Real World Examples: The Electoral College as a Broken System.

I did very little promotion this weekend, and yet sold a fair number of books. It seems that after the madness of the Us election, people are catching up on their reading. The election left many people angry, tired, or worried and a good book (or one of mine) is a great way to relieve stress or calm down before returning to the fray. Personally, I am looking forward to watching last night’s SNL; Dave Chappelle is the host, and he is pretty damn awesome.

Now, onto tonight’s topic. The Electoral College. Although all of the votes in the US election have yet to be counted it seems that Hillary Clinton has the most votes, while President Elect Donald Trump has won the electoral college. I don’t like Trump, but he is not at fault in this. The problem is that people have been exploiting the electoral college for years because it is the best path to victory. In a system where one person’s vote is supposed to count for as much as that of anyone else, the idea that two out of the last five elections have been won by a party that has not won the popular vote is problematic.

I often write about systems on this blog. Systems and institutions are often villains in my works: the ancient strictures in the covenant that force gifted children to choose between loss of power and long servitude or the many pitfalls of the arena; the old laws that bind the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim and their slaves into a cycle of servitude and hate; and the exploitation of The Grand Championships for political gain and personal profit.

In my view systems become corrupted when people learn to exploit them for gain. As resistance to this corruption grows, those who benefit from exploiting the system rarely give it up, often engaging in worse corruption or outright violence to keep their advantage. Democrats have every reason to be upset over their loss, especially when it seems that Republicans have been making it much harder for certain groups to vote in many states.

Now before their surprise victory, some Republicans, including the President Elect were railing against the Electoral college as undemocratic. We all know that if Hillary Clinton had lost the popular vote and won through the electoral college, it would be the source of just as much salt to them.

This actually has been a problem in other ways for a long time, just hidden from most people.  With the way the college is apportioned, winner take all in most states, a Democrat in Alabama or a Republican in California in most elections feel like they do not have a say.

The problem now is that reform is unlikely because the Electoral College currently seems to favour Republicans. Why would they give up an advantage? The flip side of the problem is that many people are angry about it, and feel that their vote does not count which leads to protest. If this continues the pressure for reform will grow, but the resistance from those who are exploiting the system will grow as well. Reform is likely inevitable, but if the college keeps favouring one side, the road will be rough. I expect it would be the same if the situation were reversed and the Democrats were enjoying this advantage.

In the end, I think no matter where you stand on the election, you can see how exploitation of systems can create corruption. There are many more examples, but this one is most pressing.

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Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.

Thoughts on the Canadian Election

This is political, and not directly related to writing or fantasy in general.

We had an interesting election here in Canada this Tuesday. A man who has held power for over almost a decade and has been an influence on Canadian politics for even longer has been defeated resoundingly, even taking losses in places where he was though to be invulnerable.

stephen-harper1

Stephen Harper

Harper was a conservative’s conservative. His greatest accomplishments were political, uniting the fragmented Canadian right wing which was lost in the wilderness after many years of Liberal rule and leading them to power. If the CPC survives his defeat then he deserves credit for that, at least. He, along with his media allies, are also responsible for the crushing defeat of the Liberal party, their longtime rivals. At one point the party was declared dead, losing even official opposition status as Harper’s CPC trampled them into the dirt. This led to the rise of the NDP, my favoured party, which captured official opposition status.

Mulcair and Layton

Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair

Jack Layton was a popular figure in Canadian politics. He died from Cancer in 2011, and was succeeded by Tom Mulcair, who led the party this election. The NDP kept the faith for left leaning political junkies like myself after the Liberals were beaten down. Layton was much loved, engineering the NDPs highest seat total ever, and a hard act for Mulcair to follow. And then there’s Justin Trudeau:

justin-trudeau-20141112

Justin Trudeau

Trudeau was the last great hope for the Liberals and the worst nightmare of the Conservatives, who hated his father, a popular prime-minister (But not popular in all of the country, of course). He came on strong at first, weathering the CPC media assault as only someone who has been under media scrutiny his entire life can. He seemed to stumble a year before the election, but ended up convincing the people of Canada that he was the best choice to unseat Stephen Harper, showing great acumen in defeating opponents who led him for most of the race.

Here are some salient points about the Canadian Election

The Lead Up

  • A year before the election the CPC were on shaky ground. A scandal broke out over the way the Prime Minister’s Office handled one Mike Duffy, a CPC senate appointee. Stephen Harper gave contradictory testimony in question period and his credibility dipped.
  • Then ISIS became an international sensation, which coincided with a series of attacks in Canada that left two soldiers dead, and an assailant shot dead in parliament. Security is a conservative strongpoint and so PM Harper immediately took control. He introduced bill C-51, which is Canada’s version of the patriot act, which Trudeau signed on and Mulcair opposed. He also introduced C-24, which received less attention, but was kind of a big deal as well (we will get to that later)
  • Mulcair stood firm against C-51. This was his proudest moment. He was initially hammered in the media (which usually ignores the NDP), but as Canadians examined the bill he ended up looking better and better for opposing such a knee jerk reactionary, monstrous bull. Eventually he took the lead in polls. Meanwhile Trudeau and his liberals looked weak for not opposing the bill, essentially for political reasons and dropped to their lowest point in years. Harper strengthened his base, and readied to attack the NDP.

The Campaign

  • Harper’s Strategy should be familiar to anyone who has seen a modern conservative campaign. Many of the bills he passed made it harder for people to vote. C-51 declared war on terrorists, which oddly enough also included people who harm the “economic interests” of Canada, which played to conservative fantasies of jailing hippies. C-24 literally introduced the idea of SECOND CLASS CITIZENS in Canada, which certainly nabbed the nationalist, anti-immigration vote. He was for oil, against renewable energy, muzzled scientists, and ignored a plee to start an inquiry into missing aboriginal women. Going into the election Harper had all the weapons he needed to win, despite being scandal ridden and unpopular, he just needed to deploy them properly.
  • Harper, using rules that he wrote, made the campaign longer to give the CPC opportunity to bring its deep coffers to bear.
  • Harper refused to engage in traditional debates at the CBC, opting for friendlier broadcasters where questions could be controlled. He strictly limited media access to himself and his candidates, showing unparalleled message control, but looking a little like a paranoid micro-manager at times.
  • Mulcair was riding high for most of the Campaign. Unfortunately for him, the traditional media are allergic to the NDP, and basically criticized him for anything they could. At one point they actually called him arrogant for running like a front-runner, when he was the front-runner. This is the cross the NDP must bear, and will bear until they get some media support of their own.
  • Trudeau seemed to flounder in the early days of the campaign. The conservatives bashed him constantly with ads noting how he was young and not ready to be PM (Harper was the same age when he became PM, with exactly the same amount of experience) and also a teacher (conservatives these days hate teachers, something about unions and lefty propaganda). He made some odd statements about running a deficit and growing the economy from the heart outwards that were roundly mocked by the media (but not by voters, which is key here)
  • The Conservatives engineered themselves several boosts during the midpoint of the campaign. A sudden budget surplus, which mas mostly smoke and mirrors (selling of assets and dipping into EI funds) gave them a boost among their base who really care about security, taxes, and the economy (except the jobs part).
  • A second boost came from new baby bonus cheques — these are the conservative strategy of ’boutique’ tax cuts meant to win them support with certain groups, essentially by bribing them with some sort of fiscal incentive. This is where Trudeau showed an acumen that really should have warned his opponents: he hopped in with Mulcair to show that the baby bonus was smoke and mirrors since it was taxable, but then he offered his own, better version of said bonus, tax-free, and aimed right at lower/middle income Canadians. (I think the line was “Ill cancel Stephen Harper’s baby bonus, which Tom Mulcair supports, and stop sending cheques to millionaires. I’ll use that money to give middle class families a bigger bonus, tax free.)
  • As the midway point was reached the media turned to the Duffy trial, which had proven to be an achilles heel for the conservatives before. The CPC was smashed and sunk to third in the polls. Harper looked finished, but he knew this was coming and had actually prepared.
  • As Harper sunk, Trudeau and Mulcair began to battle each other. Nobody really questionned why Trudeau was rising though, at least not in the coverage I watched.
  • As the Duffy trial became boring again, Harper deployed his secret weapon. It is pretty much confirmed that he hired Lynton Crosby, a monstrous asshole who engineers xenophobia into victory for conservative parties from australia to the UK. He started using words like “old stock canadians” in his speeches. He stripped a terrorist of citizenship using the powers given to him by C-24. Then he deployed his greatest weapon of the campaign — the Niqab.
  • The Niqab ‘debate’ was an example of dog-whistle politics. A woman wanted to wear her Niqab during part of an citizenship cerimony. She even offered to wear a wire so they knew she was saying the words and so on. But the press went into a frenzy of islamophobia. The CPC surged and the Duffy affair was forgotten as the Canadian election suddenly became about us versus them.
  • The NDP, which was strong in Quebec, was smashed as Mulcair stood his ground on the right of people to wear the Niqab. Unfortunately for the NDP, much of their strength came from the places where the anti-Niqab crowd was the most rabid. This was exactly what Harper wanted, and is actually a very astute, if incredibly ugly strategy when it comes down to it. Most Canadians were offended by the debate in the end, but with his base behind him 100% (all of the time, no matter what — as long as he wins) and his enemies splitting the remaining vote, Harper was withing striking distance of a minority Government.

The Grand Finale

  • The Last week was a frenzy of activity.
  • Voter turnout increased by a massive amount. (61% up to 68%, a huge jump)
  • First Nations leaders, angered at Harper’s refusal to call an inquiry about the missing aboriginal women, called on their people to vote en masse, creation an increase of 270% in first nations voters,
  • Some idiot dissed Atlantic Canada, saying that it had too few seats to matter.
  • To shore up support Harper held a rally with the Crack dealing and Crack smoking Ford brothers, conservative stalwarts.
  • Trudeau kept moving up. As the election day dawned most people thought he would get a majority. It turns out that he was constantly consulting voters and creating an appealing platform while trying to be as positive as possible (the Jack Layton strategy). He actually moved left of the NDP, who were too busy trying not to alienate people who thought they might be secret communists to notice (can you tell how much I hate the way our media portrays the NDP?). In the end he came out strongly against the Niqab ban, smashed C-24 as uncanadian, and even managed to seem like he might be ok on C-51 and the TPP. Canadians saw him as the clear alternative and rewarded him with a majority.
  • VISION mattered. Trudeau articulated a vision of Canada that brought people out to vote.
  • Jon Oliver delivered an awesome plea for Canadians not to vote Harper.
  • The American Media noticed that Trudeau was handsome.

Lessons Learned

  • The conservatives underestimated Trudeau and his team.
    • Trudeau is smarter then thy think he is: The Conservatives famously said during one debate that the bar for success for Trudeau is to show up with his pants on. While this is red meat to their base, who reveled in hating Trudeau, it seems that many of them believed it and were caught with their own pants down when he turned out to be more than just a pretty face.
    • Trudeau’s political team had a smart plan that involved Canadians in creating a winning platform. The slow and steady gains show that this was a winning strategy.
    • Conservatives will blame everyone under the sun for their loss, including maybe dear leader, but it might be time to rework the old platform. Trickle down and wedge politics is getting old, guys.
  • The NDP got hammered, yes, but their strategy going forward is much clearer,
    • Mulcair scored points on C-51 and opposing the TPP.
    • Tech leaders seemed attracted to the NDP because they opposed C-51 and the TPP, which harm the businesses of the future in favour of the current dominant interests. Marrying the NDPs socially progressive policies with innovative business support could be a winning platform.
    • Relying too heavily on one region (Quebec) was bad. Most of Canada is politically volatile. (see insulting Atlantic Canada)
    • The NDP needs a strong media ally.
  • Social Media mattered. Strategic voting was very strong in this election. People also showed up to early voting in crazy amounts and
  • Dog Whistle politics can win, but it can also backfire. Harper’s use of the Niqab to get back in the campaign after the Duffy Dip was sleazy, but cunning.
  • Trudeau and his advisers were much, much smarter than anyone thought, Their strategy was solid, building a platform that Canadians could love, and stealing NDP votes by leaning left while the NDP moved to the centre to rumble with the CPC.
  • Whoever pissed off Atlantic Canada should have kept their mouth shut. Having an entire region vote for a single party in every riding is usually reserved for conservatives. Atlantic Canada has now demonstrated just how important it is, politically. They can give support, and they are willing to take it away.
  • There were very few promises made by any side this campaign. I remember campaigns where politicians would come up with hundreds of promises. The new media makes that type of campaign a liability since people can track promises much more easily.
  • The Conservatives ran on their economic record. The finance minister lost his seat,
  • The Conservatives ran on their support for the troops. Canadian Veterans ran against them.
  • It is fucking stupid to call a gruelling, long, brutal campaign against a guy who is a decade younger than you and immune to attack ads. While Harper and Mulcair were tiring, Trudeau was hitting his stride.
  • Ultimately Canadians did not fall for the politics of division. Good for us.

Shades of Obsession & Steampunk Themes: What Fantasy Writers Can Learn From Bloodborne

Madman's Knowledge. an item from Bloodborne

Madman’s Knowledge. an item from Bloodborne

Last Sunday, I waxed poetic about Bloodborne in my review of the game. Today I am going to relate that to genre fiction, and Steampunk in general.

My view of Steampunk is that. as we move away from the industrial age and into the information age, it will become more and more popular. Bloodborne represents From Software’s foray into Steampunk/Industrial age fantasy, and I feel it is a smashing success. The company was previously known for the Demons Souls/Dark Souls series, which is medieval and high fantasy.

Bloodborne takes place in Yharnam, a rambling gothic city with magnificent skyline full of cathedrals and high towers. The lower streets are, of course, choked with debris and narrow, but the heights of the city, when you get to them, are magnificent and definitely not medieval. Only the Church, the old sections of the town, and a few other places hint at the feudal age from which the place must have grown.

The weapons and attire in Bloodborne also speak of the industrial age, as well as to older traditions. Alongside axes and swords we have various forms of firearms, and even some reminiscent of the late medieval combination weapons like a gun spear and a pistol/rapier combination weapon. The guns are generally wielded in the off-hand and are used both offensively and defensively to interrupt and stagger enemies, while the main hand melee weapons do most of the damage.

When I first started playing games the idea of a gun being used as a secondary weapon would have induced seas of foaming nerdrage. People just didn’t like mixing guns and fantasy back then, and when they did they often felt the need to show the primacy of the gun. I blame that scene in the first Indiana Jones where Harrison Ford is confronted by a scimitar wielding fanatic, who pulls of an amazing kata, and just shoots the guy. In Fantasy guys with swords coexist with guys with magic, so guns must be better than magic too, right? That attitude has eroded over the years, thankfully, and we now see guns treated more or less as any other weapon and even see enchanted guns cropping up more and more.

The monsters in Bloodborne are also drawn from industrial age sources. Vampires, werewolves, and things that would be at home in the tales of the brothers Grim or Lovecraft seem to be the primary inspirations for the creature’s visuals, although they are all tied together by a common thread, thematically. Instead of a knight facing dragons and orcs, you take the role of a hunter cleansing a city of monsters, acting as a kind of pest control really.

But you all know about that, I expect. Sreampunk is on the rise as Fantasy expends and becomes more popular. Bloodborne has many of the cool trappings of Steampunk, but what does it do so well that can we learn from it for our games and writing?

  • The Clash Between Reason and Mysticism: We can frequently see this in modern society, unfortunately, but in previous centuries this was a deep and abiding battle. Galileo was condemned for “vehement suspicion of heresy” and spent the last decade of his life under house arrest.  Darwin was even more vilified then than he is today. The Church was a real political power in the early parts of the industrial age, it was fading compared to its dominance in the feudal age, but it still had real strength. Bloodeborne does an admirable job of showing the clash between mysticism and science as the clerics of Yharnam and the various schools of thought that grow up around the study of blood clash in the background and backstory.
  • Resource Based Themes: The Industrial age is deeply concerned with the exploitation of natural resources, almost in the same way that the feudal age was concerned with land and agriculture. In Bloodborne the resource in question, the trade on which the Town of Yharnam was founded is the Healing Blood. The Healing Blood is a substance that can cure disease and give long life. It has many other miraculous properties that one can discover in the game, and many theories have developed around it. Like any good industrial age story, the resource being exploited also has flaws. You discover fairly quickly that the Healing Blood has the side effect of turning people who use it into monsters when the moon is full. [SPOILER] Ultimately you discover that the Healing Blood is basically taken from a Lovecraft-like entity that was discovered below the city, and that some see the side effects as evolutionary instead of monstrous. Reminds me of the mixed blessings of oil, coal, nuclear power, and so on.
  • Obsession and the quest for Knowledge: While the clerics of Yharnam and the scholars often seem at odds, they have many things in common. Most importantly they nearly always seem to end up as victims of their various obsessions. This is the deepest theme of Bloodborne and one that is pulled off brilliantly. Often these days I see scientists or mystics portrayed as bumbling idiots who cannot but help to go too far, because too much knowledge is bad mmmmkay? Jurassic Park, Age of Ultron, and Ex Machina from this year all leap to mind as having plots that are driven by people who seek knowledge and cause havoc by doing so. Bloodborne also has this, in spades, but the player is also a knowledge seeker and the game treads the razor edge and condemns obsession over curiosity and love of knowledge, which is a much more accurate view. The endings of the game conform to this theme very nicely.

The Hugo Awards: The Money Angle

I wanted to write something about the Hugo awards, but I don’t really know enough about them to contribute meaningfully to the discussion one way or another. I have never been to Worldcon, and as a self-published author who flies well below the radar I don’t expect to see any of my book up there anytime soon, nor do feel bad about that. I’m just here to write and entertain.

Personally I dislike both the extreme right, and extreme left getting involved in this debate. North American directional politics, fed by the twenty-four hours “news” channels and the pundit blogs, is capable of very little other than bringing rage and ruin to everything it touches right now. I hate to think that in the midst of the massive boom in genre fiction that this ugliness could turn people off, and possibly even stunt the growth of SF/F.

What interests me most about the whole debate is that none of the articles that I have read about the whole Kerfuffle, most of which are very good, none cover the economic aspect of winning an award.

I would not buy a book simply because it was a Hugo award winner. However, if I was on the fence about a book and saw that it won an award, that would make me more likely to buy it. An award is an indication of quality, at the very least.

Perhaps more importantly winning (or even being short-listed) an award acts as additional exposure acts for both the work and the author. It will not push a niche intellectual work to bestseller status, to be sure, but I am confident that winning an award, especially a prestigious award, will expose a book to new readers and elevate sales in almost all cases.

Many authors are ego driven enough to value the award above the sales that it generates. Some writers, however, are far more motivated by sales figures and really don’t care how they get them. Attaching “Hugo” to their name and book will get those extra sales and so they have an economic motive, regardless of what ideology they might be espousing to justify their actions.

So while there is an ideological battle here, which is very sad, there is also the simple fact that by gaming the system the Sad Puppies have gained publicity and increased sales. The people who are outraged by their actions are not in their intended readership and I suspect that they, or their publishers, know it. The very nature of their very public campaign, and the amount of publicity it generates for their works, win or lose, demonstrates that at least some of them are motivated by sales as well as ideology.

Making money is not a bad thing, of course, but while winning an award increases sales, battles like this can damage how people view the award, which degrades the value of the endorsement that the award represents.

Unfortunately, it is a hard problem to fix. Every system can be gamed, and as George RR Martin brilliantly stated changing the rules to stop this behaviour only feeds into the narrative of a liberal conspiracy at the Hugos promoted by the Sad Puppies. Incidentally this will get like minded people to buy more of their books as well. Readers will often support writers they feel are being persecuted, as I found out when this happened. After I complained, readers picked up on the attack and sales increased.

Which means that there is also a possible economic motive behind complaining about being persecuted, which can get people on your side and sell more books… 😦

P.S: I don’t like identity politics, but people who form factions to promote their works based on not being part of a certain clique are only engaging in reactionary identity politics.

Thoughts on Setting: Industrial Age Creative Anachronism

Recently, I started playing Valkyria Chronicles on my laptop. The game, which I may review later, is a perfect example of fantasy moving from the feudal period, which was characterized by an agricultural, land oriented society to an economy increasingly dominated by factories, mass production, and capital. Set in a made up Fantasy World, Valkyria Chronicles is clearly leaning on World War II as both a point of familiarity for the player and as inspiration for the story. As the plot progresses, it becomes more and more fantastic.

I believe, that as the information age begins and societies move away from economies dominated by industry and cities, we seek to mythologize that past in our entertainment and fiction in the same way we once did with the feudal age and agriculture. It merits more thought than I can give it as to why this occurs and how it relates to other genre phenomena.

There are a host of other examples, in games and literature, of the industrial age becoming fodder for Fantasy Fiction. Steampunk would be the obvious example, an entire genre based around clockwork magic with strong urban and imperial age themes. Brian McLellan’s superb Flintlock Fantasy, promise of blood is another obvious example. But one could argue that Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series is post feudal, influenced more by Dickens then Mallory and Tolkien, or that much of the modern sensibility in other authors like Joe Abercrombie come from a grittier feel that can be attributed to industrial age themes as much as gritty realism.

(George R.R. Martin is certainly a notable exception here, but he very deliberately deconstructs modern notions, especially the rational hero, to take us back to a fully realized feudal setting, albeit without the pastoral sensibilities that often mark feudal fantasy.)

I can think of five main points of difference between Feudal and Industrial Age Fantasy

  1. The Setting or The Kingdom versus the City and The World: Feudal Fantasy, no matter how epic, usually focuses on a single Kingdom. Other lands are often visited or involved in the story, but we are generally not meant to care about what happens to them. There is a definite feeling of home in Feudal Fantasy, which is usually based around a rural area or a castle. We are meant to care about this place, which is often presented as awesome before the conflict begins. In Martin this is a clever metaphor for Childhood, similar to TH Whites Arthurian series. Industrial age Fantasy is based around a more ambivalent setting. Cities are presented as wondrous, but also dirty and full of a host of new problems. Industrial age fantasies are often more cosmopolitan as well, since the city is a meeting place for strangers from all over the world.
  2. The Role of Technology or Swords versus Swords, Guns, and Machines: The gear used in Feudalistic Fantasy is pretty set. The Sword is the anachronistic weapon of choice for our protagonists. Interestingly Industrial Age Fantasy des not replace swords, shields, and plate armour with guns, cannon, and so on, but rather adds them to the mix. Technology takes on an interesting role in industrial fantasy, as both enemy and solution, and frequently gets blended with magic.
  3. The Lower Class or The Street Urchin versus the Idealistic Farmboy: In Feudal Age Fantasy the protagonist is a noble, a scholar, or a humble farmboy. The lower class upbringing, the Farmboy is often shown as a kind of pure upbringing that gifts the hero with the strength and moral fibre needed to confront the world (superman and batman strike me as Feudal heroes moving into the city, one is the Feudal Farmboy and the other is the Feudal Noble). In the Industrial Age fantasies, the lower classes of the city suffer and are subject to positively Dickensian treatment at every turn. Interestingly this toughens them up and teaches them the harsh lessons needed to survive which leads right to my next point.
  4. The Resolution of Conflicts or Strength and Moral Fibre versus Reason and Cunning: Traditional Feudal heroes are physically fit, often superior in some way. Blood, noble or otherwise, often figures into their source of power. They overcome conflict through physical prowess and direct means more often than not. Other tests are met with strength of character which can best be described as moral fibre or purity of spirit, This can be subverted in more complex narratives, but usually by placing blood and role above moral purity. In Industrial age Fantasy the protagonist is usually the smart one, be that street smart or book smart. Reason become more of a heroic quality than moral fibre, which allows even sympathetic characters to be deeply flawed.
  5. The Source of Conflicts or the Existential Scourge versus The Ideological Enemy and the Broken System:  In Feudal Age Fantasy the wilderness and the lands beyond the borders of the kingdom or civilization are teeming with enemies. The Others in Martin’s works are a perfect example of this, as are Tolkien’s orcs, or any number of evil forces that threaten the existence of the kingdom, village, or shire. Industrial Age conflicts however are often characterized by enemies that are different only in nationality or creed, or sometimes even just other character who is very similar but just happens to be on the other side. In the Industrial age change systems and institutions can be the source of conflicts as old ways, such as the monarchy and slavery, are overthrown while Feudal Fantasy is often about the return of the kingdom to its pristine original form.

The Dissenter, A Heroic Archetype for the Modern Age

Like many Canadians, I spent the weekend protesting C-51, in the real world and online. The act, which the conservative government calls the “anti-terror bill” gives an array of troubling powers to spy agencies. While I was standing outside in the rain and cold, I often wondered about how to turn this relatively banal (so far) situation into Fantasy Fiction.

What I came up with the idea of the dissenter as a hero. Now, this is not my idea, and I am sure than any reader of Fantasy can think of several heroes and villains who are primarily motivated by their disagreement with the system. I just think it is a timely archetype, especially since we are living an time of increasing inequality, which creates increasing dissatisfaction with the machinery of our society. Everybody who is not in power, or served by society, has some gripe with the system. We all think that our particular brand of dissent is a special snowflake, but even the most diametrically opposed factions often have gripes about the system, legitimate or not. This makes the dissenter a very figure that everyone can relate to on some level.

Some time ago I wrote a post about how a corrupt, or unthinking system can be the perfect villain in modern fantasy (link). Looking through my posts I can see that it is a bit of a running theme actually, including my review of Django unchained (link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5). The gist of the idea is that the system is the monolithic, monstrous villain that Fantasy often tends towards, but put into a context that the modern reader can instantly relate to.

In the same way the person who stands up and demands that the system be fixed, or at least points out the flaws in a system, can make an interesting hero. Think about some of the great dissenter of past ages, and the interesting lives they led. Martin Luther was not an action hero, and yet his act of defiance sparked a massive sectarian shift that humbled the greatest power in his world.

Here are a few reasons why I think that the Dissenter is a mighty heroic archetype for Modern Fantasy, the counterpoint to the system as a villain.

  • Knowledge is a Weapon: Modern readers prefer a hero who is smart in some fashion, be it simple brilliance or grimdark streetwise. The primary armament of the dissenter is knowledge. The dissenter knows the flaws of the system that they hate. Often they are a victim of that system and have learned as much as they could about it in order to oppose it.
  • Challenging the Dragon: Systems are immense, complex, and can become truly monstrous over time. The same is true of corrupt institutions. Often, in real life, people find speaking out against these entities incredibly intimidating.  Thus, the dissenter shows courage simply by confronting the problem.
  • A Grim Task: History is not kind to those who dissent. People in power, and those who benefit from corruption, have many options in quashing dissent. The sheer viciousness that those who benefit from a broken system will engage in to prevent that system from changing cannot be underestimated.
  • Reform or Revolution: The ultimate goal of any dissenter is either to reform the system, or topple it altogether. Both have their own merits as story points.

The dissenter can easily turn out to be a villain as well, going to extremes to attack the system that they oppose. An anti-capitalist who publishes papers and advocated non-violent protests against the excesses of wall street is a good kind of dissenter, while an anti-capitalist who blows up factories indiscriminately is most definitely villainous. Interestingly from the perspective of those who inhabit the system being challenged, these two are almost indistinguishable, which makes crackdowns the perfect starting point for a dissenting hero.