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.)
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)
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)
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.