Posts Tagged ‘empire’

Fantasy literature is often accused of having a regressive or conservative tone as a genre. There’s an attitude among some commentators that it’s a way of retreating from real world issues, of romanticising aspects of the past without considering its dark truths. It’s an argument that’s extended to steampunk in this interesting but not entirely convincing piece I found via For Whom The Gear Turns.

I can see where people are coming from on this. A lot of fantasy and steampunk does romanticise certain aspects of the past, and of society in general. To generalise broadly about a hugely diverse genre, we tend to look at the nicer bits more than the really wretched ones, and to repeat a lot of the same features others look at. I’d love to read more steampunk that explores Victorian social and political trends like mass protest, social division, colonialism, the emergence of Marxism, or any of a hundred other things. I sometimes try to balance that in my writing. But it’s a small part of the published picture.

Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can't be fun?

Who says retro-futurist colonial oppression can’t be fun?

However, to criticise fantasy or steampunk for under-representing these subjects is to miss an important point. What are we comparing the genre with? If it’s reality then yes, fair cop, things look whitewashed. But if it’s compared with other literature? Then I don’t think it’s a fair criticism.

Consider historical fiction. Does that address the whole range of historical experience in a balanced way? Certainly not. There are dozens of books in which the likes of Richard Sharpe fight the dastardly French, and almost none in which they steal people’s countries and subjugate their populations. Or how about the dark side of Victorian England? Sharpe’s Peterloo Massacre anyone?

How about literary fiction? Yes, some of it deals with problems of race and society, but an awful lot of it is navel gazing from a middle class, middle aged perspective. The experience of Britain’s disengaged modern underclass, while not absent, receives literary attention that’s nowhere near in proportion to the real balance of our country.

If fantasy or steampunk is, on average, quite unadventurous then that’s only because it’s like the rest of our culture. And if it weren’t for the more adventurous writers, carving out new niches on our bookshelves, then these genres would never exist in the first place. Yes, we should be more daring. But that’s not about fantasy or steampunk. That’s about people.


Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons

Writing about working with the core of your world has got me thinking again about world building. We talk about this a lot in fantasy and science fiction literature, but one of the best examples I’ve seen doesn’t come from books. It’s a wiki for a live roleplay game. So today I’m going to enthuse about Empire.


A damn fine game

Empire is a fantasy live roleplaying (LRP) game run by Profound Decisions (PD). It’s a game designed for thousand of players, set in the high fantasy world of an empire on the verge of collapse, with barbarian orcs battering at its borders, the empress dead, and internal machinations capable of tearing the whole thing down.

To support the game, PD have written and published a huge background wiki. This gives the people playing their game an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the world, creating something that’s complex, consistent and completely engrossing. For a LRP, this is great for creating immersion and atmosphere – a point Matt Pennington, PD’s founder, talks about so eloquently that I’ve cited him when writing about teaching.

The aims of a LRP background are somewhat different from those of world building for a novel, but there’s also a lot that’s the same, and that’s what I want to look at here.

Working from what’s known

As long as there has been fantasy literature it has taken features from the real world and from established mythology, using them as shortcuts to evoke atmosphere. If an author shows you a world of samurai and ninjas, you immediately fill in a lot of the gaps around them – geisha, robes, minimalist furniture, translucent partition walls, whatever says medieval Japan to you.

Empire uses that. By creating nations that seem familiar, such as evoking Medieval English yeomanry in the earthy Marchers, they let your brain fill a lot of gaps.

But they don’t just present you with real things. Where would the fantastic be in that? They mix it up, showing how these countries are different from the ones we know, how their magic and history make them distinctive. It’s not some hotchpotch re-enactment of the past – it’s something fresh derived from it.

Working out the detail

One of the things I most admire in China Miéville’s writing is his clear grasp on the deeper structures of his worlds – the economic, social and political elements that hold them up. This applies in Empire as well. Each nation has its own culture, costume, magical traditions, social hierarchy, military structures, and so on and so on. You can even hear what sort of music they like to make, and read about how they treat children. It’s an extrapolation from the starting point of each nation, just like Chew extrapolates from food super-powers, and it’s fantastic. It’s a depth and richness of background that’s pretty much incomparable in its detail.

Which results in…

Of course, by running a game for all those people, PD stop being the sole authors of their world. Every single player contributes. And it’s those players who take this material and, like Layman and Guillory in Chew, push it in all sorts of logical but crazy directions, bringing the world to life.

As a player, I initially found it intimidating. But then I realised that, as with the background to a well written fantasy novel, I didn’t need to know it all. In the same way that a novel can give you just enough information to be getting on with, and let you learn the rest as you go along, this wiki let me learn just enough to get started, then soak up the rest from the atmosphere other players created.

Even if you’re never going near the game of Empire, give their wiki a look. It’s a great example of world building, peeking into what’s hidden behind many authors’ story telling. If you’re the sort of person who likes to read guides to Middle Earth, or who buys D&D supplements just to read about the cities and monsters, then you’ll love this.

Thinking about the nature of steampunk got me considering an issue that it tends to ignore, but which is inextricably tied into the industrial nineteenth century society on which steampunk is based. That issue is imperialism, and the nature of empires, and it’s interesting to think about how it fits into fantastic literature.

Empires are a fairly common feature of genre fiction, especially fantasy. Whether it’s the imaginatively named The Empire of Star Wars, or the expansionist evil of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, we love a good empire. But this is usually just empire used as a shorthand way of indicating an evil and/or expansionist nation, a big bad for the heroes to oppose. It doesn’t get into the nature of empire.

There are some notable recent examples bucking this trend. George R R Martin’s Westeros is clearly an empire, made up of disparate nations brought together by war and compromise, some more reluctantly than others. Martin uses features of empire, such as a government geographically and culturally distant from many of its people, and the resentments and rebellions that exist on the fringes of a vast state.

Joe Abercrombie hs created another example in his Union. Again, this is a nation that doesn’t self identify as an empire, but clearly is one. And again, features of empire are explored. An elite turning the efforts of the masses to their own ends, especially in the case of the mage Bayazid. The role of the military in such a society, with actions on the field of battle shaping and shaped by political competition and hierarchy. The dehumanising experience of people ground down, often to their deaths, by the needs of a state for whom they are anonymous resources, as shown throughout The Heroes. And the conflicts on the fringe of empire in Red Country, as so-called civilisation bears down upon the wilds beyond, restricting the choices of free living people, leaving them to flee, submit or die.

In some ways, it’s hardly surprising that empire is seldom dealt with in this way, especially in the sort of celebratory fiction that is much steampunk and Victorian fantasy. It’s hard to portray an empire as something sympathetic, and so it is usually a villainous institution seen from the outside, or an absence, an empire in name only, like the Britannia that plays background to much gaslight fantasy. I’m not judging this, just noticing the pattern, and perhaps the opportunity. As Martin and Abercrombie have shown, there’s a lot of interest to be found in this theme, and for writers of steampunk in particular, there are new ideas to be had.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve missed loads of other examples of empires. If so, let me know – it’s as good for me to learn something knew as to keep writing what I already think.