The Curious Tale
Part 2: What Is Politics, Then?
Saturday, April 14, 2018
Welcome to Part 2 of 3! Last week I discussed what people, as well as fantasy and sci-fi, often mistake politics for. This week, I'll discuss what "politics" actually is.
What Is Politics, Then?
We almost always ascribe physical and logical veracity to our conceptual frameworks of reality. Even the greatest of skeptics tends to behave with the confidence of one who understands where they are—their environment, circumstances, and context. On some level, this imputation of validity is necessary for us to operate: If, on the executive level, we assumed that our knowledge were invalid, we would immediately become possessed of our overwhelming biological impulse to reconcile our environmental disorientation immediately, through exploration and interpretation, or, if feasible, by escape to a familiar environment—for reasons of instinctual self-preservation.
There are few checks on this profound assumption, and thus there is little direct (i.e., directly corrective) penalty for any errors we commit. It is entirely feasible to be possessed of elaborate belief systems about deities and antioxidants and capitalism without knowing a damn thing about any of the above and without being even 1 percent correct about any of it—because there's no direct penalty when we're wrong. There's a collective penalty, in the form of ignorance's impact upon society, and there's even an indirect personal penalty in the form of lost potential and, sometimes, personal degradation or corruption, but, in contrast, it is so rare that we find ourselves in a situation where our personal wellbeing immediately depends on the validity of our beliefs.
This is one half of the foundation of politics: the dissynchrony between reality and our personal interpretation of reality, and therefore also the dissynchrony between our billions of differing and subjective interpretations of reality. There is only one material reality—the "uni" in "universe"—but there are as many worldviews as there are individual intellects.
The other half of politics is the philosophical problem that creates and informs societies: How do agents relate to one another?
First recorded in the 1520s, the word politics roughly means "affairs of state," and ultimately derives from a Greek root polis meaning "city." From the very beginning, the science of politics has been about the fundamental problem of human interaction, yet has masqueraded as the grandiose problem of "governance."
It's not about governance and it never was. Politics plays out every day, in everyone's lives, whenever somebody has any interaction with the presence or work of another. If you can look around, from where you're sitting right now, and see anything that isn't naturally occurring, you are steeped in politics. For example, surrounding and permeating you right now, in all likelihood, are such things as the electrical signals allowing you to be reading this article, the habitat and furnishings of your constructed residential abode, numerous branding messages and other advertisements exposing you to the economic will of other entities, the intangible but highly relevant applicable laws of the various layers of governmental jurisdiction in which you are physically located or are otherwise subject to, and, of particular interest, certain machines and media that serve as communication channels between yourself and others. Perhaps there are even other flesh-and-blood people in your midst, right now.
Politics is the consequence of the problem of how we as sapient, willful agents relate to one another. Prior to the sapience of our species, the animal politics of humanity was governed mainly by instinct and conditioning. Subsequent to the dawn of our civilization, instinct and conditioning remained, but added to the mix were the systems, institutions, and media we deliberately created, and in which we, with varying degrees of deliberateness, participate. What is the right thing to say when a friend loses a loved one? Who should control the water we all need and use? What's the correct way to crack an egg so as to be seen that we belong and conform, rather than look uncouth or barbaric? What is our interest in the survival and wellbeing of certain others around us? How do we relieve ourselves of the fear of unpredictable behavior by others? How do we get sex, or avoid getting it?
Politics, as a whole, is the ever-changing, highly-arbitrary, and completely-inconsistent set of rules that governs our behaviors that affect or are perceived to affect others. When you think of politics as one of the five main branches of philosophy—which is its truest form—essentially everything you do has a political dimension, because essentially everything you do either affects or is perceived to affect others. Even solitary behavior that you might think of as apolitical, like peeing, is politically considered. At home we pee in a certain place (namely, the toilet) for personal reasons of hygiene and convenience (and habit), but in public we pee in certain places because it is considered inappropriate to pee elsewhere. And those who violate this norm for any reason other than the urgent need for relief are, sure enough, making a political statement whether they realize it or not: a statement of self-assertion, the intrinsic defiance of physically reshaping one's surroundings—in this case by marking them. "I don't have to play by your rules."
The academic discipline of political science, in its bias for looking at politics as a study of governance and hierarchical power, largely precludes itself from achieving an understanding of what politics is, how it unfolds, and how this knowledge can be used to improve our civilization. In contrast I have always been inclined to consider politics in its full sense, as a fundamental dimension of everyday life—with all the pertinence this entails—rather than as an abstract and far-removed problem of the intersections between various institutions and populations. Consequently, my writing reflects an understand of politics in its proper, fuller sense, rather than as the drama of social posturing—the political intrigue—with which it is so often conflated.
The Superabundance of Politics in The Curious Tale
Politics in its fuller sense, as a philosophical dimension that intersects virtually all aspects of day-to-day life, is therefore omnipresent in The Curious Tale, and thus may not be recognizable as such unless you are specifically looking for it. This is a fascinating problem from a storytelling perspective: Rather than trying to engineer a political dimension into the story, which would be an impossibly tall order, I have to rely on my personal apprehension of politics to include it organically in my depiction of thoughts and events. In other words, I hope that my depictions of life in Relance have a certain ring of day-to-day authenticity to them.
Perhaps this is most iconically demonstrated in the summarization of the book's scope in the words of one reviewer: a "grand, unironic high drama in which more than half of the text is dedicated to a detailed, unsexily procedural account of a government council meeting." Entailed in this "council meeting"—the so-called Vardas Council—are discussions of the sort you would actually expect from a government council meeting in real life. It is indeed, completely unsexy—i.e., it has very little social posturing in the form of the grandiose, sweeping altercations that we might expect of government meetings in fantasy settings.
I wrote the Prelude while living at a working astronomical observatory, and one of my favorite examples of the comparison of politics as a whole to the political intrigue featured so prominently in storytelling is the example of the observatory itself and its personnel: In the movies, and even in books, you will almost never see a group of scientists at a cutting-edge institution (that features millions of dollars of exotic hardware in the background!) being real people fleshed out as the experts they are: having coffee, griping about the "high-resolution spectrograph," talking about their cats, and so forth. You might see a few seconds of something like this, early on, as part of what passes for worldbuilding in the eyes of most storytellers, but beyond this fleeting moment of realism these personnel and their facility are going to act in unison as one monolithic trope dedicated to the advancement of the plot.
I hate that convention in storytelling. So many plots are so artificial upon, and so separated from, the settings that contain them. This is a broader human failing, for as our technological society has become farther-removed from the modes of individual expertise by which material goods are produced and maintained, settings have become increasingly divorced from narratives, and therefore depleted of meaning. In contrast, when you go outside the genres and into mainstream fiction, you see (at least a little more often) stories that dwell more heavily on character development and environmental exposition.
I strive, therefore, to bring this back to the fore in The Curious Tale, and thereby to rejuvenate fantasy plots as sourced from the settings that contain them. I aim for no physical object ever described in my books to be superfluous, extraneous, or purely there as part of the scenic simulation of a painted-on reality that won't have any intersection with the events occurring in the foreground.
Therefore, one way you can see politics in The Curious Tale is not so much by looking for politics-as-such, since politics exists everywhere and therefore may be somewhat invisible (in a "can't see the forest for the trees" type of situation), but by looking at material objects:
By the time he finished speaking, they had emerged into what looked like a vast indoor market. Benzan looked up and realized that the walls terminated overhead in a large, glassen ceiling, beyond which the twilight sky shone dimly overhead. The light in here was more yellow, more blue, than the warmer lighting typical elsewhere in Galadrim—the better to mimic the day. The light came from everywhere, emanating from long, slim rectangular bars lining the tops of the walls, and cast no shadows.
He tasted meat and soup and grains as others tasted it. He tasted the bounty of the land.
The scene among the living was just as sad. At Zirin's side a young mate sat stone-faced on the cobalt-tiled floor, leaning listlessly against the black slate basin.
Tonight the great sodium lamps of the Vedere were lit all in full, at least those lamps that had survived, and, as the people gathered, they danced, and sang, and they cried under the lamplight. And some sat. Some sat on the benches and the walls, some on the ground itself—comprised of grainy bricks of pale red clay, interspersed by smooth red obsidian bricks, flecked with black. Maybe they sat to rest, or maybe to be alone with their thoughts in the reassuring din of a warmly lit and festive crowd.
She turned and looked at him queerly, hanging him in her gaze for a long moment. But she didn't talk. Instead she turned slowly back out to face the stars of the west.
There were canvas paintings, tile mosaics, freestanding sculptures, and mounted prizes of every kind, from clockwork to maps, but the most constant fixtures in the castle were the murals painted almost everywhere, along with the occasional carved relief. [...] Presumably, then, he was beholding not fantasy but history.
If I have done my job even remotely well, at least some of these descriptions should be evocative via the material objects themselves. Do you know what it feels like to sit on the bricks after dark amid a great festival, and bathe in warm orange lamplight? Maybe you haven't had that particular experience—and, actually, I haven't either. But I've had close enough: I've been in places like that, and I know what it's like to sit down amid a great bustle. And everything that goes with these simple physical actions, entails political significance. It is not that these descriptions were created for politics—which as I said would be impossible—but that they are evocative of experiences that have a political dimension to them, just as it is in real life.
There is no governor with a fancy hat anywhere in sight here. Getting back to that original Greek root, city, politics is about our interactions with one another, and the rules we set for one another, and these engagements are told in the story of our physical surroundings, just as the story of your political nature is told by your surroundings.
When Galavar tastes the bounty of the land as he connects with the minds of the people of Davoranj, he isn't just tasting their breads and stews: He is experiencing their lives, which are defined in no small part by their meals. And he is tasting Davoranj itself, land of forests and plains, which is so much more than just a matte painting hanging behind the lead actors.
When Silence turns away from Galavar and stares at the stars of the west, she is expressing her elemental wish for self-determination. The stars are physical objects too, so far away that the invocation of them conjures the idea of vastness, and, in vastness, freedom.
The things in your home likewise tell your history: your experiences, your interactions with others or the works of others. Maybe you own a few things just to fill space, but hopefully your possessions are meaningful, and if so they are very like political—not in the mundane and oversimplified sense of partisan affiliation or anything like that, but in the sense that the substance of your life is manifested in the objects you interact with.
Another way you can look for politics in The Curious Tale is to pay note to the appearance of principles and convictions. The Prelude begins with an exposition of the Hero's convictions, and even though this is also political in the more traditional sense it also possesses a deeper political relevance: Inasmuch as politics is the problem of how we relate to one another, it helps to understand people's worldviews.
But the Hero of Davoranj had known better, and, fearing Galavar's designs, had mustered the honor of his country to rise up against the desert king before his arid ambitions could come to pass.
Allopeash had lived centuries ago, and was deeply revered by his descendents. He had reunified the warring houses of Davoranj in their darkest hour, at the cost of his own life. In so doing, he granted Davoranj a destiny which had thrived ever since.
Was this what Galavar had brought him here to see? This artwork? Let the defeated Hero Rennem gaze upon the defeat of the Hero Allopeash of yore?
It was too much for Rennem to bear. How could it possibly be that Galavar the King of Gala, who cared nothing for Davoranj, would keep such a fine depiction of that shining day in Davoranjan history, carved into the top of his own fortress? How could it possibly be that Davoranj's death would come to pass on this very spot which celebrated its past salvation?
It was impossible. The insult went beyond slander, beyond irony. It was unforgivable. As Rennem's own bile and blood defiled this symbol of his ancestor's selfless victory—as his own flowing blood literally covered up the chiseled blood of Allopeash—Rennem cried out to Galavar the instant he recovered the scarcest breath to do so, and his voice cracked not with anger but with disbelief...
The faces of his killed warriors called out to him from the graveyard of his imagination. The vulnerability of Davoranj quaked in his chest.
At last Galavar finished waiting, and came for him.
Rennem's eyes widened.
"Goddess of Compassion!" he cried. "Remember me, Esmeul!"
And consider Galavar's singular appraisal of Rennem:
"You are a strong enemy," Galavar said, "but you are not a worthy mate."
Rennem's political motivation for the entire invasion was fear, fear motivated by, first, an extremely strong sense of propriety and morality, and, second, by an inextricable investment in his own way of life and his own view of the world, and the same for those with whom he was affiliated. His fear preemptively closed his mind to even considering the premise of Gala, which Galavar recognized in the form of his sighing lament:
"I wish you had asked me who I am, before going to war against me."
And which Rennem underscored in his reply:
"One does not ask what creature it could be that has a forked tongue and slithers on its belly. Your arrogance will undo you in the end, Galavar Serpent!"
We learn also in the Prelude of Rennem's excellent leadership, his care for his people, his deep piety, his strategic genius, his visionary political insight, and many other traits that we might at a glance describe positively. Yet insofar as these qualities rigidified his mind, we can say that the credence of his philosophy died with him: After The Hero begins with Gala on the defense, rightly defending itself against an ignorant destroyer.
This blatant ethical problem thereby forces Gala to justify itself in thereafter becoming the conqueror itself. Consequently, Galavar's worldview, which heavily informs the Galance Ideal in general, understands that the consideration of others is paramount—a fascinating and rather uncommon concern for an invader. It is not to say that you, the reader, must agree with Galavar or Galance, but, rather, that Galavar (and the Galance Ideal) are both deeply concerned about the intrusion into other people's lives and way of life that Galavar nevertheless holds is necessary.
Thus, in examining even these narrow slices of the worldviews of just two characters, we understand almost from the onset of the story a great deal of the forthcoming politics of The Curious Tale: This is a story about pushing boundaries, even violating them completely, in the name of the wise but fraught understanding that change can be guided for the better. "Boundaries" indeed are a running theme in their own right throughout the Prelude; this is not a coincidence:
...but they followed the Hero's courage, raised their shields, attacked, and persevered until midday, when the Hero set his bloodied boot upon the captured threshold of the enemy's capital and looked upward from that unhinged mear to behold the Fortress of Galadrim unspoiled.
Now only one step remained, the Foremost Step, whose name had never been given, but declared from the stone itself, who had said I am Mearulay on the day of its creation.
Mearulay, the Foremost Step, a Yondred cast in stone whose name meant, simply, "Of the Boundary."
If politics is the problem of how people with different views relate to one another, then we can understand a lot about the political meanings and messages of The Curious Tale by its depiction of boundaries, both of the physical or magical variety, and of the perceptual, interpretive sort denoted by subjective worldviews.
And there are other ways—many; more than I could think of here—to try to better discern the politics in The Curious Tale. Because politics is a dimension that pervades the entire story, the question is not "Is it there?" but "How do I see it?" and I find that focusing on specific ideas—like material objects, and the histories and narratives they evoke; or worldviews in particular and boundaries more generally, and the interrelationships they identify—can really help bring out the fullness and color of the story's political substance.
True for real life, as well.
Relance Is the Story, and Politics Is Relance
So now you understand my thinking on what politics really is. At last the stage is set for a discussion on meta politics, specifically in The Curious Tale. Tune in next week for that.
And until then, may all your politics be gratifying.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!