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Transcript for Episode 14.23

Writing Excuses 14.23: Governments Large and Small


Key points: Bureaucracy, meritocracy, monarchy, Howardarchy, rabbits? How do you worldbuild governments? Look at the power structures in which you live, the expressions of power, the expressions of control. Autocratic, democratic, meritocratic? How do you make political intrigue interesting? Someone to hate, to vilify, a villain! How do you enforce things? Drama can be how do you navigate the system and overcome the constraints. Worldbuilding elements? How do you design and enforce laws? Taxes! The allocation of resources. Four estates: executive, judiciary, legislative, and the press. Where does power come from, who holds it? Communications. Succession.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 23.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Governments Large and Small.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] We are in a bureaucracy. No, we’re really not. We have a lot of paper, though.
[Howard] We’re in a meritocracy.
[Brandon] I wish.
[Dan] No. We wouldn’t be on the show anymore.
[Brandon] Actually…
[Dan] It would just be our guest cohosts.
[Brandon] Government.
[Howard] That’s… What kind of ocracy are we in? We’re not here by merit. We’re here because we got here first.
[Brandon] That’s right.
[Dan] Okay.
[Brandon] There’s a government for us. We started it, so… It’s our thing.
[Howard] It is… What do you call it, inherited power?
[Dan] [garbled There’s a white guy dipped in there somewhere]
[Howard] Besides monarchy, but that’s not… It’s not monarchy, it’s…
[Dan] [garbled]
[Brandon] We’re just going to call this a Howardarchy…
[Brandon] That…
[Dan] That’s a great word.
[Howard] That’s terrible.
[Brandon] So…
[Dan] It sounds like a great name for a rabbit.
[Howard] Okay. So we’re talking about governments large and small.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Howard] And looking at if you’re going to worldbuild governments, start by looking at power structures in which you live. Because… I mean, the very word government. Governing is an expression of power, an expression of control. What are the methods by which your family is governed? What are the methods by which you personally govern yourself? What are the methods by which your workplace is governed? Are these things… Does it feel autocratic, does it feel democratic? Does it feel meritocratic? People got here because they know how to do things well, so we all kind of agreed that they should be in charge because they do it better than anybody else? Looking at those things at the level where you live is probably the fastest way to learn how to make it interesting when you’re trying to write about it in stories.
[Brandon] Well. That’s… This has been Writing Excuses…
[Howard] [garbled That was autocracy]

[Brandon] I’m going to… Let’s play off of that idea right there. One of the things… Every time I kind of bring up politics is a story… A method of telling a story, people’s eyes seem to glaze over. I remember back… Way back when Dan and I were going to conventions and pitching things to people, I pitched to an editor at Delray and I said, “Well, it’s a political book with political intrigue and stuff.” He’s like, “Never lead by telling someone it’s a book about political intrigue. They will get so bored so quickly.” I’m like, “But lots of books are about political intrigue.” That is the entire Game of Thrones series. So how… Obviously, it can be made to be interesting. How do you do that?
[Mahtab] You have one person who you can all hate. Which is why…
[Dan] House of Cards.
[Mahtab] I mean, that can… Yeah. Monarchy. That’s why it works so well, is because… That’s why I don’t think democracies work so well unless you have one person who’s the face of the democracy that you can identify as someone who is probably doing wrong, and then… I think you need one person to vilify, basically.
[Brandon] Okay. So for…
[Howard] George Orwell’s 1984. You had to have the two minute hate, because we had to have something to center around to not like. I think that we often conflate politics with sociology and economics and ecology and all kinds of other things. Politics is fascinating because it is the way in which power is wielded over other people. You can have a belief that everybody should have free food. You can have a belief that everybody should starve unless they can win a sword fight. You can adopt these two social logical beliefs. How do you enforce that? Do you enforce that was sword fighting? Do you enforce that with money? Do you enforce that… How does that work? That is where it becomes political. For me, when you talk about political intrigue, what you’re talking about is people wielding power over other people. Ripping the rug out from under them so that they no longer have the power they thought they had. It’s less about political position and more about…
[Brandon] About changes and power dynamics.
[Howard] More about the musculature, more about the arm bar, the…
[Dan] Yeah. What fascinates me about political stories, political fiction, is the movement within the rules. So, earlier I mentioned House of Cards which was the Netflix series which I loved and tell Kevin Spacey imploded. Also, the British series, The Thick of It, which was then remade into the American series Veep. Those are fascinating and fantastic shows that show the inner workings of government. They’re fascinating because every episode is more or less we need to accomplish X. How? We can’t just go and do it because there’s a bureaucracy in the way. So we need to get a favor from this guy. Then we need to get this woman on our side. Then we need to give them a quid pro quo, and do something for them, so that they’ll do something for us. Watching all of the hoops that have to be jumped through and watching the political strategizing that goes on, that’s what makes it fascinating. So I almost think… There are certain aspects of political fiction in which a single hateful figure, like a dictator are very valuable. I think that’s one of the reasons we default to dictators so much, because it gives us a villain. But I think you can get just as much drama out of the constraints placed on how do we navigate this system. So it’s not so much that there is a face that we can hate as just the red tape we have to cut through.
[Mahtab] But even though I said it’s good to have a monarchy or a dictatorship or you have one person… Just thinking back to rural India, where you do not have one person, but you have a panchayat, which is basically five elders of the village who sit down and mediate. That is their political, or their government, basically. I mean, you do have a federal government, you do have a state government. But in the villages, it is the five people who control the fate of the rest of the villagers. So it could be anything from domestic violence to crime to rape to whatever, and it’s these five people. Sometimes they come up with really good solutions, and sometimes they are just as corrupt. So, they could all collude and pass judgment. So, you have to see the framework in which your setting that government. To have a dictatorship in a rural Indian setting may not work. But having this kind… It’s good to kind of explore what would work in a certain society based on their culture, their norms, what they believe in, who they look up to. Because elders are respected in India. I don’t see that kind of respect in North America where people are questioned, even if they’re…
[Dan] We don’t respect anybody.
[Mahtab] Teachers and elders. I don’t see the kind of respect that they get. That comes from the cultural aspect of India where you respect your elders, even if they’re wrong, you respect them and you pretty much do what they say.

[Brandon] Let’s do a book of the week, Dan.
[Dan] So, our book of the week is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. This is a Tor book that I absolutely love. It gave me the same kind of political espionage science fiction vibe that Dune did. It’s a very different book, but it still has that flavor. It’s about a diplomat from a space station society who is traveling to the heart of this massive intergalactic Empire to be the new ambassador there in the midst of a huge crisis. It has some really cool technology, it has some incredible cultural stuff. There’s kind of ritualized communication and poetry is the way that this big civilization talks to each other. But really, it’s kind of a murder mystery that can only be solved by navigating the kind of underbelly of this government. It’s just really good. I really love it. The language is beautiful and the culture is fascinating and the politics in it are just vicious.
[Brandon] A Memory Called Empire.
[Dan] Yes.

[Brandon] So, next week we’re going to dive… Do a deep dive into political intrigue itself. So, for the remainder of this discussion, I want to back up just a little bit and talk about the actual worldbuilding elements. What are things that our listeners need to take into account and consideration when they are worldbuilding specifically a government? I’m talking about, for instance, one of the most important purposes for a government is to design the laws. What is legal, and what is not? Who decides that, how is it arrived upon, and how is it enforced? These sorts of things. What other things do people have to consider when they’re building a government?
[Mahtab] Taxes.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mahtab] Taxes is a… I mean, most people hate taxes, they would question it. Why would people be taxed for certain things, and… If they didn’t pay it, or what is the… What are the taxes paid for and how are they paid? That could be a very interesting story. There was a… We were just talking about it, there was a movie called Lagaan, which is taxes raised on villages during the British Empire. The only way to get out of it was for the villagers to play cricket. If they lost, they would have to pay three times the taxes. But because the villagers were so bowed under the weight of it, they took that risk and they went ahe… It’s brilliant, but I think taxes is a huge point.
[Howard] Even… Take taxes and pull a step back from that. Ask yourself, what is the… How is the government managing the allocation of resources? Is it possible, in your fiction or science fiction thing, for a government to govern, to operate in a way where resources don’t need to be allocated to it? Where it can allocate its own resources? It doesn’t need taxes, because it has its own source of power, money, whatever. These are fun questions to ask. The… I guess… I come back around to the way in which power is expressed a lot. I like the model, the four estate model, we talk about a lot in the US, where you have an executive branch where power is expressed in terms of enforcing laws. The military, the police. The execution of judgment. You have a Judiciary branch in which power is expressed through interpretation of law. You have a legislative branch in which power is expressed through the creation of law. You have the fourth estate, where power is expressed through the dissemination of information to the people who vote for all of the people who make, execute, and interpret the laws. It’s a really elegant sort of model, that says nothing about conservatism or liberalism or progressivism or green or whatever. It’s all about the way in which power is expressed. I love looking at that model, and then finding ways to break it, in the same way that governments break in our world. Which is, when somebody crosses between two domains of expression of power, so they now have more power than they otherwise would.
[Dan] So, another way to look at power is, where does the power come from, and who holds it? I remember reading this really compelling essay about… Talking about the difference between United States government and the European governments that many of us came from. United States government was formed after the invention of the gun. Which means that people were able to defend themselves and did not need a government to protect them. So we have a completely different attitude about the power government should have, the amount of allegiance that we owe to our government, the amount of things we rely on our government for than the European governments that have existed since the feudal times when you needed a lord to protect you. So looking at… Well, when was this government created? How… Under what circumstances was this government created, and how has that affected the way they perceive it?

[Brandon] Two things we haven’t talked about, also. Historically, one of the main reasons that governments collapsed is that they weren’t able to rule a large enough area. They captured more land than they were able to communicate with quickly and maintain control of. So one of the things that I suggest, if you’re creating a fantasy government, is look at how is the information getting around. How is this far-off piece of your Empire being governed? How realistic is that? Before you get to easy, quick communication, it’s very hard to maintain a large government. It will collapse under its own weight. Or you’ll have to do some of the things that they tried in some of the early Western governments, where they would have… There would be three kings, kind of, who all worked as one, and they each had this little part that they were king of. But together they were one government. Find ways to try and rule something bigger than one person can rule. The other thing we haven’t talked about is succession. How does the power change hands in this government?
[Howard] Larry Niven’s story called One Face, which I love for its expression of… Political intrigue is kind of the wrong way, wrong word, but the succession of power. A spaceship, hyperspace, gets knocked out of hyperspace, they don’t know where they are. Their computer isn’t working right. The computer is really smart though, but it’s not quite working right. They figure out, oh, we actually made it back to Sol system, but the sun got bigger and ate Mercury and Earth now only has one face. All of… So Earth is a dead planet. We have no idea what to do. They ask the computer, “Do you have any suggestions? What should we do?” The computer is dying, and the computer says, “Promote the astrophysicist to Captain.” Then it dies. I love that, because what it says is, the wrong person is in charge. You put this person in charge, he can solve the problem. Now I’m dead. The problem is… Well, we gotta find a way to spin Earth again. Because everything you guys need is frozen on the other side of it. You just crashed, and you can’t see it yet. But the astrophysicist is going to figure that out. So, I love… Sure, I’ve spoiled the story for you. But that whole aspect of succession where God, if you will, has said, “Look, he needs to be king. I’m not telling you why. I’m out.”
[Mahtab] I’ll still read it. It sounds interesting.
[Dan] I love this idea of succession. One of my favorite movies is called The Lion in Winter. Which is about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband who is probably named Edward and then their children, Richard the Lion Hearted, Prince Lackland, and the third one no one remembers. The entire story takes place over one night in which the two parents are trying to decide which of their sons will inherit. We have this concept of royal primogeniture, which, yes, existed. But if the wrong son was going to inherit, you had ways of making sure he didn’t. So they’re trying to decide which one is going to take over when the king dies. It is constant political scheming, backbiting, stabbing, murdering, sleeping around… All in the course of one night. It’s fantastic.

[Brandon] We are out of time. Howard, you’ve got some homework for us?
[Howard] Yes. I’ve been beating on this drum already. But I’m going to let you guys pound on it now. The four estate model. Executive, legislative, judiciary, and the press. Find expressions of power that are outside of that, or that are subdivisions of that. Create your own numbered model in which government, or society, because the four estate model is larger than just government, in which expression of power within your society is categorized and build your governments around that.
[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.