Building theocracy in fiction

Ask a lot of Americans (and other Westerners in general) what the scariest form of government is, and you’ll probably get the same answer from most of them: Islamic fundamentalist. We’re constantly bombarded (no pun intended) with all kinds of news about ISIS, Iran, the Taliban, sharia law, and the like. Some of it is exaggerated, but not all. For many people, a legal system constructed around strict Islamic principles is indeed a frightening prospect. (Funnily enough, some of those same people wouldn’t mind a strict Christian code of laws, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Islamic government and law form a subset of the general notion of a theocracy: government by religion. Although we strongly associate it with the Middle East today, it has always been around, in many different guises through the ages. The Vatican is essentially a theocracy, for example. Many medieval European nations, where kings were considered to rule by divine will and church law was sacrosanct, could be said to have theocratic underpinnings. The Puritans who came to America did so because they wanted a utopia where everyone followed their interpretation of the Bible. And that’s just in the West.

Theocracy is also one of those forms of government that appears often in fiction. Especially fantasy, where there’s the very real possibility of gods walking the earth; here, the literal translation of the term, “rule by god”, can be entirely accurate. But theocracy can pop up in historical fiction, too, and even sci-fi. Religion is a fact of life, as long as we live in modernish human societies, and there’s always the possibility that someone decides to invert the American ideal of separation of church and state.

Now, by our standards, theocracy is quite obviously a bad thing. We see ISIS lopping off heads, we hear tales of women being stoned to death because they were raped, we listen to talking heads speaking of the evils of sharia law, and it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that, hey, this isn’t a good idea.

On the other side of the aisle, we then see members of a different faith arguing that the Ten Commandments should be posted in courthouses, that Muslims should be banned from entering our country just on account of their beliefs, and that it’s okay for children to be forced to recite an oath calling the US “one nation under God“. Those are theocratic trappings, as well, and they’re no more wholesome than requiring a woman to wear a burqa in public.

Of gods and men

But enough politics. Let’s talk about theocracy as an institution, and how you can use it in your fictional worlds.

The basic idea, obviously, is that the government is constructed in such a way as to give primacy to religion. That can come in many forms, however, ranging from token to suffocating.

First, a “lighter” theocracy exists in places like Elizabethan England or the modern United States. Orthodoxy is paramount. Heresy and apostasy are denounced, possibly outlawed, but only outright persecuted when they reach a critical mass. Laws show deference to religion, and government quite clearly favors the majority or plurality, but there is also a significant secular code that must be followed. These theocracies can almost be considered benign, especially if you’re one of those who follows the “favored” faith.

Second are the medieval-style theocracies. Here, it’s not that church officials run the country, or that scripture is considered the first and last word in justice. No, this “medium” theocracy has religion as subtle yet pervasive. One sect is explicitly established as primary, and its teachings are used as a basis for law, but it is open to interpretation, and there stand some (such as kings) above the law by divine fiat. Following a different religion will mark you as an outcast in this style of theocracy, but it’s not an automatic death sentence. There may even be enclaves for non-believers, much as Jews often had their ghettoes in medieval times (and much later).

Higher on the scale are the “hard” theocracies like Saudi Arabia, and these, when they appear in fiction, are almost always of the “evil empire” sort. This is where beliefs have the power of law…but only if they don’t simply replace it. Not only is scriptural text the basis for the law code, it is the law. Violating holy precepts is considered a crime, ranging from a petty misdemeanor all the way up to high treason. Worse, it’s usually the faction in charge who gets to decide how the holy books are interpreted. Heresy is effectively rebellion, etc.

Last is the “literal” theocracy I mentioned above. This one can’t possibly exist in our natural world, but it’s doable in fantasy fiction. Here, a divine (or presumed divine, or just divinely inspired) being actually rules a nation. His word is both law and holy writ, and there’s no way that can be good. Usually, this type is more a foil for the protagonists, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Ian C. Esselmont’s Stonewielder, or Brian McClellan’s An Autumn Republic. Another option is that it’s a kind of utopian facade, where it looks like the godhead is benevolent and peaceful, but there are deeper strains; this one is especially good for polytheistic theocracies, and you could make an argument that that’s the case in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

In the shadow of the gods

Depending on how heavy the theocratic leanings of a government, living can be essentially normal or worse than Communist Russia. It’s not that theocracy implies a police state or tyrannical overlord; that’s just the natural tendencies of mankind. There’s nothing stopping a theocracy from being something great, except that old maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely. And what more absolute power is there than godhood? We see something similar with autocratic nations like North Korea, where the leader isn’t necessarily deified, but he’s the next best thing. Making government infallible (as a strong theocracy does) also makes it unimpeachable.

But a lot of it depends on the religion. Not merely what the holy texts say, but how they’re read. Moderate Muslims despise ISIS for cherry-picking verses, using them and only them to justify their ways. It’s no different from would-be Christian theocrats in America, quoting Leviticus as an argument to make homosexuality illegal while ignoring all the other awful stuff that book (and the rest of the Bible) contains. And it’s not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. Buddhist governments have done some pretty awful things. The Romans tolerated other religions until their followers got too uppity. Look through history, and you’ll see the same thing repeated everywhere.

That’s the bad, but is there good? Can there be good in theocracy? As a writer, I say yes. Maybe not in the way actual humans would do it, but I can construct a plausible chain of events that would lead to a relatively benign faith-based government. It would almost have to be a polytheistic faith, I think, one involving multiple “parties” of gods who often face off against one another. One probably without a lot of written scripture, maybe, or where that’s mostly limited to mythological tales. Something where “good” qualities are similar to our own. Imagine, for instance, a theocracy based on the Greek pantheon.

Getting to that point

But it’s those in-between events that I find more fascinating. How does a theocracy arise? How does it end?

Charisma, I believe, plays a factor in developing a theocracy. It doesn’t have to be individual, though that’s certainly an option, but charismatic religious leaders could convince the populace that theocratic rule is a good choice. Another possibility is a converted king, because converts are always the most zealous adherents of a faith. And then there’s the force option, as theocracy is proclaimed as a result of a revolution, but that again takes a certain amount of diplomacy to get the general population on board.

Ending a theocracy is a bit harder, particularly if it’s one of the harder varieties. Of course, a literal gods-among-us fantasy theocracy has an easy solution: kill the god. When you’re dealing with his subordinates, however, that doesn’t quite work; there’s always more to take their place. So, you need something stronger.

Outside influence can work, and that can take any form ranging from propaganda to direct interference to invasion. (“It’s not invasion, but liberation,” the outsiders would say in that case.) Popular revolt is another method that has been shown to work in the real world, but that implies two things. One, there really is support for overthrowing the priesthood—not always a given, especially on the eve of rebellion. Second, there’s a plan for replacing the theocracy itself, not just those at its head. It’s one thing to talk about turning, say, Iran into a democracy. Doing it (and not making the people there hate you for it) is another matter entirely.

The future of theocracy

Last, let’s talk about the idea of theocracy in science fiction. Now, that’s something that may not seem like it makes much sense. The future is supposed to be humanist, agnostic, or irreligious. Maybe all the people aren’t, but the setting itself typically considers religion to be, at best, a character quirk.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re dealing with a spacefaring humanity, then there’s the potential for having colonies (planets in other solar systems, local asteroids, O’Neill habitats, etc.) that are designed for one specific culture. For example, a generation ship designed and built for the Mormons figures in James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes (and the TV series The Expanse). One could just as easily imagine an orbital ring inhabited entirely by displaced Palestinians, or a literal Plymouth Rock in the asteroid belt, where next-century Puritans could build their new Eden. And once aliens get involved, then you have their religions to think about; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shows one way that could go.

These futuristic theocracies will have much in common with their modern or older ancestors. How much, of course, depends on many factors. First, how did they arise? “ISIS in Space” is going to be an entirely different sort of theocracy than some billionaire resurrecting the Levellers on a kilometer-long spin station as a social experiment. Second, how deep are the theocratic roots? Are we talking about a serious attempt at “a Biblical way of life”, or just “I want to live in a place where everybody goes to church on Sundays”? These factors, among others, will determine the character of a theocratic culture. That, in turn, will give you a good idea of where it stands on the utopia to tyranny axis.

In the real world, theocracies are justifiably frightening. For people who are tolerant or even nonbelievers, they show the worst that religious thought can offer. But in fictional settings, they can be a valuable asset. Whether ideal or idol, the mixing of church and state can bring about interesting social dynamics, conflicts, and character growth.

Magic and tech: cities

In today’s world, over half the planet’s population lives in urban areas. In other words, cities. That’s a lot, and the number is only increasing as cities grow ever larger, ever more expansive. Even on the smaller end (my local “big” city, Chattanooga, has somewhere around a quarter of a million people, and it’s not exactly considered huge), the city is a marker of human habitation, human civilization, and human culture. It’s a product of its people, its time and place.

In the city

The oldest cities are really old. Seriously. The most ancient ones we’ve found date back about 10,000 years, places like Çatalhöyük. Ever since then, the history of the world has centered on the urban. These oldest cities might have housed a few hundred or thousand people, probably as a way of ensuring mutual protection and the sharing of goods. But some eventually grew into monsters, holding tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, primarily to ensure mutual protection and the sharing of goods.

Looked at a certain way, that’s really all a city is: a centralized place where people live together. The benefits are obvious. It’s harder to conquer a city’s multitudes. There’s always somebody around if you need help. Assuming it’s there, you don’t have to go very far to find what you’re looking for. In a rural area, you don’t have any of that.

Of course, clustering all those people together has its downsides. In pre-modern times, two of those were paramount. First, every person living in a city was one not working in the fields, which meant that somebody else had to do the work of growing the city-dweller’s food and shipping it to the urban market. Great for economics, but now you’re depending on a hinterland that you don’t necessarily have access to.

The second problem is one we still struggle with today, and that is sanitation. I’m not just talking about sewage (which wasn’t nearly as big a problem in some old cities as we typically imagine), but a more general idea of public health. Cities are dirty places, mostly because they have so many people. Infections are easier to spread. Waste has to go somewhere, as does trash. Industry, even the pre-industrial sort, produces pollution of the air and water. And water itself becomes a commodity; even though most older cities were built near rivers or lakes (for obvious reasons), it might not be the cleanest source, especially in an unusually dry season.

Through the ages

A city’s character has changed throughout history. While they’ve retained their original purpose of being a gathering place for humanity, the other purposes they serve fall into a few different categories, some of which are more important in certain eras.

First of all, a city is an economic center. It holds the markets, the fairs, the trading houses. Sure, a village can have a weekly market pretty easily, but it takes a city to provide the infrastructure necessary for permanent shops and vendors. This includes food sellers, of course, but also craftsmen and artisans in older days, factories and department stores today. You don’t see Wal-Mart sticking a new store out in the middle of nowhere (the nearest to me are each about 10 miles away, in cities of about 10,000), and that’s for the same reason why, say, a medieval village won’t have a general shop: it’s not profitable. (The Wild West trope of the dry goods store is a special case. They provided needed materials to settlers, miners, and railroad workers, which was profitable.)

Another purpose of a city is as an administrative center. It’s a seat of government, a home to whatever the culture’s notion of justice entails. In modern times, that means a police force, a city council or mayor, a courthouse, a fire department, and so on. Cultures with cities will begin to centralize around them, and these central cities may later grow into states, city-states, nations, and even empires. Larger cities also have a way of “projecting” themselves; all roads lead to Rome, and how many Americans can name all five of New York City’s boroughs, but can’t name that many counties in their home state? With national and imperial capitals, this projection is even greater, as seen in London, Washington, Beijing, etc. This ties into both the economic reason above, as capitals of administration are very often capitals of commerce, and the one we’re about to see.

Thirdly, cities become cultural centers. While projecting force and economic power outward, they do the same for their culture. This develops naturally from the greater audiences the city provides; it’s hard for an artist to find patronage when he lives out in the country. (That’s just as true in 2017 as it was in 1453, by the way.) And since cities provide stability that rural areas can’t, this creates more incentive for creative types to move downtown. This creates a snowball effect, often spurred on by government investment—grants in modern times, patronage in eras past—until the city begins to take on a cultural character all its own. Like begets like in this case, and in a larger nation with multiple big cities, a kind of specialization arises: movies are for Los Angeles, Memphis has the blues, Vegas is where you go to gamble.

Now with magic

So that’s cities in the real world: urban centers of commerce, government, art, defense, and so many other things. What about in a magical world?

In many cases, it depends on how magic works in the setting. Magic that can be “industrialized” is easy: it effectively becomes another public service (if it requires infrastructure such as artificial “ley lines”—I have written a series based on exactly this concept) or private industry (if it instead takes skilled craftsmanship, as with enchanters in fantasy RPGs). In both of these cases, magic can almost fade into the background, becoming a part of the city’s very fabric.

For the slightly rarer and much less powerful magic we’ve been talking about in this series, it’s a bit of a different story. Yes, there will be magical industries, crafts, and arts; we’ve seen them in earlier parts. As magic in our realm is predictable, almost scientific, it will be used by those who depend on that predictability and repeatability. That includes both the private and public sectors. And enterprising mages will certainly sell the goods they create. That may be in a free market, or their prices and supplies might be tightly controlled, creating a black market for magical items.

If magic can be harnessed for public works, then that implies that cities in our magical realm are, by default, cleaner than their real-world contemporaries. They won’t be dystopian disaster areas like Victorian London or modern Flint. They’ll have clean streets and healthier, longer-lived people than their predecessors. Again, the snowball starts rolling here, because those very qualities, along with the city’s other aspects, will function as advertising, drawing immigrants from the countryside. And the automation and advancement we’ve already said will come to food production lets them do it. Thus, it’s not nearly as hard as you think to get a magical city up to, say, half a million in population.

The main thrust of this series has been that magic can effectively replace technology in certain types of worldbuilding. That’s never more true than in the city. Technology has made cities possibly in every era. The first urban areas arose about the same time as farming, and there’s no denying a connection there. Iron Age advances created the conditions necessary for the first true metropolises, and industrialization, machinery, and electricity gave us our modern megacities. At each stage, magic can create a shortcut, allowing cities to grow as large as they could in the “next” technological leap forward.

Magic and tech: government

Fantasy’s association with the High Middle Ages has the unfortunate side effect of locking the entire genre into the feudal monarchy of medieval Europe, specifically England. True, there are counterexamples, and the subgenre of “flintlock fantasy”, set in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, allows authors to explore other varieties of government, but the classic of kings and lords and knights is still prominent. Does it have to be?

No, it doesn’t. It’s just the default option. We’re used to reading feudal fantasy, so that’s what we think of when we consider the genre. But, as I’ve written before, it’s not the only way to go.

This series, however, is about magic and technology, not politics. So how does magic affect government? Well, we’ll see. First, though, a warning: unlike most other posts in the series, this one will skip right to the meat of the question. My earlier post on fantasy governments (linked above) does a good enough job of explaining the kinds of government available.

The rule of magic

In our magical realm, we don’t have some of the stranger varieties of magic. Total surveillance, for example, isn’t feasible. Precognition is out. Remember, we’re working with a much more down-to-earth system of arcane art.

That also means that wizards aren’t all-powerful. Although it’s obvious that government would utilize magic, it won’t be dominated by it. There simply isn’t the power, nor are there enough practitioners. We’re in that sweet spot where magic isn’t strong enough to take over, but it will still have a sizable influence. In that, it’s a bit like lobbying in our own time.

What it can do, however, is make the government more modern, just as it does for most other aspects of society. Kings kept power because they had it. Some used their power to increase that same power, leading to absolute monarchies like France and Russia. Others had checks on royal prerogative, such as England or the elected rulers of central Europe.

Magic will be another check on power. The government can’t regulate or repress all aspects of it, and it knows that. The only other option is to accept magic for what it is, to work with it rather than against it. So that’s what our magical realm does. By accepting that there is a segment of the population (the wizards) with strength out of proportion to its size, the government takes a reduction in its own power for the sake of stability.

Rulers understand that a wizard could, if he so chose, assassinate them easily. That fear is a motivator, a damper on the inevitable slide towards tyranny. Thus, we have a system that does not become an absolute dictatorship. Our magical society is not an empire whose reins are held in one pair of hands.

But magic is also a counter to heredity. While it may be passed down from parents to their children, it can also occur in “wild” form. If anyone can potentially become a mage, from the royal family to the lowest beggar, but there’s no guarantee that mages will give their status to the next generation, then there can’t be an arcane aristocracy. A preexisting mundane one remains, but it is weakening.

In historical Europe, the Black Death was one of the causes of the manorial system’s downfall; for our fantasy realm, the discovery and harnessing of magic fulfills the same purpose. Magic decreases the need for labor, freeing lower-class citizens from the restraints of land-working. As they spend more time idle, there’s less cause to tie them to the land of a manor lord. Cities are growing, trades flourishing, exactly as in the later 14th century and into the 15th.

Our magical realm isn’t a republic, but it is showing signs of moving in that direction. Both the mages (from their magic) and the growing middle class (from their newfound freedom of social movement) have asked for a share of the governing. They’re still willing to defer to their king, but not to submit before him. Thus, a parliamentary monarchy is in the process of forming, as in medieval England.

On a more local level, while some lords retain their power, the cities are often experimenting with elected governors and mayors. Typically, these are, in fact, mages; they’re considered good candidates because they are obviously both intelligent and restrained. Mundane people can hold office, but they have to be exceptional. Institutionalized elections are in the future, but ad hoc representation is taking hold.

Summing up

So that’s where we stand. Our magical kingdom isn’t ruled by a tyrant, whether an iron-fisted dictator or a grand, evil wizard. It’s rather more like what we’re used to, and closer to today than “then”. And things are only going to get better. Just as magic has compressed the scientific advancement of a few centuries into the span of decades, it’s doing the same for government. True representative government may not be that far off.

This is largely because of the ground rules we’ve made. Since magic isn’t world-shattering in its power, and it’s too common to be confined to a small cabal, the conditions for a “thaumatocracy” just aren’t there. Instead, we get something that’s marginally ahead of the “high” fantasy still stuck in the 1200s, something more like a post-gunpowder, pre-modern setting. Think less Agincourt and more Yorktown. With magic, we come closer to Reformation and Revolution, because the world is moving, and it will take government along for the ride.


On this day, it’s hard for an American to not think about revolution and rebellion. But what does it mean to revolt? And how can we incorporate that into worldbuilding?

In real life, revolutions are bloody business. Here, we’re familiar with the American Civil War. Essentially, the southern portion of the US declared itself an independent, sovereign state. The rest took exception to that, and the next four years were spent fighting it out. Less than a century before that, British colonists did the same thing, but with one key difference: they won.

Some rebellions are successful, like the American one or Russia’s October Revolution of November 1917 (don’t ask about the dates). Others, such as the Confederacy (1861-65) and the Boxer Rebellion of China (1899-1901), were crushed. In modern times, further examples are the Arab Spring uprisings of five years ago, the Sudanese Civil War that created the nation of South Sudan (now undergoing its own rebellion), or the seemingly interminable conflict in Syria.

All these have one thing in common: they were or are violent affairs. When Scotland attempted to secede from the United Kingdom, it was seeking to become recognized peacefully, and such a feat is nearly unheard of. Nationalism is a strong force, and those who have power rarely want to give it up; those factors combine to ensure that independence will almost always come from the barrel of a gun, not a signature and a stamp.

Building the revolution

For authors, that’s a good thing. Horrible though it may be to live through a revolution, writing about it from afar is safe enough. The setting is ripe with conflict, from the military to the dramatic. And since these times of upheaval are all but guaranteed to be laced with violence, they fit any of the bloodier genres, too.

What makes a good revolution, though? First, there needs to be a reason for it to exist. Why do certain people think they’d be better off without their mother country? The colonists in America complained about unfair taxation and, well, colonialism. So did India, for that matter. The Bolsheviks had a particular political ideology they wanted to enforce on their country. ISIS seems to want general discord and chaos. The reasons are varied, and the exact nature of the revolutionaries’ aims will determine much about the setting.

After you know why these guys are fighting, you can look at how. Pitched battles are nice if you can afford the manpower, the weapons, and the skilled officers, and if the time period fits. Nowadays, the mother country would just drop bombs on the front lines. But your options don’t have to go straight to armed conflict. Some revolutions might start that way, but many begin as political movements that later snowball into an unstoppable—or entirely stoppable, for those that failed—forces of change. Early on, a small, close-knit group can wage a war of words, spreading propaganda and information, whispering against the establishment, and so on.

Once the true fighting starts, then you’ve moved beyond a simple revolution and into a civil war. A civil war is, at its heart, a war, and we know how to write those. But its nature will add new dimensions. It’s not a case of fighting a bunch of strangers from a faraway land. Now you’re fighting your neighbors, your former countrymen. Nor will it be a symmetrical conflict. The rebels will most likely be outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered. They’ll have, at best, the support of the people and whatever materiel they were able to smuggle, steal, or bring from home. They are what we might call an underdog.

That leads us to a third question, one that only the author can answer for certain. Are the rebels right? It’s not necessarily a case of good versus evil. The mother country may very well have a legitimate government, rather than being a tyrannical empire. The rebels could openly advocate terrorism. And there can be factions on both sides. Black and white worked for Star Wars, but some works need to take things more seriously, and that means shades of gray.

A simple illustration of our own time should make all of this more clear. Take Syria, as it has been for the entirety of this decade. Bashar al-Assad is the country’s head of state. By all accounts, he’s a nasty sort, with the dictatorial bent so common in the Middle East, but he has the legitimate claim to rule. The wave of rebellions sparked by Arab Spring came to Syria, and the populace rose up against him, just like they did in Tunisia, Egypt, Algiers, and elsewhere. Assad fought back, and the two sides have been locked in civil war ever since.

But here’s the rub. The rebels of Syria were not one cohesive unit. They were made up of a number of smaller groups, each with its own grievances and goals. But in 2011, most people would be rooting for their side, because they were perceived as fighting the good fight. All would have been well, except that one of those rebel factions was ISIS. A work as simplistic as Star Wars could never hope to convey the machinations of a revolutionary force containing a subgroup objectively worse than the Evil Empire, not while trying to maintain the “David and Goliath” narrative.

Revolutions, to put it plainly, are complex. They’re tricky business. Writing one is hard work, a juggling act that many might want to avoid. For those who try, I wish you all the luck in the world. Whether you go the easy “rebels fighting the empire” route or all the way to Game of Thrones-level political scheming, you know it’s gonna be alright.

Fantasy governments

As we get ever deeper into this seemingly unending election season, it’s hard not to think about governments. I’ve already done a post about the future of government, covering science fiction, but what about the past? What does government look like in a fantasy world?

Many works, when they think about it at all, default to the “feudalism-lite” model of D&D and video games. I call it “lite” because, while it does bear some of the hallmarks of medieval European feudalism—the hierarchical structure, the figurehead monarchy—it lacks the deeper roots of feudalism. Rarely will you see kings asserting their divine right to rule, for instance. The lower classes are given much more freedom, especially of movement, than they had historically.

In essence, fantasy feudalism is more like the later days, when the system was breaking down. After the Black Death wiped out so much of Europe’s population, those who survived effectively became that much wealthier. They did begin to gain some of the freedoms that Dark Age serfs lacked, simply because they knew that the labor vacuum made them more valuable. It’s in this era that we also see the rise of the merchant republics in Italy and the stirrings of absolutist monarchy in France, and this is when the idea of class warfare truly begins.

From a storytelling point of view, that’s a good compromise. Before the plague, it was much harder for people to rise above their station. After, they had a bit more upward mobility. It still wasn’t quite the free-for-all of much fantasy, where random peasants address the king with familiarity and candor, but we can make allowances for dramatic effect.

But the world of fantasy gives us so much more. With a little bit of worldbuilding work, we no longer have to settle for the stripped-down version of late feudalism popular in sword-and-sorcery fiction. If we put some thought into it, we can do better.

Low fantasy

It’s popular to divide fantasy into “low” and “high”, largely based on the amount and power of magic available to the world. Game of Thrones and the books that spawned it are, in this system, low fantasy (though getting higher with each volume or season). Something like the Dragonlance series, by contrast, has lots of powerful wizardry, so it’s classified as high fantasy. Since low fantasy is closer to our world, we’ll start with it.

Most systems of governing in a low fantasy world will resemble ours quite closely, as those worlds are very similar to our own. Monarchies are thousands of years old in our world, and those seem to be the most common everywhere, so they’ll be well-represented. Republics, of the Roman style, are rarer; if they exist in a fantasy realm, they should have a good backstory to explain why. Finally, as much as we uphold it as an ideal, democracy is historically highly uncommon on the national level. In older ages, it breaks down as populations grow; it’s entirely possible for an early democracy to evolve into a republic as people decide that voting on everything is a waste of time.

Each of these major types of government covers a broad range of political theory. Monarchies can be absolutist or dictatorial, with a king or emperor ruling with an iron fist, or they can be parliamentary, as England became in the 13th century. A republic can be full of partisan bickering, even in medieval times, and it has a clear path to a parliamentary system, simply by electing a leader from the representative body.

But fantasy also gives us the opportunity to explore other methods of government, those that didn’t gain purchase in our Western societies for whatever reason. Some might not have been possible for us, either given the evolutionary history of European culture or the limitations of the medieval world. So let’s take a look, shall we?

Socialism is a hot topic right now, no matter where you are in the Western Hemisphere. Definitions differ, but the general idea is a state where everyone contributes to the populace as a whole. It’s usually highly centralized, enforcing a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor (a welfare state, in other words), and offering numerous public services.

In earlier times, public and social services seem to have always existed on some scale, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to have a socialist state. Producing it from a monarchy might be unlikely, but republics can do it. Socialism does appear more likely to come about early in the development of a civilization, at the tribal or village level. After all, it’s easier to redistribute wealth when there’s not that much of it, and sharing—socialism is just institutionalized sharing—is as old as humanity.

Communism, on the other hand, is the product of 19th century political thinking. The original idea, basically, was to empower the working classes at the expense of the educated, noble, or otherwise privileged. That didn’t work, and just about every communist state in our world has either turned into a dictatorship or oligarchy (USSR, China) or grown towards capitalism (Vietnam). Medieval-era fantasy likely won’t have the chance to try, unless they have some bright thinkers to come up with the notion in the first place.

Theocracy is, literally, rule by religion. We’ve seen a few attempts at a theocratic state throughout history. Papal Rome might be considered one, at least when it wasn’t just a regular autocracy that happened to be ruled by the Pope. The followers of Muhammed after his death tried to implement a government based on their scriptural writings. And, of course, many of today’s terrorist groups claim to want the same. Nobody’s really succeeded for any length of time, though, except maybe the repressive, authoritarian regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

For fantasy, it’s entirely possible to have a theocracy. (High fantasy has it even easier, since you can have the gods themselves intervene, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.) At its core, theocracy isn’t that much more than a monarchy ruled by a religious leader. Its code of laws will be scripture. But theocracies are highly conservative by their very nature, and they don’t exactly tend to be breeding grounds for new advances in any field other than, well, theology. For that reason, fantasy theocracies might work best as a “bad guy” government.

High fantasy

With the addition of magic and the divine, high fantasy opens up a few more options for government, some that we cannot emulate in our world. That does mean it’s harder for an author to imagine how they would work, but they’re great for making a place truly exotic.

First, as noted above, theocracy gets a boost from being in high fantasy. This direct theocracy, as I’ll call it, is one where divine beings directly interfere with the workings of a state that follows them. At the far end, it degenerates into an absolute dictatorship, one controlled by a tyrannical deity, probably something far more horrific than anything ISIS could do. But there is a place for a less-awful direct theocracy, especially in a polytheistic culture. In a way, that one could conceivably turn into a kind of theocratic republic, where party lines are drawn based on which god’s teachings you follow.

The idea of a government run by magical means is probably as old as fantasy itself. This thaumatocracy can take many forms. Rule by the adept is a subset of oligarchy, roughly equivalent to republics where only landowners could be elected as representatives. Using magic itself to rule or otherwise control the populace edges closer to socialism or even communism. And if magic can in any way be used for warfare, then there’s also the potential for a strong practitioner to rise to autocracy. So this one is highly sensitive to conditions, and which outcome you get will depend on history.

If magic (sorcerous, divine, or whatever) can contact or summon the dead, then there’s the chance that a government based on this could form. It’s even got a name: thanatocracy, rule by the dead. The Inca are said to have believed that their deceased rulers could continue to influence the living; thanatocracy is the logical extension of that to a world where they really can. By its very nature, this would be a very conservative state, probably one founded by a culture practicing ancestor worship. There’s the potential for an oligarchy to form, if talking to the dead is a skill available only to a cabal of priests or wizards. But the nature of the afterlife will also play a big role, as will the number of dead consulted for questions of government.

Slight modifications

In a few cases, it’s not the type of government that’s unrealistic or ahistorical, but some defining quality of it. The following are a few subsets of governments that have the possibility of existing in fantasy:

  • Matriarchy is one of the most popular. Traditionally in most societies with inherited power, the right to rule passes down through the male line first. There are very good biological, sociological, and historical reasons for this, but fantasy cultures don’t have to follow our rules. It’s easy to envision, for instance, a matriarchal monarchy, one ruled by a queen who is succeeded by her eldest daughter. You likely want to have some reason why the men weren’t in power; perhaps this is a non-human race, like D&D’s drow.

  • Meritocracy is a high ideal of a lot of thinkers. Its goal is that rule goes to those most qualified, probably as determined through some sort of examination. China tried something like this, but it was never as successful as it could have been, because the political machinery needed to start a meritocracy is easy to “break”. Like a radioactive element, meritocracy decays into bureaucracy. Those in power adjust the qualifications so they stay in power. But maybe a fantasy culture could break that cycle.

  • The junta or other forms of military dictatorship can readily be adapted to a fantasy setting. We have all too many examples, both in the real world and in fiction, but there’s always space for new ideas. Militaries tend to come to power when they overthrow a legitimate government, so there is a ready-made source of conflict. And it doesn’t take much for them to break into factions, each led by a warlord who thinks he has sole right to rule.

Keep thinking

I’m sure you can come up with other ideas. An earlier post goes into a bit more detail about creating your own governments. Extrapolating to a fantasy world is fairly straightforward. Remember that a government, as with any part of society, is rarely created from scratch. It has a history, even if you never write it. The more outlandish it is, the better chance you’ll need to defend it at some point. So, for those “crazier” governments, think a little more about how they came about. Usually, you can find something that’ll works.

The future of government

This year of 2016 is, in the US, an election year. For weeks we’ve been mired in the political process, and we’ve had to suffer through endless debating and punditry. The end isn’t near, either. We’ve got to endure this all the way to November.

It’s impossible to not think about government right now. As a builder of worlds and settings, I’m naturally drawn to the idea of government as a concept, rather than as its concrete implementation today. Churchill is usually quoted as saying that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all others that have been tried. We know what others have been tried: republic, monarchy, communism, theocracy, and so on. Looking at the list, maybe it’s true.

What about the future, though? We’re in the midst of a technological revolution that shows little sign of stopping, yet it seems that little of that has paid off in the political sphere. (If you look at some of the computerized voting systems in use today, you might even think we’ve regressed!) But that could be a transitional thing. In the far future, when we of humanity have moved outward, to the rest of the Solar System and beyond, what will government look like then?

Status quo

It’s easy to think that the way things are is the way they will forever be. Conservatism is a natural thing, because it’s the path of least resistance. And in the near-term, it’s the most likely outcome. Barring some major upheaval, the US will remain a federal republic, China an authoritarian, communist regime, and most of the Middle East an anarchic disaster.

There will be a few slight changes, for sure. The Commonwealth nations are always talking about dissolving the monarchy; it’s reasonable to assume that, one day, talk will beget action. The same with most of the other Western monarchies remaining. As jobs are increasingly given over to robots, socialist tendencies will only increase, as they are doing right now in Europe. Something will eventually bring stability to Iraq and Syria. (Okay, that last one is awfully far-fetched.)

But the advance of technology will open up new avenues of government. And if we do manage self-sustaining colonies beyond Earth, then “self-sustaining” may eventually become “self-governing”. A well-settled Solar System means ample opportunity for new nations to spring up, a breeding ground for new experiments in government. So what might those look like?

Direct democracy

One possibility that isn’t that hard to imagine is direct democracy. As opposed to a democratic republic—like most democracies today—a direct democracy dispenses with the elected officers. It is literally of, by, and for the people. Everybody gets to vote. On everything. (Within reason, of course.)

We can’t really do this today on anything higher than a local level, because nobody would have time for anything else! But a few special situations can arise that would make it palatable. Small colonies are the obvious place for a direct democracy; they work just like towns. A very well-connected and well-educated society could bring direct democracy to a larger populace, but likely only on a limited scale. Mundane things might be left to the elected, while serious matters are voted on by the public at large.

The chief downside to direct democracy is that it relies on the knowledge and wisdom of the masses. It requires faith in humanity, not to make the right decision, but only to make an informed one. And, as I said, it’s also too easy to overload the populace. Partisan voting seems like a major trap here, if only because choosing a party is easier than voting on each individual issue.


By 2020, a mere four years away, millions of people will have lost their jobs to robots, and it’ll only go downhill from there. A few decades out, and half the world’s population will be looking for work in the ever-fewer fields left to living humans. There are some things computers can’t do, but not everybody has the skills necessary for them.

One solution to this looming employment crunch is already being tested in parts of Europe: the universal basic income. It’s nothing more than a monthly stipend, a kind of all-encompassing unemployment/welfare check. Combine this with the possibility of technology ending the “demand economy”, and you have the makings of a true socialist state: a planned government and economy designed to create and uphold a welfare state. Most people would live on the basic income, with their needs met by government-provided facilities, while those who can have jobs are a cut above, but there’s always the chance of moving up in the world.

This one’s big flaw is human nature. We’re greedy, and we don’t really trust other people to know what’s best for us. This kind of techno-socialism doesn’t remove either need or want, but leaves it in the hands of a (hopefully) benevolent government, and it easily falls prey to a pigeonholing “everyone’s the same” mentality. For the “have-nots”, basic income is enough to provide for, well, basic needs, but not much else. The “haves” would be able to get more in the way of amenities, but the high taxes they would have to pay to provide the public services are definitely a turn-off.

AI autocrats

If you believe the AI singularity folks, advanced artificial intelligence isn’t that far away. The day it surpasses human ingenuity might even be within our lifetimes. It’s only natural to put faith in a higher power, and the AIs might become higher powers, relative to us.

There’s two ways this could go: computer-controlled utopia or tyrannical killbots. Those, however, are two sides of the same coin. Either way, its the AI in charge, not us. If artificial intelligence reaches a point where we can no longer understand it, then we won’t know what it’s thinking. At that point, it’s almost like a “direct” theocracy.

We might willingly put ourselves in such a situation, though. How alluring would it be, the idea of handing control to somebody, something else? You don’t have to worry about anything anymore, because The Computer Is Your Friend.

An AI-controlled society all but leads itself to being planned to the point of ruthless efficiency. It might even work out like an extreme version of the techno-socialism above, except that an even smaller fraction of the populace is gainfully employed.

Corporate oligarchy

Corporations already control most governments from behind the scenes. At some point in the future, they might come out of the shadows. If land rights in space are granted to private firms—under the Outer Space Treaty, they can’t be claimed by nations—then we may see a revival of the old “company town” idea. You work for the Company, you live in its houses, you buy its food, and so on. They’re in control, but you can always end up as one of the shareholders, or make your own corporation.

In practice, this form of government isn’t all that exciting. It boils down to a kind of neo-feudalism where the corporations are the lords and their employees are the serfs…with one exception. Corporations try to maximize profits. If they’re allowed to openly run the show, that will be the number one goal for everybody.

This kind of oligarchy can work, especially if you’re one of the higher-ups, but it’s not without its faults. All those people need to be employed somehow, not to mention fed, clothed, educated, and protected. The ideal corporatist system would have all those needs met by private industry, of course, but automation means there’s only so much work left to be done. Still, for a small society, it might work.

Other possibilities

The imagination can run wild here. The only limits are in the mind. But people are going to be people—unless they’re transhumans and cyborgs—and human nature is one of the strongest forces we know. Most importantly, we won’t change overnight. There will be transition periods, no matter what form of government we eventually reach. There’s even the chance that, given some sort of apocalyptic event, we’ll revert to the tried and true methods of the past. A town in the middle of a disaster will, by necessity, be authoritarian, even dictatorial. With years of peace, though, new ideas can find their footing. With time and space, they may even have their moment in the sun.