The problem with sci fi/fantasy politicians

‘Political’ is my personal favourite kind of fantasy. The sheer amount of mental satisfaction it offers is extraordinary. A good political fantasy is akin to a game of chess, where you not only get to play, but also get to watch the duel of minds with expert commentaries in the background. While many fantasy novels include elements that make their political struggles believable, they surprisingly lack great politicians to match the dramatic tension. They focus on notable characters. Yet, somehow many of those characters don’t strike me as great politicians even when they are presented as such. There are several reasons that define my attitude.

Political geniuses are subtle. In very many fantasy and sci fi novels they are everything but. Pondering over a list of fantasy/sci fi politicians I appreciated, I found it difficult to come up with more than five-six names. Political figures as such are not rare, but few are even close to what I seek. I would name Glokta, perhaps,…and my favourite literary character Paul von Oberstein from the Legend of the Galactic Heroes (ok, he stands next to Grand Admiral Thrawn on the pedestal of my favourite characters, but Thrawn’s genius is not exactly political, but military). Who else? Well….

Technically, Phedre from Kushiel’s legacy would qualify, although her diplomacy pretty much revolves around seducing all the hot important people in her entourage. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I can’t escape comparing her to one of the many courtesans, who owned politics through their lovers and wits. Think Ninon de Lenclos. That would perhaps, be the greatest association that comes to mind, when I think about Phedre’s trilogy: beautiful, independent, dangerously seductive and educated, she can be an outstanding diplomat. The power of her intellect is not overstated. Her impact is, though. While many political conflicts can indeed be solved by dragging someone into bed, that is only one of the many ways politics and diplomacy work.

Political ninjas in action

In most cases, even fantasy novels with elements of politics (think the Gentleman Bastard series or the Farseers trilogy) don’t bring many brilliant politicians to the table, while still having characters that readers find interesting. It is difficult to portray a political genius. And it is not the trouble of writing intrigue that makes this task complicated. It is rather the focus of the novels itself. Politics, at first glance, does not seem as exciting as pirate-ninja-quest-adventure. Thus, you will encounter political elements in Mistborn or the Gentleman Bastard series, but will not see politicians as the most important characters in those settings.

In the case of the many fantasy courts, politicians are often ditched in favour of action heroes. This temptation is understandable. After all, politicians can lack the traditional elements of coolness. A venomous exchange of quips in an empty room is more difficult to handle than an action scene with enemies converging on one valiant hero, while he is hanging from a balcony. On fire. Possibly, dying. Great visuals are awesome. But even subtler approaches do not always produce believable politicians.

Iconography matters. So does the setting.

The empty chessboard syndrome. This was the term I coined to describe the situation that we often encounter in all types of media. In this scenario we have a politician (a military commander, a scientist), who rocks. He/she is basically the Ace. He/she is smart, calculating, charismatic (in some cases) and shrewd. This person entangles complicated political puzzles with ease, vies for power, escapes assassinations, etc. Only that Ace is very much the only player in the game. I first defined the idea, when I watched one of the Avatar: the Last Airbender episodes, where Princess Azula told Long Feng that he ‘was not even a player’, when her gambit paid off.

In fiction, the closest analogy I can come up with, would be Nineteen Adze from A memory called Empire. There is plenty of intrigue to follow in the novel. There is also a murder mystery to solve and conflicting interests to consider. And, of course, there are political struggles that do not leave much room for idle criticism. They are mostly believable in the given setting. It is only that the most capable politician in the book comes off as competent simply because her opponents are very much absent.

A military leader One Lightning is trying to overthrow the government. He is supposedly powerful. Unfortunately, we never get to see him interact with Nineteen Adze. There is also some kind of opposition with leaders relegated to the side-lines. They…act, I guess. So does the sickly Emperor, who only plays politics when everything goes to hell. In the end, it is just Nine Adze, who shovels dirt, solves everyone’s problems, takes responsibility, and generally acts like a badass.

This is not a big issue in the novel. After all, there is not enough place in one installment for all political intricacies of one grand Empire. The Empty Chessboard Syndrome is not always a problem. But it can easily diminish the capacities of an otherwise interesting political figure. That point brings me to a problem that is far more common across genres.

Lousy Opponents. In order to show the prowess of one brilliant politician, most of his opponents are…well…dumbed down. In some cases, they are total idiots. In other, they do show certain promise until the political genius shows up. Sometimes, they are ‘just confused’ for some reason. I see a lost of lousy opponents in young adult fantasy, where they often act as punching bags for military and political prodigies, who have just hit seventeen. Surprisingly, you can still have a riveting story even though there is a direct correlation between the coolness of your character and the lousiness of his/her opponents.

In the otherwise politically realistic Cruel Prince, the main character’s intrigues mostly work because her opponents are…well…not Glokta or Oberstein. A megalomaniac prince, who publicly murders his entire family for power, also somehow forgets to check his spies? You have him. A smart, but politically inadequate stepfather? You have him. A prince, who has his perks, but mostly drinks and parties, strongly resenting the court? You have him. Generally, the only politically savvy person except the main character Jude is her twin Taryn. Everyone else is either incapable or axe-crazy. Or perceives himself as an outstanding genius, but falls for the simplest of tricks. Compared to the rest of the cast, Jude is the Talleyrand and Metternich of the trilogy. All that at the age of 18.

There is still another perk that ruins many otherwise great politicians. That would be dumb luck. The genius plan works not because of someone’s political skill, but because a secret cache of whatever magical element destroys the enemy. Dumb luck solves all. The screw-ups of opponents are only believable until they become constant. Miscalculations occur. We all know that. However, dumb luck is rarely the way to show how someone’s far-fetched lunacy of a plan can work.

In the end, it takes a truly brilliant politician to rise from the ashes of failure and win the game. It is the politician in dire circumstances that deserves attention. Unfortunately, such politicians are rare. And I desperately need more of them in genre fiction.

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