First in a series of guest posts from the longlist nominees of this year's 'David Gemmell Morningstar Award', Aidan Harte talks politics, the ideal world, and his historical-fantasy 'Irenicon'.
What is Christ died before ever reaching adulthood?
What if Herod had killed the infant Christ?
Would Christianity be any different?
Would the world be any different?
In less liberal regimes, allegory is a useful veil to protect the author from the authorities (sometimes that veil is judged too thin: only the protection of being dead could induce Bulgakov to publish The Master and the Margarita.) More often, transposing of thorny scenarios to other worlds is a means of clarifying questions that are muddy in our own. Since Jonathan Swift took Gulliver on his grand tour of Lilliput, authors have recognised Fantasy as an ideal form to interrogate political ideas.
One cannot talk about Fantasy in this vein without reference to its cool jetpack-wearing brother, Science Fiction. Political engagement is something SF has never shied from – indeed, it is widely considered one of its main functions. However diverting a new SF, if it has nothing to say about this world, it is a disappointment, if not a failure. This is not to say a SF can do without drama if the political ideas are sufficiently interesting – disguised manifestos are a bore; trudge through some 1950s SF if you doubt me – only that an especially vivid type of political debate is something that attracts many readers to the genre.
I believe Fantasy has the same possibilities and obligations. Its record however is less consistent and I blame that pipe-smoking rogue: Tolkien, J'accuse! Although there is certainly a political element to LOTR, its roots and aspirations are in the world of myth. A more important and representative figure for those who champion the political model of Fantasy is Ursula K. Le Guin. It was because she had a foot in each genre that she escaped the withering effect of the professor’s vast shadow. You may locate her masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Earth Sea Quartet in different shelves of your bookshelf but they are kindred creatures. “Speculative feminist Fiction” sounds too dreary for words – but fans of Le Guin will tell you she is bracing, funny and intellectually nimble. The wisdom as well as passion of her stories, forces the reader to engage. Unlike the SF of the previous generation, these two books are not moored in their era. Yes, they are informed by the tumult of the 60s and the shadow of Vietnam is there but they have that sure mark of the classic: they are fresh today.
All this is by way of saying that Le Guin’s light touch was an exemplar when I began to write my Wave Trilogy and tease out the politics of my world, an alternate medieval Italy called Etruria by the natives. The 14th century was a period when finding the best governmental model was not an academic debate but a matter of life and death. From Milan to Naples, Monarchies, communes, republics, and plutocracies vied with each other, and the only ones that profited were mercenaries called condotteri who cheerfully fought for whoever paid the most.
An ideal world? Far from it, but it was at least not a world in thrall to that modern Grail: consensus. Consensus, it’s nearly as ugly as that other word polluting contemporary political discourse: Harmonisation. Those who use it imply that opponents are tone-deaf. Devilishly hard to pit yourself against harmony. “I’m for dissonance!’ is a stinker of a rallying cry. But the opposite of harmony, when you’re talking about countries, currencies, laws, tax or interest rates is not dissonance – it is choice. With our fixation on consensus, comfort and consumerism, choice is the vital ingredient of the good life we lack. Not that you’d know it; our leaders our desperate to remind us that we’ve never had it so good. When you’re hooked by a status quo, it’s impossible to know it. Since the late 17th century, we – the West – have been in thrall to the nation state, but what are the alternatives?
Federalism is a concept with great antecedents. Germany today is still a type of federation, albeit a paradoxical version with a strong central government; as for its neighbour, Dante would have found the modern state of Italy absurd, spiritually and linguistically impoverished. But the most famous example of a land of loosely allied city states is Ancient Greece. Its unity was a brief thing, forged by the Persian invasion and sundered by the Peloponnesian War. O, but what a summer! The hothouse competition of drastically different models in one land with a common language created civilizations that still cast their shadow. To compare the Athens of Pericles with the sclerotic banality of contemporary Greece is entirely unfair; every modern country would fail that test.
The Warring States, the title of book II of the Wave Trilogy, is a phrase purloined from Chinese history. This was the turbulent period when China was a plurality of kingdoms, filled with shifting alliances, sustained warfare, and general misery. The competition ended when the First Emperor ruthlessly forged a unified country with one central authority. It’s a dreadful generalisation (but essentially true) to say that there followed, with a few interruptions, a long period of stasis in which dynasties slumbered on the throne surrounded by scheming bureaucracy. China’s bureaucrats never paid the lip service to diversity that ours are wont to but, East or West, allowing real choice is never in the interests of the political class. Many historians and economists posit nevertheless that choice is, in the long-term, beneficial. They argue that it was Europe’s diversity of states, their political experimentation and the free market of competing ideas that led to the continent eclipsing of the rest of the world from the 1500s onwards. If true, then it is not only ironic that harmony is our goal when Europe is declining, it is tragic.
Infuriating as the paternalists who would deny us choice are, they have one point, and it’s a doozy: federations, whatever their merits, tend to be unstable, prone to factionalism and hostile takeovers. Big fish do not readily give equal voting rights to little fish when there are other options. The nation state, and its big brother Empire, offer, at least in the medium term, stability. Stability isn’t the stuff of great oratory, but then it doesn’t need to be. Stability makes its own argument. When you’re half way into a mortgage, stability is positively sexy.
My story is an exploration of this perennial struggle. It has, I hope, interesting ideas, but I don’t pretend that it provides any prescriptions or predictions. It’s become a commonplace to suggest that the nation state is fading away painlessly thanks to, like, Twitter n’ junk. Reports of its demise are certainly exaggerated and if past form is any indicator, it won’t go down without a fight. Which model will win? Neither. In this war, all victories are partial and temporary. As the classic of Chinese literature, The Romance of Three Kingdoms begins:
“Anything long united must fall apart; anything long apart must unite.”
Aidan Harte, August 2013.
Irenicon is available now.