I am a big fan of the subject of Revolution. The modern era began with a series of political revolutions, from the enlightenment to the American and French revolutions. The rule of kings, despots, emperors, and Theocrats was wiped away — not completely, of course, but pretty convincingly.
For some time Fantasy seemed to shy away from the subject of Revolution. Rebellion, yes, but serious social upheaval, struggle, and reform? no bloody likely. There are several reason for this in my mind. The first is that revolution is generally associated with urbanization, which is something that the early authors of the genre either had trouble selling or simply shied away from (with notable exceptions). Another is that for a revolution to ring true it cannot be cast as a black and white events. A rebellion casting down a Dark Lord is not a revolution, it is a myth, an uprising, a tale of justice being done, and rebels fighting the good fight. A revolution is a bloody, ugly affair that pits the old guard against reformer and forces everyone to either takes sides or take shelter. A revolution is a brutal, deeply human affair that pits the followers of one paradigm against another, and often leads to great upheaval and tragedy even for the winners. The complexity and brutality of a revolution requires a writer to lovingly create a society, one that has merits as well as flaws, to ring true and then to add stresses to it until it explodes.
Recently, however, Fantasy authors have begun to tackle the idea of revolution. China Mieville’s Bas Lag series and Brian McLellans Powder Mage trilogy leap to mind, although there are many others. Personally, I think that much of this willingness to tackle mire difficult ideas comes from the broader readership that Fantasy has. With a more developed, larger readership, writers can afford to be more daring in seeking out their niche. We live in an age where Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and A Song of Ice and Fire have all seen huge success.
Here are a few ideas about revolution in fantasy.
- The underprivileged against the privileged: Revolutions are about grievances. Generally this involves an underclass, or more likely underclasses, that are systematically underprivileged. Basically something about the society that they live in prevents them from enjoying and participating fully in that society. Racism and poverty are obvious examples, but they key word here is systematically. If a monarch is racist and is overthrown and replaced with a better monarch as a result, that is a rebellion. If the monarchy itself is based on a racist code, and the whole monarchy is thrown out it is a revolution.
- Democracy, when it works, is a series of little revolutions: Currently in the West, we have a lot of democratic malaise. This has a fair bit to do with the machinery of politics, especially things like gerrymandering, lobbyists, and secret trade deals. These all help keep the powerful in power, even when the people think that they are doing a poor job of it. Democracy is always rough, but when it does work you can trace the ideas gaining and losing favour (and sometime gaining favour again) as a nation moves forward. These changes are like small revolutions in my mind.
- The desire for reform is a pressure: Reform and change are word that you often hear in politics. Even the establishment candidates pay lip service to change and reform. On the surface this just feeds cynicism, but on a deeper level when a real reform is needed that pressure will keep building. Some societies, like Democracies are able to deflate that pressure a little by piecing out reform and giving people a say, but when reform is resisted long enough that pressure builds to an explosive level.
- Revolutions are causal, but unpredictable: While we can understand the pressure behind a revolution, no one really understands why they often coalesce around a single event, like the match thrown into a powderkeg. One minute everything is under control, at least on the surface, and then the next people are in the street and things are happening at a speed that people often cant quite grasp. How does a centuries old system of Feudalism disintegrate in less than a year?
- Revolutions are about ideas and systems: We are all familiar with the Robespierres, the Georgre Washingtons, and the Che Gueveras; the great larger than life heroes and villains that are the faces of a Revolution. But the heart of every revolution is an idea. Unfortunately, ideas usually work very well on paper, but can fray a little when expose dto reality. Hence the need for a system to implement that idea — No taxation without representation thus gives way to a constitution which defines a Government, which can amend and interpret the laws of a nation and so on.
- There are two sides in every Revolution: As a writer I think it is imperative to define both sides of the Revolution. The privileged and the strong have their own narratives and the system that supports them has to have some merit or it would not exist longer than the rule of one strong family. Modern Fantasy loves a complex identifiable villain and heroes that are not especially clean cut. A proper revolution delivers this in spades as it quickly becomes an event with a life of its own, with characters we can understand and perhaps even sympathize with on both sides.It is a pressure that builds, explodes, and then carries everyone along with it.