Of Flies and Honey

When someone is dying, they will often have a last burst of rather feverish energy before the end: a short time when they feel a bit better and do a bit more than perhaps they should before succumbing to the inevitable. I’ve wondered sometimes if this not-quite-death-throes is the last attempt to fight for life before accepting that the fight has already been lost.

Funnily enough, dying ideologies and nations have been known to do the same thing, albeit causing immensely more damage along the way. To misappropriate a cliché, the whole “darkest before dawn” thing seems to be involved somewhere – although the matter of for whom things are darkest and who gets to experience the dawn could be argued. A lot.

The other thing any half-sensible person would realize if they bothered to interpret the facts (yeah, I know, preaching to the choir here) is that in this last ugly flailing the followers of dying ideologies are prone to forgot something: you catch a hell of a lot more flies with honey than you catch with bile.

To put it another way, the ascendant empire – let’s say more or less paralleling the Soviet Union – often uses all manner of seductive means to entice others to join the fold. They make damn sure the new territories that choose to join them get a welcome package that’s designed to convince the residents that it’s going to be all hearts and flowers from now, and they’ll boost the standard of living there so that the majority of the new subjectsahem… citizens think the sun shines in anatomically improbable places (take notes, folks. This is going into your world building classes). Call this the honey phase.

When said empire is on the decline is when the screws start turning, taxes rise, and if you dare even think of whispering a hint of dissent you can expect the rest of your much shorter life to be extremely unpleasant. Typically, this is when everyone goes into survival mode, keeping their heads down and doing whatever they have to in order to see the next sunrise.

Of course, it’s damned hard to oppress a population at that level for long. There’s a reason every dictatorial regime is so strict about monitoring travel: it wouldn’t do to let the serfs know that they really don’t have it better than anyone else, and it certainly wouldn’t do to let the wealthy visitors they’re bilking realize that the happy little tourist villages they’ve built up on the – carefully controlled – major travel areas realize just how many lies they’re telling the rest of the world.

And when, inevitably, the weakening empire can’t keep the boot pressed down quite so harshly, the privileged in that system will go on the attack as they desperately try to protect their disintegrating fiefdoms. Which is of course the bile phase, where they’re trying to force the unwilling back into their shackles and unable to see that if said unwilling have reach the point where they don’t care, they’re just making it worse. Speeding up the inevitable death with some seriously ugly death throes, as it were.

If what I’ve seen is any indication it doesn’t matter if the fiefdoms are the United Soviet Socialist Republics, the traditional publishing industry, the feminist movement, or the local craft club. The same cycle seems to hold – and if anything the less real power there is, the more vicious those who hold it will get.

The things this explains about the traditional publishing industry are… well, just about everything, really.

It’s also really useful framing for plots, since a dying empire at any level is going to be just riddled with conflict.


  1. As my grandmother once said, it’s always darkest before the storm. (And then couldn’t figure out why my parents burst out laughing.)

    1. The proper fortress is a trailer. That way you just move. Gypsies learned that a thousand years ago.

    1. “It’s also really useful framing for plots, since a dying empire at any level is going to be just riddled with conflict.”

      Dear Kate, here I must, most regretfully, tearfully even, disagree. ~:( [so sad!]

      The “dying empire” plot, as in Asimov’s Foundation, where something better (aka better -controlled-) rises from the ashes, or the Big Dark is coming and there’s nothing anyone can do and it all falls to ruin and despair, or the steady depletion of [Resource] threatens All Life As We Know It so they all run around and kill each other over the last half-pound of [Resource]…

      … I’m so sick of it, I can’t even. I do NOT want to read yet another “can’t we all just get along/glowball warmening/peak oil/social justice!!1!” cautionary tale. Oh holy crap no.

      Show me a story about pirates and freebooters throwing off the yoke of Empire and making a break for the borders, -maybe- I can go there. But they better not be “everyone does it so I can do it too” anti-heroes or I’m out.

      What if, instead of the usual monkey conflict BS, an alien empire did something really -alien!- and the author came up with a kewl idea? I’d be interested in that.

      1. Eh, it’s useful when your stories focus on the little nations around the Empire (often such empires try to go for external enemies to distract from internal problems.) And then there’s the tale of the guy… that one guy in the empire who isn’t going to let it go down that way and against all odds manages to salvage something from the ashes. On the other hand I’ve yet to see anything really alien from anyone that was actually readable, so… *shrugs*

      2. The Course of Empire series by Eric Flint is decently good for that. The alien oppressors are actually *alien*, and it turns out the have a very good reason for what they’re doing,

  2. It’s always darkest before the author says: “And now the suffering REALLY begins.”

  3. It’s always darkest in a coal mine without lights. Trust me, they do this as a demonstration (but not for very long; don’t want to freak out the kids.)

    1. I was a tour guide for a cave in my younger years.
      The single most common question I got was, “What happens if the power goes out?”
      “It gets dark” was not the answer they were looking for.
      (Yes, I was nice and reassured them after the laugh line. A big chunk of my income was tips, after all. )

    2. Caves are bad enough. Lose light then die. Caves underwater?!? Those people must be nuts.

Comments are closed.