The Wrath of Dying Empires

October 6th, 2009 by David Leave a reply »

Although I write speculative fiction, I look for interesting stories in the modern world. I have no choice but to do so. When I was a young writer, I didn’t have the life experience to write novels—I could write short stories but I couldn’t sustain anything longer. I needed to look outward and see more of the world, and I also needed to experience more.

Without being self-congratulatory, as a not-so-young writer, I feel much better equipped for the task. Having experienced many more highs and lows and seen systems from inside and outside, I have a better idea how they work, and thus a better idea of how to describe them. And observing what I see around me is a never-ending source for new story scenarios.

For instance, working for a large games publisher gave me many insights into the power games, corruption, backstabbing, etc. that one might see in a royal court or government. I’m sure many other writers have job experiences they turn into good fodder for fiction, and I’m no different.

Taking a macro view, the current death throes of the American empire—you may read about them in the mainstream press as ‘recession’ or ‘weak recovery’ or ‘military setback’—provide many interesting lessons for fictional settings in all eras. Consider some of the possible storylines:

  • A hated despot is replaced with a charismatic, younger leader. However, the new leader is no less beholden to the Powers that Be than the old rule. In fact, he gives them a new lease on life by providing window dressing ‘change’ that makes younger citizens feel like they have truly changed the system. We could look at the situation from the eyes of the young leader or one of his staff as they feel frustrated in their ability to change things. Or perhaps the leader is corrupt himself and sees nothing wrong with profiting from the current system. Or an opposition group, battling against odds, finds themselves pitted against a corrupt leader who is perceived as being a good man or woman, making their task even more difficult.
  • The citizen class who most benefited from the empire starts to feel—if not see—the end of the empire. Enraged at their loss of station, they lash out at those who are different from them, blaming them for the changing balance of power. The change is structural and the disadvantaged classes suffering the backlash have nothing to do with the change, but that’s of little solace as they are marginalized. We could view the action from a bigoted person who learns the error of his/her ways, or from the point of view of a person affected by the discrimination.
  • Rather than suffering from the failing economy, members of the oligarchy become ever more corrupt, siphoning off an even greater share of the empire’s wealth. They see this behavior not as negative or predatory but as their birthright. A boy raised to decadent wealth is forced to reevaluate his beliefs when confronted by the abject poverty that makes his lifestyle possible.
    Alternately, a girl who lives in a shantytown in view of the skyscraper towers of the wealthy struggles to understand why she has so little when they have so much. But her values come into conflict when she has an opportunity to join the clique of the wealthy, pitting her against her family and the friends she has known her whole life.
  • As the economic power of the empire declines, it increasingly focuses on its military might to try to move the balance of power into its favor once again. It attacks weaker countries all over the globe (or star system), seeking to reinforce the myth of its superiority over other cultures/races/belief systems. Despite the fact its wars are unwinnable, with little local support for its invasions and occupations, a steady stream of propaganda is fed to its citizens to convince them the empire is winning glorious victories week after week. A soldier in the armed forces of the empire gets the dirty job of fighting with locals, a task s/he at first relishes then views with increasing disgust as s/he realizes what s/he is fighting for.
  • The clerics of the empire start to see subversion in free thought and free action, putting forth ever harsher edicts that try to mandate how people are supposed to think. For surely the decline of the empire is a function of heresy in its population. A loyal child encounters difficulty when s/he starts asking why certain things as they are. The harsh treatment s/he gets radicalizes him/her—or makes him or her become a rabid conservative in the state church, inflicting suffering on anyone who dares question the status quo a s/he did (minus the declining empire bit, I used this as a backstory for an antagonist in my current book project).
  • With more and more of the wealth of the empire diverted into the hands of a select few, the infrastructure of the empire decays and education/transportation/utilities become unreliable. (Isaac Asimov portrayed this brilliantly in his Foundation series.) Not the most exciting of premises, but it could be made interesting through a strong character who only wants to his or her job properly but the empire’s disinterest in providing basic services to its people turns him or her into a dangerous rebel of the empire who rallies the people to fight for their rights and make the world better.

It’s fairly easy to see where my sympathies lie in these examples, but no matter what your core beliefs, if you open your eyes and look around you can see thousands of story possibilities. Every city in America—or other countries—has interesting stories that can inform your fiction. You don’t have to follow reality word for word, of course—but starting with situational premises that ring true with the experiences of people around you can inform your work with greater depth and believability, no matter what the setting, magic system, etc. that adorns it.

There has never been an empire that someone or other—usually with good reason—didn’t consider to be ‘evil’. Take that idea and run with it. Even if it doesn’t end up in a story, you may find yourself a better person for examining the world around you with the keen eye of a journalist observer.

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