Running empires requires lots of meetings
December 15, 2014 6:22 AM   Subscribe

this is what happens when you read a super-sci-fi-y story about spaceships, aliens, and AI, then switch to a classically fantasy story with goblins and elves, and find out they’re actually fascinatingly similar books with a lot to say about power, empire, and administration.
Alix E. Harrow talks about administrating imaginary empires and the similiarities between Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor.
posted by MartinWisse (41 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Although these books seem to be much more complex in their depictions of empire they reminded me of the Foundation trilogy by Asimov. Interesting to imagine how empires consisting of multiple planets will be governed in the future. Seceding and all that.
posted by moon_space at 6:42 AM on December 15, 2014


This article was an interesting read right up until the brief diatribe in the last few paragraphs. Ok, Mr. Harrow. I *get* that you intrinsically hate people in positions of power, but why would I really care?
posted by surazal at 6:53 AM on December 15, 2014


Grand Moff Tarkin: The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever.
General Tagge: But that's impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?
Grand Moff Tarkin: The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.
-Star Wars IV
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:11 AM on December 15, 2014 [8 favorites]


Ok, Mr. Harrow. I *get* that you intrinsically hate people in positions of power, but why would I really care?

Well, it's Ms. Harrow, and she's a history teacher, so that might have something to do with her analysis of power.
posted by ndfine at 7:43 AM on December 15, 2014 [13 favorites]



Grand Moff Tarkin: The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever.
General Tagge: But that's impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?
Grand Moff Tarkin: The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.


Imperial Analyst Toof: Actually, based on the data forecasts we've seen from Imperial Budget Office, a much more cost effective approach would be deploying super star destroyers in all the major star systems. This also allows for distributed risk in the event of Death Star malfunction, or Emperor forbid, destruction. Now, if you're really intent on total planetary destruction as a disincentive for rebellion, we've found that ion drives placed on the larger system asteroids would be more than sufficient to *COUGH* ...to create *COUGH* *CHOKE* *COLLAPSES ON FLOOR*

Darth Vader: You were saying, Grand Moff?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:00 AM on December 15, 2014 [35 favorites]


I haven't gotten to The Goblin Emperor yet, but "gripping fantasy" is, I suppose, a matter of opinion; I thought Ancillary Sword was gripping (though it is science fiction, not fantasy). And in particular the second of Max Gladstone's books -- Two Serpents Rising -- is gripping fantasy about a mid-level bureaucrat. (All his fantasies are about bureaucrats.)

The Rook -- recommended all the time on the green, and whose sequel is maybe finally coming out -- is also gripping fantasy about administrators (but does not require any sort of knowledge of the genre). I'm sure it's difficult to write this, but I don't think that other kinds of stories are easy to write.
posted by jeather at 8:09 AM on December 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


I *get* that you intrinsically hate people in positions of power, but why would I really care?

Nice try, person in position of power.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


Thing is, leotrotsky, Tarkin's son/daughter/mistress told him that all the cool Empires just need one "killer app" to make money these days and so did the hip marketing guys he hired because he didn't like answer he got from IT.

So he ignored his internal tech guys and had one built.

Trust me, when the Death Star blew up there were some guys down in Imperial IT who were all "Yeah. This is my surprised face."

Doubly so when they were told that the Empire were just going to throw money at a new Death Star rather than anyone senior have to admit the whole thing was a fuck up from the start.
posted by garius at 8:12 AM on December 15, 2014 [35 favorites]


Harrow kind of misses the mark on Ancillary Sword, the problem isn't that there wasn't a revolution, but that the character of Breq flatters the sensitivities of the reader: she's one of the good ones, she sees social problems, she finds pragmatic apolitical solutions, she even saves an nongender specific citizen from an nongender specific abusive relationship. Yet, the empire she is a servant of was built on planetary genocide, Breq has participated personally in genocide, but somehow the source of Breq's agency is undefined, or a result of her identity as an AI. The first book hints at this because Breq's power is tied to her army of people she has killed and processed into undead soldiers, but in the end, in both books, progress comes from finding *good* people with power, not changing the nature of the power itself.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:14 AM on December 15, 2014 [8 favorites]


What? "The Goblin Emperor" is NOT about GWB?
posted by sammyo at 8:22 AM on December 15, 2014


The VP who pushed the Death Star project, meanwhile, moved on to another department after he got his bonus for the launch. The team of hapless analysts and project managers who were left behind in his wake were of course all shoved out an air lock after it blew up. The VP is having a great time screwing up other departments and getting fat bonuses for doing so and will die in bed at 152 years of age with three ladies and a tiger.
posted by winna at 8:23 AM on December 15, 2014 [13 favorites]


Thanks winna, for confirming that it is about the GWB administration... ba ding...
posted by sammyo at 8:28 AM on December 15, 2014


ndfine: Well, it's Ms. Harrow, and she's a history teacher, so that might have something to do with her analysis of power.

Ok, that's the last time I post to MeFi before my first cup of coffee of the day ;^)

Steely-eyed Missile Man: Nice try, person in position of power.

Curses! Foiled again!
posted by surazal at 8:35 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Nice, but to me the reviewer's desire for the books to be about the fall of empire is as romantic as the desire to see books about empires. I would prefer books in that look at the effects on people of the messy end to empires, possibly in the vein of Norton's "Star Rangers" or Dark Piper, which look at the messy effects of the fall of an empire.

I agree that I've seen a few too many SF and fantasy stories from the perspective of an elite. Much as I like Bujold, I'm a bit tired of hearing about the ruling nobility in that setting. It's worse in fantasy of course, where reactionary attitudes are far too common.

Even Msrtin, who may at first glance be looking at nobility as a group of amoral basterds struggling for power, still seems to have the attitude that people outside of the sphere of noble power don't count for much. There's complexities of the way power and influence works in pre-industrial societies that most fantasy doesn't touch on.
posted by happyroach at 8:37 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was actually going to use an askme question on this, but this seems like a good thread to ask in: I was looking for books about 'small stories' in 'big worlds', which is to say books with epic fantasy/sci-fi world-building, but telling personal stories about small people rather than stories about kings and heroes. I guess Discworld is like that, but I'm sure there are more.
posted by empath at 8:39 AM on December 15, 2014


!!!!!!! had no idea Ancillary Sword was already out! TO THE EBOOKERY!
posted by maus at 8:39 AM on December 15, 2014


IIRC Addison is a pen name for Sarah Monette, author of Melusine, The Mirador, The Virtu, Corambis, and (with Elizabeth Bear) A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men.
posted by amber_dale at 8:46 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


(My ambition is to write a fantasy novel about an accountant, and accounting. I actually have a vague, nebulous plot idea around which to organize this, having to do with the folk tale about the sorcerer whose heart is inside a casket inside a duck on a lake full of monsters on the mountain at the end of the world, etc etc, and the ways in which one would manage a full inventory of hearts in caskets, the risks associated therewith and potential irregularities in fairyland cost allotment.)
posted by Frowner at 9:01 AM on December 15, 2014 [28 favorites]


God jesus frowner I would read that book so hard please write immediately
posted by beefetish at 9:06 AM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


I was looking for books about 'small stories' in 'big worlds', which is to say books with epic fantasy/sci-fi world-building, but telling personal stories about small people rather than stories about kings and heroes. I guess Discworld is like that, but I'm sure there are more.

Not as many as you would think, and a lot of them end up with the small person becoming a great hero. In fact, that's rather the template for a lot of them: Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, Tolkein, etc. Even Scott Lynch's stuff.

Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman novels involve a traveling scholar who is trying to solve a mystery that affects the entire world, but she herself doesn't really amass much in the way of power herself, other than making useful friends.

Andre Norton's better books, as noted above, often involve fairly ordinary people, or at least people who are on the outskirts of society for one reason or another. They're disabled or orphaned or multi-racial in a homogeneous society. Generally the best they can hope for is to find a place and a home.
posted by suelac at 9:06 AM on December 15, 2014


in the end, in both books, progress comes from finding *good* people with power, not changing the nature of the power itself

I haven't read either, but would you say they have the old, "if only the good king knew of these abuses, he would set everything right" mindset?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:08 AM on December 15, 2014


My ambition is to write a fantasy novel about an accountant, and accounting.

Have you read Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead yet? Forensic accountants investigate the death of a god to see if everything is in order for his ressurrection as a simulacron to enable the city he powered to fullfill its contractual obligations.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:24 AM on December 15, 2014 [10 favorites]


I haven't read either, but would you say they have the old, "if only the good king knew of these abuses, he would set everything right" mindset?

Definitely not for the Imperial Radch books; I haven't read the other.

This is also something that is everywhere in fantasy (where "good king" is generally "true heir") and that annoys me too. Not quite enough to stop reading them.
posted by jeather at 9:24 AM on December 15, 2014


Have you read Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead yet?

No, but it sounds fantastic.
posted by empath at 9:27 AM on December 15, 2014


would you say they have the old, "if only the good king knew of these abuses, he would set everything right" mindset?

For The Goblin Emperor, to a certain extent, yes. But in this case the good king was in fact one of the abused before he inherited.

If there were a sequel, I would hope it would involve deconstruction at least some of the privileges of the aristocracy, but that seems like it would be a long way off.
posted by suelac at 9:32 AM on December 15, 2014


My ambition is to write a fantasy novel about an accountant, and accounting.

Charles Stross' Neptune's Brood is arguably an accounting adventure that also features spaceships. And insurance.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:56 AM on December 15, 2014 [6 favorites]


I've been staring at my copy of Ancillary Sword for a month, trying to get the right time to read it.
posted by doctornemo at 9:56 AM on December 15, 2014


GOD COMPTROLLER OF DUNE
posted by benzenedream at 11:49 AM on December 15, 2014 [21 favorites]


I haven't read either, but would you say they have the old, "if only the good king knew of these abuses, he would set everything right" mindset?

In Ancillary Justice, there is no Good Ruler, all are aware of and more or less accept the abuses in the system. The issue involved is both personal, and ethical, in a "which would be worse" scenario.
posted by happyroach at 12:53 PM on December 15, 2014


Anyone who's interested in this sort of thing should read The Accursed Kings series. Yes, it's historical fiction and not fantasy, but the medieval setting should be enough for most fantasy readers, who are used to characters and plots partially determined by low tech, very slow communication, and not-so-good sanitation.

The books deal with the question of "What is a good ruler?" and show in detail not only the internal politics, but how the nobility deal with "How do I live in luxury and battle Flanders and buy the next Pope when the treasury is completely empty?" and how the Italian bankers balance their greed, and create their plots, with the knowledge that their debtors could kill or exile them at any time.

This is such a wonderful set of books. If anyone looked at Game of Thrones and thought: "This would be better with fewer dragons and more meetings" then this is the perfect set of books for them.
posted by honestcoyote at 2:26 PM on December 15, 2014 [6 favorites]


If anyone looked at Game of Thrones and thought: "This would be better with fewer dragons and more meetings" then this is the perfect set of books for them.

I giggled out loud in the office. That's amazing, and for anyone interested, here is the Amazon link.
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:37 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


If anyone looked at Game of Thrones and thought: "This would be better with fewer dragons and more meetings" then this is the perfect set of books for them.

I get the feeling as the books progress that GRRM has looked at GoT and thought the same thing.

posted by mrnutty at 3:16 PM on December 15, 2014


As an aside, has anyone else not managed to finish Ancillary Justice? I bought it on the strength of a zillion awards and everyone loving it, and of me not having enough good new SF in my life, but while I managed the first chapter OK I just kept tripping up on the leaden prose. I've got quite good leaden prose compensators, so this was something of a disappointment, but every time I've gone back to it I manage fewer and fewer sentences before terminal heartsink.
posted by Devonian at 7:33 PM on December 15, 2014


As an aside, has anyone else not managed to finish Ancillary Justice?

I feel slightly churlish in responding this way (because it's clearly not the response you were looking for) but no, not at all. I loved it and wish any of my in-person friends had read it because I'd love to get into a discussion over coffee/beer/other refreshment about it.
posted by Lexica at 7:54 PM on December 15, 2014


I was actually going to use an askme question on this, but this seems like a good thread to ask in: I was looking for books about 'small stories' in 'big worlds', which is to say books with epic fantasy/sci-fi world-building, but telling personal stories about small people rather than stories about kings and heroes.

Steven Brust's books are good, half are Dumas-flavored high fantasy about nobles and half are otherwise - Orca has a human crook gumshoeishly investigating an elvish bank failure.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:03 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


It really could be just me!
posted by Devonian at 8:16 PM on December 15, 2014


Devonian, I can't even comprehend the plot summaries I've read of that book. I literally don't think I'm smart enough to comprehend the life of a multi-gendered multi-bodied spaceship uh....whatever. Fighting against another multi-bodied multi-gendered dictator....uh, whatever. I know it's mandatory to love the ancillary books, but I just feel like a moron trying to get what they are about even before touching a copy.

Meanwhile, The Rook was freaking awesome. And really, it's about an administrator trying to figure out Whodunnit To Me with a case of amnesia, while going out to deal with totally freaky shit periodically. One of my favorite books EVER. *goes to look for sequel info*
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:38 PM on December 15, 2014


Ancilliary Justice (and it's sequel, Anciliary Sword, which I finished last night) is a great example of a compelling book that is also a bit of a slog. The prose is uninspired and the setting isn't particularly fleshed out, but the characters are compelling and there's a solidly interesting plot that keeps things moving.

Haven't gotten to the Goblin Emperor yet. Guess it will go on the list.

I like the fact that we're seeing more and more books that are moving beyond the weird binary most fantasy has tended to be stuck in: either top-of-society (princes, wizards, great heroes, "epic" characters) or bottom-of-society (thieves, prostitutes, assassins, criminals, "swords and sorcery" characters). I feel like it's a natural progression, given the way that fantasy settings are broadening their range from the standard medieval-esque setting into more complicated, complex societies. We're starting to see more worlds that have both dragons and bureaucrats! Both wizards and accountants!
posted by AdamCSnider at 2:34 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ancilliary Justice (and it's sequel, Anciliary Sword, which I finished last night) is a great example of a compelling book that is also a bit of a slog. The prose is uninspired and the setting isn't particularly fleshed out, but the characters are compelling and there's a solidly interesting plot that keeps things moving.

I'm not sure I'd go with slog, but I understand what you mean. A bit like China Mieville's writing (at least coming to him cold), the Ancillary books take work from the reader in deciphering the universe. The book is MUCH easier on a second read, because you've already puzzled most of it out.

On a first read, though, you're a bit lost. Like Breq.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:49 AM on December 16, 2014


the Ancillary books take work from the reader in deciphering the universe. The book is MUCH easier on a second read, because you've already puzzled most of it out.

On a first read, though, you're a bit lost. Like Breq.


That's actually one of the things I liked about the book. Zero "as you know, Bob", zero infodumping, almost 100% inclueing. Chewy, challenging, and gave my brain something to wrestle with in a most satisfying way.
posted by Lexica at 10:09 AM on December 16, 2014


"Small people, big world"? You want Melissa Scott's Point of Hopes and its sequels....The queen is very old and must name her heir before the stars change and cast the kingdom into upheaval. The children of Astreint are vanishing under mysterious circumstances. Various swashes are being buckled, city-wide. Will Nicolas Rathe, who is something almost but not entirely unlike a cop, be able to solve the mystery of the missing children through shoeleather work? The first book in the serious is rather densely written and took me a little bit to get into, but then I absolutely loved it - I can't remember such an enjoyable, non-stupid yet also non-traumatic* read. Now I'm reading Point of Dreams, the writing is about ten times better and it's even more fantastic and involves a sort of baroque mystery with some actors.

These were published in the mid-late-nineties but have recently been republished by Lethe Press with the cheesiest covers in the history of time. (Or no, wait, that's Melissa Scott's Magical Gay Detectives In Victorian London books, which have actually the cheesiest covers, I can't understand what they're thinking.) It's a shame because the original cover for Point of Dreams is actually kind of interestingly baroque/mannerist and reveals all kinds of small themes in the plot.

But anyway, they're great.

You might also enjoy Aliette De Bodard's On A Red Station, Drifting, which is about the Vietnamese diaspora in space, and about a very ordinary and sad situation on the periphery of a galactic conflict.


*One of the best "worlds which assume gender equality" books I've ever read - plausible and well worked-out. Also no racialized slavery or conquest. There's a point in the first book where the detective is all "oh, well, surely no one could have taken the children for nefarious sexual purposes because that is so rare in this world that it isn't even something we worry about....I remember, someone did that in my grandfather's day, and when they got the children back and found out about it, they took him out and hanged him." So basically, this is a series where you will never, ever deal with girlfriend-in-the-refrigerator stuff, or sexual assault as a plot point.
posted by Frowner at 11:30 AM on December 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


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