Politics in Fiction

Farcical aquatic ceremonies are no basis for a system of government.

So you’re writing speculative fiction, and your characters live in a society. Doesn’t matter what kind: bronze age city-state, fantasy empire, galactic empire, post-scarcity space hyperbureaucracy, etc., they need a system of government. Even if the system is anarchy, “no government as government,” you’re going to have to describe at least a little bit of how that works. Basically any story not set in a vast, empty wilderness is going to have governments. And unless you’re doing a perfect Earth analog, you’re going to have to decide what kind.

“But I’m writing a space swashbuckling green woman romance! I don’t have twenty pages to devote to the social contract theory underlying the federation of planets, and I really don’t want this to become The Phantom Menace where my rising tension revolves around a parliamentary maneuver to delay an investigatory committee finding of jurisdiction to send an exploratory team.” Hey, nobody is asking you to insert Plato’s Republic or Robert’s Rules in the middle of your short, punchy space pirate bodice ripper. In fact, you just told me the relevant point – federation of planets. Ok, cool, so there’s a central government. Are your characters working for them? Against them? Outside of their sphere of control? On their frontier, having fought on the wrong side of an unsuccessful rebellion, and now doing whatever jobs come along, legal or otherwise? (Losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.) Are they space pirates? Privateers? Says who? Are there other governments than the one they live under? Are they better, worse, friendly, hostile, genocidal?

I don’t need an explicit answer to most of those questions. I really, really don’t need an “as you know, seven years ago the Senate granted us a pardon at the end of the war, when…” blah, blah, blah, shut up. But you, the author, should know. The answer tells you whether your pirates have anywhere to flee after picking up the fierce green Amazon princess who totally isn’t going to fall for the Captain. Are they just trying to get back to a friendly port, or are they entirely alone? Will the Amazons be sending a couple of ships of their own, or is an Imperial fleet going to melt your planet to get her back? Kind of important.

This worldbuilding makes your story feel more grounded and real, because once you have your background you can keep your story consistent. Let us refer, once again, to Star Wars. “The Imperial Senate will not sit still for this!” and “I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently.” That’s it, that’s your galactic politics. Leia is nominally aboard a recognized consular ship. The Emperor has fully consolidated control and the transition from republic to empire is complete de jure as well as de facto. Two brief dialogue bits give you all the information you need on how the Empire is organized, and what the rebels are fighting. You seen the relative lawlessness of Tatooine, where a few stormtroopers in town causes a stir, so you know that Imperial control isn’t absolute. But other than the rebellion, no other governments are mentioned. There’s no friendly coalition of system from which to base a more traditional war. But it’s never explained, there’s no galactic history lesson to tell you what the clone wars were, or how things went from “before the dark times, before the Empire,” to present day. (Lucas ended up having unsatisfying answers, as we find out later. Our imaginations were generally better than his version.) Lucas knows enough to make Imperial behavior consistent throughout, and to have small details like an all-human Imperial Fleet, and a multi-species rebellion. Show, don’t tell.

The more involved your characters are with the government, the more details you’re going to have to work out. You’re on the frontier, and the central casting evil empire doesn’t even have many agents? Shiny, let’s be bad guys, government described. Your hero is destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow? We should probably eventually know a bit about Aquilonian society and how he got to the top, and perhaps what he has at his disposal to deal with his troubles. Even if that’s “hereditary monarchy, killed the last guy, surviving nobility bent the knee, basically has a few mooks and his own sword.” You’re doing an epic grimdark political intrigue series full of intriguing political intrigue interspersed with incest and grim, dark grimdarkness? Maybe spend at least as many pages telling me about how the empire is organized and run as you do on the vivid details of your steppe barbarian child bride rape scene.

When designing your political system(s?), there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Athenian democracy; literal Byzantine imperial bureaucracy; even more Byzantine than the actual Byzantines Chinese bureaucracy; American West small town with one elected mayor, one elected (or only guy to volunteer) sheriff, one appointed judge from out East, and one Marshal who occasionally rides circuit through town; history has plenty of options to choose from. And then you don’t even have to imagine the potential downsides, they’ve probably already happened for easy reference. Whereas if you invent an anarcho-syndicalist commune where the members take turns as executive officers for the week, and ratify decisions at biweekly meetings, you’re going to have to apply some serious political science to make it come off as real.

Sure, you could just invent some sort of nonsensical and arbitrary oppressive regime, slap some handy caste identifiers on people, and use it to score ham-handed political points as vapid and uncritical readers rush to identify with your plucky resistance fighters. But that will only get you a four movie deal, or a show with a couple of seasons on a streaming service. And who wants that?

Where’s the shadow government when you need it?
Where’s the shadow government?
It’s a bad, bad world.
It’s a bad, bad world.

– They Might Be Giants, The Shadow Government

2 thoughts on “Politics in Fiction

  1. I have been working mostly on short stories set in the same world and featuring the same character, lately, and the politics of the city of Dracoheim and its environs are very important to the stories. The city is ruled by a diumverant of the Parliament and the Lord Mayor, with the balance of power maintained by the Parliament controlling most city operations on the one hand and the Lord Mayor being a dragon on the other hand.

    My main character, Erik Rugar, is an agent of the Committee for Public Safety, one of the few government bodies which is entirely under the control of the Mayor’s office. The CPS regulates magic use within Dracoheim, and Rugar is part of the Criminal Investigation Division of the CPS–he investigates crimes which involve magic, either having been committed by magic or by crimes of property involving magical items.

    As such, Rugar butts heads with the Dracoheim City Police, as well as the local constabulary for all of the individual municipalities within the metropolitan area ( I based the dynamics of the area on my home town of St. Louis, which includes 80-something individual jurisdictions within St. Louis County).

    I try not to sidetrack the action with discussions of the political ramifications of each case, but it is something that Rugar has to be very aware of as he does his job, making sure before he acts that he does have jurisdiction and that all of the interlocking web of agencies will approve (or at least not disapprove too strongly).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like you have an entire bureaucracy mapped out, complete with competing interests and intransigent lifers. Bravo.

      Like

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