P is for Politics
Vorgullum leapt up, walked away, swung around and came back. “Do you think I want to do these things?” he demanded. “Do you think I want these thoughts hammering at my head? Do you think I like the taste of them spitting from my mouth? I am leader! A leader must be hard!” —Olivia
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“I had forgotten how much of politics made up the task of ruling.” Antilles kicked off his hoof-caps and went to the sideboard to pour himself a cup of mead. “I feel that I have wasted the entire day with naught to show for it but scratches of ink.” —The Army of Mab
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Okay, I’m back with my mouth thoroughly washed out with soap and my apology letter written to the very nice NaNaWriMo group who asked me to write only PG-rated material for this project. What can I say except that it’ll probably happen again. I’ve got the letter X slated for a frank discussion of interspecies sex.
But today’s letter is P, so we’re going to talk about politics.
I don’t particularly want to. I have voted in every election since I was eligible and I try to educate myself before I cast my ballot, but I have to admit that if I’m not familiar with the candidates, I tend to just vote for the woman. I don’t believe in voting a straight party ticket and I do believe there are both hateful nutjobs and persons of intelligence and compassion on both sides. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not a political sciences expert. Before I sat down to research this article, most of my knowledge came from a half-remembered paper I was given in the eighth grade illustrating the various forms of government by using two cows. You know the one I mean? With communism, you slaughter the cows and divide them up equally with everyone else’s slaughtered cows so you all get some (your share is half a hoof); In a democracy, you sell the cows for enough money to buy four calves and go on like that, inflating the sale price a bit at a time, until 1% of the farmers own 99% of the cows; in fascism, a man from the government shoots you, takes your cows and sells the milk to your neighbors. This was how I learned about government.
In a perfect world, most of those models would be effective and efficient (obviously, I’m not including fascism here; that’s why I said ‘most’), but it’s not a perfect world and I don’t think I’m going to shock anyone when I say every form of government is susceptible to corruption. The more corrupt the government, the more prevalent politics become, because at its core, politics is just a little word to encapsulate the fight for power in a system that has authority over people.
So I don’t like politics and I’m hardly qualified to discuss politics, but I do occasionally include politics in my books because it’s impossible not to. Seriously. The first movie I can remembering seeing in a theatre was Disney’s Snow White—a hotbed of political intrigue if ever there was one. The nameless evil queen is the only monarch in evidence by the time the movie properly opens, which means she replaced the first queen (after an untimely death) and then the king (another untimely death) before finally attempting to bump off the only heir. Because she was too pretty and the evil queen was vain? Ha. Snow wasn’t that pretty. What she was, was nearly the age of ascension. But suspicion had finally fallen on old Queeniekins because in spite of a basement full of poisons (I remind you here of the two dead monarchs), she changed up her modis operandi and hired a hitman to do the deed well away from the castle. And notice how we never see the huntsman again? It’s like Game of Thrones with singing dwarves.
There are those who say a writer should only write what he or she knows, but I think that would get pretty stale after a dozen books or so. I think it’s important to write outside of what may be familiar, to you and to your readers. For that reason, I tend to steer clear of governments that exactly resemble my own. So let’s have a quick look at the various systems of government I either have used, have seen used or just found interesting.
Anarchy—No organized system of government; People rule themselves
Androcracy—rule by men only
Aristocracy—rule by nobility
Autocracy—in which one individual holds absolute authority (the gullan use this in Olivia; many races use it in Arcadia)
Binarchy/Duarchy—in which two individuals rule jointly (I could go on—triarchy, septarchy, centarchy—but I won’t)
Chirocracy—rule by physical force
Democracy—in which the governing body is elected by the people
Dictatorship—in which one individual who has not been elected rules through force.
Gynarchy—rule by women only (it’s strongly implied the Jotan government in Heat is a gynarchy)
Heterarchy—in which the people are governed by a foreign ruler without representation
Kritarchy—rule by judges or lawyers (God help us if this catches on)
Monarchy—in which authority to rule passes along a family line (used by the Cerosan in Arcadia)
Oligarchy—rule by a special interest; this can be economic, religious, familial or any old interest at all
Panarchy—one government; global or universal rule (the alien governments in both Heat and Cottonwood fall into this category)
Phylarchy—in which one race or tribe has authority over all others
Plutarchy—rule by the wealthy
Republic—in which representatives of the people, elected or appointed, rule jointly for a set term
Stratocracy/Despotism—rule by the military
Theocracy—rule by God or (more often) religious authorities and ecclesiasyical law (I used this system in The Last Hour of Gann)
Totalitarian—rule by a single political party; there may be elections, but all candidates are chosen by the government
Xenoarchy—rule by alien overlords
Note that you can mix and match systems to create the government that suits you best. America, for example, is a democratic republic (or a democratic republican plutarchy, depending on who you talk to).
Within each type of government (except anarchy, obviously), you have a leader—president, queen, chieftain, governor, empress, to name a few—and his support system—Senate, high council, Parliament, justicars, courtiers, etc. In an alien setting, I think it’s best to use general terms and titles or to make up your own, avoiding words that readers may already associate with a specific culture, such as shogun, tzar or stormtroopers.
Finally, while politics has become synonymous with government, it is by no means exclusive to it. You can find political intrigue and shady power plays in the workplace, at school, in church, even at home. When I was growing up, the front passenger seat of the family car was the prize of whichever child held the top spot in our own secret hierarchy. We all wanted it, but seldom if ever fought over it, because fighting always ran the risk of getting the outing cancelled. But since child-status is determined largely by age, I, squarely in the middle of six children (more or less; my parents fostered and the number varied, but six made up the core group) never got the front seat unless I was going to the doctor and even then, Mom was likely to bring the whole brood along. With six-plus kids, you took your outings where you could get ‘em. Anyway, about the time I was ten, I engineered a deviously underhanded plot to get out of the back of the minivan by entertaining the crispy hell out of anyone around me. I told jokes. I made up little poems and songs. I used my action figures to act out stories. When I was in the car, I was always on, but in the back seat, only my little brother and sisters could hear and see me. It paid off. After a few months of this, as we were about to set off on rather a lengthy drive, just as my older sister Cris was taking ‘her’ seat, Mom said the magic words: “Let R Lee sit up front.” With a justified smirk at my dethroned sibling, I ascended, and there, I am not as ashamed to admit as I should be, I stayed for the next twenty years, until my mother stopped driving.
The moral of this story is, politics are everywhere—especially when it isn’t obvious. It doesn’t even have to be a major plot-point to be effective. Jealousy and misplaced ambition can add interesting dimensions to any character and who doesn’t enjoy the occasional assassination, seduction or betrayal? So go ahead, get your hands dirty. Just remember the difference between politics in real life vs. politics in books: In books, there are always consequences.