Magic, superhuman tyranny and creating a society without slavery in Graydon Saunders’s fantasy Commonweal Series

Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”
—Alasdair Gray.

“If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is as good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god.”
—Graydon Saunders

By William H. Stoddard

Ken MacLeod’s blog, “The Early Days of a Better Nation,” takes its title from a quotation from Alasdair Gray. Obligingly, he provides that quotation, followed immediately by another quotation from Graydon Saunders that comments on the idea.

Who is Graydon Saunders? Eventually, I became curious, and found that he was, among other things, the author of a series of strikingly original fantasy novels, the Commonweal series.

Editor’s note: The series begins with The March North (Book 1), followed by A Succession of Bad Days (Book 2), Safely You Deliver (Book 3) , Under One Banner (Book 4) and A Mist of Grit and Splinters (Book 5).

Saunders’ fantasy series has no print version, and it appears that it may never have, as Saunders isn’t prepared to take on the difficulties of producing good quality physical books and marketing them, and he isn’t being sought out by established commercial publishers.

But the e-books are available on multiple platforms (I bought mine through Apple), and are strikingly original.

I’ve described the Commonweal as fantasy, and it certainly makes one of the standard assumptions of fantasy: the existence of magic.

In fact its setting is one that is saturated with magic, far beyond the measure of most of the genre’s classics. Where many fantasy settings might face the threat of a single dark lord, a Sauron or Lord Foul or Voldemort, the world of the Commonweal has had a long succession of competing dark lords, each ruling for a few centuries or millennia, over a span of time far longer than real human history. It seems very unlikely that this world is the future of Earth and humanity, but the effect of this fictional span of time is rather like that of science fiction set in the very far future.

And as with such science fiction, the world has been utterly transformed over that span of time. Saunders’s characters take for granted the knowledge of physics and chemistry that our own society has attained; for one example, they use rare earths as freely as a historical fantasy world might use bronze or steel. But then they build on this with powerful sorceries.

The very landscape has been reshaped, over and over. Vast numbers of species, plant, animal, and other, have been given new forms, often forms as dangerous as the monsters of dungeon fantasy, and more imaginatively so. Words such as “sheep” or “swan” turn out to refer to things as frightful as Fafnir or Smaug.

There are no classic fantasy races such as elves or dwarves, but there is an entire clade of magically transformed human races with exotic qualities, such as the Creeks of the first volume, The March North. More or less any feats that classic science fiction might attribute to advanced science is possible here to magic.

As a result, the dominant political form of this world, for millennium after millennium, has been rule by superhuman tyrants: formerly “human” beings whose supernatural gifts make them individually the equivalent of a state.

Much more recently, only centuries ago, in one part of the world, this pattern was broken, apparently for the first time: A group of mortals found a way to band together, unify their powers, and make themselves able to fight against dark lords and monsters.

The resulting society, the Commonweal, is not libertarian in the usual sense — it appears to have economic policies of legally imposed egalitarianism, along with some forms of conscription — but it has a basic goal that makes sense in libertarian terms: creating a society without slavery and without rule by nearly omnipotent despots. So along with the exploration of magic and its implications goes an exploration of legal principles for a magical world.

In particular, the Commonweal has legal residents who are themselves sorcerers of immense power, whether because they believe in its ethical principles, or because they prefer other goals than seeking total political power and fighting off rival sorcerers.

We meet three of them in the first novel: Halt and Rust who have been powerful since before the Commonweal was founded, and Blossom, who is less than a century old and rapidly ascending to a similar level of power. (In the later volumes she appears to have qualities analogous to godhood.)

According to the narrator of The March North, such sorcerers get protection at a price: Not merely keeping the peace, but giving up five years in every fifty to the service of the Commonweal, which is one of the ways Saunders’s imagined society is not libertarian.

On the other hand, the Commonweal has the rule of law, rather than the arbitrary will of monarchs. And the decisions of its policy makers seem often to be informed by economic analysis. Both of these are things libertarian readers may find creditable, even if they disagree with their application.

I’m particularly struck by a bit of dialogue from the second volume, A Succession of Bad Days:

“Commonweal law is not less emphatic on the necessity of consent in social relations once one has become sorcerously active.”

The March North is a war story. The later volumes are more like school stories, in the now familiar genre of schools for wizards, super-beings, and monsters (all three of which are applicable to the students it portrays). All of them are interesting examples of their respective genres.

One other thing has to be said about the Commonweal books by this Canadian fantasy author: Science fiction readers are familiar with the concept of indirect exposition, in which the assumptions of a culture and the workings of institutions are presented not by a lecture or other information dump, but by showing scenes that imply them. The Commonweal has indirect exposition in a big way.

But beyond that, it has something that might be called “indirect narration”: Much of the story is told, not by recounting events as they take place, but by implying them through other events, or through conversations.

The reader is left with an ongoing puzzle to solve. Readers who enjoy such challenges, or who are prepared to read a book a second time, may find Saunders’s writing a delight; others may find it a challenge. But either way, this series is one of the most interesting recent works in its genre.

Note: William H. Stoddard also has written review-essays for the Prometheus blog about another fantasy series, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies, Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, end slavery and war and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.