Have yet to actually read a steampunk book, Mistborn notwithstanding. Was about to buy “The Difference Machine”, but last minute I opted for the history/ fiction hybrid of “Red Plenty” (one of the books I keep returning to, btw, very rewarding read).
Just finished The Dispossessed, the 1974 SF novel by Le Guin. A worthy, humane read, definitely. Apart from the beautiful prose, the setting is compelling. Two planets: Urras, complete with states, money and war, and Anarres, a former mining outpost turned to colony by settlers from Urras. Governments of Urras offered to people adhering to the teachings of a semi-legendary woman (“Laia Asieo Odo”) the colony, so that they could do their thing without disrupting “civil order”. Le Guin explains:
Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-Darwinist economic “libertarianism” of the far right; but anarchism as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism’s principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.
The book follows a scientist from the anarchist planet who travels to the old world. The chapters alternate between his interactions there and flashbacks from his homeland. The writer paints the capitalist state, that hosts the traveler, as funky, but sinister (she does not spare a neighboring socialist one, either), while she treats the anarchist world more generously. It even gives it some, let’s say, additional leeway, contrasting its arid, hostile landscape with the lush environment of Urras. The dichotomy is furthered by guarantees of isolation: The two worlds only do some limited communications and trade, no traveling in-between.
The outline of life in Anarres was the most interesting aspect, to me. Trust, mutuality and personal freedom are the basic elements in this anarchist society, which prides itself against those competitive, “archists”, “propertarians” of Urras. They also fear and loathe them (acknowledging that Anarres is practically defenseless at the face of tactical armies), and also need to trade with them ores for necessary goods.
The constructed language of Anarres expresses the core beliefs, for example, it uses “central” instead of “higher”, to denote significance in the absence of hierarchies. The word for “work” is the same as “play” (or was it “joy”?), and the really unpleasant tasks are shared on a rotating basis. This means that specialized and unspecialized individuals alike spend some considerable time laboring for society’s wellbeing. Professions are conducted through syndicates, which form and dissolve voluntarily. Individuals move freely across the planet’s communities. There is a unit that coordinates production, work postings and resources allocation (a Gosplan-lite, if you take away the imposing building and that 5-year fetish). It also has powers like emergency work postings in times of need (the closest thing to quasi-official “compulsion” in a society without the notion of it). Serial slackers deserve food and shelter, like anyone else, but at some point will probably get their asses kicked by their peers and/ or pressed to fuck-off to another location.
Each individual is responsible to the others. This simple standard of meeting social expectations, benevolent as it is at first, in the novel is seen as gradually taking the shape of an “orthodoxy” placed, and finally encroaching, upon individual freedom. The writer is also keen to pinpoint the effects of creeping hierarchies, even in organizations open to participation. For example, an anarchist argues that the coordination unit has assumed the bureaucratic attitude (“no to everything”). Other institutions, like research centers, are seen festering with dug-in cliques and “seniors”, that fend-off outsiders and boss around among supposedly equals. I think that anyone who has experienced office life can relate to this.
There is more, about self, relations, gender (not The Left Hand of Darkness – not read, or Tehanu – read, level), constraints and science (the last I cannot judge). A final note, the people of Anarres describe themselves as anarchists, Odonians and, of course, libertarians.
I wish fantasy novels offered more political diversity. I adore fantasy, but I’ve begun to chafe at the ironic lack of creativity when it comes to political regimes. The genre may be missing a great opportunity. Or maybe I’m reading the wrong books.
While I don’t really mean this as a criticism so much as an observation, monarchy and feudalism abound in most other-world fantasies. Or the politics are indistinct. Despite my deep love for Tolkien, he falls into this category as well–either political control is unclear in regions like the Shire, or the region is ruled by an absolute ruler. His most well-known series culminates with the return of the benevolent dictator to the throne, Aragorn King of all the Dunedain (granted, there is intentional Christian symbolism here).
Modern fantasists follow a similar trend. Brandon Sanderson’s books, while wonderful, tend to involve worlds replete with absolute rulers. In fact, in the original Mistborn trilogy, a naive emperor tries to impose a more representative system of government, fails, and then decides that a firm hand is what’s called for. He and other authors like Robert Jordan dabble with some interesting political ideas and do provide a great deal of political detail, but they ultimately tend toward absolutism of some variety. Terry Pratchett’s main city-state on Discworld, Ankh-Morkpork, is ruled over by an absolute ruler, but Pratchett at least takes plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the masses’ constant yearning for a noble king to tell them what to do. Really, all these books are splendid, and politics are typically not their centerpiece–I just think some more variety may be valuable to the genre. (I’m not pointing fingers, as I’m guilty of the same problem–my forthcoming fantasy novel takes place in an empire with an absolute ruler and a largely meaningless parliament).
Fantasists could perhaps take a page from their science fiction comrades, where experiments with politics seem more common. Fantasy authors could do more than tinker with small tweaks to the monarchy and mercantilism of a pre-enlightenment age. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones gushing about how Daenaerys Targaryen is the only person who can swoop in and save the Seven Kingdoms from itself. That’s remedial polisci–surely we can do better. Who wouldn’t want to read about an anarcho-capitalist Iron Islands or a post-communist King’s Landing?
If you have any good recommendations for other-world fantasies that take up this challenge, I’d love to hear them!
The Doctor has always had a special preference for the Brits. They flit in and out of the wondrous and often alien-infested towns of England, woo them with their British (briefly Scottish) accent and manage to introduce to the kids (it was originally intended to be an educational program for the kids) some moral propositions. The last few seasons have been famously against war and violence of any sort. The regenerated Doctor retains the abhorrence for violence as a means for conflict resolution. And it is conflict resolution that the Doctor sees as their purpose of life. To find out who, in the big, vast universe, needs help and to give help whenever asked for.
The latest season is iconic. The Doctor is a female for the first time. The Doctor has reached the end of their regeneration cycles. This is to be the last and final life of the alien problem solver who seems to love humanity more than they ever will. But in the two episodes that have been released, the Doctor has also thrown sufficient shade at Brexit and the events that have unfolded since. The first episode contains a superbly written but not so subtle speech about evolving while retaining past identities. With their signature kindness, they try to convince the villain that change is possible, and it does not require jettisoning who we were to become a better version of ourselves. The second episode reinforces the importance of sticking together. The moment where the Doctor triumphantly yells ‘Stronger Together!’ is especially noticeable. Many see the message of diversity in the inclusion of a female ethnic companion (although the Doctor has previously had POCs as companions), the dynamic between the two male companions (a white male step-grandfather and a black male step-grandson) mirrors the generation gap that was evident in the Brexit vote.
The symbolism is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, the Doctor has not displayed political undertones previously. The change reflects how the creators and possibly the entertainment industry views their jobs. Perhaps the seepage is unintentional. It must be difficult to disentangle oneself from the events unfolding all around you. Secondly, and most importantly, as a series that has come to be a part of the British culture, the Doctor wields considerable power. The Doctor represents England in science fiction. The Doctor promoting teamwork sends a powerful message about inclusion (albeit with not much debate, but we have a season left for that!).
The timelessness of the series is both a gift and a curse. Just like the chauvinist Doctors of the past have been judged harshly (by the new-age Doctor them self), the latest Doctor too runs the risk of judgment from future generation. Or maybe they will be revered and celebrated for being so sure of their position. Just like Brexit, we won’t know. For now, let us travel across time and relative dimension in space and hope for the best, just like the Doctor.