Resistance and rebellions in the grimdark aren’t an episode of Star Wars. There may be plucky teenagers who blow up important military bases, and those bases might be able to destroy whole planets, but unlike the Rebels in Star Wars, they’re not going to save the day.
As in real life and Mistborn, at best, the rebels are only going to make it different—trading one tyrant, one kind of oppression, or one catastrophe for another.
But most likely, they’re going to make everything worse.
They may win some battles, they might even win a war, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Blame history. Tons of resistances fail. If they’re supported by a more conventional army, they have a prayer. Even if they do overthrow tyranny, consult Nietzsche’s “he who fights monsters” quote for the most common result.
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which is coming up as I write this, I read a blog on fellow fantasy writer Dan Koboldt’s page. Inspired by Colleen Halverson’s doctoral research and Irish-inspired literature, he broke down her research. Halverson explains the parts of a rebellion in history and then sums up the combatants in terms of their role, not good vs. evil.
Because like the grimdark, history has no good vs evil. Everyone is painted in shades, especially the crap-sack ones.
Beyond Good vs. Evil
Your freedom fighters are the empire’s terrorists. To the freedom fighters, the empire is the terrorists or the oppressors. Even then, it’s not that simple.
People are people, and they join different causes for different reasons. Some people join a cause for money. Others join it for ambition. Others join because their pet goat was sold for meat by the colonizers (or out of necessity because of the colonizers) and they want revenge. Granted, some join for the ideology, and zealots are often the worst.
Useful Ideology or Useful Idiots?
Ideology on its own is bullshit. But to people in power and the people who can move the chess pieces, it’s a useful tool to move the pieces around. Dan Koboldt brings this up via Halverson via Marx that there’s an ideological theory called the superstructure. This is how empires get people to believe what they’re saying, and then step aside as they burn villages and oppress whoever’s lands they’re holding.
“If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as truth.”—Joseph Goebbels
The superstructure isn’t really a structure. Rather, it’s a carrot-and-stick schtick that empires and the powers that be everywhere keep in place to keep everyone in line. This ranges from laws and penalties for breaking said laws to ideas about who is worthy of governing themselves and in what capacity.
For the Empire, they often paint themselves as the “saviors” of the people they’re subjugating—one country’s regime change is another country’s invasion. They paint themselves as doing their unwilling “subjects” a “favor” since said subjects are deemed unfit to govern themselves by their rulers. This is usually some version of using media and the press to paint the oppressed as backwards savages who need to be taught the right way to live, as if they’re all children.
Does everyone in the Empire think this way? Not necessarily. Most people go about their everyday lives not really caring too much. That said, some do. Mainly, these are people with a vested interest in either a) keeping the empire’s power or b) on the other side of the fence, seeing the rebellion succeed for their own goals.
On the rebels’ side, there are also the opportunists: once the fighting starts, the pillagers and looters come out in full force to make off like bandits with whatever they can carry. There’s also another option, the people fighting for revenge, or because the empire pissed them off in some way.
You can say, “Mission Accomplished” all you want, but the war is never over.
Good Rebels or Bad Freedom Fighters?
So, yeah, not all rebels are good. On the flip side, not all “empires” that rebels fight against are 100% evil. And not all rebels are good (more on that later).
Goes without saying; the world isn’t divided into binaries, no matter how much cliche wants it to always be “two kinds of people.” Especially considering something Koboldt points out from Halverson’s work: everyone living under the empire is complicit thanks to the superstructure. I don’t know if I believe that personally, but it can make for a good plot point, or a talking point, in your novel. How responsible are everyday citizens for the actions of their rulers? Even if all they want is some food and a comfortable place to sleep. But if you accept Koboldt and Halverson’s premise, then generational reparations make complete sense.
Plus, there isn’t necessarily only one single faction of rebels fighting against a big, bad regime. There could be multiple factions uniting for their own purposes. These factions can range from Boy-Scout levels of virtuous, fighting for the right reasons even if they believe the empire will fight fair. On the other hand, you may have people joining the rebellion to watch the world burn, or people who want to supplant it to impose their own faction as the ruling power. We see this with the Sparrows in ASOIAF, and we see this in real life, when fanatics co-opt revolutions, and then you go from having a despot to having another flavor of tyrant. Or in the words of The Who: “Meet the new boss, same (or worse) than the old boss.”
And that leaves us to the ultimate question: after the rebellion’s successful, after the empire is toppled, then what? Unless the rebels begin with an end in mind, and even then, two words: power vacuum.
The French Revolution of 1789 ended with Napoleon, but before then, France changed hands more times than you remember from history class. And this is the revolution that includes the Reign of Terror, when leaders of the Revolution turned on each other while chopping off more than just the heads of the former powers-that-be.
IRL and in the grimdark, most revolutions are out of the frying pan and into the fire. Even if stability is gained after, the new government isn’t necessarily better than the previous one. Plus, the old empire may have had friends.
What’s your favorite rebellion in grimdark fantasy?
The Temple of Vengeance quadrilogy that begins with Raven Queen, Arise is a rebellion against the high gods and the old who have oppressed mortals through religion and terror for millennia. But tearing down a long-standing superstructure, even with the best of intentions, is fraught with its own problems… Give it a read and see for yourself.