Elizabeth Bear on knowledge in pre-modern society

by Henry on April 30, 2014

I’ve just finished Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky sequence (Powells, Amazon). It’s fantasy, based around a rough analogue to Central-Asia-plus-China-plus-bits-of-Rus, in which pasty skinned Westerners are weird and occasional aberrations. It’s also enormous fun. It’s also technically impressive in its grasp of how feudal and tribal societies actually work. Bear really gets the consequences of imperfect information sharing in pre-modern societies and uses it as a core engine of plot. Rather than the usual fantasy model of ‘bunch of disparate comrades united on a single heroic quest,’ it goes for the far trickier ‘bunch of disparate comrades who split up and go in many different directions, most of the time with only the vaguest idea of what the others are doing.’ It pains me to think how much work she must have done to keep track of who knows what at which point, but it pays off. The really nice part is that the villain (who bears a strong resemblance to Hassan-i Sabbāh) is not a commander of the usual armies of mindless hordes. Instead, he mostly has to work through treachery, dissimulation and manipulation of collective knowledge. His magics (which are costly) mostly involve better communication, which allow him both to work more easily with subordinates, and to spread disinformation so that it takes hold quickly, forestalling some alliances while encouraging others.

All this is strongly reminiscent of Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book (which is one of the genuine classics of sociology, and far less frequently read and assigned than it deserves). Gellner’s account of pre-modern society stresses how ‘sword wielders’ (rulers and their warriors) have to come to terms with ‘script users’ (religious leaders and clerks). Coalitions between the two classes govern most pre-modern societies.1 The former are specialists in violence. The latter are specialists in communication, and over the time, the power of the second constrains and shapes the power of the first.

In any one single encounter, there is of course no question of any equality of strength: he who has, and knows how to use, the sword, need brook no nonsense from the penpusher, and is indeed most unlikely to tolerate any opposition from him. To understand the manner in which pen-pushers nonetheless can and do effectively oppose and overcome swordsmen, we need not invoke or overestimate some mysterious power of superstition in the hearts of the swordsmen, which would compel them to bend their knees to the upholders of legitimation and truth. … Each member of the warrior class controls his own stronghold and band of armed followers … These local lords are … loosely organized in a kind of pyramid …

The main point about the loose and fluid congeries of lords of diverse rank is that they are indeed loose and unstable. There are diverse reasons for this. For one thing, they are prone to conflict and warfare simply in virtue of their pervasive ethos: violence is their honour, their specific skill, and they are in effect required to demonstrate, almost perpetually, their competence at inflicting and resisting it. There are also other reasons. The balance of poewr that keeps the peace between thugs and coalitions of thugs is unstable. The power of a lord high up on the scale, of a king in effect, depends on how many lower level thugs he can organize. The availability, the “loyalty”, of a lower level thug will in practice depend on his private assessment of the strength of the king, and so, indirectly, on the lower-level thug’s assessment of the loyalty of other lower level thugs. They are all tacitly watching each other. … in civil strife, potential supporters of rival claims to legitimacy are swayed not so much by their own assessment of the real merits of the case, but by their private, unavowed prediction of the loyalties of others. If the [organization of pen-pushers] has the authority to ascribe legitimacy, and is endowed with the machinery for disseminating and publicizing its verdict, this confers great indirect power on it. It can crystallize the consensus which then brings together the larger units. … The pen is not mightier than the sword; but the pen sustained by ritual does impose great constraints on the sword. It alone can help the swordsmen decide how to gang up to the greatest advantage. (pp.95-99)

It’s unlikely (though of course far from impossible) that Bear has read Gellner. Furthermore, her imagined universe is one in which divine authority is real and can provide legitimation without the mediation of earthly intermediaries (the skies of the steppes reflect the temporal order below). Yet her ideas push in a not dissimilar direction. In pre-modern societies, the power to communicate is key. Gellner emphasizes how communication and legitimation reinforce the power of traditional religious organizations. Bear emphasizes the vulnerability of these arrangements to disruption by canny manipulation of information. Her books are a very nice example of how a clear thinking writer can use straightforward sociological insights to reinforce the power of her fiction.

  1. Also Gibbon, Decline and Fall, “The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.” 



Andrew Burday 05.01.14 at 1:20 am

“The availability, the “loyalty”, of a lower level thug will in practice depend on his private assessment of the strength of the king, and so, indirectly, on the lower-level thug’s assessment of the loyalty of other lower level thugs.” This sounds like an antecedent to Keynes’s beauty contest. The thugs don’t care which king is most powerful; they care which king the other thugs are going to think is most powerful.

Serious question, though: why do you limit this analysis to premodern society? Granted that we no longer have the explicit hierarchies of feudalism, we still have a society in which it is crucial to maintain the loyalty of voters, managers, workers, police, soldiers, and such. And we still have institutions dedicated to creating and preserving that loyalty, even if those institutions are called “schools” or “news media”, along with the old fashioned priests and rabbis. There certainly are differences, but the old framework appears still to apply.

I mean, “In pre-modern societies, the power to communicate is key.” Yeah. Sounds like surveillance, net neutrality, and media concentration would be big deals for them.

Am I missing some deep distinctions or is it just that you happened to be talking about premodern societies and the broader framework would apply now?


Henry Farrell 05.01.14 at 2:05 am

Gellner’s argument is that in modern societies, we have universal literacy, and that nationalism is a functional substitute for the “gelding” of the traditional clerisy that made them more likely to act in the state’s interests, rather than on behalf of their clans and close relations.


GiT 05.01.14 at 3:41 am

Thanks for the author pointer. I’ve been reading some fantasy again but I don’t know where to find the good stuff. Any other recommendations? Most of what I read when I was a kid was of a more pulp D&D variety – fun enough at the time but I wouldn’t tell anyone to go out of their way to read it. Right now I’m getting into Le Guin’s Earthsea stuff, which I have enjoyed a lot. But for good speculative fiction in the high fantasy vein she’s really the only person I know about.

Anyways, don’t mean to derail into a recommendation thread (well, only a little bit). Back to Ernest Gellner. I wish I could remember the content of what I read of Duby’s Guerriers et Paysans, but that was a long time ago and I read it in the French, which was not a recipe for retention in my case….


mark 05.01.14 at 4:19 am

Only two books in. That’s an observation I hand’t made on my own but I think it explains one of the reasons I love them so far.

To bring it down to my low brow level of analysis, the set up pulls off something that is tricky in genre fiction when the author wants a smart (rather than super-powered) villain: The heroes are consistently one step behind him appearing stupid, overconfident or naive. They are capable, fully aware of the danger around them, and they make smart choices given what they know, and it doesn’t feel like nearly enough.


Sumana Harihareswara 05.01.14 at 12:53 pm

GiT: You want “good speculative fiction in the high fantasy vein”? You are in luck! N.K. Jemisin (start with “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” or one of her short stories available online) and Jo Walton (try out “The King’s Peace”) are writing great stuff. I’ve also heard good things about Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist series, and I’ve enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series.

If you’re willing to reduce the height of the fantasy :-), check out Zen Cho, starting with “Prudence and the Dragon” and “Rising Lion – The Lion Bows”.


Henry 05.01.14 at 2:11 pm

Wasn’t that fond of Robinette Kowal’s series – the sub-Austen got too sub too quickly. For a much sharper (albeit not particularly fantastic) take on the Regency, I’d strongly recommend Madeline E. Robins’ Sarah Tolerance books . I also really liked Sarah Monette’s Melusine novels, which didn’t sell nearly as well as they deserved (her recent book under an assumed name, the Goblin Emperor, is fine, but not as good).


Yama 05.02.14 at 6:17 pm

Robin Hobb’s work was entertaining, with heroes that were always misinformed and only triumphed with great damage to themselves.

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