Social Engineering and Politics as Technology: Writing The Wall of Storms

In the The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, W. Brian Arthur explores some fundamental questions about technology, a subject about which we know at once a lot and very little.

For instance, while we have experts who can tell you exactly how every piece of technology in our life works, we still have little understanding of how technology develops and evolves as a whole. The analogy of biological evolution does not work. Engineers do not make longer lasting batteries by randomly varying the composition of existing batteries and letting the market pick a winner, and the invention of accurate mechanical clocks was not the result of a group of clepsydra makers getting stuck in Switzerland, thereby producing isolated timepieces that are incompatible with other specimens outside the Alps.

Indeed, Arthur’s answer to the question of how technology evolves turns conventional wisdom upside down. While we often speak of technology as the practical application of basic scientific research, Arthur’s analysis shows the evolution of technology to be rather independent of basic science. New technologies arise as fresh combinations of primitive technologies (what Arthur calls “combinatorial evolution”), and as new technologies mature, they, in turn, become components for yet more elaborate combinations. And as technology progresses, practitioners at the edge are also constantly capturing new natural phenomena and harnessing them for particular purposes—thereby creating new components to feed into combinatorial evolution. Basic science can provide new phenomena for technologists to capture, but after that, the evolution of technology follows its own course.

Indeed, in Arthur’s account, the evolution of technology can be compared to the evolution of literature and language. Engineers are analogous to poets who marshal existing tropes and images and kennings and rhymes to achieve novel combinations, and poets with keen ears are always working at the edge to capture new linguistic phenomena to drive the art forward: neologisms based on Classical languages, borrowings from other vernaculars, bits of slang and jargon and cant, pastiches of uptalk and vocal fry and emoji and textese.

After dwelling for some time on the notion of engineering as a kind of poetics, I decided to make the engineer-as-poet the central image of The Wall of Storms, the second book in my Dandelion Dynasty silkpunk epic fantasy series. In this story about continuing revolution that begins about five years after the end of The Grace of Kings, the focus of the narrative shifts from larger-than-life figures of legend to the nuts-and-bolts efforts of engineers—both mechanical and social.

Instead of giving away the plot, let me try to tell you a bit about The Wall of Storms’ characters. First, we meet Zomi Kidosu, a girl from a poor, remote island whose mechanical aptitude will propel her to the highest echelons of Dara society. But before she can fulfill her potential, she must learn to operate the machinery of courtly politics, an engine as intricate as any composition in Ano logograms or airship manufacturing dock.

There’s a long tradition in East Asian historical romances (and wuxia fantasies, their modern spiritual successors) of making heroes out of great engineer-inventors (e.g. Zhuge Liang). Zomi Kidosu and her teacher, Luan Zya of The Grace of Kings, are my attempts to pay homage to this tradition. Their silkpunk experiments in flying machinery, in naval tactics, in the implements of farming and manufacturing, and in new sources of power give this second book a strongly science fictional aura. Continuing from the first book, this new volume contains many more new machines, new methods of organization, new ways of putting together existing components to form fresh, fantastic combinations of arms and armies of epic proportions.

As you can probably tell, I had a great deal of fun writing this aspect of the story.

But I was even more interested in the technologies of politics, of social engineering. We don’t often speak of political institutions and ideologies and traditions as “technologies,” but that’s in fact what they are.

The second major new character of The Wall of Storms, Princess Théra, is a political engineer. She might not quite have Zomi’s mechanical aptitude, but she is far more skilled at understanding the flow of power and the way men and women are driven by the engine of desire. Under the tutelage of her parents, Jia Matiza and Kuni Garu, Emperor and Empress of Dara, Théra must decide which lessons to absorb and which lessons to reject as she grows into a force to be reckoned with, a shaper of the destiny of the Islands of Dara.

There is much beauty to the mundane details of governance. Empires and city states and autocracies and democracies all rely on political technologies to control their population and to ensure the smooth functioning of society. And the evolution of political technology follows the same pattern as technology as a whole. New government systems arise as combinations of older systems—witness the deliberate evocation of Greek and Roman models in the Federalist Papers as the founders of the American state attempted to take components of older democracies and republics in their attempt to fashion a new kind of government. To study the evolution of modern constitutional law in Western democracies is to study the successive refinements of generations of state engineers on fresh combinations of a set of known components. Novel political technologies are developed as a result of incorporation of new phenomena: e.g., the promotion of juries as a result of the need of Norman conquerors to settle land disputes in conquered territories; the formation of new, effective lobbying groups as means of aggregating the preferences of diffuse, geographically wide-spread interest groups made possible by the Internet; the rise of visual, manipulative political persuasion in the age of mass media; and so on.

And what political technologies might need to be invented in a world populated by fickle gods? Which political system will become dominant when Dara is threatened by foreign invaders riding on the backs of fire-breathing, flying beasts? What institutions and ideologies must be nurtured and crafted in a world where the wonders of silkpunk technology live side-by-side with oppression of the powerless and silencing of the marginalized? How can the dream of a more just Dara be achieved by Kuni, Gin, Jia, Risana, Cogo, and their followers without teetering into a nightmare of abuse of power driven by good intentions? How can ancient political philosophies be crafted and combined into new vital beliefs fit for a changing, transforming age and give hope to classes and groups that have been excluded by the machinery of power under previous governments? These are the questions that Théra and Jia and the other political engineers of Dara must answer.

It is the study of the evolution of political technology, of the eternal conflict between control and justice in a polity, of the ways in which political technological evolution is pressured and guided by pressures from both within and without, that drives The Wall of Storms.

The revolution of Dara is permanent, and whether that is a good thing or not is the song of The Wall of Storms.

Wall-Storms-thumbnailKen Liu is the author of The Wall of Storms, sequel to The Grace of Kings, a Locus Best First Novel Award winner and Nebula finalist.

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