With another round of my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing starting this Thursday, I’ve been going through the daily additional material that’s part of the course, and I’d like to share a couple of those items, on the subject of governments.

I’ve been reading, editing, and writing fantasy and science fiction all my life and I’ve noticed that “the government”—in whatever form that takes—is the most important single aspect of any fantasy world or science fiction future. Religion, usually unique polytheistic systems, tends to be lots more common in fantasy and does show up from time to time in science fiction, but some sort of political system is described in essentially everything.

Not all SF/fantasy is “political” in nature, in that the author is clearly trying to make some kind of political point, and that’s perfectly fine. Even then, though, there’s some kind of politics going on, from the highly detailed and intricate political machinations of Game of Thrones or Dune (both of which also feature carefully-crafted religious institutions) to the sort of evil priest-king du jour of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.

A short story in which an alt-history government plays a role.

A short story in which an alt-history government plays a role.

Thinking about what your created government represents, how your characters interact with it, can take up an awful lot of your worldbuilding bandwidth. But most important—and what I try to focus on in the course, too—is that though setting up all sorts of laws and regulations and ministries and so on might be kind of a fun exercise, if your characters don’t interact with, say, the Ministry of Textile Design, or your villain has no interest in being made the Sewage Secretary . . . ?

How does the government, the king, the council, the senate, the alliance, etc.—interfere with or in any way interact with your characters?

In Writing Monsters I get into what monsters actually represent, what function they serve. I get into the idea of monsters as metaphor (Godzilla = the A-bomb, etc.) or how the zombie horde is not a villain but a force of nature/natural disaster.

Could we approach politics the same way?

How about these examples from the course material:


Science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein was well known as a political conservative, even if the hippy generation saw something he may not have known he was presenting in his classic Stranger in a Strange Land. Though I think Heinlein would probably move toward the Libertarian end of the contemporary conservative movement if he were alive today, unlike that generally anti-government ideology, Heinlein, in his novel Podkayne of Mars, had this surprising thing to say about politics . . .

“Politics is just a name for the way we get things done . . . without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he’s received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody’s head bashed in. That’s politics. The only other way to settle a dispute is by bashing a few heads in . . . and that is what happens when one or both sides is no longer willing to dicker. That’s why I say politics is good even when it is bad . . . because the only alternative is force—and somebody gets hurt.”

Definitely something to keep in mind when you have a government that’s not meant to be the source of all evil—the thing your heroes are struggling against. And that’s the government that we see too often now in both SF and fantasy: the evil empire. But what about the governments that are at least worth fixing?


And . . .


For “government,” an example from George Orwell’s 1984, one of the SF genre’s most enduring classics, and quite possibly the most important novel (of any genre) of the 20th century—an examination of government gone wrong:

Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. Since each of the three super-states is unconquerable, each is in effect a separate universe within which almost any perversion of thought can be safely practised. Reality only exerts its pressure through the needs of everyday life—the need to eat and drink, to get shelter and clothing, to avoid swallowing poison or stepping out of top-storey windows, and the like. Between life and death, and between physical pleasure and physical pain, there is still a distinction, but that is all. Cut off from contact with the outer world, and with the past, the citizen of Oceania is like a man in interstellar space, who has no way of knowing which direction is up and which is down. The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they choose.

Yeah . . . a much-bigger-than-one-blog-post subject, right?


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. PHS says:

    Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    This is an outstanding world-building discussion! It’s far bigger subject than just a post but certain food for thought when rounding out a world. Reblogging on Archer’s Aim…

  2. Interesting. I never thought of Fantasy and Science Fiction as politics before. And I am sure that is only a small tidbit of the two genre.

  3. thepencilneck says:

    This is why I’m fascinated with ancient cultures; they had very different views of what the government was and what it was supposed to do. The modern western ideals of a state separated into governing branches, into educational systems, into religious institutions, into economies, etc., they don’t really apply, and the “government” of those times show more of a lack of differentiation and specialization. For my science fiction novels, I’ve moved governments into a hazy area where certain corporations are effectively independent nations, while certain nations are merely battlegrounds between those corporate entities.

    But like you said, there’s a danger in the joy of worldbuilding where you can let this stuff take over your process so thoroughly that you never actually write anything.

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