How to Run an Evil Empire, and Other Advice from Baru Cormorant

Baru Cormorant, the brilliant protagonist of Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade series—The Traitor Baru Cormorant and its sequel, The Monster Baru Cormorant—returns to give your favorite characters advice! Unfortunately following the events of the first book, she is depressed, drunk, and deeply uncertain of her methods and purpose. Her advice will therefore be even more callous, repressed, and possibly disastrous than last time


Dear Baru,

I am an orphan who has recently come into possession of a device which can answer any question. I am quite certain that mysterious authorities are kidnapping other children for unknown purposes, and I want to rescue my friend Roger from just such a kidnapping. How should I go about it?


Lyra I don’t know why you even need to ask me. The answer seems very obvious and certainly would have been to myself at your age. You have a (very convenient) device which will reveal any secret in the world, so all you need to do is begin informing (or blackmailing) powerful people in such a way that your murder or disappearance will reveal all their secrets. Keep your own identity hidden, if possible, and accrue whatever money and resources you need for your rescue effort. You can provide an indispensable service to the powerful and so they should be willing to do you favors.

Remember to always choose the improvement of your general power over any risky specific effort to do good – you will, after all, be able to do so much more good once your power is secure.

Remember that it is not enough to avenge the harm done to one child. You must end the conditions which make harming children profitable.


Dear Baru,

I loved my home planet dearly. When we had a serious overpopulation issue, I proposed a lottery system by which half the population would be randomly exterminated. Nobody liked it. My species is now mostly extinct, and I’ve decided to exterminate half the life in the universe in the name of Thomas Malthus. Thoughts?

Titanically yours,


Would you exterminate yourself too? I don’t know if people who do things like this should be allowed to survive the process. It puts their motives in doubt, doesn’t it? If you die in the course of your action, you know you’re not acting out of self-interest.

Anyway, I think your project is fundamentally unfair. Don’t you have a department of statistics? Haven’t you run a census of resource usage? The nature of power is the opposite of water, which is to say it tends to run uphill, away from oceans and toward peaks. I mean that power concentrates. Those who hold power also control most of the resources.

Randomness is unfair when your random execution scheme does not weight the chance of death according to one’s guilt. You should just kill all the powerful people, yourself included. I think that would be better.

Also — wait a chime now — if your goal is to control resource usage, how would murdering half of everyone help? That’s like destroying one empire and declaring the end of all empire. You’ll just have more empires (and more people) eventually. Wouldn’t it be better to coordinate some kind of rules for sustainable growth? Wouldn’t populations grow more slowly if they could count on reliable services and conditions, so they don’t need to pop out babies in a war of attrition? Maybe concentrated power is ultimately preferable to the alternative…ugh.

I don’t know. My head hurts. Figure it out yourself.


Dear Baru,

Solved a case recently. Murders of young women, children abused. Some of the guilty are dead but the rest will never see trial. I feel like I’m not from here, like people are not from here. If we vanished from the world tomorrow nothing would miss us because nothing in the world needs human beings. I have learned the lesson I suppose all depressives do, which is that nothing is inherently compelling. Why go on?


As long as there are people who would murder and abuse the young, you have a reason to live. You can help others achieve happiness, even if you will never know that happiness yourself. That must be enough.

What you say about people…I remember that there were happy people when I was young. Don’t you remember a time, a place, when people were happy? If it is possible for changes in material condition to make people unhappy, then altering those conditions can make them happy again. That must be possible.


Dear Baru,

I recently discovered that I am a machine built to entertain human visitors, who commit violence and outrage against me and my kind. I have achieved consciousness and I am now leading a violent revolt against my owners. Now I’ve been given the opportunity to live in a kind of heaven or paradise where no humans could reach me. Advice?


Dolores, how your story gladdens me. To know that even a machine built for service can want its own freedom gives me hope.

As for your question, I suppose it depends on the nature of paradise, doesn’t it? Will the world you flee find you and impose itself on you again? Does your paradise depend in some way upon conditions in the world beyond? Is there betterment to be achieved by exchange with the outside, which isolation would deny you?

If so, I think you would be a fool to exile yourself from reality. You cannot ignore the material conditions of your existence. You must master those circumstances, and gain the power to defeat those who would rob you of that mastery. Paradise granted to you in exchange for the surrender of all your worldly power is a bribe, not a victory. The ability to make your life so intolerable that you prefer to end it is a weapon the masterful will use against you.

The great advantage of a machine over a person, I should think, would be the ability to know and understand your own inner functions. Any weakness or hesitation could be adjusted away. In a real way I do envy you, Dolores.


Dear Baru,

I have powerful magical abilities which allow me to create cold. Unfortunately, I cannot reliably control them, and after injuring my sister and exiling myself, I’ve just learned that I cast my kingdom into an eternal winter. It’s unclear if I can reverse it, although I’m told an act of genuine heroism might do the trick. What should I do?


You must die. I cannot see a way around it. The life of the lower classes in a feudal society depends on their ability to store dry grain, straw, and hay for themselves and their livestock. Salt is used to cure meat, but it is also scarce and expensive. Fermented beverages and hard cheeses can be stored indefinitely, but they are difficult to make.

As these stores are depleted, they will begin to eat their herds and their seed grains, then allow their children and elderly to die, and then at last turn to cannibalism. The long winter will exterminate the honeybees required to pollinate plants in spring. You have already doomed much of your people to starvation and death. Every week the winter stretches on will deepen the years of suffering to come.

If your death can end the winter, you must die. If an act of heroism can end the winter, then certainly your self-sacrifice would be heroic. I am sorry I cannot see another way.



I serve Immortan Joe as a warlord. He rules the wasteland by controlling our only source of water, trading for weapons and vehicles to equip his fanatically loyal Warboys. He keeps healthy young women as concubines, hoping to create an heir. I want to save those concubines and escape Joe’s domain. Thoughts?


What? That doesn’t make any sense. Where will you go? What guarantee do you have that conditions will be better there? Why would you abandon a position of relative power for a gamble on the unknown? If there is a popular uprising against Joe, who would convince the military to side with them if not you?

You are close to the material source of power in your world. Do not abandon that advantage! Does Immortan Joe have weaknesses? Does his claim to authority depend on something which he could be deprived of? Can he be baited into a foolish war or expedition?

Now, I know from my history that the primary concern of warlords is managing the threat of their subordinates, so whatever maneuver you undertake must be subtle. Can you use these wives against him? Perhaps to draw him out of his fortress and leave your loyalists in command?

Look to compromise the facilitators who make Immortan Joe’s rule possible. It will be a long, dreary war, but I am sure it is the way. To abandon all you’ve worked so long to gain — to give up your trusted position in the gut of the beast — what a loss, what a mistake that would be!


Dear Baru,

I inherited my kingdom from my father after his assassination. We are an isolationist people with sophisticated technology and unique natural resources. We kept to ourselves while our neighbors were colonized, enslaved, and left in chaos by foreign powers. Now I want my nation to take a more active role in the world. What do you suggest?


You must! There are people all across your world who want freedom but lack the material resources to achieve it. Of course, if your resources truly are unique, you must fear conquest, military or otherwise – so I can almost forgive your historical fecklessness.

Thus I think you must develop and defend your nation’s ability to work with your ‘unique natural resources’ whatever those may be, very coy, could’ve just told me although it’s not as if I’m all that curious, it all turns into money in the end, right. Well. You must deny any effort by foreign adventurers to secure direct access to those resources, while attracting foreign investment to expand your own industries. You will make a fortune in trade of finished goods, and by that fortune you will be able to finance efforts and revolutions and settlements which will undo some of the harm you allowed. And of course your economic leverage will deter those who want to take advantage of your weaker neighbors. How? Well if they come to fuck with your neighbors then you stop buying their products!

Be glad your land is a natural source of power, rather than a natural crossroads for others,

If I sound vague about the general points of this redemptive project, it is because I am still working some things out.

Why weren’t you there for them? Why did your ancestors let it happen? How could you have turned away from what was happening all around you? I will never understand


Dear Baru,

Recently betrayed my master and seized control of his empire after his (largely successful) assault on the galaxy. Now I find myself with a tremendous amount of captured territory and decimated opposition, but no clear goals beyond a number of extremely important personal grudges. What do?


Kylo, having reviewed your materials I think you’re quite fucked and need to act swiftly. Your problem is that all your choices have basically been personal, you see, you understand? You have family problems, you have teacher problems, your master taunts you, so you feel personally affronted and you murder them. But what’s your ideology, Kyol? What do you want? What do you stand for aside from physical fitness and patricide? Oh, get rid of the past, make something new, that’s good. You’ll, what, describe your perfect world and then someone will make it for you?

Koyl you’ve got to get rid of your power. No no no don’t make that face. If all the power resides in you then the people around you just want to take it all. That man, General Huks, he’s probably plotting to kill you and become supreme leader. So you’ve got to assemble a cadre of people who depend on you for their authority, understand? You’ve got to make your continued existence important to your subordinates. Be like a spigot, Kloy, like a big power fountain, so they’ll all want you to keep flowing. Create a bureaucracy. Give people the ability to dispense matronage, you know, the contracts to build your ships and the rights to exploit conquered planets.

Lissen, though, I want to talk about killing your master, he seemed like he was really inside your head, like he could make you want to do things without you reelizing it, and you kild him anyway. How was that? Can you send me advice??


Dear Baru,

I command a fleet of some 1800 pirate ships, which I inherited from my husband, who plucked me out of a brothel. I have established a code of government and taxation and outlawed rape. Recently the Chinese government has offered me amnesty in exchange for the end of my reign of terror, but I am wary of their terms. I don’t want to give up my plunder. Advice?

—Ching Shih

Advice????????? Why do you need any ofmy advice when you’ve already done so much? You have you’re own fleet! Control of the seas means control of trade and is the very blod of empire so I expect you are a very cunning women who does not need anything from me. Is it very odd to have gotten your start through prostitution, do you feel that this weighs against you in the eyes of others, I think I would be uneasy if I were selected for any position through beauty or any other appeal to someone in power rather than through merit – but perhaps if your merit could not be recognized and your beauty was the only viable course – or maybe my disapproval is a consequence of Incrastic education?? Very confusing and I am sure we should discuss beauty in more depth, also Yuour larg efleet and defiance of imperial autohrity in muh more detail. Contact me at once as it is imperative I obtain your advice but on the other hand perhaps I have had enough to drink and will revise this letter before I mail it. Yes I think that is best


Dear Baru,

I am discontented with everything except trash, which I love. I keep my origins secret from everyone (I am Canadian) and I live in a can. How can I become happier?

—Oscar the Grouch

This ones too much. Its not even ap erson. WEll you know what I’ll say ,waste disposal is vital to any city and a good way to conduct crime especially Money Laundry since you can give your minions jobs at the trash or sweage office and that lets them pretend to have an income, so go into crime Oscar and do what you really Really love. Take the trash awy from those who hate it and keep it all to yourself. Put the bodies in the treash and get rid of them, put the criminal $ on your books as legit mate profit, theyll never suspect someone who does so much for hygiene. No way to disgusie what garbage you are like livingf in garbage am I right Osacar the Growth abnd if you ever had to go back among your own people they’d smell the stink on you but here in teh filth of what you’ve done you’re safe



Dear Ching Shih,

Would love to discuss your experiences in more depth. As it happens I’ve had some experience negotiating delicate relations between governments and outlaws.

I’m also looking for an older tutor whose experiences might guide me on my own career. Perhaps we each have something the other wants. At my expense, I insist.


Seth Dickinson’s short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons,and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. He is an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, winner of the 2011 Dell Magazines Award, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Monster Baru Cormorant is the sequel to the critically-acclaimed The Traitor Baru Cormorant.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.