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Warlords and eunuchs and slaves, oh my! Picking the problematic for The Aldabreshin Compass

My first series, The Tales of Einarinn, took the epic fantasy focus away from kings and princes to look at ordinary people threatened by warfare and wizards. So why did I decide to write my next story about that archetypal fantasy figure; the absolute feudal ruler? Because I was getting very tired of commentators insisting that epic fantasy is conservative, consolatory and uncritically, if unconsciously, advocates old-fashioned, hierarchical political systems.

As someone moderately left of centre in British political terms, that's so very much NOT what I write. So I decided to take a good, hard look at the realities of absolute rule, in particular its fatal flaws. Because it's no surprise that most societies aim for democracy (with all its imperfections) as far as they can, and that the world's currently seeing the mass migration of people desperate to escape tyranny.

With great good fortune, I'd already introduced the autocratic, autonomous warlords of the Aldabreshin Archipelago in the Tales. So I set about exploring and expanding that particular society, creating the backdrop for an exciting, intriguing fantasy series that would incidentally explore that particular hinterland. This process soon involved consciously including elements to make a reader think 'Wait, what?!'

Let's start with the warlords. As the saying goes, rank has its responsibilities as well as its privilege. When trouble strikes for an absolute ruler, that's the person everyone looks to for answers. But what does a warlord do, if he doesn't have any idea what's going on, still less what to do about it? That's the challenge for Daish Kheda in Southern Fire, first book of the Compass. The Aldabreshin Archipelago is a culture wholly and in every respect opposed to wizardly magic - which turns out to be a massive problem when magic-wielding enemies turn up to start terrorizing and murdering innocent villagers, burning their houses and crops to the ground. The Aldabreshi literally have no means of fighting this sorcerous fire with fire.

As Kheda frantically seeks the means to beat back the invaders, the obvious answer is surely finding magical allies? Except that would irrevocably destroy his people's loyalty and faith in him. Aldabreshin hatred of magic isn't negotiable, not something easily eliminated for plot-convenience. It's integral to the system of astrology and prediction which underpins Archipelagan life, from highest noble to humblest peasant. So we see a second limitation of absolute power. An autocrat can tell people what to do but it's much, much harder to tell people what to think. Historically a good few absolute rulers have come to grief when they've believed that their divine right means they can challenge a central tenet of prevailing culture or religion.

Absolute rule also relies on the man or woman in the hot seat being up to the task. While Daish Kheda does his utmost best for his people, as a good hero should, the other warlords now threatened by these wizard-backed invaders are a very varied bunch. Some are simply ineffectual while others are more interested in exploiting this situation for their own selfish ends. And that's for their own personal advantage, not necessarily concerned with the fate of the people they rule. Benevolent paternalism is a nice idea but if an absolute ruler is no damn use, or opts for callous exploitation instead, ordinary folk have absolutely no recourse.

That's something Kheda realises. He's not stupid and he's very well aware of the brutality of some of his neighbours but he's not about to do anything about it. How can he? Interfering in another warlord's realm invites anyone else to do the same to him. If you believe in absolute rule, you believe in it absolutely.

This isn't his only blind spot. Aldabreshin society has several aspects which Kheda accepts as normal because that's what he's grown up with, which readers will find jarring. The presence of eunuchs is one. Trust me; I haven't just included them to make this tropical society 'exotic'. Historically castration - and worse - has been used in various cultures to solve one of the other big problems of feudal rule. If the succession's been successfully passed on to the first born heir, what do you do with the spares? And you will need spares in a pre-modern society where raising a child to healthy adulthood can be a real challenge. A fall-back position's essential as historically, regencies and child rulers left even powerful countries very vulnerable. That's going to leave an absolute ruler determined to hold on to power facing some very hard choices indeed. How's that consolatory fantasy looking now?

So Kheda's been raised to consider castrating those with a rival blood claim as a perfectly valid, potential solution to this issue. As a writer, this works very usefully for me in another way. Writing heroes can be a challenge. Where's the interest or uncertainty to intrigue the reader if the good guy can always be relied on to do the right thing? Well, what if there's the distinct possibility that the reader's definition of that right course of action might be very different to the main character's? In the case of a story like this, where Kheda's very much the dominant point-of-view character, this also raises the possibility that he could be an unreliable narrator. But the reader's only going to find that out when some point of contention comes up. Till then, who knows?

Which brings us to slavery. Kheda's definitely a good guy in that he abhors any cruelty and indignity towards those are so wholly dependent on their owner's goodwill, and despises those who inflict it. But it would never occur to him to question the institution of slavery itself. Once again, normal's what he's grown up with, so that's another blind spot. And once again, this goes beyond mere set-dressing for me as a writer. Quite apart from anything else, doing that would be to trivialise the appalling reality of slavery which persists today and historically did such violence to individuals and societies in Africa and elsewhere.

Firstly, I've woven the institution of slavery into Aldabreshin culture to underscore how different the Archipelago is to any standard cookie-cutter Fantasyland. A reader would be very ill-advised to make assumptions about this place based on other epics they might have read. Secondly, I hope the portrayal of slavery throughout this series makes readers think a bit more deeply about its unthinking use as set-dressing in some other epic tales. If the good guy treats his particular slaves with kindness and consideration, that doesn't change the fact that the slave, the serf, the indentured labourer is stripped of any real security or self-determination and remains powerless in the face of abuse.

These things, alongside misogyny and homophobia, are all too often presented unquestioned - and inaccurately - as 'historical reality' in fantasy backdrops. As the genre matures and develops, I think we can and should demand more and better from epic writers. Especially when it comes to exploring the dangers of abuses of power, as our own democracies look increasingly vulnerable to oligarchs, demagogues and selfish factionalism among a ruling class increasingly divorced from the 99%'s ordinary lives.

So that was my starting point, for readers and for my central character, Daish Kheda. But that was by no means the end of it. I wanted Kheda to think through the encounters and events that challenge his preconceptions throughout the course of these four books. Will he be able to go home, so everyone can celebrate the return of the king who's won this game of thrones, as though nothing has really changed? That's the final test he faces in the final volume, Eastern Tide. As well as the rival warlords and magical foes who are doing their utmost to kill him, obviously.

113 Comments

1:

Firstly, I've woven the institution of slavery into Aldabreshin culture to underscore how different the Archipelago is to any standard cookie-cutter Fantasyland


Slightly different problem, but a RPG I am running has the PCs, most from more enlightened places (such as modern America) visiting a polity where slavery is definitely a thing. The people arranging that visit are aware of the optics of slavery to their visitors and so the guest palace doesn't have slaves, but there ARE slaves, everywhere else, in this realm. I've already had one PC, hearing a casual reference to slaves, express an internal unhappiness at the situation. I hope other PCs interrogate this as well.

And of course, this being an empire, my RPG also is dealing with an autocrat and her problems...


(This is all a fancy way of saying that I really should get off my encounter suited butt and read this series of yours)

2:

Interesting. I agree about slavery, and it is often forgotten that it is not a clear category, but varied (and still does) between being exploited more badly than domestic animals and being effectively indistinguishable from some 'free' workers. It is instructive to compare pre-18th century English employment practices with what is now considered slavery.

3:

Just saying that I loved your first two books and I keep hoping to get back to the others on my shelf. So much time and so little to do, scratch that, reverse.

Anyway welcome to the blog!

5:

Quite so. One of many aspects of The Good Old Days that warrant thinking through a lot more thoroughly, if anyone's going to advocate a return to 'simpler times'.

6:

Enjoy! And it sounds as if your RPG has a lot of potential for interesting developments - and conversations in the coffee breaks. I do like it when a game has that sort of depth and hinterland.

We've had something similar when I've been DMing for my sons and their pals, when in my role as various NPCs, I've subjected female characters to the sort of casual sexism that was certainly rife when I was a teenager. They are genuinely appalled that any woman should have to put up with that - which gives me hope for the future.

7:

There needs to be a high fantasy epic written entirely from the point of view of a peasant. Also, Chinese history is fascinating. Ancient China was a great analog for a fantasy kingdom, and also very alien. I was reading about a whole era during the Jin dynasty when ruler after ruler was the nearest living relative of the last ruler, invariably a small child, so there would have to have a regent, and each of these rulers became mysteriously ill about the time they were coming to the age of majority. Tons of stuff like that. I'm particularly interested in a Warring States era philosopher named Mozi. He ran a school for officials at about the time the feudal order was breaking down, nobles giving way to educated gentry. His school taught more than statecraft and "jian" (the way to interact effectively with one's ruler so as to get good results without seeming impertinent). It also promulgated a rather revolutionary ideology wrapped up in seeming conservatism, and even a form of scientific method. What's particularly hard to see, but worth it if you can read between the lines of his book The Mozi, is how all this doctrine is targeted. For example, Mozi rails against the accumulation of harems by kings and nobles, but finds a way to oppose it by making it seem pragmatic. He says that the population of the kingdom will be increased if everyone marries very young, so rulers should adopt the ancient law (dredged up out of some antique document) that everyone be forced to marry very young. You can imagine the warlord thinking this is a great idea until he realizes that if all the young men and women form families with each other then there demographically won't be any leftovers for he and his nobles to collect. Backdoor monogamy. In the end Mozi's more practical ideas (meritocracy) were adopted, and his more idealistic ones (universal love) were rejected. An instance is Shang Yang, the prime minister of Qin who made the reforms to the corrupt nepotism that set the Qin on the path to ultimate conquest. Except without adopting the principle of condemning offensive warfare. A character need not simply be shaped internally by the conflict between the character's moral sense and the character's real world, a clever character can find ways to undermine without getting caught.

8:

Fascinating, thanks for that.
As for epic written from the point of view of the peasants, you may be interested in my Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution trilogy, which is all about what happens when various ordinary people decide they've had enough of being trampled into the mud, and worse, by rival dukes warring for a crown. That's the series I wrote after the Compass.

9:

May I recommend this book:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2293596.Chinese_Heritage

I think you will find it fascinating.

"A noted China scholar chronicles the history of Chinese culture from the first appearance of a written language to the establishment and recording of the country's political, cultural, and social institutions"

I read this several times years ago. The early history is something that you don't often read about, and has an amazing cast of characters. It was also a period when China wasn't as densely populated, so settlements were surrounded by wilderness and hunting grounds and rulers worried about planting settlements to stake claims to land.

10:

That's largely unrealistic. You can do it from the point of view of a peasant that escapes that (as the author says), a peddlar and so on, but peasants didn't see enough of the action to give an interesting viewpoint. The life of a peasant was incredibly restricted and, even in cases of turmoil, didn't include much more than a change of master, masterlessness/beggary, varying degrees of privation etc.

11:

The ancient Romans' slaves could work themselves free after a few years' service. They could also earn wages during their slavery. While not universal - some Roman slave owners did kill their slaves - but overall less sadistic/brutish than the working conditions some authors describe as the typical US plantation scenario.

As shown via the Roman example, any system can be made to work for or against the benefit of its weakest participant. Another example is socialism ...

12:

Wonder if this is a difference of technical definition for peasant plus the perceived size of the 'realm'. I think it's quite possible for a non-aristo (smith, weaver, inn keeper, etc.) to see and understand quite a bit of what's going on provided their day-to-day duties involve regular interpersonal contact. I'm thinking that peasant-level servants were probably invisible to their 'betters', so might actually have had even greater access/opportunity to very personal information. And, if your peasant was religious, he/she might have received religious instruction, i.e., was literate.

13:

That sounds fascinating, thanks. And just the sort of thing epic fantasy writers should be writing, to expand the genre beyond the Northern European template.

14:

The definition of peasant is certainly important here. As well as remembering lower status doesn't mean stupid, as various absolute rulers have discovered to their cost.

15:

Stories are almost always about the exceptional individual, so I don't see why taking a peasant as a starting point is necessarily impossible. Also historically, even in those societies where peasants' lives were incredibly restricted and repressed, information and ideas found their way to them, via travellers, preachers etc. And even without external prompts, people whose lives have become unbearably debased can and do rebel, because they have nothing to lose. Russian serfs spring to mind as an example.

16:

Slavery in the Classical World is a very complex subject. The Romans were mostly concerned about money and purely utilitarian concerns, rather than the slaves' point of view. Treat slaves so badly that they died and you'd be put to the expense of buying new ones. Allow them to buy their freedom and you get a return plus saving on the expense of keeping them fed and housed once they've reached the end of their useful, working lives. I've come across both those arguments in primary sources.

17:

Absolutely. I was using peasant in the strict sense, and even extending it to household peasantry doesn't change that. The lowest level that had much of a viewpoint were the next level up.

18:

I have never seen an entirely successful story couched entirely in terms of hearsay; yes, I agree that it could be done, in theory. But I did say that a peasant that breaks out is feasible, and there are quite a few stories about slaves that do the same. My point was that a pure peasant's viewpoint is extremely monotonous.

19:

It could be. On the other hand, it could not be - if momentous events were sweeping across whatever muddy field that peasant happened to live in. I'm very wary of ever accepting 'this particular story couldn't be told'. Someone, somewhere will find a way to do it. Equally, of course, a great many authors would be ill advised to try it, if all they're going to offer is a tale of boring peasants covered in mud.

20:

That's largely unrealistic. You can do it from the point of view of a peasant that escapes

You mean like 朱元璋?

http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/china-history/zhu-yuanzhang.htm

21:

What's monotonous about agriculture? Your peasant could be mainly interested in his job as a sharecropper, but these huge world events keep sweeping through the area distracting from what's important. "The turnips were doing nicely and a wizards retinue rode by. They stopped and took a leak. Young Glorr wanted to holler at them to quit pissing on our crops, but I managed to hold him back. Later that day it rained so we stayed in the hovel and spun." Then there's getting levied as a spear carrier, coming home crippled and still trying to help out with only one arm. Having to ration when the crops fail, or a "liberating army" burns them--why that's practically a lifeboat story. And all the family drama! Especially when your daughter is with child with the lords natural son. Family fortunes are looking up!
Alternatively you could cheat and it could all be about an uprising. A trilogy: volume 1 "Serf", volume 2 "Serfs Up!", and volume 3 "Hang Ten".

23:

Could it be done using several viewpoint characters, I wonder?

One peasant may not be in a position to see everything, but there's probably a peasant with a good view somewhere in the scene throughout the story…

24:

I ended up with six viewpoint character in the Lescari Revolution series, for pretty much this reason. The reader really needed to see a bigger picture than any individual drawn from a particular group. Otherwise I did feel I risked writing the aforementioned boring story about peasants covered in mud.

25:

Juliet, you talk about many books borrowing historical slavery and putting it in their stories inaccurately. Could you share where writers tend to mistep in that area?

26:

The most common mistake is taking one form of slavery, most usually the plantation-based slavery of the Caribbean and the Americas in the 17th/18th century and assuming that was universal - and so presenting that in a fantasy world where the very specific factors that created that particular system don't exist.

27:

True. But I was assuming a full-length novel that would be popular - I doubt very much that most fantasy readers would be happy with the worm's eye viewpoint that a peasant's life normally entailed, except perhaps in the hands of a genius-level author. I read quite a good short story about replacing a pseudo-feudal system by a free-market one from an overseer's viewpoint, but forget what it was.

28:

Peasant POV: A fantasy version of "Upstairs, Downstairs" (okay, or "Dowtown Alley"). Good palace servants can go unnoticed and can observe the machinations going on throughout the household, maybe subtly influencing events.


I think I'm glad to not be the only one to use eunuchs in their fantasy writing (though I'm not published--yet. And won't be if I don't get on with it). I have them as royal guards/advisors; I was thinking along the lines of Imperial China, though not as a specific reference to it. They're a small part, but there for a reason.

29:

My father was a butler before he retired, so I know some very good stories about what unnoticed servants get to see... Though servant and peasant are rather different.
The various rationales behind using eunuchs in different roles in different societies are very interesting - and yes, there is always a reason.

30:

I'd agree para 1, based on having an "upstairs maid" somewhere in my family's past.

31:

Have always wondered how a fantasy based on India's caste system would work out. You'd think that any group such as the Untouchables would be closely studied if only for insight into their immune systems given their horrid living conditions.

My quick search found nothing immune related, but did turn up caste/gender related differences. (No surprises here!)

The Mortality Divide in India: The Differential Contributions of Gender, Caste, and Standard of Living Across the Life Course

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470604/

Women's health in a rural community in Kerala, India: do caste and socioeconomic position matter?

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17108296

My personal belief is: When the worst happens, look to peasants for survival skills... they've been doing it for generations!

32:

Your father was also one hell of a story teller — I for one would happily have paid good money for his memoirs.

(The usual difficulty with such being the danger of descending into Kiss&Tell gossip.)

33:

Or getting sued... :)

34:

Another instance of the wealth of history and societies there are for epic fantasy writers to use as a source of inspiration.

As to what 'peasants' can teach us 'advanced' types, I'm reminded of a news report after the Indonesian Tsunami, when relief boats went to the Andaman Islands, where the Sentinelese people live what's characterised as a palaeolithic life, shunning contact with the outside world. The outsiders were expecting to find a catastrophe. Not so. The Sentinelese knew exactly what the strange behaviour of the seas and animals meant and retreated to high ground before the wave struck.

35:

Up to the end of your notional quote reads close to the opening of several Ursula Vernon stories. I'd be very interested in reading a totally peasanty epic fantasy of hers - I don't know anyone who writes such practical, believable, vegetable-obsessed characters.

36:

Would those better-informed than I disagree with the suggestion of "ownership" as a foundational concept of Roman society?

37:

you'll need to expand on that a bit before I grasp your meaning.

38:

sounds promising to me.

39:

Though servant and peasant are rather different.

Yes, servants were the first thing that came to mind. Just looked at a proper definition of peasant; applies to my great great grandparents in Lithuania, who sold their little patch to send their sons to America. And probably on my father's Scottish side.

40:

the same goes for my Irish forebears, who were living in Co.Monaghan through the 19th and early 20th Centuries, so would have had plenty of epic events going on around them and affecting them, without any need to leave their potato patch.

41:

A trilogy: volume 1 "Serf", volume 2 "Serfs Up!", and volume 3 "Hang Ten".

I'd buy that. :-)

42:

Sorry - I was thinking of the rights fathers had over their children, comparing it with the rights owners had over slaves, and perhaps over-generalizing.

43:

... and are the ten serfs who are to be hanged the leaders of the peasants' revolt (captured in battle? betrayed? self-sacrificing?) or ten hapless innocents condemned as a warning to the rest...?

44:

An epic poem written by a Monaghan farmer about Monaghan farmers.
(reference to Munich is to the Munich Agreement of "peace in our time" fame, IIRC.)

45:

ah right, now I understand. Essentially yes, a Roman pater familias had absolute power, up to rights over life and death, over his familia - and means the entire household including slaves.

Though I don't know if 'ownership' necessarily conveys the precise idea. The Romans were very focused on reciprocity. "Do ut des" in the Latin; literally, 'I give so that you give.'

This applied to relationships from those between men and gods on downwards. You sacrificed to, and honoured the gods, and they rewarded you with good fortune, wealth and health etc. You did favours for men more important and richer than you, and they did you favours in return. Similarly, you had more humble associates who you would help out and they'd do what you wanted in return.

That applied to the household as well as to relationships outside the walls. You gave your slaves food and shelter and they gave you labour and loyalty.

That was the theory at least. And of course, there was the flip side. Abuse a roman's trust, including by taking his property, be that human or something else, and you could expect retaliation.

And on the national level, when the Roman Army turned up because some local chieftain had been insufficiently appreciative of Roman goodwill or some such, the Senatus Populusque Romanus would be very happy to give you all the advantages of Roman life and citizenship, in exchange for your cooperation and resources.

46:

thank you for that!

47:

Re: '...what 'peasants' can teach us 'advanced' types...'

This (and any society/culture) could easily be modernized to fit professions/departments as anyone familiar with mega-corp training/motivation/sales sessions could tell you.

Example: Pre about 10-15 years ago, corporate training/motivation get-togethers were usually scheduled in batches and only related departments would get lumped together (Acctg/Finance and Sales/Mktg). Post 10-15 years ago, same time as ideation sessions/lateral thinking became all the rage, HR managers scheduling these sessions were told to deliberately mix departments and department level personnel per session. Why? To force people to learn how to consider different perspectives early enough to avoid major screw-ups. BTW, the judge or arbiter of the best plan or whatever that these teams are supposed to pull together has to be an outsider, otherwise major internal political problems ensue.

48:

If I was writing it? Corrupt nobles, tax collectors, incompetent bloodthirsty generals…

Admittedly the general trend of peasants grabbing power was for the peasant to become ruler, rather than rework the system. 朱元璋 I've already mentioned. (A decent fictional example is Turtledove's Krispos.)

But I'd like to see, as an escapist fantasy, the peasants kick the nobles out and keep them out :-)

49:

the reworking the system is historically the most difficult bit

50:

Hey, if it was easy I could write it.

Given the number of fantasies we've had where no one dies of (or worries about) disease, horses are magic ATVs on which mighty-themed barbarians can ride bareback across hundreds of miles of frozen waste wearing only a bearskin kilt, etc…

I don't think my 'some social system other than monarchy' fantasy is really any more extreme :-)

51:

there are a whole range of social/political systems that aren't monarchies in my fiction. It's one of the most interesting elements of world building for me.

52:

Did you keep them with a consistent legal framework or make it a ramshackle with various differing government types.

'Cause historically its usually a ramshackle.

For every emperor you had, you had strong barons, weak dukes, republics, and plutocrats of all sorts in and around their empire.

Heck succession varies so immensely, that I can quote a half dozen differ styles used in parts of the UK. Primogeniture is a lazy crutch because it was only decided much later as the most common form.

53:

a whole variety, some working better than others, drawn from a wide range of historical models.

54:

That would be a spoiler? I'm thinking more likely the peasants, making the whole tale a tragedy, because normally hanging is used for lowlifes not deposed nobles. Probably it should be some surprising combination, in which the ten POV peasants depose the tyrant (hanging number one), but afterward is not all roses and one way or another 9 more die before the end. Leaving us just wondering, once we see the pattern, which one survives. And why. Because she went back to gardening.

55:

it's sounding more and more interesting!

It's this sort of thing which makes me wonder why anyone ever asks a writer where they get their ideas from.

Shortage of ideas is never the problem...

56:

...strongly agree, and there are more recent domestic examples than that.

I remember my Pipe-Major, who grew up pre-war in the Mull of Kintyre, talking about the conditions under which farmhands were employed. You signed up for a year; you lived on the farm, in rather basic accommodation (of variable quality); if you left before the year was up, no pay. Abusive employers were not unusual; and farming (then as now) was a risky employment in terms of death and injury. It was the young men returning in 1945 who now knew that they didn't need to put up with that kind of treatment.

;) Apropos of nothing, I've got a friend whose ancestor prosecuted the Tolpuddle Martyrs ;)

57:

"...on which mighty-themed barbarians can ride bareback across hundreds of miles of frozen waste wearing only a bearskin kilt..."

Not as implausible as it sounds:
http://www.icemanwimhof.com/innerfire

"Wim is internationally renowned for his countless ice endeavors that range from being up to his neck in a cylinder filled with ice cubes for over 90 minutes, swimming long distances under polar ice, running a marathon barefoot to climbing the Everest in nothing more than a pair of shorts."

58:

Here's another one.
Spells are formulas for a series of actions that produce a magical result. Recipes basically, requiring various ingredients, actions, and incantations. Most combinations of ingredients, actions, and incantations don't do anything, and the slightest error can make them not work. But there are many spells that do work, sprinkled among the field of possible combinations. They are like prime numbers, in that there are really an infinite number of them, but as you go on looking for more of them they get fewer and farther between and much longer. And you have to discover them basically by brute force attack, simply trying stuff until you see what works. There are theories about what works or why, but basically it's random. So most magic users are employed in research, simply trying one formula after another with slight variations.

Another thing is that once a spell is discovered, it can be cast only so many times, worldwide, before it becomes useless. So once they are discovered, spells are kept strictly secret, or sold very dear. As time goes on, more and more spells are discovered, but they are longer and longer to perform and become fewer and fewer since it takes so long to research the next one. And they are held ever more dear, but the magical profession nevertheless continues to decline.

But unbeknownst to the magical profession, used up spells actually recover after a long time. And some of them, short easy ones, which are written down in old books, happen to be rediscovered as potent. And what's worse, the discoverers of these spells have every intention of publishing them freely for all to use rather than keeping them as a source of social power for a select few--which can't last long as all the available magic is used up in a single huge party including everyone.

59:

Can you recommend a starting book? Pref. stand-alone or a finished series — I don't like starting a series until it's finished, as I forget too much between books if I have to wait for the author to write them, and I don't have time for much rereading (or any reading) now.

60:

Yet possibly the best fantasy novels ever written are set in the perspective and mindset of a peasant who is sent to solve a problem in his village by going to Peking to find a fallen scholar who may be able to help.

Barry Hughart. Bridge of Birds.

And the peasant: Number 10 Ox.

Tenth child, and the biggest of them.

Many times, his ability to recall peasant songs and stories in which are encoded truths of the world are the detective discovery moments that save the story.


(I weep bitter tears that there are only three of those books)

61:

I think it's persuading a horse to live through hundreds of miles of hard riding in a frozen waste that qualifies you for epic hero-dom, not what you wear while doing so.

62:

That's about a dozen CJ Cherryh books. The ones where the lead cooks flour biscuit in the morning. Every morning.

63:

Mohism is actually the coolest philosophy. It's especially interesting to me because it takes premises that I agree with (consequentialism, ideas should be judged by how well they can distinguish truth and falsehood) and premises I don't agree with (legends of the sage kings are good sources of evidence), proceeds to initial stages that I agree with,(universal love, condemnation of aggression and waste, people should be given responsibilities according to what responsibilities they can handle), and then proceeds to make conclusions that are basically at right-angles to what I believe, if not completely opposed (maximize population, have a rigid system of hierarchy headed by an absolute ruler, ideological conformity, become experts at defensive siege warfare to prevent offensive warfare from being profitable, sick burns on Confucius and Confucians).

64:

In my Dead Man's Hand universe, I'm going to have a subversive character run a school for slaves, and helping them acquire enough money to become freedmen--who of course are obliged to write 'home' once a month about conditions in their household and tithe to my hero (who uses the money to buy more slaves, teach them, lather rinse repeat). And of course nothing that anybody writes home helps him run his trade empire, oh no...

65:

the discoverers of these spells have every intention of publishing them freely for all to use

Magic wants to be free!

66:

That's getting extreme. Just wearing a traditional kilt, bareback in any environment, is hard enough for most non-castrated male barbarians. Well, at least their balls will get bigger the longer they ride...

67:

The way I see it, the legends of the sage kings were about the only established history Mozi had available. The more general point is that you use established history as part of your argument. The history available to him was not very extensive or very objective, but he did his best with it. He gives "historical examples" of good and bad rule as a means of persuasion, probably knowing full well the story has probably been distorted. But that was how you persuaded in Warring States China. While you can interpret maximization of population as a value, I think a more general point is that it is given as a conditional value. That is, he is saying that IF you want to maximize population, as most warring states did, then these are the things you do. The hierarchy Mozi pushes is rigid in it's own structure, but vertical mobility is a key component. The assumption is that IF you can make sure the ruler is the most ren (good) and yi (lawful) man (ancient china was incredibly sexist, and you preach in the language of your audience, to where they are now in order to move them along) available, then he arrays the entire hierarchy according to how ren and yi each person is, combined with competence. The weak point is the selection of rulers, but Mozi hints that "when there are signs from heaven" everyone will know when it's time for the ruler to go. And he clearly hints at democracy in many ways, such as talking about an good ruler who all the people went over to because they heard the fame of how well he ruled his tiny fief, until he became the ruler of all the land. Besides the whole responsibility of higher ups to be sensitive to the needs of lower downs just smacks of voting, or at least polling. The ideological conformity isn't that different from asking for patriotism. He's not asking everybody to be robots, he's asking them to commit to the basic principles on which his society is based, to put certain fundamentals beyond dispute once and for all. And it's mainly public speech he's concerned about, fomenting of revolution. You are expected to privately complain to your immediate superiors and chastise and report them for actions that are not ren and yi. How different is the whole "defend threatened states to prevent international aggression" from basically what the UN is supposed to do? Confucianism of his time seems to have been in need of criticism and reform, and indeed it was reformed and refined many times to make it better. Largely influenced by Mozi's ideas. Mozi was trying to formulate something that would appeal to rulers, superficially, but have revolutionary effects, ultimately. In that he succeeded. The main weakness I see in it is the absolute aversion to aesthetics. This was a built in self destruct switch that prevented his philosophy from being fully successful. And it must have been designed as such. You can tell when he's arguing from the heart and when he's applying BS because he gives these laughably weak arguments for things he doesn't really believe in. In so many ways he is promoting moderation. By applying what is more general in his philosophy you would think you should moderate the amount that you indulge in music, but for no good reason Mozi urges his followers to make every effort to ban all music by law. Further, the whole system hinges on meritocracy: motivate people by promoting those who do the right thing well. The problem is that if every form of reward, other than raw power, is prohibited then what's the point? If I can't build a nicer house because I've attained high office, then why bother to attain high office? Mozi's answer is that if you are truly ren and yi then your desire will be to do good, so the increased ability to do good will be enough. This is psychologically naïve. The person should apply meritocracy within, and indulge in unburdensomely moderate enjoyment, which can be an efficient may to maximize productivity. The other extreme is what the Confucians of the day seem to have been doing, which is placing aesthetic considerations first, promoting nobles based on familiarity with the intricacies of music and such. Which is a misguided attempt to replace valuing war with valuing beauty--before abolishing war.

68:

Ah yes, horses... another area where epic fantasy writers really, really need to learn a whole lot more than they think they know from what they've read in other fiction and seen on the screen...

Judith Tarr has tackled this in her book "Writing Horses; the fine art of getting it right". http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/writing-horses/

69:

Yes, that looks very promising - and neatly addresses the persistent problem of limiting magic so you don't just end up with a world where logically, wizards rule* and everyone else is a peasant in the mud.

*until the wizards start fighting, or lose interest, or the peasants work out that even the most powerful wizard has to sleep sometime...

70:

All my four series are complete in themselves now, so you should have no issues there. The first book of each one serves as a starting point for new readers to my fiction.
That said, there is an underlying chronology, so there's added value for readers who start with The Thief's Gamble, my very first book, as characters from that first series do recur in later books when they're the obvious person with relevant skills and experience for someone to call on.
So The Thief's Gamble starts the story of Livak, a woman living on her wits as a gambler and sometime thief, blackmailed into going on a quest for lost knowledge by a wizard - who's very not the usual fantasy mage.
As discussed here, Southern Fire starts The Aldabreshin Compass where an absolute warlord is in deep, deep trouble when magic wielding invaders turn up.
Irons in the Fire starts the Lescari Revolution trilogy, when various groups still living in Lescar and exiles in neighbouring countries decided they're mad as hell at the rival dukes and not about to take this any more.
Dangerous Waters looks at the consequences when a rogue wizard has decided to break the rules about wizards not getting involved in warfare - which puts the Archmage of Hadrumal on the spot since the accepted rule that only wizards discipline wizards means that wizards MUST discipline wizards. Which is why this trilogy is called The Hadrumal Crisis.
This final trilogy does follow on from events in the Lescari Revolution and personally I'd think readers would get more from reading the Lescari books first. But enough people have got in touch, saying the Hadrumal series is the first thing they've read of mine and it worked really well as it stands. Who am I to quibble?
(Actually, I'm the intensely relieved author, since I did work very hard to make that series stand alone!)
So, probably the best thing is to browse my website and see which particular series piques your interest.
Or start with The Thief's Gamble.
Or try Southern Fire since that does work as a standalone - though hopefully you'll be sufficiently intrigued to want to know what happens next :-)

71:

Number Ten Ox! I know I've come across him in short stories in crime fiction anthologies! Great stories as I recall, and as with epic fantasy, it's so refreshing to find crime fiction drawing on other traditions.

72:

Just wearing a traditional kilt, bareback in any environment,
Philabeag or philamohr?

73:

... and the author needs to be very careful not to go down the rabbit hole of a far too obvious analogy/personal bugbear.

I speak as the one who spent most of a day writing a long conversation between two characters explaining to each other why starting a land war at the end of hugely extended supply lines with an enemy who wasn't about to play by your rules was a massively bad idea. And even if you win, what the hell do you do next to secure that victory? This was during the second Gulf War...

I read it back the next day and deleted pretty much all of it!

74:

Okay... so, if The First Rule of Ideas is there's never a shortage, the Second Rule of Ideas - for me, anyway - is they have to be tested hard to see which ones will go the distance. I think of this as kicking them until I find the one that fights back.

so here, I'd be asking myself, is this school an accepted thing and if so, what's the need for slaves to be literate, to persuade masters to let them learn?
If it's a secret school, how do slaves find out about it and how/when do they get to lessons without being found out?
How are these letters carried in the absence of a formal mail network - or if there is a formal mail network, how/why do slaves get access to it?

There's all sorts of potential answers - again, one of the fun aspects of world building. When I'm doing this sort of thing, I pick some answers to suit the plot I want to shape, and picking others shows me new and often unexpected directions for the plot and characters.

It'll be very interesting to see what you do with this idea

75:

And of course, those who might like to get an idea of my writing, style etc can check out the Free Stories page on my website.
http://www.julietemckenna.com/?page_id=1390

76:

One solution to the literacy, mail etc. question is easy. Masters want slave clerks to do the routine administration of their businesses, especially long-distance trading. So SOME slaves need to be literate and numerate. And guess who handles the posting, delivery and collection? So a covert channel is easy.

A secret school and network is trickier, but is most likely to be associated with a recently enslaved race or religion, which ensures some level of trust and communication. In that case, secret communication is likely to be carried verbally by the couriers and is much slower and less reliable.

These come straight from history, but there are doubtless other real and possible examples.

77:

Yeah. Show, not tell. That's why I decided I couldn't write fiction. Both because of my inherent nature, and because of a lifetime doing that sort of thing, I keep falling back into teacher mode. Yes, I could probably learn not to, but how much life do I have left?

78:

I very strongly disagree with the first rule of ideas, because it confounds the bad and mediocre ones (usually a standard meme, dressed-up, or something completely implausible) with genuinely new, interesting, feasible ideas. The latter are very rare indeed.

79:

I didn't say they're all *good* ideas - just that there's no shortage :)
Hence Rule Two, to sort out the lousy from the ones worthwhile pursuing

80:

Or they could teach the slaves literacy so they can have great scriptoriums of them doing magical research. Guess what happens when a slave discovers a new spell?

81:

One is reminded of The Book maintained by the Junior Ganymede club in Jeeves and Wooster.

82:

I don't think that the picking up, or even revision, of an old approach should be considered an idea. That's a hard line, but I have reasons for it.

I have seen the harm those the thinking that is associated with those rules causes in real life, and I speak as a known (but not major) innovator in IT. In particular, that approach deprecates the potentially ground-breaking ideas, and the people that have them, in favour of the reboiling of variants of old ones.

83:

Your idea sounds rather like the Meiji era from the perspective of the Shogun. When the Americans showed up in the early 1850s, Japan had had guns for about 250 years. The Shoguns had deliberately marginalized guns and all but eliminated them from Japanese society, largely because guns distributed fighting power much too democratically for the Shogunate to tolerate.

84:

more enlightened places (such as modern America)

Now, that's a turn of phrase we don't hear that often on this side of the pond...

85:

Reminded me of Wolfstone:

I met in wi' Adam Mitchell
An' a fee we did presume
He's a fairmer in Klenethlyn
At a place called Sleepytoon.

If you an I agree says he
You'll get the fairest play
For I never bid my servants
Work above twelve hours a day.

86:

In many Roman patrician households your teacher was a Greek slave. Some of the wealthiest men in the city were technically slaves and even deliberately continued the legal fiction if it helped them with a legal dodge vital to their business.

87:

The servus publicus worked for Rome, often in a clerical capacity. If they were manumitted, they had all kinds of insider information for the private sector or potential for more exalted imperial service, particularly for their relatives or the next generation.

88:

Yup. And the Ottoman Empire had similar classes of slave. I did say that I took those examples from history :-)

89:

Re: 'In particular, that approach deprecates the potentially ground-breaking ideas, and the people that have them, in favour of the reboiling of variants of old ones.'

Mostly agree but this assumes that everyone knows the complete history of that subject and that everything essentially stays the same. Example: Higher-up keeps nixing 'new' ideas saying ... 'Yea, we tried that and it didn't work' without first reviewing what might have changed since that idea was initially tried.

A truly imaginative/innovative mind while looking at the same thing as everyone else will see something differently. Or, prohibiting the re-examination of old ideas is not necessarily the only/best way to get new ideas.

90:

I agree, but that STILL doesn't mean there's never a shortage of real ideas, as distinct from knee-jerk responses and regurgitation of old ones. An idea cannot be considered apart from its context, which means that an old idea in a new context can be a new approach.

91:

He hides in plain sight on Ciara, an island notorious for being a slave trade center. There is a good market for scribes, freed or otherwise, due to the Mintaran Empire trying to make slavery look respectable to areas that haven't adopted it yet. Zhakub the Silent sets up as a slave trader nursing cheap ones back to good health and educating them as much as possible (given that some owners think they're Cato the Elder, he doesn't have to look too hard for same)--his cash flow situation is dicey at the beginning, but he received under the counter help from an nation who doesn't like Mintar at all, thank you, and would love to have more reliable spies in place in noble households. Codes are worked out, of course, to where 'how is Aunt Edith, her hip still bad?' can mean something quite different, so if a master wants to vet the letters, it all seems like family stuff. So Zhakub passes stuff onto the Duchy of Argnon that seems political (he's a banker, too, so properly coded bank statements can convey lots of information), and prospers out of knowing someone's a moron and will go bankrupt in a year. Argnon is careful not to favor him in public, of course, but it's amazing what contracts he lands from certain third parties for other ventures.

DEAD MAN'S HAND establishes the universe with another hero (spoiler: rescues Zhakub from a bad situation in the second book, not yet written save in Bad First Draft), and if you would like a free copy, please let me know.

And most of Zhakub's freedmen and freedwomen are quite dedicated to helping Zhakub, though of course there will always be someone who spills the beans.

92:

Asking in advance of reading (because I may not get to a new book before summer)…

Are these suitable for a high school library?

93:

"Codes are worked out, of course, to where 'how is Aunt Edith, her hip still bad?' can mean something quite different..."

How is key distribution handled?

94:

Don't know how the author in question handled it in the story in question, but often criminal argots are a gloss, not really a code. Their purpose is deniability, not secrecy. For instance when the boss says "take care of him" his people know he means "kill him" and so does the police informant among them. Everybody knows what's being said, but since it is glossed like this the boss can claim, in court, that all he told his henchmen to do was to treat the victim like a guest and cater to his needs. So the key is basically distributed by learning the argot as one grows up in the criminal culture of the particular group.

95:

Many ideas seem to come from a process like the Hegelian dialectic. (Interesting story: Hegel's name is on the Hegelian dialectic only because he made it famous by putting a piece in one of his books that argued against it.) Synthesis-->Analysis-->Synthesis---Analysis...
That in turn is similar to J.P. Guilford's "divergent" and "convergent" production. Which in turn is similar to "brainstorm whatever garbage and then pick the best one".

When you just consider a finite world of two supposedly exclusive ideas (Vancian or Manna based magic), thesis and antithesis, you can simply brainstorm up ways they can by synthesized. This is like having two machine parts or jigsaw pieces and trying all the ways you can try to put them together. What you get is a synthesis (Depletable Vancian spells). From this thesis you need to produce a new antithesis if you want to continue to the process. There are actually many possible ways you could call something the opposite of something else. Is the opposite of white just black? Could it not also be brown (white paint before you mix it) or clear? To make a new synthesis you have to pick one and proceed. But more than that, you can throw in processes outside the dialectic, just throw monkey wrenches in from outside the universe. This is how you get that gnarly combination of order and chaos.

I think you're actually better at idea production when first learn about something. For whatever reason, you see it with fresh eyes, don't know what can't be done, don't have established modes of thought that pull you out of innovative tracks; whatever it is. This is why most great discoveries are made by young scientists. This is why many authors write a first draft without much of a plan. But knowing this, can you systematically create that freshness?

96:

"... can you systematically create that freshness?"

Some people can, and some maintain it into old age, but it is very rare. And that is my point.

97:

As far as I am concerned, they are - the violence is uncompromising but not exploitative/gratuitous and the sex is implicit rather than explicit. (Mostly because I cannot take writing 'Tab A into Slot B' soft-pr0n-type stuff seriously...)

They're in my sons' UK secondary school library with approval by the staff and I regularly get enthusiastic feedback from teen readers. As well as others - my oldest fan to declare their age was 84 :)

98:

This is somewhat right but also somewhat wrong.

Hegel categorized the Dialectic as Kantian, (the traditionally recognized: Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis) but reformatted it in a tripartite system of his own: Abstract-Negative-Concrete or later Immediate-Mediate-Concrete.

They're both tripartite models; Hegel's argument with Kant is more about the nature of knowledge (a priori etc).

And negativity is also a making-concrete, a self-determination, in that self-development is brought about by "the dialectical force which deposes [the thing's] immediacy" and gives it a "specific character" (SL -239). Specificity is thus linked by Hegel to negativity: Omnis determinatio est negatio, as Spinoza says -- every determination is a negation. Hegel frequently cites this dictum of Spinoza's (e.g., HPh 3:267, 286; SL -91 Zusatz; and cf. HPh 2:140), and he likes it so much because it suggests the positive aspect of negativity. While negativity is externalizing, it is also positive, for it makes the thing determinate, or individuates it. [55] Determinate negation (bestimmte Negation) gives the thing a content, which is to say that in actualizing a potentiality through its externalization, a thing is determinately negating various other potentialities, transforming the initially merely hypothetical nature of the thing into a concrete content.

Dialectic is thus the transition of things, and of knowledge, from potentiality or abstraction to actuality and content, but in such a way that the arising of a fuller determination points beyond itself to a further determination. Every determination is both a result and a new beginning, concrete and abstract, for it occurs within a process of the becoming of a thing (or of knowledge), and hence is concrete relative to the origin of the process but abstract relative to the telos of the whole process. A thing becomes more and more fully developed through this successive dialectic of self-reconstruction. And so too does knowledge. Negativity is the principle by which thought disrupts its instinctive or immediate certainty, or by which thought becomes "split up" (PhM -408 Zusatz) or "divided" (Diff 87) into an opposition of consciousness to a specific object. Dialectic is thus the very process of thinking, where thought "loses itself in" and becomes "entangled in the contradiction" of its nonidentity with its object, [56] and yet where this very negativity urges thought to "persevere," to "work out in itself the solution to its own contradiction" (SL -11). It is in this sense that Kojeve calls dialectic "a series of successive 'conversions' " whereby the relation of consciousness to the world is progressively transformed. [57] Kant, too, is close to Hegel's insight, in that he feels that the dialectic of reason involves thought in a search which it cannot avoid since it is driven to the search by an inner impulse to satisfy itself. [58] But while for Kant this search precipitates thought into illusion, for Hegel it leads to the insight that reality is in truth dialectical.

Hegel's Dialect Daniel Berthold-Bond, Hegel's Grand Synthesis: A Study of Being, Thought, and History. New York: Harper, 1993, pp. 81-91.

Phänomenologie des Geistes


~


Apologies for the derail.

99:

Sounds interesting - you can find my contact details via my website.

100:

Nowadays people that smart study technology or derivatives or something. They were making profound complexity out of nothing at all. There weren't even telegraphs or steamboats.

101:

"Synthesis-->Analysis-->Synthesis---Analysis..."

And here I was thinking it was
Collection-->Collation-->Analysis-->Dissemination

102:

OK. Thanks. I'll add them to the purchase list then.

(This is the reason I asked Charlie for recommendations in the last thread.)

103:

The Tales of Einarinn should still be in print the US, The Aldabreshin Compass is currently only available in ebook or second hand. I do have a few US hardbacks of Southern Fire and would be happy to donate one of those to a school library. Email me via the contact page on my website and we can discuss logistics.

104:

Re: 'Nowadays people that smart study technology or derivatives or something.'

Thereby propagating derivative vs. original knowledge? Anyone 'that smart' would probably be better able to discover new knowledge by tinkering with something else entirely. Or by organizing their discipline into something coherent, e.g., Mendeleev's periodic table.

There's room for many different paths/methods to knowledge to co-exist: deeper digging along existing paths, exploring boundaries between disciplines, hybridizing ideas/knowledge, etc. Each path/method should also be studied in itself to determine what it's best for - not just type of knowledge but where along the path of discovery it's most suitable/effective. And, maybe someone might come up with a completely new/novel way to examine a discipline.

Generally think that new learning/knowledge tends to slow down when too many paths of investigation are arbitrarily dismissed/fall out of fashion.

106:

Haven't worked that part out yet. I still have a couple of books ahead to finish up and write before I get to Zhakub and his slave school. There are probably some classical works common to the Inner Sea cultures I could use to bury a cipher, cf CLAUDIUS THE GOD, but without the obvious markings in a book that might be noticed by outsiders. But that's only if I want to go the cipher route--memorizing basic codes might be all that is necessary for most common situations (like the codebook Stuart LaJoie carried with him in MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS). Plus an emergency phrase for 'things are looking bad, I'm out of here'.

107:

Derivatives in the "financial instrument" sense, not derivative knowledge, I thought?

108:

That was a very clever & enjoyable piece of snark alongside a period reference.

Remind me to never play you at numberwang!

~

One possibility: religious observations & imagery - the infamous Ichthys was a bit later, but served the same function.

Also, how are slaves marked / defined (visually for other citizens)?

What no-one has mentioned is that there were classes of ex-slaves - for instance, compare the libertini and the sub-class of Dediticii, which an ex-slave could be limited to if their behaviour was considered 'beyond the pale' whilst a slave.

So, you could easily encode important data in brands, tattoos, documents (ID) or even their names.

109:

"There needs to be a high fantasy epic written entirely from the point of view of a peasant."

Aren't most of them?

I thought that was Tolkien's great insight: the storyline of the Hobbit was "the lost prince goes to slay the Dragon and reclaim his lost kingdom". Which was not interesting or new.

Tolkien's big twist on that storyline was not making Thorin the main character, but instead introducing an "everyman" in the form of Bilbo.

But in modern fantasy epics having the hero be a humble peasant is so standard as to be formulaic. Belgariad, Shanarra, Paksenarrion, Wheel of Time, etc, etc.

110:

"It is instructive to compare pre-18th century English employment practices with what is now considered slavery."

I do wonder when it became, in practice, a prosecutable crime to beat one's employees in England.

Obviously it depends on the status of employee, and of the employer.

I'm fairly sure that in Dickensian times, slapping the maid if she broke some crockery may have been considered harsh but not criminal. I'm also fairly sure that by the 1950s it would have been unacceptable. What I don't know is when it changed.

(It's an interesting trend, given current debates about how acceptable it is for parents to slap children)

111:

Wrong direction entirely.

You need some Foucault in your lives.


~

Anglo-Saxon Law is based on reparations (even for murder). i.e. social / economic cost.

It was much better than the honour based societies it replaced.


It's not until much later that Social / Personal / Character / Soul cost replaces it via Christianity.

~

Grr.


This is basic stuff.

112:

...introducing an "everyman" in the form of Bilbo.

Bilbo, and Frodo, may have been 'Everyman' characters, but they were deifinitely not Peasants. I don't remember any reference to how Bilbo made a living, but I think it's safe to say he was not a poor, lowly farmer.
See my comments @28 & 39, along with Ms. McKenna's replies.

113:

Historically castration - and worse - has been used in various cultures to solve one of the other big problems of feudal rule. If the succession's been successfully passed on to the first born heir, what do you do with the spares?

I'm struggling to think of historical cultures where this was actually a routine practice. Can you provide any examples? (I don't mean societies with eunuchs, I mean societies where the king/sultan/emperor's brothers were routinely castrated when he became king.)

For one thing, if it's known that the reward for having your elder brother become king is to be castrated, then that provides a rather strong incentive for younger brothers to ensure that they become king instead. Which make the whole succession more unstable.

For another, the proper time for the younger brothers to be castrated -- from the dynastic standpoint -- would be after the king has successfully produced heirs of his own. Which -- depending on how long Dad stayed on the throne -- leaves plenty of time for the younger brothers to produce heirs of their own.

(I'm ignoring the near-oxymoron of "absolute feudal ruler", since I gather you're using "feudal" as a general handwaving term for "pre-modern" rather than in its historical sense of power devolution to subsidiary hierarchies connected by personal bonds of fealty. Feudal rulers could evolve into absolute rulers -- e.g., Louis XIV -- but then the society wasn't really feudal any more.)

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