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Monday, September 14, 2015

GUEST POST: The Truth About Colonial Empires by Seth Dickinson


Hi! I'm Seth, author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant — this fall's hottest epic geopolitical revenge fantasy! Baru Cormorant's still a girl when the Empire of Masks subverts and conquers her home island. Cunning young Baru resolves to join the Imperial civil service, learn the secrets of world domination, and shatter the Empire from within. All she has to do is play the game perfectly...and keep herself from falling for the rebel duchess who's trying to kill her.

This is a story about one brilliant woman's battle against colonialism. So what, exactly, is Baru up against? What will she brood over as she assembles her plan? And what secrets does she hide?

I have a secret too. I'll tell you at the end.

Baru's world is not our own. Everything's come out differently — the geography, the epidemiology, the distribution of technology and power. Civilizations thrive and die around the Ashen Sea, each with its own ideologies, means of warfare, scientific practices and social behaviors.

But human nature hasn't changed. People are greedy.

Greed

Colonialism has been practiced for all recorded history.

But on our Earth, the practice of global colonialism — using physical and social coercion to extract economic benefit from someone else's home, for use in your own, across vast distances — really exploded with the European Age of Discovery. They had the ships, the financial and commercial means (insurance, accountancy, banking), and the ideological will to conquer.

And these people were bastards. Look at Belgium! When the world developed a taste for rubber, Belgium's King Leopold realized that he could harvest latex sap in the Congo. Leopold convinced Europe that he was on a humanitarian mission to help the people of the Congo, but under that smokescreen, his own private corporation drove brutal forced labor that killed ten million people. Leopold got filthy rich off it.

The colonial engine made money, and money fed the engine. When Haiti gained independence from France, the French demanded millions of francs to recognize their sovereignty, a threat backed up by warships. Even after nominal freedom, Haiti had to bear a crushing debt load, allowing France to continue its pillage.

Baru, too, faces a colonial empire that wants to extract value from her home. The Empire of Masks (Masquerade to their frenemies) wants Baru's home as a strategic naval base, an economic lever, a source of lumber and crops, and a target for cultural and biological pillage. A mighty navy backs those demands with force.

Baru knows that a core driver of colonialism is the flow of trade and resources, the flow of money. That's why she becomes an accountant — so she can understand and gain power over that drive.

But Baru's up against another kind of danger. The Empire of Masks doesn't want brittle physical control. They're clever, and they love subtlety.

They want to compromise your culture and politics. They want to help you conquer yourselves.

Subversion

The Indo-European spice trade flourished for thousands of years. And it drew Europe to India in search of more. They found powerful empires, too strong to conquer....so they looked for a way inside.

In 1773, the ruler of the Maratha Empire was assassinated by his uncle, who stole the throne. But the dead nephew left an infant son — and twelve imperial courtiers schemed with the widowed mother to install the infant as emperor, so they could rule as regents.

The treacherous uncle turned to the British. He offered them land in exchange for military support. The British agreed, took the land, and then switched sides. (Imagine Game of Thrones, except the northern menace isn't ice zombies but a company of Englishmen gone mad for tea.)

As the Mughal and Maratha empires faltered, European powers stepped in, offering to lend Indian rulers strength against their internal enemies. By playing Indian polities against each other, the British East India Company — a private corporation! — came to rule most of a subcontinent.

This is the power Baru wants, the power to be small and clever, so clever that you can claim dominion over the vast and mighty by exploiting their own interests. She wants that power for her own uses.

Colonists use existing conflicts as crevices. They pry apart the divisions in the colonized society and worm their way inside. Why make yourself an enemy when you can be a friend, solving problems and supporting the rulers that you intend to become your puppets?

The Masquerade's rulers are grandmasters at this tactic, in part because the Masquerade stumbled on the behavioral sciences earlier than our world (thanks to cultural exchange with the Oriati, their philosophically astute southern neighbors). They're capable psychologists, and they know how to be irresistible.

When the Masquerade arrives on Baru's home, Taranoke, they bring medicine, textiles, sanitation projects, schools, and security. They sell their goods at a bargain, if you're willing to buy with gold and gems, and buy at a premium, if you're willing to take Masquerade paper money. They make life better.

But everything they do has a hook. Their schools indoctrinate. Their inoculations let them select who will live and who will die when the plagues strike. The marines they offer to help end civil war become spies, saboteurs, and occupiers. And their paper money — so innocent! — devalues all the island's other currency, ruining trade relations.

Sweet poison goes down easy. Baru knows that you can do the most damage from the inside. That's why she chooses to leap into the maw of the beast and become a Masquerade agent, an agent so capable and so astonishing that they'll promote her to the top.

But being on the inside has its dangers, doesn't it? The Masquerade has no state religion, but it does have a powerful ideology. Incrasticism is a doctrine of hygiene, not just with soap or surgery, but in cleanliness of breeding. It's eugenics. And it outlaws all unhygienic behavior.

The Masquerade doesn't just want to rule Baru's home by force or politics. They want to rule her flesh and mind. And if Baru can't resist them, she really will become their finest agent...


On History

As you've seen here, I'm happy to draw on human history to inform Baru's world. Here are a few more topics that inspired me! And then I have a secret to tell you.

I read a lot about the history of money. Financial technology is so advanced today that most of us barely understand it! Our livelihoods depend on fractional reserve banking and government bonds, but I certainly couldn't have explained those without doing research. Money is really interesting! I wanted to make money as central, vital, and exciting as warfare, treachery, conspiracies, sex, and rebellion.

In fact, I think it's fair to say my biggest inspiration to get into money was the enormous financial collapse of 2007. Look back through history — at, say, the South Seas Bubble, or Haiti's debt, or Argentina's debt restructuring, or tulip mania — and it turns out that big financial shakeups really alter history!

I was also deeply inspired by my research into systems of gender around the world. From partible paternity in the Amazon (a culture in which parents believe a child can have multiple fathers), to fa'afafine and other third genders, to the erased presence of queer lives across the Earth, I found so much that made me realize the history we're taught is far from complete.

The past isn't just a foreign country — it's a redacted document, and we, by accident or complicity or malice, are the censors.

A Secret

Now here's my secret.

A big part of my inspiration for writing this book came from history, yes. But a lot of it was choosing to be ahistorical — intentionally different. No nation or ethnicity in Baru's world can be cleanly mapped to any people in ours. No system of oppression came about in just the same way as our world's racism, or sexism, or homophobia.

Baru faces the monster of colonialism. But she faces it on a different board, in different ways. And why was that so important to me?

Because to make her world a mirror of ours would be to suggest inevitability. If racism obeyed the same dynamics, if the gender stereotypes were the same, if religion had the same relationship to colonialism, then I would be suggesting that these things had to happen exactly this way, to exactly these people, on any human world, in any human history. As if they were somehow carved in flesh.

(A curious aside here — our earthly humanity is notable for how our genetic homogeneity, compared to other species! We have very little biological diversity. This may be due to a near-extinction event in our recent past, which left us to rebuild from a small gene pool. In fantasy or science fiction stories on other worlds, it's fun to figure out what equivalent catastrophe bottlenecked their people.)

I refuse that inevitability. I hate it! And so does Baru.

I hope you'll love reading about her, even when you hate it too. Baru is a shark of a protagonist, constantly moving forward. She wastes very little time on philosophy. But now you know a little of what drives her towards the hope of justice.

*---------------*---------------*---------------*


Official Author Website
Pre-order The Traitor Baru Cormorant HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Seth Dickinson is a graduate of the University of Chicago, a lapsed PhD candidate at NYU, and an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers. Previously he has also worked with Bungie Studios, creators of Marathon and Halo, to write item descriptions and much of the Grimoire fiction companion for Destiny. Seth also workds as a designer and writer on the Blue Planet project for FreeSpace Open.

2 comments:

Kel Brown said...

This makes me want to cheer for the Masquerade. I mean, look at the hard work they've done and the time and effort they put in to conquering without actually conquering and this woman wants to undo it all. The book sounds good though even thought it's not about the brave, intrepid agents of empire.

Anonymous said...

This was an amazing book, but the ending was so sad. If I were in Baru's place I would not have made those decisions and would have tried to find another way.

Down with the Empire!

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