Okay, was this going to be a spinoff of the Ancillary Justice post in which I discuss the idea of power, and the huge imposing problem with the whole YA dystopian fiction genre being that it's all about overthrowing things and not about what you establish in its place? I feel like it's a huge subject on which I have only very obvious things to say, but it's one of many topics where I feel like there's a big, complicated issue in the real world that you can't wrap up neatly and so fiction almost never looks at head on: namely, what it means for the good guys to win when it comes to ruling the world.
Let's back off a second and talk about K.J. Parker's novella Purple and Black, which I also read earlier this week. I discovered K.J. Parker very recently thanks to Jenny, and I am completely hooked. But where Blue and Gold was clever with a whisper of melancholy, Purple and Black appeared to be clever but just ended up being flat-out tragic. I don't know how I would have felt if the cover hadn't called out how sad it was, because it just looked clever until you get to the end, and then it's like a knife in the gut.
Without giving too much away, the theme of this novel is whether it's true that power should always be given only to people who would much rather be doing pretty much anything else. One character talks about how the temptation to use power when it's given to you is so good, so pure--you have it in your hands to make things better--not in a bad-guy totalitarian way, but in a practical, hands-on way. So you start to try it, and then before you know it, you are a part of the machine, and the machine is always the machine--full of cogs that grind and grind.
The story is pretty fun--a newly crowned emperor who never expected to inherit has no one to trust, so he enlists his old college friends in important offices of state. The book consists of letters between Nico, the emperor, and his friend Philo, whom he's sent to handle insurgents and border raids on the edge of the kingdom. Philo has zero knowledge of the military, but he has a copy of The Art of War and a sound head on his shoulders. Official correspondence is accompanied by personal letters between the two friends, and they are both very likeable and thoughtful. It's fun watching Philo become a strategist. It's heartening to watch Nico try to make the world better.
But the moral complexity in this story leaves me thinking about Breq from Ancillary Justice, and how she can deal with Anaander Mianaai--whether she can trust even the "good" Anaander, or whether "bringing down" the Radch is a thing that can even be conceptualized. I mean, looking within the story you can see that going to the interior of the Radch, past the empire to the home planet, is going to be the endgame of the series. (I'm not allowed to read Ancillary Sword till the book club finishes the first book).
But I'm thinking more abstract: what does a post-revolution government look like? Does it always look like the Reign of Terror or the Ayatollah's Islamic Republic? Can you replace an entire government without destroying everything it's built and killing a bunch of people? Is the replacement government ever going to be anything but a new kind of despot?
This carries me back, though, to the play I saw this weekend, That Hopey, Changey Thing, which was about a family dinner party on election night. I'm not quite sure what the play was about (it's part of a cycle and I suspect it'll come together a little bit when I see the next one), but one of the things that was going on was that a room full of Democrats were, one by one and with varying levels of reluctance, that they were disheartened that the Democratic party was so much less pure than their ideals. That Obama didn't live up to all his promises, and that pundits were really mean to Sarah Palin and that darn it, they're just another big political party, not the grassroots folks I want them to be.
The surprise and chagrin that these characters were feeling kind of shocked me, and it's partly because of the dynamic I'm talking about here--power corrupts. Being a political party means fighting, it means being partisan, it means that they're trying to, essentially, rule the world. Is there some level on which a guy trying to rule the world is ever, ever going to be trustworthy? I mean, I believe Democrats are better than Republicans because their party platform is based around taking care of people, not systems, and giving people freedoms, not taking them away. But that doesn't make a politician anything except a politician.
This is why Naboo elected a teenaged Natalie Portman to run the planet. It seems like a bad idea, but really, is it any worse than any other political system? And it makes me wonder what kind of government Leia and Luke and Han have set up since they brought down the Empire.
Sorry, this was barely a book review. I think I'm just worried about the world. Or maybe the Radch; I sometimes have trouble telling them apart.