I’ve recently been reading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series and loving it. It’s a fantasy epic (yes, I know, keep reading) in the style of Game of Thrones: an attempted ‘realist’ depiction of social and political life in a sword-and-sorcery world. I think it’s superior to Game of Thrones in this respect. The major theme of Game of Thrones, if you’ll allow me a moment of first-year-lit-student-reductionism, is the relationship between brutality and power. In Westeros and elsewhere, the only people who manage to wield power for very long are the inhuman; ‘normal’ people in power are either killed like Ned Stark or rendered inhuman like Catelyn. George R.R. Martin’s political world is dominated by ruthless schemers who, if not outright sadistic, are at least willing to commit atrocities when it suits them.
Abercrombie’s First Law series, on the other hand, offers a view of political life dominated by incompetence. Those with power invariably make stupid decisions which others bear the cost of. Political events are ‘decided’ by a muddle of equally stupid decisions and luck. Attempts to maneuver and scheme are largely futile – the schemers simply don’t have access to the information they’d need to make good decisions. The only person in the series who actually succeeds in his political designs does so through a ridiculous power asymmetry, not through any political intelligence (or, god forbid, ‘legitimacy’.)
Both series reflect truths about the world. Power is, in general, handled by those morally and intellectually unfit to use it. However, I lean towards the First Law series. The ‘game of thrones’-style chess game, in which the bloody struggle for power is likened to a battle of minds, always struck me as unrealistic. In general I distrust the ability of institutions to make decisions based on reality, and here’s why:
Information is systematically filtered as it travels up a hierarchy, because power relationships distort communications. Everyone self-censors in talking to a superior, so that the person at the top of a hierarchy lives in a completely imaginary world. According to Wilson, rational behavior requires accurate feedback about the actual effects of one’s decisions — i.e., two-way communications between equals. A decision-maker who is cut off from accurate feedback by the unidirectional communication in a hierarchy becomes functionally insane.
via Kevin Carson. This is exactly how it works in the First Law series: decision-makers are fed self-aggrandizing or ass-saving reports by their underlings, so that by the time they get to make a decision they’re cut off entirely from the real world. The decision they make is then filtered down ten levels of command, by which point it is a) unrecognizable and b) well out of date. The result is a pointless, bloody mess.
The kind of organization that could win the game of thrones would be, as Carson suggests, composed of equals who can communicate accurately with each other. I wonder: will we see an anarchist collective roll over Westeros in the next season, to finally melt the Iron Throne into a set of metal pipes? We can only hope.