Friday, November 2, 2012

Reading S.M. Stirling's Draka Novels

S.M. Stirling's well-known Draka series presents a culture founded on a distillation of the most brutal elements in nineteenth century European thought (the proto-fascism of Carlyle, the pseudo-scientific racism of Gobineau, the Nietzchean will to power), and given space in which to develop and expand (nineteenth century southern Africa).

Thematically it is an interesting concept. However, Stirling's treatment is quite unconvincing, even by the standards of alternate history, which is quite a different thing from historical counterfactual.

It is nearly inconceivable that a feudal culture of xenophobic, Classicism-obsessed, warrior-landowner aristocrats, presiding over a population of illiterate serfs whose lot is no better than slavery, would succeed in building an industrialized society. These are, after all, exactly the kind of people who have held development back elsewhere, and if anything the history of both South Africa, and the southern United States (a major contributor to this culture), only reinforce this view of the Draka's prospects. That this society should not only industrialize, but do so in a part of the world that in real life has suffered greatly from what development theorists term the "resource curse" (the propensity of a natural resource-rich country to "underdevelop," in line with which South Africa was a developmental laggard); and then succeed at their task so completely that they technologically outstrip the rest of the world by the 1940s, and go on to push the envelope far beyond what our world achieved by that time; is nothing short of preposterous.

The idea that this mix of elements would at the same time produce such an atheistic, feministic and hedonistic culture as that of the Draka, and somehow harmonize this with a quasi-Spartan martial ethic, is that much less believable. It is hardly more credible that with their rather small demographic base (despite the infusions of Loyalists, Confederates and other immigrants into the region) they would succeed in conquering and developing sub-Saharan Africa in the space of a century, and Eurasia in another, even with their technical prowess and without the grave disadvantages of their social model. (We are given to understand that the ratio of serfs to Citizens gets as high as eighty to one, and that even serfs who serve in the armed forces have a very low glass ceiling over their heads – as does everyone else not born at the top in this extremely inegalitarian culture.) Stirling does make some concessions to the handicaps such a system would suffer in its pursuit of its goals, the Draka culture's limitations all too apparent by the time of the third novel in the series, The Stone Dogs – yet, they finish that book as masters of the planet, their enemies literally driven off the Earth's surface.

Reading the novels some readers have taken these aspects of the book for a wish-fulfillment, one which some readers have found appealing (Stirling himself has commented on those "who wanted to move there"), while others have charged Stirling with being a racist himself (Stirling remarking "Oh, all the time" when asked whether this happens). Of course, Stirling is contemptuously dismissive of those who read the book in such ways. However, it is worth noting that no one can mistake Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for a wish-fulfillment – but the truth is that there is at least some scope for such a reading here. Orwell's Oceania was a very far cry from the world to which those who joined the Communist Party generally aspired, but the Domination of the Draka realizes a host of fantasies regarded as unseemly in the mainstream, but which nonetheless have their enthusiasts. There is a radical right-wing fantasy of a society built on the most harshly elitist principles, which not incidentally finishes off the Soviet Union and Communism by 1942. A militarist fantasy of a modern-day Sparta sweeping all before it (with much made of the softness of other folk). A Southern nationalist fantasy in which the South does rise again (even if it does so in another hemisphere), and takes on the Yankees and wins decisively (and on a global stage, an extension of the U.S. Civil War the final world war). And that is all without touching on the other fantasies (of power, sadism and other things) to which Draka culture speaks. (I leave it to the reader to judge whether the illogic of the outcome makes such appearances more or less pointed.)

Additionally, the novels focus not on the outsider or the rebel traditionally at the heart of the dystopian tale, but the system's biggest beneficiaries, the most privileged of the Citizens, who despite particular misgivings and occasional alienation, ultimately uphold the prevailing order. Their homes and estates, and their often brutal entertainments, are also described with a lushness that might not unreasonably be seen as romanticizing their world. Stirling contends that despite the Domination of the Draka being a dystopia
any society that lasted that long would have to have some attractive features. Besides, part of the challenge of using the bad guys for p.o.v. was to force people to identify with them and then go ICK! mentally.
This is, of course, plausible enough, but the approach does not always have the effect planned, and this time around there is little arguing that the Draka series is fairly susceptible to those interpretations he has dismissed in the above comments – even by those not given to "reading against the grain" and invoking the Founding Fathers of the Linguistic Turn with every breath.


Irish-German American Vetaran said...

An essential mistake is made by equating Afrikaner culture (AC)to Confederate and pre Confederate southern American culture (SAC). AC had a strong protestant work ethic, much as northeastern America did. SAC had a bucolic aristocratic static culture, which developed almost no industry. Not none, but very little. SAC,like pre-revolutionary Russia, could modernize dramatically while maintaining a serf culture. The collapse of the endemically corrupt Romanov dynastic Russian empire is no more inevitable as a collapse of a serf society than America's rise to dominance was inevitable. In many cases inspired or lucky leaders either did the ultimately successful or unsuccessful thing. A great example of this is Clive in early British history. He conquered much of India, which later developed into a mixed cultural society of British adventurers and Indian companions in an egalitarian new city. Such developments were occurring throughout India, as intelligent "locals" were seizing the opportunity to modernize. This was then horribly mismanaged by bureaucrats who later arrived and imposed a top-down "better system."
I'm not saying the Draka would have developed; I just point out that the premise that a serf-using culture couldn't modernize is empirically wrong. Outright slavery was still thriving in the backward Confederacy, even with a British Atlantic blockade of transatlantic slave trading. This demonstrates that in the modernizing economy o f America, slavery was successful. The Romans also exemplified a very successful, modern (for its time) cultural trajectory involving a very different system of slavery. While immoral to me, and something I donate to fight (I refer to the current equivalent, Human Trafficking) the morality isnt the question. The potential success of such a system is the question, and empirical historical evidence trounces the articles' assumption that it must fail.

Nader said...

Hi. Thanks for writing.
You make some interesting points; your counterfactuals about Russia and India in particular are intriguing.
However, I think you should remember that my post made its argument based on a number of factors, rather than just one. (For instance, I also mentioned the "resource curse," which in our timeline did keep South Africa behind Europe and the Americas in its economic development, even without the handicap of a serf-based economy.) And if the aristocratic element that emerges from the Confederate-South African hybrid is what is uppermost in my discussion of the books, that is because it is also what Stirling focuses on in his novels. (Had he presented the Draka as a more work, production and science-oriented culture, the books, and the post, would have been quite different.)
I also have to point out that your empirical examples have their limitations. Rome's economy does seem proto-modern in some ways, but it was a long way short of industrialization - let alone on the successful kind we see here. And the fact that it was not the slaveholding South, but the non-slaveholding North, that saw industrialization would actually seem to support the argument that the Draka system could not have worked in the way imagined in the novels (despite the fact that both these regional economies were inside the same, relatively loose union of states that existed pre-1860s). To actually "trounce" my post's assumptions, the empirical evidence would actually have to show a serf-based society attaining a "modern" level of industrial output and technological dynamism, something they do not.
Nonetheless, the more fundamental difference comes down to what forces one thinks are truly decisive in history. Some favor the "Great Man" theory. Others see material factors strongly constraining what even the most able and far-seeing leaders can do. That's a related but much larger debate.

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