The Tough Guide To The Known Galaxy

Thanks to a recent post on the Cedar Lounge Revolution an accidental trail of hyperlinks led me to a website that I hadn’t seen in years. Dating all the way back to the early palaeolithic period of the world wide web (or 2001) writer Rick Robinson’s “The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy” serves as an online science-fiction homage to the rather better known 1996 book, “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland“, by the British young adult author Diana Wynne Jones. The latter publication presents itself as a supposed tourist guide to a fantasy world where a bevvy of genre tropes and clichés are gently lampooned, very much in the spirit of the late Terry Pratchett. While somewhat over-eulogised by its fans the book has its moments and is occasionally all-too accurate.

“Horses are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame or put their hooves down holes, except when the Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world. For instance, they never shy and seldom whinny or demand sugar at inopportune moments. But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them. If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a valley while you talk. Apart from this inexplicable quirk, horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are. Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few horses are described as geldings. It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination. This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals. Nomads appears to have a monopoly on horse-breeding. They alone possess the secret of how to pollinate them.” 

Given the popularity of Jones’ works among Fantasy fans and up-and-coming writers I continue to be surprised by the glut of familiar sword an’ sorcery stories that hit the shelves each year. Which makes one wonder if some new authors are reading Jones’ book as a how-to guide rather than a how-not-to guide.

Rick Robinson’s online publication sets out to be similar in tone to the Fantasyland guide though it falls somewhat short of the mark, coming across as more of a straightforward critique of the genre’s tropes and conventions. However it does the job well, pointing out many of the problems with SF story elements that most writers and readers gloss over. When you go through it you’ll be surprised by the number of settings and characters you’ll recognise from you favourite books, comics and movies. I mean, seriously, it’s kind of embarrassing.

LIBERTARIAN MILITARISTS. A society that is frequently met with, at least among EARTH HUMANS. These people believe in minimal government and maximum personal autonomy, yet they have a large military establishment with very well-disciplined troops. This raises some interesting questions. How minimal can a government be if it collects enough taxes to support that enormous military? Don’t people feel that if they’re going to pay all those taxes they might as well get some roads or public colleges as well? And how does a society so devoutly individualistic provide sufficient recruits to an organisation as essentially and necessarily group-oriented and authoritarian as a military force?

More generally, how does this odd combination arise in the first place? If these people are libertarians, they’re unlikely to be EMPIRE builders, so they don’t need a big military for conquest. And if they are so threatened from all sides as to need it for defence, how have they avoided a garrison-state culture in which (necessarily authoritarian) military values become generally dominant in the society? Political scientists and sociologists have yet to provide a satisfactory answer to these questions. They need to work harder. It can’t be for lack of examples, because PLANETS with Libertarian Militarist societies are found all over the KNOWN GALAXY.

Indeed!

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