To put it nicely, limbo sucks. Well… the dance might not, but the eternal holding place for (depending on precisely what you believe) the unbaptized, those not evil enough for Hell but not good enough for Heaven and not qualifying for Purgatory, anyone caught in management reforms, etcetera and so on forever and ever amen… Ahem

It’s not fun being stuck in a situation where you can’t make a decision until something you can’t control resolves itself. I’ve been there multiple times, and it’s never fun. When an entire bloody country is stuck in limbo, well… About the best thing that can be said about that is that at least the bastards can’t do anything to make things worse.

Yes, I’m cynical. I’ve long held the opinion that the only problem with a hung parliament is that nobody will take it literally. Similarly, I’m quite certain that not only are almost all politicians corrupt, the set up of pretty much any governing body is largely designed to attract the corrupt and corruptible. Us sensible folks don’t want to deal with the hassle.

This is one of the reasons I don’t do light and fluffy. I came of age in one of the more notoriously corrupt Australian states, and grew to have a very jaded view of any and all authority figures as a result of that (I particularly despise the jocular, avuncular types. They’ll throw you under the bus without blinking).

This is kind of awkward when it comes to fictional governments. The “wise king” is such a strong fantasy trope that we tend to forget that said king really only has access to a collection of extremely filtered information. Unlike us modern folks, the average historical or fantasy king is making decisions based on what his advisors tell him. Even when he’s got magical assistance, if the advisors are corrupt, or the people gathering information for the advisors are corrupt, the king’s decisions are going to be… skewed. To put it nicely.

On the flip side of the technological divide, the problem in any high-tech society isn’t a lack of information so much as finding a way to sort the important stuff from the noise. And boy is there ever noise. Today’s society is so loaded with stuff parading itself around and pretending to be useful information that most of us can’t deal with it. I certainly can’t: I start from the default position that at least 90% of anything that’s coming through the media is false. Whether it’s outright lies, spin, shading the facts, or just plain ignorance doesn’t matter. It’s pretty much all inaccurate, not least because we’re currently several generations into what I sincerely hope is not deliberate torpedoing of the educational system to produce obedient little drones.

Honestly, in many ways Huxley’s Brave New World is way more frightening than Orwell’s 1984. No matter how many idiots mistake the latter for an instruction manual.

So how can a somewhat realistic and flawed government be portrayed in fiction?

I’d say the question is why would an author want to portray a realistic government? After all, I’m pretty sure there isn’t going to be much of a market for fictional versions of Hansard or the Congressional Record. At least, not unless they’re being sold as cures for insomnia, and even then you’re pushing it.

Seriously, when it comes to fiction, anything that’s not going to impact the plot and the characters is there to illustrate the plot or characters, or it probably shouldn’t be there. It’s often better to ignore the government system (unless your character has to deal with it – poor sod) or to use a broad brush and give the impression of something that’s familiar to readers than to try to detail it out. If the main character is bribing a government official, you can show any issues with corruption by how easily said official folds, what, precisely they get bribed with, whether there’s an expectation of quid pro quo, how scared the parties are of getting caught, and so on.

If you want to be really nasty to your characters, you can have them needing to have some official permit and a lovely dysfunctional setup where in order to acquire the permit they have to cycle through half a dozen different departments each requiring a different form that must be filled out completely and properly notarized in triplicate… ahem… getting a little over-bureaucratic there.

The thing is, it doesn’t really matter what kind of governing body a fictional setting uses, because it’s mostly background or a source of obstacles and an occasional bit of necessary help for the protagonists. The story itself could largely function without change if the government was different because all governments serve more or less the same functions (how well they serve them is a different matter and one to be endlessly debated). The characters aren’t going to get stuck in limbo waiting endlessly for someone to make the decision that lets them move forward. They’re not going to spend the book in a holding pattern (at least, not if you want to sell copies to more than your relatives and some people with very, very strange tastes).

We, alas, do not have that luxury.

40 thoughts on “Limbo

  1. Retief. We don’t know all that much detail about the government behind Retief’s chunk of the diplomatic corps, but we can infer that it’s . . . not too far from our own in terms of The Peter Principle being alive and well.

    [The Peter Principle – people in a bureaucracy rise to their level of incompetence.]

  2. I’m inclined to say ‘Yeah’ and ‘yeah’.

    I’m maybe getting sorted out on plotting my mess.

    Which is set during a period of political chaos in an imaginary Japan. The previous prime minister is gone due to a security forces scandal involving a plot that could have blown up most of Japan, and the four candidates from four political factions are all very bad men. But one of the factions is the Japanese Dixiecratic Party, which I invented precisely because I wanted readers aware that the thing is not intended to be a realistic political thriller. One of the four is going to be killed by a lunatic with a sword, and I think the actual winner is going to have to be decided by gambling over a card game. Writing this comment helped me figure out the latter, because I don’t want to learn spend weeks of research time on the Japanese political process, unconventional decision making is thematic, I am seriously fed up, and do not want to write a tedious orthodox political process. I’ve chosen to write about desperately nuts Japanese voters, why not use that?

    1. Why not, indeed? Going for insanity sounds just fine to me – it might be like Britain’s Raving Loony party winning, but what the heck. I can imagine circumstances where something like that would actually happen.

      1. Argh. I’m going to need to invent a Lord Buckethead expy to throw in there, somehow, aren’t I?

        My planned victorious PM is actually quite boring in terms of party. Liberal Democrat Party. Leaving them out of such a story would be more fantastic than any of the things I’m hoping to pull off.

  3. Don’t forget Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.”

    So, it should be no surprise that 90% of what you see on the internet is crap.

    Mind you, I think the government has exceeded Ted Sturgeon’s expectations…
    Most days, I suspect that we could get a better government by picking 535 people at random. On bad days, I’m certain we’d get a better government by picking 535 people at random from lunatic asylums.

    1. Sturgeon is an optimist. At least 99% of everything is crap. And 120% of government (insert your own joke about how they tally that)

  4. The main advantage of a “wise king” is that it gives you stability, so your characters don’t have to DEAL with all that gov’t stuff– they have roads, and there are laws, and if someone is a bandit they are PROBABLY not also the military and police for the nice town you just left.

    It’s kind of like how most authors assume a basically Christian based morality, where it’s not OK to kill someone and take their stuff simply because you can do so safely. If you don’t want to write about culture-shock, you write where it’s not required.

    Watching Inuyasha again, and because of the time when the history part is set, you can’t really tell bandits from lordlings except via “hey, their leader is in a house, and their leader is in a town with women.”

    1. I’m playing with a more organically developed fantasy setting where there are very few Roman style roads– because roads are EXPENSIVE, and when everybody has a bag of holding, why bother? It just tells the two-legged predators where to hunt.

      1. Oh, I like that idea. As I recall most roads didn’t get back to Roman standards until somewhere in the 1800s, so nasty, muddy, dangerous tracks that people are scared to use unless they’re traveling in force? Damn good idea, and you’ve got a whole lot more opportunity for interesting encounters that may or may not impact your plot.

        1. Given what Eisenhower and Patton reported trying to move troops in 1920(?), it was longer than that here.

        2. Thank you! That’s basically neighbors on the logic I was using– heck, it started with my grandma’s stories of what it was like to drive from Texas to the Oregon border when she dropped my grandfather off for Army training. (Bridges that were literally planks of wood you carried across were involved.)

          Plus, it lets me keep a sense of huge to the world– it’s easy to import stuff, you only need one guy with a backpack, but you can also have no idea where things come from. And because the bag of holding suspends aging in anything it carries, it preserves the items. So food isn’t a big problem, importing is a big deal but not something you need incredible numbers for, bandits are a problem but not a wipe-everyone-out problem….

          Basically, a standard fantasy world, but one that makes sense to me.

          1. I suspect it would be a world with few large kingdoms (or other “nations”).

            Without somewhat good roads, it would be hard to move troops even with “bags of holding”.

            “Hordes” of Orcs might have an easier time over-whelming “civilized areas”.

            1. If your characters re-invent the King road grade (needing a team of horses, chain, and two long, heavy logs), they can make a dirt road surface more like pinwale corduroy as opposed to wide-wale corduroy. It’s still a terrible road but not as terrible.

  5. Yes. We all want the Patrician and we get Mad Lord Snapcase.

    Until Covid-19 shut down in-person meetings, I attended township meetings enough to know my board of supervisors and various department heads. That can be useful, but it doesn’t do my story any good to know who to complain to about an illegal short-term vacation rental.

    Noblesse oblige is good because then your better class of ristos feel some sense of obligations flowing down as well as up.

    1. Well, yeah… I had fun with the whole noblesse oblige idea when I was writing Impaler: I wrote Vlad as someone who genuinely believes he’s responsible for the welfare of the people he rules.

      And in all honesty, I think Mad Lord Snapcase may be one of the better choices.

      Can we run a write-in campaign for Havelock Vetinari? I mean, only the mimes would have issues with that.

    1. If the things don’t involve short ropes, high lampposts, and their own necks, I’d rather not know. If they do, well, it’s less than they deserve.

  6. Um, ’bout the educational system, yeah, and the researcher/teacher/author you want is one John Taylor Gatto.

    Sorry about that, Kate.

    1. Shame there aren’t more like him – no matter how good he is, he’s one person, and bureaucracy excels at grinding the outstanding into the same mealy mediocrity they prefer. If they can’t make them conform, they break them.

    1. True, that. Magical assistance can even help overcome the filtering issue – although if magical assistance is telling the good king everything the signal to noise ratio issue comes into play.

      I’m honestly not sure there is a “correct” amount of information a leader needs.

      1. Well, there can be recursive filtering if the magic can be applied to produce good governors, etc.

    2. Maybe.
      Maybe not.
      I could easily see false confidence in a truthsaying spell causing many problems as a story was retold several times by several people. Not to mention people not sharing important information because they fear self-incrimination.
      And more powerful abilities would have more potential to go awry.

      The wise king has a few advantages.
      First, his reach is limited, and he darned well knows it.
      Second, he knows that nearly all the information he receives passes through a number of self-interested filters before reaching his ears. (Why would the king personally adjucate disputes between minor mobility and tradesmen several times a month? To keep a finger on the pulse, of course. It’s direct information about what’s going on in the realm, with vigorous cross-examination between the interested parties. That it gives the ruler a reputation for caring about justice and feeling a sense of duty towards his subjects is a nice side effect.)
      Third, he has a strong well of tradition to draw from, and be constrained by.
      Fourth, his enemies are mainly family. The taboo against kinslaying is pretty universal.

      Of course, this does kind of rest on a religious/cultural expectation that there’s an obligation that is owed to those you have power over. Some oriental versions of feudalism can be pretty horrifying in the best of circumstances.

  7. “So how can a somewhat realistic and flawed government be portrayed in fiction? I’d say the question is why would an author want to portray a realistic government?”

    I’ve been having a jolly good time with my overpowered characters -ignoring- the government. I can make it as realistic as I want, because it can’t DO anything. What does the government official do when the bear wants more cake? They give her more cake!

    This can be quite amusing. ~:D

    FAA space lawyer visits giant tank named Athena in the Arizona desert with a court order to stop illegal space launches from her gigantic rail gun. Hilarity ensues.

    Joint Chiefs meet werewolf on Memorial Day at Arlington. She’s very nice, as werewolves go. They need to have a little lie down afterward.

    Two star admiral and his protection detail meet Alice Haddison wearing the Mobile Infantry jump armor and try to push her around. That goes about the way one would expect, given Alice.

    Regiment of Canadian troops meet 20 foot tall Brunhilde and her 20mm chain gun in the middle of Main Street in Hamilton. “Hello boys! Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

    I confess to a certain schoolboy-level sniggering around this topic, the government minions never get a fair shake. There’s always some giant with a Gatling gun, a huge incomprehensible alien, werewolf or invisible robot ninja there to screw over their official business. Armed civilians cheerfully ignoring pushy officials is definitely a theme.

    1. Oh my. Government officials vs super-powered types who don’t really care about “legal” as long as it works. That’s not going to end well – for the government officials.

      Honestly, anyone who’s managed to reach any level of high rank in the government is either damn good at compartmentalizing what they have to do to advance or they’ve succumbed to the rules uber alles mentality and stopped caring whether the rules made sense. (I’m damn sure all the government workers who read here are the former type rather than the latter)

      1. Unless the superpowers manage to find paragons of probity, it has grave potential to end badly for everyone.

        I read lawyers who are all grave about vigilantism among superheroes, and the fact of it is that wearing a costume and not telling you their names is something you will just have to live with not only because you can’t stop them, but because they are your only hope against villains.

        1. And if you don’t reach an accommodation with them, they’ll ALL become villains just for survival.

          And unless you can detect who HAS powers before they start using them, there aren’t a lot of ways to get rid of them.

          Wearing The Cape covers that better than I can.

          1. I’m working on a story where the first thing anyone does after possibly acquiring powers is get run through a LOT of tests to flush any powers out. They still miss some, though the powers they just miss are getting to be esoteric after a decade of building tests, and some they just can’t test. Various invulnerabilities, for instance.

    2. My problem with that sort of thing is that it assumes that the super-powered beings are Right and the government is automatically wrong.

      Image of a Captain Planet type destroying people’s lives in the Name Of The Environment. 😈

      1. Oh, I “loved” what the Avenger Movies did with Thanos.

        Instead of having Thanos wanted to “kill lots of people to gain Death’s love”, Thanos killed half of the population of the universe to fight “over-population”.

        Considering the number of Real World people who think over-population is a major problem, doesn’t that make Thanos the “Good Guy”?

        1. I hope he disposed of the bodies in an environmentally conscious way, otherwise the other half of the population would end up in deep trouble from all the nasties that come along with decomposition in addition to the supply issues that come from taking 50% of the supply chain out more or less at random.

          1. Thanos just “snapped his fingers” and the people where just gone (remembered but gone).

            Of course, I doubt that he (or the movie makers) thought much about the problems caused by half of the population just disappearing. 😉

      2. You’re right of course, not a safe assumption that the super power will be in good hands.

        But then that’s true of pretty much anything. Will the [insert technology here] be in good hands? No, most likely not. It’ll be in -human- hands, and no wielded by the angels.

        But I’ve read enough of those kind of stories to last me, frankly. If I never read another “Flawed Hero With Feet Of Clay” earnest tome deconstructing the genre, it’ll be too soon.

        In -this- story the heroes are heroic, the villain is villainous, the science is sciency, and the robots are fabulous. Because when was the last time you read one of those?

        1. Have you ever read the Wearing The Cape books?

          I consider it a good read with realistic super-heroes without being “un-fun”.

          Part of the fun IMO is having Good People who are Heroic and are Real People.

          Nobody’s perfect in this fictional world but the Heroes are True Heroes.

          And yes, the Author (Marion Harmon) has created a world where the Heroes can be Heroic and have good relations with the Various Government.

          Oh, there were some stupid governments that “did everything wrong” regarding the appearance of super-beings but the governments that survived found ways to work with the supers who wanted to Help People and Society.

          Of course, some governments in the “current day” of this universe have “made mistakes” like an Illinois Governor who wanted all the Illinois Super-Hero Teams to remain in Illinois even when they might be needed elsewhere in the US and the world. Note, most American Super-Hero Teams are legally part of their State Militias (not State National Guards).

          Oh, one of the main characters didn’t obey his orders and the Governor had a very big Political Problem afterwords.

          Politically he couldn’t punish her but even she knew that there was a price to be paid for her violating his legal order.

          It worked out. 😉

          1. Does the politics very well.

            (I didn’t do the politics in Through A Mirror, Darkly. At all. It wasn’t the focus.)

            1. I loved the scene where the European Super-Team Leader is trying to get permission from a non-super General to lead her team into Brussels because nobody has heard anything from Brussels (after a major attack on this world’s EU).

              Somewhat reasonable, the General is concerned about other attacks.

              The argument is cut off when a certain character “hacks into” their communications.

              After they hear what the character says, the General orders the super-team to see if what the character said is true.

              Oh, the European Super-Team Leader has been outwardly polite but the readers know what she’s thinking. 😆

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