Monarchies are everywhere in speculative fiction. In fantasy they’re by far the most common type of government — which makes sense; if you look at real history, you’ll see vastly more monarchies than any rival type, and fantasy often draws its inspiration from history. But they’re common in science fiction as well, where they can lend a sense of grandeur or exoticism to the civilizations of far-flung stars.
Some people argue this is because SF/F readers and writers are nostalgic for the “good ol’ days” of kings and queens. I’m not convinced that’s the reason. While there may be cases where that’s true, I think the bigger point is that we find monarchy narratively interesting.
It’s different from the kind of government most of us live under (especially since even those countries that still possess monarchs have in many cases reduced them to a largely ceremonial role), and SF/F loves exploring those kinds of differences. Moreover — and I say this as someone who’s written a novel that dealt closely with the wranglings of the seventeenth-century English Parliament — it lends itself more readily to storytelling. The whole concept of monarchy is that it puts a single human being at the focal point of political power. While even in an absolute monarchy that individual’s power isn’t limitless, their personality, their history, their fears and whims and their relationships with the people around them all shape the course of the state to a high degree. That’s a lot more congenial for conventional narrative than trying to explain how ten people making deals with fifty others garnered enough support in committee for a vote to pass.
Monarchy is literally “rule by one.” That puts it semantically very close to “autocracy,” which derives from the Greek roots for “self” and “power;” both imply that a single person is calling the shots. In practice, the two form something of a Venn diagram, with their point of overlap being absolute monarchy (more on that in a bit), while monarchy without autocracy slides toward the constitutional end of its spectrum, and autocracy without monarchy can be found in situations like dictatorships.
But doesn’t a single person rule in a dictatorship? What distinguishes that — or even something like a president or prime minister, who can also be the sole executive of their state — from a monarch? Generally we say the it’s role of heredity . . . but there are elective monarchies, including ones where the title is only bestowed for a limited amount of time, while the dictatorial rule of North Korea has been passed from Kim Il-sung to his son Kim Jong-il to a third generation in Kim Jong-un. In the end, the definitions are more flexible than you might think, with the precise terminology being based on tradition and the optics of how you want to present your rule to the world. And of course the specific titles given to a monarch differ from society to society: king, emperor, rey, tsar, pharaoh, oba, caliph, raja, tennö, sovereign prince, and so forth.
Hereditary monarchies do tend to be the most common type, though, and in a future week we’ll look at the topic of succession (which dovetails somewhat with the overall question of inheritance in society). Because it’s common, most readers are likely familiar with the general concept, especially the form where the king’s eldest son inherits. How does elective monarchy work, though?
As in a democracy, the first question is who does the electing — but the answer is basically never “the common people.” The sovereign is usually chosen by the elite, whether that be military leaders, hereditary aristocrats, or other powerful groups. The Catholic papacy, the oldest elective monarchy still in existence, is bestowed through a vote by the College of Cardinals. (Quite a lot of Catholic offices are elective, which makes sense for an ecclesiastical community that is at least theoretically celibate.)
Although the hereditary form is the dominant one, election was far more common historically than most of us think, in multiple parts of the world: the Mongolian Great Khan, the Aztec Tlatoani, the Ashanti Asantehene, and others were or are all elected. But calling the office “elective” often obscures a muddier reality: in many cases the only eligible candidates are the children of the previous sovereign, or otherwise members of the royal lineage. Even if the position is supposedly open to any member of the elite, a strong ruling family can muster enough support to make the election a mere formality: for a fairly recent example of this, one only has to look at the Habsburgs, who held the “elective” throne of the Holy Roman Empire for three centuries straight. Their predecessors over in Byzantium learned to game the system by declaring their desired heir co-emperor, so that upon their own death the throne was not empty and there was no need for an election. By such means does an elective monarchy gradually slide toward being hereditary.
The loss of real leverage by electors goes hand-in-hand with the general consolidation of power in sovereign hands. In many early states, monarchs simply didn’t have the power to rule without making concessions to and compromises with local magnates, of which election to the throne could be one. But as centralized power grows, the monarchy grows more absolute, i.e. autocratic and not answerable to any outside force — at least, not short of violent overthrow.
There are very few absolute monarchies left in the modern world, with Saudi Arabia and the papacy being the most prominent examples. The remainder are constitutional monarchies, meaning that the power of the sovereign is constrained by a written or unwritten constitution. Although the past few centuries of European history have featured a strong swing away from absolutism and toward constitutionalism (where the government didn’t swing away from monarchy entirely), that doesn’t mean the concept is a modern one; starting from the end of the Old Kingdom period of Hittite civilization in the second millennium B.C.E., their king was answerable to an assembly. Absolutism has risen and fallen in different parts of the world at different times, based on how much control a sovereign can pull into their own hands.
Which means that for narrative purposes, the author of an SF/F can put the needle just about anywhere that suits their story. Their monarch can be anywhere from an absolute autocrat to a ceremonial figurehead putting their seal on the decisions of a parliament or an aristocratic cabal; they may be forced by tradition to pass the throne on to their eldest son, be he suitable or not, or they may be scrabbling to gather electoral support for their chosen heir, or they may have no familial connection to their successor at all. Monarchy being common in our fiction doesn’t have to mean it’s repetitive: there’s room for quite a lot of variety.