War in Fantasy Fiction


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second and third books in this series; the subject matter of this post fits into the third book, working title War for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

The stories we write reflect our own beliefs of the world. If our beliefs change, that has the effect of changing the stories we write. This is particularly noticeable when thinking about how our stories handle war.

Nowadays, most fantasy or sci-fi stories feature only a few different types of wars:

  • The no-alternative war against some life-destroying calamity (such as Shai’tan in the Wheel of Time series, Ruin in the Mistborn series, or the Flood in Halo).
  • The defensive war against a ruthless invading empire, that has no reason for its invasion other than sheer lust for conquest.
  • The rebellion against an Evil Overlord who murders peasants for the lulz.
  • The seemingly noble war that was actually orchestrated by selfish interests, such as weapons dealers or oil companies (or their fantastical equivalents).

All four of these are based on the understanding that most wars are wrong and undesirable. To be heroic, it seems, a fictional war needs to be the last resort; where it is not, the protagonists are typically manipulated into war by the true villain, and the revelation of this perfidy sets off the true struggle, often featuring former enemies allying against their common foe. (This last category seems a particular favorite in American media, especially in the wake of Vietnam and Iraq.)

But the core understanding that these stories imply—that most war is wrong—would have baffled people living in earlier ages. Not very long ago, it was considered perfectly reasonable for Louis XIV to invade his neighbors for the sole purpose of magnifying his own glory, or for Napoleon to invade multiple continents for the same reason. In an earlier age, Aristotle assumed that wars were usually unjust when fought between fellow Greeks, but were always just when fighting against outsiders, for any reason.

In many tribal societies, fighting neighbors was the traditional way to gain respect or take plunder; often, such fighting had elements of a sports contest, with ceremonial weapons and rules that rewarded personal bravery rather than sheer killing efficiency. (In the Iliad, Paris was seen as effeminate and dishonorable because he used a bow, rather than fighting enemies face-to-face with spear and sword. Many American Indian societies would honor warriors who “counted coup” on their enemies—touching them in battle without killing them.)

Our modern dislike of war is obviously preferable to the older glorification of it, in the real world. But for fantasy or sci-fi writers, it is worth thinking about how people in your worlds might view war differently. Otherwise, you might unthinkingly base your story on a view of war that doesn’t really fit with the rest of your worldbuilding, and would seem anachronistic.

Thucydides, the famous chronicler of the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, writes that while some wars are justified on noble grounds, such as enforcing justice against enemies who break oaths or otherwise violate norms, most wars are ultimately motivated by three things: fear, honor, and interest.

Fear is fairly easy to understand. You fear that your enemy will harm you now or in the future; so you either defend against an immediate attack, or you begin a preventative war on your own terms while your enemy has not reached its full strength. The tricky bit here is that fear is based on your perceptions; among the reasons that preventative war is frowned on today is that sometimes, countries assume that a neighbor poses a threat when the neighbor actually had no intention of harming them.

Interest too is not difficult to see. Many countries seek to build empires, to plunder their neighbors and enrich themselves. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in order to seize its rich oilfields; Japan invaded Indonesia, in part, to secure its oilfields since Japan had little domestic oil production. Individuals too have interests, as we know.

Honor, on the other hand, is perhaps the hardest concept for us moderns to understand, or appreciate why people would fight and die for it. Yet most wars in history probably were motivated by honor more than concrete interests.

Why did Alexander the Great feel driven to conquer the world? And why would his army follow him? Because they sought glory that would last throughout the centuries (and it worked, since we still remember them today!). But remember that glory was important for the Greeks; their version of the afterlife, Hades, was a place of pale shades with little reward and punishment for moral behavior (as most of us today are used to). The Greeks believed that enduring glory, kleos, was perhaps the most worthwhile thing to strive for in life, since that was all that would last once you were dead. Glory was worth dying for, and more importantly was worth killing for.

More concretely, honor can have practical importance. In dangerous settings, a nation that does not fight to defend its honor will soon be bullied into subservience by its neighbors. Displaying your willingness to fight even over trivial offenses can sometimes prevent wars, because it signals to hungry neighbors that you will not be cowed.

For authors, remembering that people have many reasons to fight wars, depending on the moral and political calculations of the setting, can open up space for fresh and interesting stories. If you don’t want to write stories featuring amoral war, there’s nothing forcing you to do so; but people have all sorts of motives for everything they do, war is no exception, and the stories that can emerge from that can be fun.

What is the Function of a State?


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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

When doing their worldbuilding, many authors or game designers assume as a matter of course that most of the peoples in their world will be part of an organized state (roughly meaning a defined territory ruled by a centralized government, in the sense of Louis XIV’s “L’etat, c’est moi”). Any “barbarian” lands lacking organized states might be dominated by roving nomadic bandits, or some other uncultured society; and in any event these would be rare curiosities, and most of the land mass would be controlled by one state or another.

That assumption is understandable, given that almost all people alive today live in consolidated states (indeed, any regions lacking a state are today declared “failed states,” rather than simply stateless). But it should not be the default for authors. In fact, for most of human history, the majority of people lived outside of states. Organized states only tended to control cities and their immediate surroundings, with most people living in tribal or clan-based societies in lands outside of the city’s reach. And for most of human history, one’s average life expectancy was actually lower as the subject of a state than otherwise.

Even as organized governments in general gained power, the modern “Westphalian” state (one that claimed unchallenged rule over a defined territory extending well beyond city walls) was not the only way to run things. The city-state was a perfectly reasonable way to organize political life, and persisted well into the 19th century in Italy. Similarly, the Hanseatic League was a loose collection of city-states allied with each other for mutual protection and benefit, but otherwise largely self-governing.

Why then have states at all? What advantages did they have, if any? For whom? What allowed the Westphalian state to eventually take over the globe? And how can we use these concepts in our fiction?

Generally, the state is built from three things: military force, bureaucracy (or some other way to enforce laws and collect taxes), and a source of legitimacy (an ideological framework justifying the demand of the state that its subjects serve loyally—religion, or patriotism, or similar). But these need not all emerge in the same order, and the initial character of the regime may vary as a result.

What happens if the military comes first? Then you have the state as a “stationary bandit,” essentially where some thug with an army gathers a group of people under his rule, and provides some of the trappings of civilized life in exchange for squeezing them for all the taxes he can get. This might not be all bad; a smart bandit can sometimes provide a better quality of life for people under her rule than what they had before, for the selfish purpose of generating more economic growth and therefore taxable wealth. But when push comes to shove, the entire purpose of the bandit state is to aggrandize and enrich the ruler, not to benefit the ruled. Slavery is frequent, taxation is heavy, the army is frequently used to squeeze the people even harder, and the desires of the people are only an annoying consideration to be managed.

What if administration comes first? You might suppose that a self-governing community, perhaps husbanding a common-pool resource, has to deal with increasingly complex problems of project planning and resource allocation; the community develops an organized bureaucracy in response, with codified laws. Then, as the community is threatened by invaders, the community raises an army for its defense (or maybe they feel like invading their neighbors!). Then it decides that keeping the army is a good idea, and becomes a state. In such a case, most of the state’s activity will initially still be focused on resource allocation and maintenance of social order, rather than sheer coercive extraction. Ancient Egypt might be a good case of this.

What if the community’s framework for legitimacy came first? For example, in the Bible, the Israelites had lived in a stateless society for centuries, but found themselves unable to repel invading powers like the Philistines. So the people approached the prophet Samuel and demanded a king “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” Yet that king was (initially) constrained by the cultural and religious expectations that the people already had. In such a case, one might expect the king to be relatively weaker than the other cases, at least initially, and not to diverge too strongly from communal expectations.

As time passes, any state will develop aspects of all three of the above aspects. The exact mix between them will vary; and in your own fiction project, you can of course emphasize the angle that works best for your story. But states tend to develop more rapidly, and to end up exerting more power over their societies, if the nation is under persistent military threat.

So far so good; but then why the modern Westphalian state? Why bother claiming all the territory in your neighborhood, and claim the power to control the behavior of the people living in it, when it might be too expensive and troublesome to control the “badlands”? Why not exist as a city-state, and simply trade for resources with the stateless peoples living outside your grasp (as was the model for most of history)?

In part, this becomes more of a factor when international diplomacy becomes more important. If other states want to make agreements with your state, they expect you to be able to fulfill your end of the bargain; that will force you to try to control “your” territory in response. If Florin makes a peace treaty with Guilder, it would be highly embarrassing if Florinian bandits start raiding Guilder territory. Florin will have to work harder to impose law and order in “its” territory, or no other state will trust its word.

If a state is less concerned with controlling its entire territory, and only with maximizing its tax revenue, it would tend to default to a city-state model, or perhaps a network of cities dotting a largely ungoverned landscape—cities are far more efficient to control. The same would be true if the state simply lacks the power to dominate the countryside. The countryside, meanwhile, would be largely self-governing by small communities of farmers or foragers, or perhaps dominated by local gentry, crime bosses, or warlords.

In your own stories, remember that the Westphalian state is not the only model you need follow, nor is it always the best one for your story. A world of uncertain political control can be really fun to explore.

How Tyrannies Use Gaslighting


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[Whew! Need to blow some dust off of this here blog!]

(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

“Gaslighting,” for people who have somehow remained blissfully unaware of the Internet’s growing fascination with the concept, is taken from the movie Gaslight. In it, the protagonist is subjected to a fiendish type of psychological torture by her evil husband, who seeks to convince her that she is insane. He does so by repeatedly lying to her, baldly, to her face, about things she knows to be otherwise—such as whether the lights in the house are at full intensity or not.

Political regimes sometimes do something similar. Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovak dissident against Communism, famously wrote in The Power of the Powerless:

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

…Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

…Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

It was hard to select only a few paragraphs out of this brilliant, earthshaking essay. But the main points are that many regimes force their peoples to mouth slogans or profess beliefs that they know to be false. A good example is North Korea, which insisted during the rule of Kim Jong Il that he was an accomplished athlete and archer, and now similarly insists that Kim Jong Eun is similarly multitalented, against all available evidence.

If the regime could actually convince the people that these things are true, so much the better. But it is not necessary. In fact, from a certain point of view, it is better for the people to know that the things they are being made to say are lies; then, when you repeat the official line like a good subject, you are knowingly humiliating and demoralizing yourself. You are demonstrating your willingness to surrender the truth for self-preservation. And you are also making it harder for others in your position to resist, as they hear what seems to be a unanimous voice from their neighbors repeating the official ideology despite its falsity.

This goes beyond a mere “shibboleth,” a style or opinion that you profess in order to signal your affiliation with a given social group, rather than out of conviction. (For example, liking or disliking Tim Tebow.) The official line is a shibboleth of a kind, true, and functions in that way; but the falsity of the official ideology is important for demoralizing dissenters. The regime is gaslighting the populace.

This can obviously vary in intensity. From a certain point of view, any form of national identity is an ideology of this kind, at least in part, but usually relatively harmless. On the other hand, Vaclav Havel’s experience under Communism was a different beast entirely. “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”

In fantasy especially, many authors trying to depict a tyranny either go with a cruel regime blatantly lording it over the groaning peasants, or a regimented society of brainwashed drones. But we needn’t go to either extreme, and our setting can be more interesting if we do not. A society with an ideology that no one actually believes, but that everyone needs to pretend to believe, can provide a rich vein of conflict and thematic resonance. Sound interesting?

“Governments for Worldbuilders” is Here!

I know I just said that my publishing-focused stuff is shifting to the Lagrange Books site. But for my own book, I’ll make an exception—especially when it’s a book that is at the heart of what this blog is about.

At long last, the book that’s been percolating for over seven years is done! Readers of this blog have followed along as we discussed how authors can use concepts from politics in their work. And now, Book One of the Politics for Worldbuilders series is complete and available for purchase! Check it out!

A Quick Thought on Microaggressions

[A meta-comment first: I’m going to be transitioning a lot of the Lagrange Books stuff over to LB’s dedicated page, and refocusing this site on my own personal work and thoughts. It’s been a while since I’ve felt free to write my own stuff just because!]

I’d always been leery of the term “microaggression.” Not because I think the meaning of the term was silly; I’ve experienced it often enough in my own life to know otherwise. But the term itself, semantically, seemed to argue for too much. “Aggression” involves deliberate harm, whereas microaggressions are often unintentional, and sometimes even unnoticed by the recipient until much later in the day. Worse, “aggression” is something that justifies a violent response (something I’ve spent much of my scholarly life studying). Does a microaggression justify a micro-violent response? What does that even mean?

And what does “microaggression” add to perfectly good existing concepts like thoughtlessness, rudeness, misspeaking, or the like?

Recently, however, I had a personal experience that gave me more insight into what “microaggression” could mean, and what it could justify. Typically when I experience one of these, I tend to shrug it off; the speaker is not meaning to offend, and getting into a whole discussion would derail the conversation. However, the most recent event was actually in the middle of a professional class on microaggressions! I thought the context justified correcting the misspeaking.

The experience of doing so was illuminating. Speaking up felt like it violated strong social norms against putting people on the spot and creating conflict where no apparent conflict existed. And yet I felt I was justified in speaking up. This, it seemed to me, helped explain what calling something a “microaggression” accomplishes.

Putting it into just-war terms, correcting a microaggression is a justified response to the microaggression, even though it tends to overstep our usual social boundaries—but as with war, a proper response needs to be proportional. The offense was unintentional and almost harmless; the mere fact of a microaggression did not permit me to be actually rude in my response, or hurtful, or to do harm. The response had to be tactful, to acknowledge the lack of malice in the microaggression.

I still do not like the term “microaggression” because of the semantics around its use. In particular, I find abhorrent the way in which a motivated few have used the act of pointing out  microaggressions as a social weapon, calling for shame and ostracism of the offender. But I can at least justify the term, and use it carefully until I find a better one.

In a nutshell, receiving a microaggression entitles you to respond with a single “well ackshually“!


New Sci-Fi Anthology Coming Soon… — Lagrange Books

Long ago, Lagrange did a call for submissions for science-fiction short stories, with a theme of “asteroids.” Some fantastic authors responded with stories that were fun, provocative, insightful, or gloriously cheesy. An accumulation of other projects pushed this one to the back burner for a while, but the time has finally come for these stories […]

via New Sci-Fi Anthology Coming Soon… — Lagrange Books

“Governments for Worldbuilders” is Coming!


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Way back in 2013, I talked about writing a how-to guide for authors and other worldbuilders about using politics to make awesome stories. Gradually, I started posting about political topics, now helpfully collected on this page.

Last summer, I finally turned my work into a manuscript, deepening the discussions and adding new material. Since then, it’s been going through edits, layout design, and now cover design.

Now, at last, the end is in sight. Expect a cover reveal in the next week or two. I can’t tell you how excited I am!

New Release! “Bad Dreams and Broken Hearts,” by Misha Burnett


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So in October, Lagrange Books published an awesome hard-boiled detective fantasy collection by the incredible Misha Burnett, and for some reason WordPress wouldn’t let me post about it for weeks…

But that was then. Feast your eyes on this sweet cover:

2019-1151 Misha Burnett b01.jpg

And the book itself is even better! But don’t take my word for it. Here is a great review from Jon Mollison:

Misha’s writing snaps along with the brisk pace, terse delivery, and blank slate hero that marks all the best hard boiled works.  His understated descriptions and emotional subtlety are in display here at their finest.  For his writing alone, this book deserves a place on your shelf.

Rugar’s World is a city set in a straight up fantasy realm.  It isn’t our Earth plus magic, it is its own world with its own history and politics and cultures.  Our protagonist is a quiet American type of guy who keeps the peace in a west coast city that lies somewhere on the cultural and physical border between LA and Seattle.  City politics rears its ugly head and complicates otherwise straightforward murder investigations.  Think Bright without the heavy handed identity politics.  Or Law and Order with wands and necromancers and nations filled with golems and vampires.

Buy it today in Kindle, or in print from your favorite retailer. You’re going to love it!

NEW BOOK RELEASE: “The Wand that Rocks the Cradle: Magical Stories of Family”


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At last, after many long months of work and the fantastic contributions from our authors, The Wand that Rocks the Cradle: Magical Stories of Family is live on Amazon! Available in both Kindle and paperback formats for your reading pleasure. And if you’re enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, it’s included in your subscription!

This anthology celebrates the exhilarating wonders and hidden depths of family, as only fantasy can do. Featuring celebrated and award-winning authors, these stories will make you laugh, cry, and wish for more. Check it out, along with other anthologies from Lagrange Books!


The Wand that Rocks the Cradle: a Fantasy Anthology Coming in September!

I’ve been sadly quiet since May, mostly because I’ve been trying to juggle several different projects. First off, the long-running “Politics for Worldbuilders” project is finally being compiled into a book series; the first volume is nearing completion. Second, Lagrange Books is getting ready to publish our first single-author book, by fantastic author Misha Burnett. More news on that soon…

But it’s the third project, which was actually the first project, that I want to tell you about.

Back in May, I was spamming everyone with the Kickstarter project for The Wand that Rocks the Cradle, our fantasy anthology on magical families. Since we met our funding goal, I’ve been working hard to finish the editing, coordinate with our cover designer (the talented Melody Knighton), and produce the actual book. And now, behold:

We are now taking pre-orders on Amazon for the Kindle edition, with a special pre-release price of $2.99; once we launch in September the price will go up to $3.99.

(But there’s another way you can read it for free… If you sign up for the Lagrange Books mailing list, you can join the Advance Reader Team—you’ll get access to prerelease copies of Lagrange publications, in exchange for leaving totally honest reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. This is a totally optional, but totally fun, way to be involved.)

We’re all incredibly excited for this release. And once you start reading, you will be too!