge of Kinshasa. However, the central government puts up with the commander’s unreliability, because even when he is enriching himself and building his own independent power base, his troops still keep the local violence tamped down—and the government lacks the power to replace him or his men with someone more loyal. The status quo is bad, but it would be far worse if the commander were to openly break with Kinshasa and become a direct threat.

What distinguishes the warlord is a combination of three things. The first two are capacity for violence, and the claim to politically represent some constituency. A mafia boss uses coercion, but generally for economic goals; corrupt politicians may seek power and status, but generally within the existing formal framework of their state. But if we look at our Congolese example, we see a third element as well: nominal submission to a distant authority along with practical local autonomy. Warlords exploit gaps in official control to gain power and status, and then use that status strategically to cement their power.

I’m using the term “warlord” in a particular way here, following after Ahram/King 2012. They define a warlord as someone who stands at the intersection of legal and illegal, or of two state or cultural regimes. From this position, they can arbitrage between the advantages of each side, in a way that someone fully committed to one side cannot. 

They cite as an example the Shan warlord Khun Sa, who began as a militia leader for the Kuomintang on the border between Burma and Thailand in the 1950s, but later broke free from them as his forces grew in power. He branched out into opium production, and secured semi-official status from the local government by fighting his fellow Shan rebels.

Khun Sa repeatedly switched sides over the next decades, sometimes calling himself a Shan nationalist, sometimes working with the Burmese government against local competitors; and he often sought Thai patronage as well (and gave hefty bribes to Thai politicians), as the political winds shifted and his opium operation grew. (At his height, Khun Sa controlled some 70% of the heroin production in Burma, with an army of over 20,000 armed men.) In addition, the Thai government tolerated Khun Sa because his forces controlled over a hundred miles of the volatile border region, and served as a buffer against revolutionary forces operating from Laos and Burma. In 1987, when the Burmese were taking American money for “anti-drug” efforts against Khun Sa, the warlord was actually cooperating with both Burma and Thailand to build a major highway through his territory. Later in life, he “surrendered” to the Burmese and disbanded his army, and in exchange was allowed to transform his wealth into legitimate businesses such as real estate and ruby mining.


The concept of a warlord can be incredibly fruitful in fiction. A warlord character can play the role of ambiguous obstacle and sometime ally of your heroes; often such characters become fan favorites. More generally, the warlord is the natural consequence of settings where government control is tenuous; the presence of a warlord highlights the limits of official control. Questions to ask: What specific, local advantage does the warlord have over the government, and over rival warlords? What resources does the warlord control, and what relationships protect those resources? What would induce the warlord to change sides?


“The Odds Are Against Us,” coming soon!


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I am pleased to report that my first anthology project, The Odds Are Against Us, is nearing publication by Liberty Island Media. We even have shiny new cover art! Behold:

OAAU Final Cover

More details forthcoming as they get nailed down. After we launch, I also plan to do a post comparing the experience of working with a small press versus self-publishing my other anthology, and the pros and cons of each. So stay tuned!

Creating Story Conflicts with Politics


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

For a long time now, I’ve been slowly accumulating material in the “Politics for Worldbuilders” series, which will eventually become a book with the same title. I think I’ve managed to cover all the topics necessary, but now I need to revise each section and create writing exercises. In the meantime, here is a concrete example of how I used some of the concepts to write strong fiction.

Recently I edited and published Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, a collection of twelve fantasy short stories. One of the stories is mine, written under the pen name of “Jake Lithua.” It was directly inspired by my studies of politics, and in this post, I’ll be showing you how.

In the story’s world, the Eridari Empire has established colonies in a new land across the ocean, which it has modestly called New Erida. Its plantations there are worked by slaves, captured or bought from the indigenous peoples living in the hills around the colonial cities. Nevertheless, the reach of the colonial troops is limited, and they cannot simply take whatever they want. To access the richest treasures in this new land, colonists need to trade with the locals—a risky proposition, given that these are the same colonists who work the plantations with indigenous slaves!

The parallels with Africa and South America are fairly obvious. Beyond that, however, the setup borrows liberally from James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. In particular, Scott notes that urbanized states often took slaves from stateless foraging peoples—but just as often, it was competing stateless groups who were raiding each other, and selling the losers to the city-dwellers.

Moreover, the foraging peoples often had much greater penetration into wild country than did urban powers, which meant that they could gather valuables such as spices, exotic animals, or gems and then sell them. In fact, for most of human history until the past two or three centuries, states and the surrounding stateless peoples lived in a kind of uneasy symbiosis, alternating between war (in both directions!) and trade.

What this meant for the short story was that the protagonist, a young trader venturing into the hills in search of rare magic, immediately finds himself facing justified hostility from the Men of the Hills, who have suffered greatly from the colonial power. But the Men of the Hills were also open to trade, in principle—if the terms were good enough. And the intermittent relations between the colonists and the indigenous people also sets up the main antagonist, who has secretly been doing some trading of his own.

Building the setting from specific political-historical patterns, rather than simply relying on the tired trope of the Noble Savage, helped create compelling conflict with high stakes and surprising twists. You can read the story yourself and decide if the end product was successful (and leave a review if you liked it!). But I think this illustrates how our fiction can be enriched by injecting a bit of political texture. I don’t demand realism for realism’s sake; but having more tools to work with can help us craft new, effective stories. And isn’t that the whole point?

Frustrations with KDP Paperback…


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UPDATE: And of course,  Amazon tech-support responded within hours of this post going up! It turns out that the problem was with their backend not working nicely with Apple’s PDF generator, Quartz. I had to re-export to PDF using Adobe’s PDF Pack service (at the low, low price of $9.99 for the month, grumble grumble), and then it worked fine. Today I learned…


Almost three weeks ago, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe was launched on the Kindle Store. The original plan was to offer the paperback edition along with the ebook; unfortunately, I’ve been running into some problems submitting the files to KDP, which persist until today.

For whatever reason, when I launch the Previewer tool in the title setup process, it hangs for several hours (!) and then tells me that there was an unknown error with the interior files. Amazon’s tech support, which is usually pretty responsive, has been quite slow with its responses this time.

Which is all very annoying. I know several people who prefer paperback books to electronic, and would love to get the anthology into their hands.  Many reviewers also require a hardcopy version, and won’t look at electronic files. Some indie writers stick to Kindle digital,  and given what we’re now going through I can certainly see why; but still, the lack of a paperback option is holding us back.

The PDF file I’ve been submitting is generated by Scrivener 2.  Publishers like Ingram Spark require more professional formatting, but at least in the old days of CreateSpace any old PDF would do. Does anybody know if that has changed? Amazon’s FAQs were rather vague.

Ye Olde Magick Shoppe—Free Today Only!


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I’m proud to announce that my anthology of fantasy short stories, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, is now available for Amazon Kindle!

Even better, until the end of today—Sunday the 23rd—it is totally free for download. Check it out, and please review if you like what you read!

New Anthologies!


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The next month or two is shaping up to be incredibly exciting. My first anthology, The Odds Were Against Us, is due to be published by Liberty Island Media; and my second, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, is fully edited and is going to be self-published as soon as we get everything else whipped into shape. Which means that I’ll be spamming this blog with lots of crass self-promotion before too long…

In all seriousness, the last couple of years have been a tremendous learning process. It’s humbling when other people trust you with their writing, and thrilling when an edit can take an already solid piece and add that extra sparkle. I’m also grateful for good software, particularly Scrivener, which is making the whole publishing process much less painful than it used to be back in the bad old days.

In the meantime, what comes next? MOAR anthologies!

I’m opening up calls for submissions to two themed anthologies, one fantasy, one science fiction. The science-fiction one has the theme of “Asteroids”; and the fantasy one has the name of “Family”. Neither of these is a final title; I wanted people to get the chance to start writing quickly, before I took the time to come up with something clever.

Check out the full descriptions, and if either of the themes grabs you, the deadlines are March 1st of next year.

Good luck!

The Joy of Editing


As I’m eagerly waiting for my first anthology to be published (the publisher assures me that it will be Real Soon Now™), I’ve nearly finished editing the secondYe Olde Magick Shoppe. This one was a challenge because the authors went in so many directions with the theme; but the whole collection is going to be a treat, I’m happy to say.

I wonder though if my editing method is similar to how it usually works. Basically I go through a draft, “track changes” in Word and then ruthlessly change things I feel like and add notes where I want clarification, and hand it back to the authors and ask for their reactions; a few rounds of this and we usually come to a consensus, though at times it involves some bruised feelings. It’s a bit authoritarian and there might be a gentler method that would work better, and I’d like to know of one if so.

Still, I do have confidence in my own “reader’s ear.” I want the short stories to be the best they can be, and I hope my authors understand.

Can’t wait for our babies to be launched!

Control, Capital, and Political Bargains


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

We’ve talked before about how states need to control their people, and so structure their very environments to make that easier (making them legible, for one thing). We’ve also talked about how states need to do the same thing with production and wealth, in order to collect taxes. When states are less able to extract taxes directly, they may have to rely on indirect means such as tax farming, which are less efficient and may cause other problems.

In a way, these are two examples of the same problem: states need to control resources, and different types of resources are easier or harder to control. Farmland is easy to tax: it can’t be hidden, and its production is fairly easy to monitor. An international merchant is much harder to tax: his goods may be anywhere in the world, or hidden in a bank vault somewhere, or converted into precious gems and sewn into his clothing. Factories are easy to tax, or even to confiscate entirely: they represent a massive upfront investment that is hard to move, and their production is easy to monitor. People can be easy or hard to tax (or conscript, or otherwise control), depending on how easily they can move from place to place, or hide from the local taxman.

To take a more fantastical example, magic might be easy or hard to control, depending on how magical power is accumulated and used. For example, some Polynesian societies believed that the brightly-colored feathers of certain birds conveyed magical power, or mana, and chiefs would have their subjects scour the islands to find such feathers. Individual feathers gave little power, and it was not worth the ire of your chief to withhold a handful of them; but the chiefs, sitting at the top of their societies, could accumulate thousands or tens of thousands of such feathers, which would be made into beautiful ceremonial mantles or coats.

If a state is lucky, it will control rich resources that are easy to tax, such as travel on a busy overland trade route, or oil wells or gold mines, or a large population of unarmed people in a confined area. With such a bounty, the state will have less need to worry about gaining the cooperation of its (other) people, and can be fairly hands-off. However, what if the available wealth is hard to tax? What if there are few people and lots of land for them to escape to, as in the African plains or the Russian steppes? What if your economy is built on ship-based trade and banking, as with the Dutch?

Generally, the state (or anyone, really) can respond in two ways: with overwhelming coercion, or with some kind of political bargain—sharing power or granting civil rights in exchange for cooperation. Russia imposed serfdom on most of its populace, tying them to specific wealthy landowners; in much of Africa, likewise, rulers used sophisticated strategies of control and coercion, including slavery, to keep their subject peoples under control. Colonial powers often imposed a head-tax on native peoples, extracting taxes without needing to worry if the poor individuals could actually afford them.

The Dutch, on the other hand, incorporated their merchant class into the government; Italian city-states often structured their taxes as a kind of forced loan, paying interest on their “debts” and turning taxpayers into investors. Famously, the American colonists declared “No taxation without representation!” And the link between these two things is quite strong: the earliest parliaments had power against their monarchs because (and only because) they had direct control over taxation.

Athens and Sparta combined both approaches: a large population of slaves or helots, over which was a broad ruling class with a say in government, whether through actual democratic voting or other means. The difference was that citizens were armed; they were both necessary for civil defense (or conquest), and very hard to tyrannize.

Rulers faced with difficult problems of resource control can either choose to use coercion in response, or to strike a bargain and share power or create political rights. Though some social scientists claim that granting rights is more likely, the truth is that it is merely more effective; short-sighted rulers often use coercion even when it fails, as we see today in places like Venezuela.

This is good news for authors, as we can present political problems to our invented societies and have them respond in the most convenient manner for the plot. Other useful questions: what resources are most difficult for the rulers to control? Are they dangerous in the wrong hands? Could a new kind of power or wealth or magic, or a new population of people, upset the existing calculus of control? What are the costs to the rulers for relying on indirect strategies like tax farming or delegating power to local lords? Might a farsighted politico realize that a different form of control, or a new political bargain, would yield better results?

Rebellion, Part Two


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

In our earlier discussion of different kinds of rebellions (and why worldbuilders may benefit from expanding their mental models of rebellions beyond Robin Hood and Parisian riots), we arbitrarily defined four types: violent contention, secession, coups, and revolutions. We then briefly discussed the first two. Now, let’s finish our list by talking about coups and revolutions.

Neither violent contention nor secession intends to totally overthrow the existing government (necessarily); the rebels want to better their own condition or to break away, but to leave the rest of the society more or less as it was. In coups and revolutions, on the other hand, the point is indeed to overthrow the ruler. The difference between them lies in who is doing the overthrowing, and whether they mean simply to take control of the regime or to demolish it and put some other regime in its place.

We’ve discussed before the selectorate model of regimes, in which a subset of the populace is the selectorate, meaning that they could possibly be part of the ruling coalition. In a coup, members of the selectorate decide to replace the current ruler with another one better to their liking, usually so that they themselves have more power within the new ruling coalition. However, they typically do not want to destroy the structures of the government in their coup; rather, coups typically happen swiftly, aiming to paralyze the ruler’s supporters long enough for the plotters to seize the ruler’s person, and then declare their victory a fait accompli. (This is why in most modern coups, the coup plotters will try to capture the country’s media stations—both to present the impression of overwhelming control, and to prevent regime loyalists from coordinating a response.) Then, after a bit of reshuffling and the odd loyalty purge, the bureaucracy and the army are meant to fall in line, and life will go on.

For a coup to work, the ruler and perhaps large parts of his ruling coalition would have to have weak legitimacy and little loyalty among the military; that way, few will object too much if they are replaced. However, the selectorate itself should either still have prestige in society or at the very least enough raw power to stay on top. So for example, if King Gunther the Mad were quietly removed to an asylum by a cabal of noblemen, and replaced by his infant son Rudolph the Tiny (with Chancellor Grise acting as regent, of course!), the plotters might settle scores with a few of Gunther’s supporters; but fundamentally, they do not challenge the idea that noblemen should rule society. Why would they? They are noblemen themselves!

In a coup, the government might change, but the regime persists—the system of elites and state institutions that sustains the power of the government. This is not the case in a revolution. Here, the regime itself has decayed so badly that a broad popular uprising is able to sweep it away entirely. Old elites are dispossessed or killed, old justifications for state power become obsolete; a new group of elites arises at the head of the revolutionary mass, claiming power. 

In a revolution, the old selectorate is replaced by a new selectorate, justified by a new principle of legitimacy (the new selectorate might nevertheless include some of the same people as the old one, but not always). All the old relations between classes and social groups are upended, and new relations form. This is the distinguishing mark of a revolution in the comparative-politics sense. (Which is part of why I prefer to think of the American Revolution as more of a secession; yes, the idea of breaking free of the king was fairly novel, but within American society it was the existing elites who took over.)

For a revolution to succeed, the entire elite stratum has to be losing its grip. In pre-revolutionary France, for example, the French monarchy was deeply in debt and had ceded much of its authority to tax farmers, who harshly oppressed the populace. Worse, the nobility had largely retreated into decadence instead of paying attention to the society around them, where dangerous new ideas about democracy and enlightenment (not to mention the execrable Rousseau, whose philosophy set the stage for modern totalitarianism) were taking hold among the growing middle class, inspired by the example of the United States. A few nobles even became important revolutionaries, such as the lamented “Philippe Égalité,” otherwise known as Louis Philippe II, Due d’Orleans. (This is a common pattern in revolutions: their leaders are often part of the old elite, usually embittered with the old regime and upholding new ideals, or marginalized and seeking more power or personal meaning as part of a revolutionary vanguard.)

Importantly, because the regime is falling apart, several different types of revolutionaries usually spring up to fill the void—and they may not like each other much. In the 1979 Iranian Revolution, not only Khomeinist Islamists rose up but also communists, trade unions, liberals, and business groups. Indeed, Khomeini’s faction seemed to be among the weaker ones, and few expected that they would end up taking power. However, if all of the state’s institutions crumble, power ends up in the hands of whoever is most ruthless. The initial hopes of a new age of Persian freedom were dashed by the rise of Khomeini, who quickly massacred the non-Islamist revolutionaries and imposed a brutal theocracy.

Similarly, the initial group of humanists and liberals who led the French Revolution were quickly displaced by vicious absolutists like Robespierre, driven by fantastic visions of a perfect society and willing to spill rivers of blood to get there. Before long, the overthrow of the monarchy, the nobility, and the Church (the old elites) became only the first stage of a ruthless war by the new French state against its own citizens, where today’s ruling clique became tomorrow’s victims of the guillotine. (You can read a fascinating account of one dimension of the revolutionary madness in the free book Fiat Money Inflation in France—which is also interesting in its own right because of when it was written, when it was republished, by whom, and in what context. But I digress.)

Revolutions usually end badly, because the idealists who begin them are usually replaced by ruthless murderers who smell the chance for power and take it. A similar process, although slower, can happen in the course of some longer revolts such as secessions or violent contention; the history of the Autodefensa movement in Mexico is a good example. (In the famous phrase of Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”) To me, it seems that the only way to reliably defend against the ascension of the vicious is for the rebels to build strong institutions of governance early, and to sustain them over the course of the revolt. This, I think, is the main reason that the American Revolution was so successful in the long run: because the colonial legislatures had a long heritage and political tradition that could resist the rise of extremism. Gestures toward a true revolution such as Shays’ Rebellion never got past the stage of violent contention, and were quickly put down.


Authors can consider questions such as: What is the goal of the rebels? Is the regime stable enough to defend itself? Are things likely to snowball out of control and become much larger? Who among the rebels is most ruthless, and would they impose themselves on the others? Is this revolt a contest between different groups of elites, or between the elites and groups out of power? Do any of the elites join the rebels anyway? Do the rebels have a competing political principle to justify their rule instead of the existing regime, or several conflicting principles?