Blast from Antiquity – Overthrowing the Evil Tyrant

It’s been a bit of an insane week at work (or rather, at my desk at home, working), with the inevitable result that I am not braining right now. ‘Tis a sad fact of my existence that the more intense things are at work, the less I can brain outside work.

So, have a blast from the past that’s a bit more than 10 years old (ye dogs! It doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing this for that long, it really doesn’t) and lightly edited to clean up the nastier typos and whatnot.

Overthrowing the Evil Tyrant

And why it’s not quite as easy as it sounds.

We’ve all met them. Usually male, although the Evil Empress or Queen occasionally gets a look-in, the Evil Overlord, whether the CEO of Evil Inc. or the Emperor of the Galaxy, or a petty prince of some forgotten nation in Fantasyland, is something of a staple in science fiction and fantasy. Usually he, she or it exists mostly to be overthrown.

When you come down to it, it’s usually pretty easy. Not necessarily easy at the “toss a trinket into a volcano” level (yes, I know I’m oversimplifying. Shut up.), but there’s a big Final Battle of some description, the Evil Overlord dies, and all is happiness, sweetness and light. As often as not, the Evil Overlord is some kind of kludged-up metaphor for the hero’s journey to some kind of enlightenment (something the hordes of Tolkien-imitators usually fail to notice is that Frodo did not gain ‘enlightenment’ per se. He was irreparably wounded by the trials of his journey, and ultimately unable to remain in/on Middle Earth. There was a happy ending, but it wasn’t for him.).

So why do tyrannies in the real world last so long?

Leaving aside the obvious “they’re not really that bad” answer that I’m sure people are thinking (if you are, you’re wrong. Read on MacDuff), the most atrocious regimes of all political flavors have lasted a long time for reasons that can be illustrated by two things.

First a recent news report about the execution of a North Korean man for – officially – revealing state secrets. The state secrets in question? Work conditions at his factory, and the price of food. Who he revealed them to? A South Korean friend. Let’s just consider that for a moment. How often do you bitch about your job, or about how much things cost? Has it ever occurred to you that you could be executed for that? Me either. What kind of a regime does that? A horribly abusive one, obviously, but more to the point, one that keeps very close tabs on its people, leading us neatly to the second thing.

After the Berlin Wall went down and people got access to the secret police files, they found out that in the worst regimes – East Germany and Romania are particularly notable here – something like one person in four was reporting to the secret police. Applied here, that would mean rather a lot of our followers were spying on the rest of us, and one or two of your Mad Genius hosts was doing the same. More than three people in your family? Odds are, one of them is working for the secret police.

Since I’d be prepared to guarantee that very few people here have lived in that kind of environment, I think it’s safe to say most of us don’t have the mental toolset to understand the kind of environment a tyranny always begets. We’re all accustomed to a relatively free and open society where you don’t face execution for bitching about the cost of food.

How does that kind of situation develop? It’s remarkably simple. In every tyranny, regardless of ideology, the way to ensure your safety and by extension that of your loved ones, is to be a Loyal Citizen. If a theology, you go to church and make sure you’re the first in, the last out, and you know every hymn and your scripture – and never, ever contradict the priests (even, or perhaps especially when they contradict scripture). If you’re in Onepartystan, you join the Party, go to every meeting, and so forth. But the easiest, quickest, and apparently least costly way to show your loyalty is to offer to pass information on to the authorities.

So, you do that. It’s only little things, you think, and it’s not going to make you a bad person. And at first, that’s how it works. You might mention the co-worker you detest complaining about the cost of food, or the crazy old guy down the street who’s muttering “Dear Leader my ass”, but it’s not like they’re actually traitors or anything, and nothing bad is going to happen. Then the person you report to drops a few hints that make it obvious you’re being watched as well. So when Grandma mentions that these newfangled collective farmy things are a waste of time and she never went hungry before they did this, you feel like you have to tell them, in case someone else has already passed it on and you’ll be in trouble if you don’t say anything. You try to downplay it, but you still tell them. And some time later, you go to visit Grandma, and she’s not there, and the young family who live there now don’t have any idea who used to live there – they’re just happy they have a home.

You tell yourself Grandma is in a nice retirement village somewhere, but you know, deep down, that she isn’t. And that you, personally, probably turned her in as a malcontent, or a traitor, or whatever the official buzzword is.

This is why people don’t rise up and overthrow the Evil Overlord unless an extraordinary event triggers some kind of spontaneous outpouring of repressed rage, grief and guilt. The Evil Overlord already has them trapped in chains they’ve made themselves, link by little link. If you’re writing a story where overthrowing the Evil Overlord is involved, you need to remember that your characters can’t chat about it in the local pub. Anyone could be a spy for the Overlord. They can’t even trust their own group – remember that one in four ratio? The worse the Evil Overlord is, the more likely it is he’s got that many people spying for him.

That doesn’t make rebellion impossible – but it makes it a whole lot harder than Lord of the Rings and its multifarious imitators (or, for that matter Star Wars and any number of space operas) would have you think. The people you’re trying to liberate don’t trust you because they can damn near guarantee that anyone they don’t know is spying for the Overlord (why else would a stranger come here?), and you can’t trust them because you know some of them are spying for the Overlord. They’re going to be suspicious, unfriendly, and arrange unpleasant, deniable “accidents” for you, especially if they suspect that they’re likely to be on the wrong end of a purge because of you.

They’re not going to welcome their new freedom when you win, either – after as little as a generation of tyranny, people mostly expect that the new overlord will be just like the old one, maybe with different words to wrap around the same basic reality. More often than not, they’re right. We’re wired to follow someone who leads. It’s what kept little tribelets of our ancestors alive in a dangerous world.

The fact that good leaders are a whole lot rarer than bad ones and freedom is a lot of work is something that adds depth to your writing and world-building when it’s there – and if anyone doubts this, I strongly recommend a closer look at Sarah’s Darkship Thieves. Athena’s paranoia is perfectly justifiable and sane in the world she’s raised in – and her Daddy Dearest is very much an Evil Overlord. Yes, she is the Evil Overlord’s beautiful daughter. And yes, she does manage to more or less kick off a rebellion. It’s nowhere near as easy as George Lucas would have you think, either.

24 thoughts on “Blast from Antiquity – Overthrowing the Evil Tyrant

  1. Much as I enjoy large chunks of Star Wars, that ease-of-overthrow always bugged me. I always complained, too, that I couldn’t buy the Empire having THAT much control (in a freaking entire GALAXY) after barely more than 20 years of power–a large chunk of which, surely, would have been spent subduing the remnants of the Old Republic.

    On the other hand, I realized early on that when it came to the specifics of world building (or galaxy building in this case), Lucas…was not real great at it. The overall sandbox was great, and great fun to play in, but the nuts and bolts didn’t make a lot of sense.

    As for LOTR, well–Tolkien sidestepped the issue by virtue of the fact that most of the action takes place in the ONE part of the world Sauron had never successfully or fully conquered. He’d made inroads (Angmar in the North, and he succeeded in destroying the Northern kingdom, but he failed to eliminate the Dunedain), but had never full on managed to subdue them in any meaningful way. It’s implied with the treachery of Saruman and the fact that Sauron managed to break Denethor and convince him that there was no way at all to save Gondor that Sauron was getting dang close to it even without the Ring.

    We never do see what was going on in all of those lands to the East and South that had been under Sauron’s thumb for millenia (well, maybe he talks about it in the Silmarillion or the other History of Middle Earth books that I have yet to make it all the way through, heh), although there have been some very excellent fanfics dealing with it at least a little bit–and the really good ones I’ve read show that those lands continue to have problems long after Sauron is destroyed, because you can’t just jump into a golden age of freedom after thousands of years of slavery and tyranny.

    1. The real ending of Return of the Jedi always struck me as about right. The rebels have won a major victory, they’ve taken out both the Emperor and his most likely successor, along with a large portion of his fleet. There are probably quite a few imperials still out there, but there’ll be conflict at the top, none of them are likely to have the same force-powers that the Emperor and Darth Vader had that probably helped them keep control, and the rebels will ultimately prevail.

      The fake ending, clearly made by a pod-person pretending to be the creator of Star Wars, where the Emperor dies and suddenly everyone on dozens of planets is celebrating and tearing down statues? Nope, uh uh, it didn’t happen that way, suspension of disbelief over.

      1. I seem to recall one of the better EU novels talking about what happened on Coruscant right after the events of the movie. A rioting mob ravaged the Imperial Palace, mostly killing helpless servants and looting — and then the Secret Police call /their/ troops out and massacre everyone. At which point the Emperor’s version of Reinhard Heydrich or Ernst Kaltenbrunner says “Palpatine was too forgiving of you scum. We will not make his mistake.”

        It then took, in-setting, almost ten years to liberate Corsucant after Vader’s death.

        1. That is a well-thought-out piece of world building. And pretty much the way it usually works unless overwhelming force razes the entire thing to the ground then rebuilds while sitting on the population and forcing them to behave.

          1. I seem to recall it as being you had three main Imperial factions post-Endor: the politicals (the Moffs, basically the Imperial sector and planetary satraps); the Imperial military, with the remaining naval high command going warlord; and the Emperor’s darksiders who spent a lot of their time getting shot at by Rebels and the first two Imperial factions, who hated their guts.

            Oh and then there were all those Rebel factions that found themselves in possession of abandoned Imperial arsenals, and who decided, “Time to get back to the ethnic cleansing we were doing before the Emperor made us stop!”

        2. Yes. And even then, after Coruscant really is liberated, there’s a nasty surprise hiding there. (The X-wing sub-series, Ghost Squadron books)

        3. and then the Secret Police call /their/ troops out and massacre everyone.

          That’s from one of the X-WING: Rogue Squadron books. Or maybe the first Wraith Squadron book.

          1. Rogue Squadron. I remembered Wraith, but couldn’t remember what came before. I gave all my copies away when I relocated after grad school. The massacre is also mentioned in the first Wraith Squadron title as well.

      2. The irony is that it was clearly based on stopping the transition from republic to empire a la Rome — and the earlier empire was definitely better for your average citizen than the late republic.

    2. Re: Lord of the Rings and the better fanfics – exactly. That’s why Libya, Iraq, and assorted other Middle Eastern nations did not magically acquire modern, free governments after their tyrants were forcibly removed.

      Ugly as it is, the way one obnoxious tyranny in the Middle East falls and gets replaced by another equally obnoxious tyranny – when it’s not followed by outright anarchy, anyway – is the normal way that kind of regime falls.

      People who have never known freedom don’t know what to do with it. What they want is a master who lets them do what they want. What they get is a master. The rest usually isn’t relevant.

      1. Agreed. It also always seemed to me, listening to history that happened in those parts, that the somewhat bizarro Middle East approach to succession (as in, no designated heir, it’s a free for all apparently) was the source of *most* of their problems when it came to having stable governments, tyrannical or otherwise.

        The European monarchies were tyrants, but they were a heck of a lot more *stable* in the long term, seems to me, because they had generally clear and simple lines of succession (and when they didn’t, chaos happened). Granted, it’s more complicated than that, what with their powers having, in theory, limits because of Christianity and the Church and whatnot, but even so–it really struck me, when listening to the history of the Templars (and which therefore addressed the political situation of the Islamic kingdoms during the Crusader era) that really the only reason the Christians in the Near and Middle East weren’t entirely exterminated after the fall of Outremer and the other Crusader kingdoms was because any time the Islamic kingdoms started making serious progress on the subject, the leader would die and things would fall into infighting and civil war almost without fail…

        Hmmm. Come to think on it, that’s also something you don’t often see addressed in most ‘evil overlord’ type fantasy novels. Either because the EO is supernatural in some way (a la Sauron), or…the author just ignores the fact that people in power and otherwise really ought to be very concerned about who’s gonna take the throne when current EO dies. It’s a prime chance for revolutions/rebellions/etc to occur, during a transition of power–especially when there is NO clear and stable transition.

        (I mean…did Palpatine think he was gonna live forever? **SPOILERS** Granted, as of the last Star Wars movie, it looks like he was giving it a damn good go, complete with plans to possess a younger (female, heh) body, so I suppose that moves him into the ‘supernatural EO’ category, at least if he’d succeeded…)

      2. If you want to see a fictional work set in real-life that covers some of your points, please look for a copy of Russell Kirk’s ‘A Creature Of The Twilight’. It’s a darkly comic adventure/satire covering postcolonial African politics and the great powers meddling in the fictional nation of Hamnegri. The sections covering various media articles from the USA with these vapid celebrities being asked to ‘comment on the are especially barbed.

        The main character also comments at one point in the book about how and why the best thing you dare hope for with most human societies is that whatever strongman is in charge is no harsher than he has to be, and has some sense of restraint.

  2. Sarah has pointed out that many rebellions happened after the “evil tyrant” was loosening control.

    It’s also interesting that many rebellions start from within the “middle-class”. IE People who have the leisure to plot (and perhaps enough money to bribe the watchers). They may want to destroy the “evil tyrant” or want to become the new “evil tyrant”.

    Of course, many “evil tyrants” aren’t all-powerful/all-knowing so there’s room for plotters against them to exist.

    Obviously, if the “evil tyrants” (and their heirs) have ruled for generations, the “system” may survive their over-throw. Look at Russia and China for modern examples.

    Still, I think the better stories might involve “would-be evil tyrants” and the attempts to prevent them from taking power.

    1. Russia and China also have very, very deep cultures of central authority backed up by a philosophical system (religion) that makes obedience a strong moral virtue. Trying to write that into a novel is a challenge to do well. And in both cases, the “really evil tyrant” died of (mostly) natural causes, and was replaced by a “less evil but still not great” tyrant as the system ground along in the old pattern.

      That’s not the book most readers probably want from a fantasy/ sci-fi author. Maybe. At least not from a Human Wave sort of author.

      1. Exactly. When the thousand-plus years of culture says “thou shalt obey thy betters”, it’s damned hard for anyone raised in that culture to object. Even more so when the culture also has an extremely strong bias toward the community over the individual.

  3. “When four men sit down to discuss conspiracy, three are government agents and the fourth is a fool.”
    — Tsarist Russian proverb

    And I’m reminded of this:
    Place and time: somewhere in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

    The phone rings at KGB headquarters.


    “My neighbor Yankel Rabinovitz is an enemy of the State. He is hiding undeclared diamonds in his woodshed.”

    “This will be noted.”

    The next day, the KGB goons go over to Rabinovitz’s house. They search the shed where the firewood is kept, break every piece of wood, find no diamonds, swear at Rabinovitz, and leave.

    The phone rings at Rabinovitz’s house. “Hello, Yankel! Did the KGB come?”


    “Did they chop your firewood?”

    “Yes, they did.”

    “Okay, now it’s your turn to call. I need my vegetable patch plowed.”

    1. Heh, that is a good joke. Alas, going by Gulag Archipelago, however, they’d have been arrested anyway and hauled off to meet the quota…

      (It’s still a hilarious joke.)

      1. Ooh, it’s a good one, all right. Reminds me of one my Dad used to tell – although I gather it’s been told many times over with different people. I’ve heard one version was between the East German and West German leaders, other versions between USSR and USA leaders. I’ll go with the US vs USSR version…

        It’s one of those awkward summits between the US and the USSR, with the US president trying desperately to find something innocuous to talk about that won’t fall straight into a conversational black hole. Finally he tries to talk about jokes. “You’ve got to have a sense of humor in this job,” he says. “I collect the jokes people tell about me.”

        To his shock, the USSR president nods. “Da, I collect several camps full of them.”

  4. If anyone here wants to read a good enlightening book about how a religious ‘Secret Police’ worked IRL, check out Henry Kamen’s book on the Spanish Inquisition. He researched religious and secular records, including ones kept by the Inquisition itself. It’s quite bizarre for people who only know the pop history version. Apparently the most hated Inquisition personnel were not the priests themselves, but their ‘familiars’, the unpaid volunteer informants. Even the Inquisitors regarded them as ‘vile, untrustworthy, ignorant creatures driven by spite and envy.’ Whenever rioting broke out in Spain, Inquisitors were beaten up, but familiars were brutally killed.

    For that matter, both the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions ensured that the sporadic outbreaks of vicious witch hunting of the time were quickly contained, saving lives. Maybe when the Noble Heroes try to bring back Ye Goode Olde Days by overthrowing the Wicked Tyrant, whatever clan/race/religion that was getting accused of everything and routinely persecuted for it is the first one to try stopping these lunatics from getting them all killed or enslaved.

    1. Oh, I could see that one working – it’s a nice twist on the “one man’s freedom fighters are another man’s terrorists”.

      I have to admit that the Evil Overlord list mixing in with that would make for a truly hilarious and subversive tale.

      oh, and that book sounds awesome.

  5. The thing is, any EOL worth his salt would resort to magic if he could, rather than untrustworthy men, and so his reign would be stronger but more brittle.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: