Every Tuesday, I open twitter for post-topic suggestions. This week timely topic, courtesy of Elisa Nukle, is government in literature.
My gut instinct: write about all the terrible futures in dystopian fiction. Brave New World, 1984, Hunger Games, the works. Except…except what about the positive depictions of government in fantasy and scifi?
On the hunt for examples of good governance, I ran into plenty of stink-toads in sheep’s clothing. All too often, the shining example of Good and Order toddles along for a few books before revealing its hydra heads of evil or its sheer bureaucratic ineptitude in dealing with the endless crises the hero has to resolve. Harry Potter‘s Ministry of Magic stayed on the straight and narrow for a while, before taking a hard turn into fascist pamphlet printing.
And then there’s Saruman who decided to use his good wizarding skills and build himself an army of orcs. But who could blame him after all that time he spent cooped up in a tower with nothing better to do than comb his beard? The rooms must have been tiny!
But I do have a few candidates for the Benevolent Governance award. Requirements of this list include sincere benevolence (or the convincing veneer of it), the ability to achieve world peace, and the mad skills to do it in style.
This post will involve spoilers! You have been warned.
8. The Patryn from the Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Once upon a time, there were godlike good guys who ruled over the lesser species across the many worlds. They were benevolent and powerful and everything all good until they got a bit too insufferable, locked their opponents up in a sentient torture-prison, and caused all sorts of accidental havoc.
As we learn more and more about the ancient civilization that set up the eventual events in the Death Gate Cycle series, the only thing that keeps the the Patryn from becoming the ubiquitous (and long-extinct) dystopian villains is that they are genuinely nice people. Just incredibly bad at managing a universe.
7. Narnia from all those books by CS Lewis
Well, okay, when the kids clamber through the wardrobe and into the fantastical and winterlocked land of Narnia, it’s ruled by a despot witch who kidnaps little children and torments small animals.
But once the kids vanquish the evil witch with the help of a Jesus Lion, it’s all smooth sailing and benevolent monarchy for forever. Forever, that is, until the kids go back to the real world and leave Narnia to fall to the evil human invaders from beyond the seas. But that’s the next book.
6. Barrayaran Empire from the Varkosagan series Lois McMaster Bujold
While not a shining example of governance done right, there’s something to be said for this little empire on the edge of space that, over the course of a couple generations, undergoes hyper-industrialization, rebels against its colonial masters, and goes on to become a somewhat backward but relatively benign authoritarian regime ruled by a young, progressive emperor in charge of three planets and a very big space army.
Go space armies!
Now for some real benevolence…
Top Five Benevolent Governments in Fantasy and Science Fiction
5. The Seraphs from Avery Madison Series by Kim Harrison.
The first book sets them up, but it’s the second book that finally introduces the seraphs – the all powerful, all seeing creatures of heaven who rule from on high and hand out incomprehensible orders to their angel messages. I spent an entire book and a half bracing myself for the appearance of this angelic bureaucracy – or, at the very least, for the book to reveal a child-like, petulant seraph more concerned with heavenly grace than humans.
Imagine my shock when I discovered that these angels are really-truly good guys. They’re understanding, and wise, and willing to let our mortal heroine try new things and make her own path. Of course, that doesn’t make her life any easier. But still. Good angels. Who’d have thought?
4. Terran Federation from Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein
Serving as Heinlein’s umpteenth attempt to write the ideal system of government, Starship Troopers reveals the Terran Federation, grandchild of the violent collapse of all the world’s governments.
In a combination of structured civil and armed service, genetic engineering, and an earned vote, Heinlein’s utopia is a libertarian solution to the chaos of representative democracy. Sure, some discerning thinkers compare it to an extreme form of fascism, but who needs critical thinking anyway?
3. Dreamweaver by Louise Lawrence
Eth lives on a pre-industrial, utopian planet rules by a loose syndicate of dream weavers who use psychic powers to induce dreams in people, showing them the consequences of their actions. Anyone resistant to having their violent, rebellious, or dissident tendencies curtailed with some dream conditioning is exiled to the desolate, desert sister planet.
While this sounds like a properly sinister and dystopian way to keep the world peaceful and happy, we eventually discover that the exiled dissidents actually have the opportunity for a new and better life on the sister planet, nevermind the desert. Oh and that the dream weavers are actually the good guys, creepy mind control aside.
2. Souls from the Host by Stephanie Meyer
Parasitic aliens have invaded Earth, one brain at a time. They take over human bodies, steal their lives, and live their little parasitic lives inside the brains enjoying life on two human feet. But they’re also super-nice.
Sure, the numbers of free humans have been reduced to almost nothing, and sure, you can argue that there’s something morally reprehensible about stealing a person’s willpower and wiping their personality. But war, famine, sickness, pollution, and all those other pesky by-products of humanity’s progress have been eradicated too.
And eventually, the souls figure out that they’re doing something bad and start helping the humans take back their world.
1. The Culture from The Culture Series by Iain Banks
Now, I haven’t actually read anything by Ian Banks, so I’m just making things up based loosely on what my friends tell me about the series.
As far as I’ve been able to overhear, The Culture is a kind of benevolent super intelligent dictatorship lording it over all the other civilizations, using its advanced technology to fiddle around with social engineering and manipulate them into doing what’s right for the good of all.
It’s a little sinister, but I hear it’s a utopia through and through.
Canaries, what’s your favorite good-government in fantasy or sci fi?
Concerning 6: yeah, it’s pretty benevolent if you’re male and your name begins with Vor. For the rest of the population, not so much.
Off the top of my head I can think of only three:
1, United Federation of Planets
Especially in The Next Generation series and mostly in Deep Space 9, too.
2, Beta Colony from Bujold
IIRC even the poorest citizen have access to education and health care.
3, The Minbar from Babylon 5
So true on 6! I considered Beta Colony. After all, personal computer as a human right. But the colony became the villain in the story – didn’t Cordelia kick the President in the nuts? Disqualified!
Haven’t read 1 and 3, but absolutely should (were they movies/shows first, or books?)
Babylon 5 and Star Trek were shows first.
In fact, I would recommend staying away from the B5 books. The first ones are pretty awful and all of the ones I’ve read have been written for people who know the show. I heartily recommend the show, though. The first season is a bit rough but it just keeps getting better and better.
I personally prefer Beta colony to Barrayar. 🙂 Of course we haven’t really seen much of Beta. I’d love to see more stories set there. Or on other planets which we haven’t seen much of yet.
If you haven’t read any Iain M. Banks, stop what you’re doing and go and read him right now.
The Culture is indeed the greatest fictional civilisation ever created: run by more-or-less insane genius AIs, a sort of happily hedonistic anarchy where everyone lives in luxury on gigantic space ships (unless they don’t want to), and which throws the Prime Directive out of the window when it thinks it’s a good idea. I’d want to live there anyway.