The backwater setting and approving attitude towards “frontier justice” in Jack Vance’s Araminta Station reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s Future History books, and criticisms of science fiction as authoritarian, statist, and parochial in general. While some authors do have authoritarian or anti-democratic ideas that they incorporate into their work, mostly these works express a longing to re-open the wild frontier, combined with a limited scope. As the memory of frontier exploration fades from collective memory, more stories turn inward to find a source of narrative conflict.
Default vs Doctrine
The simple reason for monarchy and other forms of personal rule recurring so often in speculative fiction is just that: simplicity. One guy is in charge because he was born that way, or might as well have been. He’s got some ministers of varying degrees of goodness and competence, and if someone wants to rearrange the org chart, the have a simple objective: the king.
Taking things a little further, history and political theory have much to say about the merits of a benevolent dictatorship — Plato’s philosopher-kings, or the enlightened monarchs of the Renaissance. Indeed the principal drawback — succession — ready-makes the story: the noble protagonist must assume his rightful place in order to assure the continuance of Good. And not every story need concern itself with the mechanics of government. A.E. van Vogt, for instance, just didn’t give much thought to the subject other than “someone in charge lives in a big castle”. Tolkien, antiquarian that he was, had philosophical and aesthetic reasons to recall the kings of yore in his stories, though his imitators again probably didn’t give the issue too much thought. Kings ruled in the Hyborian Age of Robert Howard; the Conan stories both intending to portray a vanished mythical age and not conducive to arguments before the Althing.
Some authors really do have a low opinion of the common man. The Deep State antics of the “good guys” in E.E. Smith’s Triplanetary make the quick-shooting interstellar police of Araminta look like the Warren Court. Other times the author simply wants to make a point about the relationship between government, technology, and context. Frank Herbert’s Dune portrays feudalism as an effective solution to the governance of multiple planets bound by poor communication, something Poul Anderson also did a few years prior in The High Crusade. However, the Future History & Gaean Reach settings of Heinlein & Vance respectively don’t indulge in either default or doctrinaire monarchy. Both, in fact, deal pretty extensively with the mechanics of governance & social class. Yet both exult in swift, sure enforcement of extrajudicial justice.
In the service of the Queen
Escaping the Clutches of Civilization
The glorification of summary personal justice reflects a wish to escape civilization to conquer and settle a frontier. This latter impulse is particularly American, and in fact for a long time largely defined “American”. After the census of 1890 famously declared an end to the American frontier, the country spent several generations ruminating, reliving, and glorifying the legacy of its frontier settlement, most visibly via the genre of the Western, although it influenced early science fiction as well, with authors viewing space exploration literally as a final (and hopefully infinite) frontier.
This, but IN SPACE.
Space would provide an escape from oppressive attempts to render society “legible” to control and taxation, attempts made easier not merely by technology but by population density and sheer age. Authors like Heinlein and Frank Herbert even posited a eugenic effect: frontier settlement selected for adventure and individualism; old sedentary societies selected for conformity and stagnation.
Migration is a sorting device, a forced Darwinian selection, under which superior stock goes to the stars while culls stay home and die.
This is true even for those forcibly transported (as in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth centuries), save that the sorting then takes place on the new planet. In a raw frontier weaklings and misfits die; strong stock survives. Even those who migrate voluntarily still go through this second drastic special selection.
Even authors who shied away from eugenic arguments, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, suggested space settlement would at least spread humanity’s eggs around several baskets.
The swift, community-sanctioned and personally-dispensed justice required by the comparatively lawless frontier definitely appealed to anyone who felt the courts of settled regions to be slow, unfair, or unjust. Some of this might be naive, but to confuse it with authoritarianism or bloodlust badly misses the mark.
The Best of Both Worlds
Heinlein and Vance both took advantage of their authorial prerogative to eliminate the uglier aspects of American frontier settlement — in neither the Future History nor the Gaean Reach settings do settlers need to exterminate natives, institute repressive militarized governments, or participate in the flesh trade in order to survive and prosper. (Vance does show more cynicism here than Heinlein.) And prosperity comes easily enough — unlike the hand-to-mouth ranchers of Elmer Kelton’s Westerns, the settlers of the future want for very little. Lazarus Long decries the precarity of his existence while living in an opulent Roman villa with his harem on a virgin planet; the backwater Mircea’s Wisp of Araminta Station provides recognizably modern First World conditions to most of its inhabitants, while the government has just enough reach to keep things from getting out of hand without Glawen Clattuc having to spend the rest of the trilogy giving sworn statements and depositions about a police shooting at a remote monastery.
Not what they had in mind
Swift summary justice is not one of the aspects of frontier living that Vance or Heinlein eliminate when creating their worlds. Cutting the red tape on law enforcement isn’t an ugly aspect of the lawless frontier but one of its benefits. Even when the heroes do bother to try their enemies’ crimes in court, the proceedings run far more smoothly than their real-world counterparts. The trial portrayed in Araminta Station runs about a page.
In any case, the portrayal of summary justice in Vance’s Cadwal Chronicles, like that of Heinlein in his future history, reflects a desire to escape from oppression rather than to extend it — along with an understanding that such an escape means dispensing with certain aspects of civilization. A severance made all the easier by suspicions about whether settled definitions of due process really equated to ideal justice.