The Curious Tale
Part 1: Politics as Political Intrigue
Saturday, April 7, 2018
What if I told you that "politics" as we know it—and especially as it is traditionally presented in fantasy and sci-fi—isn't actually politics at all? That real politics is something completely different?
You'd probably say "Josh, that's crazy and sensationalist. What crazy, sensationalist things you come up with!"
But I stand by it. This gets to the heart of the foundational question of what The Curious Tale is trying to say. So today, and for the next two weeks hereafter, we're going to explore: both the "politics" that is traditionally front-and-center in fantasy storytelling—which also tends to reflect most people's understanding of politics in general—and the "true" politics that fulfills the philosophical parameters of social discourse and action.
In this three-part miniseries, today I'll be talking about what people typically think politics is; next week I'll talk about what politics actually is; and in two weeks I'll lead all of that into a discussion of "meta politics" in The Curious Tale, which is the ultimate goal of this miniseries.
And before we begin, let me add that all three parts are probably not what you're expecting. It's not about liberals versus conservatives, and it's not about what the government is doing. Real politics is much more interesting...
Politics as Political Intrigue
We begin with fantasy politics writ large, also including sci-fi politics, mainly because it isn't inconvenient not to, so why not be inclusive?
To be uncharitable about it, but not that inaccurate, most "politics" in fantasy boils down to political intrigue, or "court" or "palace" intrigue, broadly stands for "important people with money and power machinating and sometimes forcibly pitting themselves against one another." ("Power" here is typically constructed by uninventive or appeasing storytellers to mean, roughly, armies, magic, machinery, physical prowess, etc.)
Essentially, it is the symptom of a conflux of socioeconomic resources into a rarefied social stratum whose membership is not quality-controlled. (Many, though not myself, would argue that even if this stratum's membership were quality-controlled, such a concentration of resources would give rise to political intrigue.)
I can't overstate how significant it is that the fatal error in understanding comes right at the beginning, with this completely incorrect conceptualization of politics. Once this paradigm is adopted, most real political conflicts lose their definition and representation in these fictional narratives, being replaced more or less by celebrity scandals with teeth sharp enough to tear into the general population.
Political intrigue is quite the fashionable preoccupation in fantasy right now. It has always been a mainstay, and grew even more compelling in recent years because of the success of serialized fantasies in text and on television. People love this kind of drama, and most people readily engage in their own enactments of it in their personal lives. It isn't just a pastime for the rich and famous; it's a basic human preoccupation. Indeed, the vector of causality here goes in the opposite direction from what our topic question might have implied: People's predisposition for personal drama in real life leads them, I think, to enjoy drama in fiction. What we enjoy usually reflects who we already are.
This isn't an entirely disparaging statement. We are a social species, meaning that one of the pillars of our existence is our status relative to each other. So much of our behavior is not rational or deliberate, but postural. This is a part of who we are, and much of our richness as a species and even as individuals derives from the postural narratives we create with each other—mentorships, best friendships, project hierarchies, and so forth.
Nevertheless, it does also explain why so many of our real-world problems that have easy logical or technological solutions remain intractable, and why "politics" itself is typically viewed with such contempt by the very same people who unwittingly make governance and cultural harmony so volatile. At a distance the ugliness of it is unmistakable: From the tiniest piques and slights that we wittingly or unwittingly commit against one another in our everyday lives, as mundane as leaving dog poop on the sidewalk or squeezing from the wrong part of a shared toothpaste tube, all the way up to the grandiose preposterousness of the fact that we collectively possess a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying our entire civilization in a few hours, the game of intrigue is an ugly one on every level. Add to this the hierarchical injustice whereby a small minority of people inevitably come to possess extraordinary power over the vast majority of others, and there is a natural engine for perpetual resentment built into our very existence, both horizontally in the form of conflict with our peers and vertically in the form of hierarchical conflict between superiors and inferiors.
We are inherently fractious and always moving against one another, and only a small minority of people possess either the disposition of character or the intellectual tempering necessary to escape this involuntary conflict that permeates our evolutionary nature. Thus, looking at humanity as a whole, there is no getting away from political intrigue, short of absolute exile.
But political intrigue—this drama of social posturing—is not politics.
The Dead End of Political Intrigue in The Curious Tale
Roughly a year ago I was having trouble getting into the swing of writing ATH Chapter 1—the Galan conquest of the desert city-state of Soda Fountain—and I realized that part of my problem was that most of the scenes I'd been writing were essentially palace intrigue—that I was portraying Soda Fountain mainly in terms of those who governed the city, dwelling on their machinations against each other, and against the imminent and unfolding Galan invasion. And this wasn't actually the story I wanted to be telling—hence my frustrations. I think this says something about the inescapability of "political intrigue as politics": Even somebody like me, who knows better, is easily lulled into this kind of storytelling if I'm not careful, just because it's such a good-fitting and popular default.
The fact that I was frustrated before I realized what I was doing wrong speaks to the guiding power of my vision for the story as a whole. The saga of Soda Fountain at the beginning of ATH is that it becomes the first great city to encounter Gala: a proud, rich, intelligent society, populous and with a deep history—a proverbial immovable object to serve as counterpoint to Gala's proverbial unstoppable force. This conflict isn't actually about the palace intrigue—or, rather, the palace intrigue is only a small part of it. The whole story is so much bigger. The clash between Gala and Soda Fountain is a conflict that reflects on the notion of "life as we know it" and the associated ideas of cultural and individual sovereignty. A deeply political line of thinking...but much broader than an exhibition of political intrigue.
It's such an easy trap to fall into—to let yourself become shoehorned into telling a story parameterized around governors in fancy hats sitting at tables discussing strategy, and then spending most of the page count of your story focusing on the (mis)adventures of the plucky (or edgily-unplucky) heroes tasked with carrying out or opposing whatever the fancy-hats came up with!
If you read the Prelude, you know it is a predominately political work. Politics makes for a good story hook, because it tends to entail consequential action. And there is plenty of political intrigue too—plenty of people in fancy costumes sitting at tables discussing strategy. I'm definitely not trying to say, in my claim that political intrigue is not politics, that political intrigue is apart from politics. Political intrigue, and more broadly the underlying interpersonal social posturing and associated drama into which said intrigue classifies, definitely falls under the auspices of politics. It is a part of politics, rather than apart from it.
To better understand what I mean, consider that, in spite of what the setting and events of the Prelude might imply at a superficial level, the real story it tells is entirely different, having little to do with traditional palace intrigue despite ostensibly taking the form of intrigue set in a veritable palace. Rather, the Prelude is essentially about three things:
1. The frustration of a powerful, dynamic, and compelling idea (i.e., Rennem's divinely-endorsed attack on Gala and the sudden ensuing peril of the Galance Ideal).
2. The coming together of personal excellence to save this idea (i.e., the convening of the Vardas Council and the development of a new operational plan).
3. The personal journeys of three individuals who represent the three players in this drama (here I use "drama" in the artistic sense): Benzan, representing that which is swept up by the irresistible force of Galance; Galavar, representing the ideal of Galance and the premise of creating a utopian civilization; and Silence, representing the agent of Galance who must reconcile the adversarial quantities of idealism, reality, and personal and environmental limitation.
It's not about who's going to fight whom—none of this childish "Who would win in a fight?" as though that were a good way of settling philosophical disputes, nor any blather about who has the "best fleet," or the "biggest button," or whatever. Fantasy and sci-fi often degenerate into a situation where the resolution of the political intrigue is the story, which is a travesty and a true waste, causing any wider political ideas to become lost or marginalized.
One of the reasons The Lord of the Rings is so good and memorable of a story is that, for all the political intrigue therein, it's not ultimately about the resolution of those conflicts so much as a story about the nature and lives of the people involved. The Curious Tale is the same, except even purer in its dedication to this premise: Relance is the story. The people, the places. It includes but is not centered upon political intrigue.
This is partly why the Prelude has such an unconventional structure. (The bigger cause, I humbly confess, is that I'm not as good of a writer as I'd like to be.) The only way to make sense of the progression of the story with regard to the introduction, development, and culmination of a plot is to think about it in terms of the above three players: Benzan, Galavar, and Silence are each set on their respective destinies. It even says so in the first lines of the book: "Here told is the tale of the night the Hero fell, the night that Galavar and his Guard set in motion the fate of the world." Every Guard of Galavar, and of course Galavar himself, has a special part to play in the unfolding of that fate. And if you were to reduce the entire Prelude to the very essence of its contribution to the plot of The Curious Tale as a whole, the whole thing can be told in only two developments: Sourros provides Galavar with a dangerous avenue to carry on in his ambition, and Silence realizes that Sourros in particular and the Gods in general do not share Galavar's ambition and are playing a different game.
That could very easily be the premise for a story of political intrigue, if I wanted (and there is some of that, especially regarding DeLatia's contempt for Silence), but that isn't my intended focal point and you can see this in how the Prelude evolves. Emblematic of the person writing it, it is a story about the world and one's intention upon it. That is where the text dwells, and where the actual conflict dwells:
He ached to see [Silence] like this. But he also, in his most private thoughts, was frightened by the sight of it, and for a moment Galavar had a second thought about asking her to take on such a task.
Yet he knew, he knew, there was none who could do it but she.
Is this also some part of your plan? he asked [Sourros], not expecting a reply.
And of course none came.
So he would have to trust her self-control. And if she could control herself in this moment, exhausted and having been scathed by her friends, perhaps that was proof enough that she could bear the responsibility.
He watched her for a bit, her eyes dry and her body still, until suddenly she turned her head and reflected his gaze back upon him. He tried to read the look on her face, but, whatever it said, the meaning eluded him.
And there was no way to go but forward.
The Dead End Is Exposed
I've often lamented in my personal life how unfortunate it is that the general public understand "politics" only in terms of its arrangement as a section in the newspaper devoted to the latest doings of government officials and bureaus juxtaposed against public opinion. Much like viewing mathematics as "something that rocket scientists need to do" instead of "an analytical language for ordering and predicting the behavior of everything around us," this view of politics as a seamy pastime of the rich and powerful, vaguely or overtly unpleasant from any angle you care to look at it, is guaranteed to estrange people from one of the great modes of power in their lives. If more people understood that, all partisan rancor aside, and all pettiness from concerned parties also notwithstanding, the questions and conflicts that drive politics are deeply relevant and significant to literally everybody, a different kind of discourse on politics could emerge.
I can't achieve that, but what I can do is usher you to stop thinking about politics in the readily available prepackaged terms available to you, which, in representing the true substance of political discourse and action, are as farcical in real life as they are in fantasy.
So, I close this week with a clear picture of what people wrongly think politics is: political intrigue.
Next week—and that one is the long one of these three installments—I'll talk about what politics really is.
Until then, may all your intrigue take place on the bloom of a fine flower.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!