Have you ever thought about how much more efficient it would be to just have a single person making all the decisions? Rather than waste an hour or two assessing all the relevant facts before arriving at a conclusion, a single autocrat could make decisions immediately, perhaps even before they were fully awake! It’s hard to see what could go wrong with such a system… but some SFF authors have been up to the task.
The Serpent by Jane Gaskell (1963)
Informed of a prophecy that her daughter Cija would be the doom of the Dictatress’s city-state, the Dictatress did what any prudent ruler would do in her place: she had Cija immured in a tower, then raised on a farrago of lies. Having ensured Cija’s profound ignorance, the Dictatress then assigns to Cija a task on which the fate of the city depends.
The half-lizard warlord Zerd is carving his way across continents. In an attempt to buy his favor, the Dictatress offers Cija to Zerd (as a bride, not a slave, but same difference). This is but a ruse to get Cija close enough to Zerd to murder him. Too bad that, even if poor Cija were not terribly dim, she is far too naïve and ignorant to succeed.
“Half-lizard?” some of you ask. Gaskell’s world is one where the boundary between species is not the reproductive no-go that it is in our world. This is just one of many exciting worldbuilding decisions that Gaskell makes over the course of the Atlan series…
The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson (1975)
Disease swept across the world, killing every person twelve years or older. Orphan Lisa finds herself the sole guardian of her younger brother Todd. Lisa resolves not merely to keep herself and Todd alive—she is determined to rebuild civilization. Quite a task for a ten-year-old, but Lisa is a remarkable ten-year-old.
The city is filled with the physical resources that Lisa requires. Lisa provides the necessary vision. It only remains to find people to act as her hands. Here Lisa’s foresight serves her well. Having sequestered the resources needed to survive, she can offer food and shelter to those willing to accept her as their ruler. If this deal is too one-sided? The kids are free to starve in the ruins or try their chances with Tom Logan’s predatory Chidester Gang.
Readers curious what sort of society might be founded by a ten-year-old who has apparently read Atlas Shrugged need look no further.
Mapping Winter by Marta Randall (2019)
Lord Cadoc Marubin spent four decades creating an unassailable state. Secret police are vigilant for signs of disloyalty. Potentially disruptive subjects vanish in the middle of the night. The system would be a perpetual dictatorship…if Cadoc were not mortal.
Cadoc is on his deathbed; there are four potential heirs. He might avoid chaos by naming an heir (as if this would make any difference to the post-death scheming and squabbling). Kieve Rider could influence the succession if she were willing to do so, but she hates Cadoc and would prefer to escape court politics entirely. She cannot; her loved ones are being held hostage to compel her cooperation. Too bad that selecting one heir to back means potentially angering the other three.
In addition to being a political thriller, Mapping Winter is an interesting example of a secondary universe story that’s probably not fantasy. The characters may firmly believe magic exists, but there’s no evidence that they are correct. At the same time, this is not alternate history. Is there a word for mundane secondary universe narratives?
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (2020)
Faced with the necessity of delegating important tasks to unreliable subordinates, the emperor has an innovative solution. Using bone fragments commandeered from his living subjects, the emperor creates magical automatons, subject to his will. Donors die prematurely, but they should be comforted by the knowledge that their life-force fuels a key part of the state apparatus.
It is true that malcontents abound: the emperor’s heirs squabble and scheme among themselves; the survivors of the unwilling bone-shard donors are unhappy; there are the usual would-be reformers. But the emperor is confident that his highly centralized system is stable and robust. Unless, of course, something were to happen to the man running it all.
The emperor is essentially a programmer who is utterly convinced that automatons can replace messy, uncooperative people, provided their directives are flawless and don’t contain any exploitable loopholes. It’s possible he is overconfident.
This is a rare case in which the ruler really is the state, without intermediaries complicating matters with their own personal agendas.
Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller (2022)
The emperor of Boren built his empire on innovations—innovations stolen from other nations, innovations used to power a constantly expanding empire. One such new thing: a sort of immortality. It confers resistance to age but not poison.
The emperor is poisoned.
Aware he is dying, the emperor sets one of his pawns a final task: discover which of the emperor’s loathsome heirs was impatient enough to assassinate the emperor. Once the killer has been identified, the pawn, a certain Charm, is to kill them. Charm may or may not succeed. What is certain is that the emperor’s successor will be just as awful as, and perhaps even worse than, the emperor himself.
It seems obvious that the last thing an immortal ruler would need is an heir. Or more than one heir. If the ruler insists on having an heir just in case, it would seem wise to expend sufficient effort to ensure the heir’s loyalty. The emperor in this novel did not do that. Sad to say, he’s not the only fictional autocrat who set up the necessary conditions for a violent palace coup. I’m sure you can think of other examples.
SFF authors love to write about autocrats. The five fictional autocrats I’ve mentioned are far from a complete list—no doubt many of you have your own favorite dictators, emperors, and absolute monarchs, rulers unjustly ignored by this article. Feel free to repair my omissions in comments.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.