SFF Needs More Incompetent Autocrats

One of SFF’s grand traditions is carefully filing the serial numbers off historical events (the American Revolutionary War, perhaps, or the Napoleonic Wars), or famous and classic works (Lord of the Rings, the Hornblower series, Zulu), and re-purposing the result as SFF. This is usually known as “research” (See Tom Lehrer on this point). Examples abound—my disinclination to deal with crowds of irate authors protesting at my door precludes naming them here.

SFF is also quite fond of plots featuring all-powerful autocrats. Some of these autocrats (Patricians, Empresses of the Twenty Universes, whatever) are…well, pleasant may not be the right word, but “dedicated” may do. Dedicated to a greater good, that is, not personal enrichment or aggrandizement. Others are black-clad villains who would certainly twirl their moustaches, had they moustaches to twirl. But good or bad, most SFFnal autocrats tend to be quite competent.

Lamentably, actual real-life autocrats are not always competent. In fact, a lot of them were the very opposite of competent. They are the sort of people who manage to unify three nations (once bitter enemies of each other) in hatred directed at the autocrat themself; who despite controlling the apparatus of a powerful state find themselves on the wrong end of a rapidly descending guillotine blade; who declare war on the sea; or who, despite all the best advice, are born into the House of Stuart.

This aspect of autocracy has been poorly represented in SFF. Allow me to offer a model of an incompetent autocrat from whom SFF could steal unashamedly derive inspiration: Clarence Threepwood, Earl of Emsworth.

Clarence, who figures prominently in P. G. Wodehouse’s (extremely) comic Blandings Castle Saga, is the product of nine generations of careful aristocratic breeding. In science fiction, this sort of thing produces supermen and superwomen—paragons boasting marvellous psionic powers and exemplary physical prowess. In real life, directed breeding of aristocrats produced the Habsburgs, humanity’s pugs. Clarence is closer to the Charles II of Spain end of things than he is to Kimball Kinnison. He is perpetually bewildered, has an attention span measured in hummingbird wingbeats, pays absolutely no attention to any of the responsibilities of his position, and occupies himself with hobbies like pig-breeding.

You may wonder how it is Blandings Castle has not had its own People’s Revolution. Why has the befuddled Clarence never found himself vaguely wondering why he was tied a stake and what that line of soldiers were planning to do with the rifles pointed at him? The answer may lie in the fact that rich idiots can be a useful resource. A small army of people are employed at Blandings Castle, maintaining it and protecting it from various ne’er-do-wells. If Clarence were not in a perpetual fog, the castle might be run along much more efficient lines…the natural consequence of which would be general unemployment.

Along with the loss of jobs, there would also be considerably fewer zany plots. Under Clarence, Blandings is an ideal place to stash inappropriately infatuated scions until they come to their senses. It is an irresistible target for various scamps, imposters, and rogues. Wodehouse set eleven novels and nine short stories at Blandings. There would probably have been more had not the author inconveniently died.

Authors: if your work in progress involves a grand autocratic state and trillions of sophonts subject to the whims of an all-powerful leader, do consider the possibility that the all-powerful leader be someone like Clarence. Bad news for their subjects—but fun for your readers.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.



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