(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?