New Worlds: There Can Be Only One

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: There Can Be Only One — 7 Comments

  1. There’s a speculative fiction play by George Bernard Shaw called “The Apple Cart” set in (his) fairly near future in which the main character, the English King, is visited by a diplomatic representative from the United States who declares that the US has decided to void the Declaration of Independence and rejoin the Commonwealth. The King is shattered. America will now be the tail wagging the dog.

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: There Can Be Only One - Swan Tower

  3. Much of the “science fiction has adopted royalist models” comes as a consequence of imposing Napoleonic-era command and social structures on “space navies”… and due to the inconvenience to the writer of writing about elections with large electorates.

    Of course, the Napoleonic command and social structure doesn’t work for a “navy” in which the equivalent of a swabbie has more education and training than virtually any member of a Napoleonic navy, and is espected to think for him/her/it/themself in solving the problems of surviving in space. But that’s going off on a tangent indeed.

    • That’s certainly part of it, though I’ve also seen plenty of galactic empires where I’m pretty sure the logic is just “empire = decadent.”

  4. More elective monarchies: Roman kings, Irish tanistry.

    What annoyed me more about the SF monarchies was the justification people like Pournelle would put forward: widely distributed with slow communications, so you decentralization, hence feudalism! You’d think Americans would remember *federalism* as an alternative, one that worked in an 800×1000 mile country before railroads, telegraphs, or even good roads.

    I’ve read that your basic Greek model was special guy, special small group of guys, and assembly, and poleis varied in how much power one part had relative to the others (plus variations like having two kings, or Athens’ various moving parts). You can see a bit of this in the Odyssey, where Telemachus, son of the missing king, calls an assembly, to try to evict the suitors (presumably various nobles/important scions.) Not an elective monarchy but you can see the skeleton.

    I thought Germanic kings were often elected by “the warriors” which sounds broader than just the nobles.

    I never thought of Byzantine monarchy as elective, though I guess many earlier Roman emperors were “elected” by the legions and/or the Praetorian guard. Sometimes very much so, as with Claudius, supposedly.

    • Pournelle isn’t entirely wrong; speed of travel and communication are commonly suggested as one of the reasons why monarchy was often a suitable form of government for pre-industrial societies. But only one of the reasons, and given that SFnal societies usually have fast travel/comms on the scale of a single planet, I think the most likely result of no FTL would be a variety of governmental structures that are very atomistic — not a lot of polities that span more than one planet, let alone more than one system.

      I thought Germanic kings were often elected by “the warriors” which sounds broader than just the nobles.

      The instances I’m most familiar with there don’t have a clear distinction between aristocracy and warrior class; they just have a warrior aristocracy. And yeah, a whole lotta “electing” went on with the Praetorian Guard . . .