Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree

My friend Kate Paulk, blogging at our group blog (Mad Genius Club, Writers' Division http://madgeniusclub.blogspot.com/2010/03/overthrowing-evil-tyrant.html) has gone after one of the cliches of science fiction and fantasy. The evil overlord.

Perhaps this hit me at a vulnerable time, as I'm waiting for an answer to my proposals for sequels to Darkship Thieves - all three of which deal with evil regimes of different stripes and at least one of which centers around a revolution against said regime.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided that Kate has it exactly right and that most science fiction and fantasy novels serve us very badly indeed. They show the toppling of the regime as being relatively easy and with little push back - and the victims of the regime as being happy they were freed. (How to correct that dissonance in my chosen field and why we should is a post in itself, one I owe to sf signal this week.)

I blame the WWII movies so many of us grew up with. You knew, sure as shooting, that if the allied aviator got shot behind the lines in Germany but especially in France, except for a few officers, he would find the mass of the people on his side and ready to help him/smuggle him behind the lines/do whatever they had to do to save him. Because the mass of the people (TM) were all against the evil regime, of course.

Need I tell you that in real life it doesn't work like that?

That no matter how horrendous the regime, how horrible and repressive, the majority of people will find excuses for it and will have a reason to think "it's for the best"? Look at North Korea. One on one and man on man, surely most of those people would tell you it is wrong to shoot someone for telling someone else the price of food. Oh, of course the public doesn't get most of that - not most of the public - they get the "he was shot for revealing secret information".

However, enough of them will know what really happened. More, those will be the people with some power. So, why aren't they rebelling? It can't be anyone's opinion that it is just to shoot someone for revealing innocuous information to a relative. No one but the loon at the top can believe everyone thinks NK is prosperous and free, right? So, why do these things happen? And why does no one rebel?

A friend said it is because any rebel can't be sure of being in the majority and if he does rebel there will be reprisals. This is undoubtedly true for many people. Is it really possible for a vast mass of people to be in quiet rebellion for years, and not to know they're not alone? Possibly. Even probably. At least the habit of double think in Communist countries seems to argue for that. And all the underground jokes, and... But knowing my share of emigres, I can tell you it's not that simple. The double-think was truly double, like a double agent is truly double and thinking they're "really" on your side is folly. The extent to which allegiance is given to the tyranny varies with the individual, but it can sometimes be fervid, even as the individual knows the tyranny is wrong and repulsive.

For various reasons, this is something that fascinates me - the mechanics of tyranny survival, and what finally causes it to topple. I have read a lot about it. After the fall of the Sov. Union I was one of few Americans looking for every possible book about what had really happened and how it had managed to survive seventy years. I've got probably more books about the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the fall of Communism, the institution of Communism, etc, than my local public library.

And I have a theory. For what it's worth, I think tyranny survives by subverting you from the inside. And it subverts society by breaking each individual's inner self.

Kate gives an example in her post at Mad Genius - you're in a just-installed tyrannical regime and, to survive, you agree to inform on piddly stuff. But you don't know who is informing on you, and when they come around and tell you someone said you spoke, you end up turning in one of your nearest and dearest to save yourself. It's not an unusual story.

There are others. During the Ukranian famine - and others imposed by governments bent on control - cannibalism was resorted to. Now, I know cannibalism is not that far from us, in time. A matter of a few thousand years. But it is far from us psychologically. There are few more basic commands, at a modern level than "you shall not eat your neighbors." You force people to break that command, and something in them breaks.

Other commands, too. They vary for each of us, and the force of each varies for each of us, but there are basic things that "people don't do." (Partly because people did pretty much all of them, in pre-history, as far as we can tell. The price of civilization, of "taming ourselves" was leaving these things behind.) From the oldest times killing ones' parents excites the worst revulsion and societies, to stay cohesive, punished it the hardest. I believe that Eric has the Roman penalty for parricide on the side bar. In fact, the Greek tragedies hit pretty much all of the deepest taboos though some we're possibly less horrified by today because we have less contact with the circumstances. (Leaving bodies unburied for instance.)

You force someone to break one of those long-ingrained taboos, and you've made them do something they cannot face, either in fact or in memory.

In stories, this means the person they just broke will turn against them and try to bring the regime down. And this is where stories are profoundly unsatisfactory. Because, you see, stories are written for entertainment. They lie to you. They tell you what you want to hear about humanity: that evil will be punished. That humans, at heart, have something sacred and pure that can't be broken.

Is it true? Not in real life. Perhaps that's why we need it to be true in myths. In real life, the human must in every way obscure that he has broken one of the fundamental commandments of civilization, and allowed himself to do what he cannot face. The best way to do this is to become convinced it was done for a higher cause.

Yes, you ate little Sasha, but that's okay because you're building Homo Sovieticus and there will be happiness and enough food for everyone forever. Yes, you betrayed granny, but you're going forth into the big, bright future, and grannies of the future will be so much better treated. Yes, your next door neighbor was sent to the camps, but the authorities wouldn't have sent him if he hadn't done something to deserve it. They have people who investigate that stuff. And it must be for the best. It has to be for the best, or you can't live with yourself. And the regime must be the best in the best of all possible worlds, or you'll be forced to admit you became a monster due to the pettiest of motivations. And you can't do that.

If you think revolution against the evil overlord comes when you accumulate enough violated people, you will be wrong. Revolution usually happens when situations are improving enough, when the stress lets up somewhat, when people can look back and see at least the outlines of how bad it is. Or when enough information leaks out about what OTHERS were forced to do, and how bad it got. Then you can be incensed on their behalf without having to face your own betrayal.

But those who betrayed the most, those who know in their own hearts they did the worst things, will often stay loyal to the very end, desperately trying to hide the monster in the mirror from themselves.

And that's how tyranny survives, and how tyranny seduces. Nineteen Eighty Four had it exactly right "Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you, you sold me..."

Beware who you sell and who sells you, because ultimately, you're always selling yourself.

NOTE: This important post has been bumped by Eric so more people can see it.

posted by Sarah on 03.29.10 at 11:59 PM


Yes, the trick is to make everyone complicit. In Romania you couldnt get anything (education, job, apartment) without being a party member, and you had to spy on your neighbors as well. Also, as socialism tends to cause scarcity, sooner or later everyone is corrupt as they make deals to have access to the most basic goods.
So you can't trust anyone, and everyone is guilty, a good recipe for a police state.

Daran   ·  March 29, 2010 8:24 AM

The principle of making everyone complicit is as old as the practice of stoning people to death. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, medical students were forced to punish "criminals" by performing amputations. When everyone's hands are dirty, they become more pliant and easier to control.

Eric Scheie   ·  March 29, 2010 1:39 PM


You are both right and wrong. You are right that it is very difficult to overturn an evil regime. You are wrong when you imply that it is unrealistic for the collapse to seem like it is easy. When evil regimes finally collapse internally they usually collapse rapidly. So rapidly that it is easy.

The reason for both apparently contradictory facts being true is that evil regimes rot from within. When the final challenge is made, it is against a hollow shell that crumbles virtually overnight -- even if that final push took less effort than previous attempts.

Larry Niven touched on that theme in one of his novels that involve slower-than-light interstellar travel. Don't remember the name, but he did a lot of talking about water-monopoly empires in it.

I'll be glad to put in a good word at Baen about your book proposals. I was very impressed with your works and gave them a favorable review in a Texas newspaper for which I write. (I have learned not to start one of your books late at night if I have to get up early the next day.)

Mark L   ·  March 29, 2010 1:49 PM

Hi Mark. Yes, I like your reviews. :) Actually my problem is more the idea that everyone's moral compass holds them pure against the tyranny. I've recently been reading Black Swan, which I think would explain the "sudden collapse" phenomenon.

Heard from publisher at Baen. We're waiting for (groan) numbers. So, keep everything crossed. :) Meanwhile I'm fair and away on another space opera about five hundred years after Darkship Thieves. (Double groan.) Did I ask for this? No, I didn't. It's just what demands to be written.

Sarah   ·  March 29, 2010 2:08 PM

"Everyone's moral compass holds them pure against the tyranny."

Bwah-ha-ha-ha-hah. The sad part of that belief is that is what underlies modern "liberal" (actually progressive) politics -- the idea that humans are perfectable. The genius of the framers of the Constitution is that they designed a system that would work even when individual moral compasses aimed directly at "selfish self-interest" rather than "greater good." They had no faith in moral compasses being infallible -- if they were there would be no need for separation of powers or the Bill of Rights. It worked fine until the "Progressive" reforms at the beginning of the 20th century (16th, 17th, and 18th Amendments) removed some of the protections.

Mark L   ·  March 29, 2010 2:47 PM

My favorite crush-the-evil-empire SF stories were always by Heinlein. He had a good grasp of practical politics. It's true that his heroes generally would opt to die before selling their souls to the tyrants, and most often would manage something clever, brave, and violent enough to prevail over them. But sometimes they went down with the ship instead. It's a nice reminder that the duty of free men really is to die rather than soil our souls -- that survival isn't everything. Think how impossible a totalitarian state would become if each individual simply and resolutely declined to go along. The earlier you start saying "no," the fewer who will have to die saying it.

Texan99   ·  March 29, 2010 5:43 PM

As the culprit who inspired Sarah's post here, I've got to say that one of my big gripes is the idea that after the evil tyrant has been defeated it's all hears and flowers and happily ever afters and everyone thanks whoever it was that got rid of the tyrant.

Sarah's covered the reasons that isn't the case, and I can see why we need to believe something like it - we always want to believe that good is rewarded and evil punished.

The problem is we tend to absorb the lesson of the stories we're told, and then history goes and reinforces it by talking about winning this war or that war and precious little about the cleanup and consolidation and just plain nastiness that often happens afterwards.

Too much of that, and you start getting fairytale thinking where you need Heinlein.

Kate   ·  March 29, 2010 8:53 PM

Just the other day I read a mystery (and now I can't remember the name of the author or the book. Senile, I tell you. Before fifty) that took place in liberated France. The... Mess, there's no other word for it. The scars of betrayals of counter betrayals made these people walking psychiatric cases. Not just a happy time with people dancing in the streets.

Another book that catches that feeling is Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb. Not as well plotted as her mysteries, and some of her insights... (shrug) but it perfectly captures the post civil war atmosphere in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Heinlein, well, when you're a master, you're a master. He makes it SO good that we believe the revolution could happen like that. Mind you, in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, to make it believable, they needed a super intelligent computer. In Revolt in 2100 his role is incidental to the revolution. My favorite -- purely fairytale -- is Sixth Column, and that too needs a new technology that immitates magic.

My favorite Heinlein going down with the ship story is The Long Watch. I always cry when I read it. There are very few stories that do that. (Though I cry buckets when Mycroft "dies" in TMIAHM.)

Sarah   ·  March 29, 2010 11:52 PM

Actually, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot all had strong popular support--and Stalin and Mao still do. The bureaucratic state that succeeded Stalin gradually lost that support. The fact is that ALL governments, being a tiny fraction of the governed, survive only by the support or at least acquiescence of the governed.

Bob Sykes   ·  March 30, 2010 8:27 AM

Bob Sykes,

You didn't believe what Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin et al said, did you? Surely you don't also believe what Mugabe, Castro Junior and their friends are saying now?

When tyrants control the communication channels, they will of course paint a rosy view of their little corner of Hell. When they reduce people to a desperate struggle just to survive, those people don't have the energy to object. They've been beaten, starved and terrorized into submission. See what Sarah said about famines - when people don't have enough to eat, their first priority is not rebellion, it's food. That's why many of these regimes were exporting food while their people starved.

Evil tyrants lie. When their tyranny collapses and what's left is anarchy, of course people will express regret for the lost security, when they at least knew where they stood.

Government can also survive by the fear, disbelief or even ignorance of the governed.

Thus ends your history and social studies lesson for the day.

Anonymous   ·  March 30, 2010 10:32 AM

Well, crud. That "anonymous" was meant to be me. Oops.


Kate   ·  March 30, 2010 1:37 PM

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