(This post has been retroactively made part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)
Traditionally, fantasy has lent itself to stories of heroic uprisings or revolutions, as the Evil Overlord is swept out of power by the brave protagonists and their loyal army of oppressed commoners. That can be a good story, and sometimes the stories are indeed quite good. It feeds directly into some of our cultural loves: rooting for the underdog, the reestablishment of justice and defeat of evil, and so on.
But what makes this literature trying for a student of comparative politics is how infrequently revolutions are handled with any degree of realism. Not that I demand absolute realism in all books touching on politics—far from it. Often we simplify the mechanics of a story to distill its essence. Still, what annoys me is that people end up telling the same bloody story over and over and over again. And this is so, I think, because the mental model most fantasy authors have of revolutions is so impoverished.
From what I’ve read, most fantasy authors have two archetypes for how a revolution goes off: Robin Hood (as refracted through Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe), or the French Revolution and the various other Parisian dustups. Egregiously, I haven’t read any fantasy modeled after the American Revolution,* and only a single work of science fiction (Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a fun read). And most published fantasy writers live in the United States, for Heaven’s sake! And of course, the American Revolution is by no means the only other model you could look to.
The example that spawned this post is Steven Brust’s novel Teckla. (This is not, I hasten to add, because I have anything against Brust in particular, but only because it’s the book I happened to read.) In the book, an oppressed, illiterate underclass is being organized by a group of revolutionaries with the goal of blocking commerce into the capital city, in order to force reforms. To do so, the revolutionaries first endeavor to teach everyone how to read, so that they could then publish propaganda in newspapers.
This was the first point where I was tempted to throw the book across the room. In a real illiterate society, no one would have had the daft idea to publish a mass-market newspaper in the first place. It’s a bit like writing and selling manuals on how to use an iPod in the 1960s. Worse, written material would not be the most effective way to organize untutored masses anyway. Far more effective would have been using actual people to spread the message and organize more revolutionaries where they went, as was done by revolutionaries from Spartacus to Mao.
It got worse. The favored tactic of the revolutionaries was to build Paris-style barricades across the main road into the capital city. All well and good, except that a major mechanic of Brust’s entire series is that the ruling class knows how to teleport with magic. Barricades, or any static defense not augmented with its own magic, would be worse than useless.
So why did Brust rely on such tired tropes, even when they went counter to the very logic of his fantasy world? I suspect that the only model he had for how revolutions work was revolutionary France. And because he had no other mental model to work with, Brust did not have the building blocks that would have fit his story better.
And this is my point. When you study real historical revolutions with an eye toward fiction writing, you quickly find the potential for all sorts of stories that have rarely been told in Western fantasy. More realistic treatment of revolutions can be used to explore themes of divided loyalty, or how governments structure their environment to better exert their power, or how revolutionaries end up doing the same thing, or—and this is particularly fascinating—how civilians will often exploit the conflict between government and rebel, by extorting aid from both sides, or by denouncing resented neighbors as traitors to the cause (so that they will be executed and you can take their stuff).
At any rate, new stories, with new possibilities. This doesn’t mean that the old classics need to be chucked out; Robin Hood will always be a good story. But a creative author can take the old building blocks and mix in a few new things from real life, to make something original. A good place to start (not least because it’s free) is the 1970 classic by Leites and Wolf, Rebellion and Authority (PDF). It’s a study they carried out in the middle of the Vietnam War for the RAND Corporation, and has details from the history of Western counterinsurgency. Much recommended.
Oh, and if there is actually good fantasy or sci-fi out there that handles rebellions well, please let me know in the comments. I’d like to read it.
* Which was not technically a revolution in the political-science sense, since the American social structure and forms of government remained more or less intact, and no one tried to extend the revolution to Great Britain. Really, you could best describe the colonial uprising as a war of secession from Britain.