Thursday, 2 June 2022

The Tsars Like Dust

For a genre that has an unparalleled canvas on which to sketch alternative systems, science fiction all too often falls back on the oldest, simplest, stupidest, and most regressive form of government: Monarchy.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary
of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's
ascent to the throne, the authors
and editors of this blog would like to
respectfully suggest that all monarchies
(even vestigial ones like the House of
Windsor) should be abolished.
(Image via IMDB.com)
It’s easy to think of examples: Princess Ardala, The Gray Prince, King T'Chaka, Emperox Grayland, Emperor Six Direction, Princess Dejah Thoris, Emperor Balem Abrasax, Princess Irulan, Queen Yllana, Princess Astra, Emperor Zarkon, Princess Koriand'r, and Emperor Cleon II to name just a handful. Unfortunately, many of these examples do not engage critically with the idea of monarchy, nor attempt to grapple with the societal consequences of this form of government, nor question the underlying elitist philosophy it represents. Readers should therefore approach such stories with skepticism.

Given that there are few places that are still governed by monarchs of anything other than a vestigial variety, it might seem reasonable that few authors choose to engage critically with the consequences of the monarchies they depict. Americans under the age of 244 and British people with no recollection of what things were like before Peterloo don’t have any direct experience with just how truly awful it would be to live in a polity governed by Emperoxes. (Even if there's a good ruler like Greyland once in a while, they end up being hamstrung by the weight of tradition.) 

Authors seeking to more accurately depict what a space empire might look like should probably look to the few modern-day examples of absolute monarchy that still exist, places like the Sultanate of Oman, the Kingdom of Eswatini, and the Kim Family Protectorate of North Korea. To put it bluntly, in the real world there is a strong correlation between the authority of monarchs, and a lack of human rights, and this is rarely depicted in science fiction.

There are obvious reasons why writing about monarchs might be enticing: It’s an easy signifier of a character’s relevance and agency. The moment that someone mentions Princess Leah, the audience knows that this is a character who is important.

Likewise, from a storytelling perspective it’s easier to explain policy decisions as the result of one person’s choice, rather than the deliberative process often necessary for other forms of government to act.

It should also be noted that as the longest surviving human institution, persisting for more than 10,000 years, it seems likely that some form of monarchy will unfortunately continue well into the future.

But all too often, the genre has engaged uncritically with this repressive and regressive form of governance. For example, even when talking about what might replace a flawed and failing empire in the early Foundation novels, Asimov didn’t suggest a form of governance more complex or nuanced than monarchy.

Alderaan is depicted as idyllic
and a near utopian monarchy,
while in the real world kings
and human rights are incompatible.
(Image via StarWars.com)
In the Honorverse novels by David Weber, Elizabeth III, Queen and Empress of Manticore is inevitably always on the right side of every issue — and her decisive leadership is a stark contrast to the incompetent and bumbling democratic governments in the series. Although Lois McMaster Bujold at least concedes that there have been terrible emperors in the past, Gregor Vorbarra is basically decent. By failing to challenge the myth of the benevolent despot, these works reinforce it.

Perhaps the colonization of the stars is more likely under the violent and rapacious system of monarchy. Often empires don’t survive if they aren’t expanding. So a democratic system might be happy (or forced) to focus on increasing (or achieving) the wellbeing of citizens instead of venturing to the stars. Like the corporate pseudo-monarchs of capitalism, a traditional monarchy might also feel compelled to reach for ever more. But then fiction's various versions of the Organas should be portrayed as violent and greedy instead of as compassionate rulers.

The Star Wars franchise has rarely made any pretense of being interested in deeper cultural criticism, but the increasingly incoherent and inchoate depiction of governance systems is worth noting. It’s almost impossible to parse out how any of their government works; there’s a senate, an emperor, elected princesses, and a trade federation that wields some sort of authority. What is made clear however, is that the problem isn’t with the institution of the monarchy: the problem is that the emperor is evil. Ergo: the problem is that the wrong people are in power, rather than a need for greater systemic reform.

Despite otherwise nuanced and
high-brow storytelling, Leprechaun
In Space
fell back on the tired
trope of having an interstellar monarch.
(Image via IMDB)
All monarchy is based on a presumption that there is an inherent superiority to those within a specific lineage, and as such it is underpinned by the same philosophy that informs institutional racism. This is reinforced in the latest Star Wars trilogy; Rey is a force adept only because she is a direct descendant of Emperor Palpatine. Her worth and power results from her lineage. It should therefore be no surprise that many science fiction writers who belong to marginalized and racialized backgrounds have tended to depict monarchies with a healthier degree of suspicion than the mostly white writers of the Campbellian era of SFF.

It is interesting to note that despite being on opposite poles of the political spectrum, of the big-name Campbell-era authors, Robert Heinlein and Frederick Pohl were possibly the most skeptical of monarchy as a concept. Pohl’s few depictions of monarchy are irreverent, while Heinlein depicts monarchy as either alien or abhorrent, while offering protagonists who champion democratic systems of various sorts.

There however is something to be said for fiction that directly engages with the idea of monarchy, and does so in order to interrogate what that system of government actually means for those who participate in it. An excellent example of this would be Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, which somewhat unflinchingly depicts some of the consequences and externalities of having a privileged and chosen bloodline.

Monarchy is a brutal, awful system of government that has largely been abandoned in most prosperous progressive nations. At current count, the world has only seven absolute monarchies left, as well as a smattering of nations that have vestigial monarchs. It seems odd, therefore, that for significant portions of a genre that looks to the future this dreadful system seems to be the default.

When imagining futures for society, we would urge fandom to take an approach of healthy skepticism towards monarchies. 

3 comments:

  1. Many settings in SF are libertarian, it seems to me, and at the same time authoritarian, and it is weird why libertarian fiction should be depicting authoritarian leadership. I think it has to do with implementing some kind of affirmative fiat in fiction: "this is the story I want to write, and a benevolent ruler is how I will make it plausible."

    Think of John Gault with a crown.

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  2. Part of it is narrative need - a "King" puts a singular "this is who is in charge" face. It's hard for your hero (or your villian!) to be "Congress", because then you fall into the "fighting the faceless machine" trope instead. Unless you're going full political intrigue, no-one wants to get into the nuts and bolts about "we want to save the Ewoks from falling Death Star debris, but the legislation is stuck in committee because no-one wants to vote in favor of the tax increase right before primary season...". Way easier for "Guy in black = bad, swish swish heroics yay!"

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