When you conquer a country or a planet, how do you control it? You’ll want to literally control the people to prevent violent outbreaks and get them to work for you, but if you’re thinking in the longterm, you probably also want to bring them on board with your presence, your authority, and your philosophy. Sci-fi and fantasy elements can be used to highlight certain aspects of this process, and they can also spin it in interesting new directions.
I’ve been collecting tips from various history and political science classes I’ve taken for a while now. This advice is conceived for certain kinds of sci-fi and fantasy stories involving international/interspecies politics, either as a backdrop or a main theme, but if it’s useful for historical fiction or any other kind of story you want to tell, awesome! I just hope these thoughts inspire you, and help you think about your plot and worldbuilding in a new way.
Part 1 is about the basic strategies available to conquerors: Force, charm, and the non-conquest conquest.
This is the most obvious method for an invading force to use, and will probably be the foundation for any post-conquest efforts. That original conquest is your opportunity to use your geographical worldbuilding and whatever fancy weapons you’ve designed. It’s your opportunity to make protagonists angry, to make protagonists feel guilty for the harm they caused, to illustrate a character’s nature and to set the scene for the story to come. Of course, force can come in many flavors… There may have been a sprawling set-piece of a war, but there may also have been a one-on-one battle between rulers. In SF/F, maybe there was mind control involved rather than physical force.
Beyond the conquest, you have the assimilation. You’ve gotta have a police force, and the culture within the police force (violent? hands-off? entitlement or service-oriented? bred to serve or volunteers?) will dictate how the populace responds to them. Are the conquerors trying to maintain a “business as usual” atmosphere, or are they imposing martial law? Don’t forget mind control… Maybe the cops get it, maybe the cops dispense it, maybe everybody gets it and there’s no need for cops at all.
It’s not only about law enforcement, either, it’s about the sorts of laws being passed. Is everyone forced to pay homage to the new rulers? Are they forced to stop speaking their own languages, and start speaking a new one? Forced to stop practicing their traditional religions, or prevented from referencing the old government? Forced to work, or serve in the army? Are the conquers using force in a calculated way, or are they just trying to smash out resistance and hoping people forget about it?
Instead of ruling with an iron fist, the new government may want to win over its subjects with gifts and charity. If you can make them better off than they were before, you may find yourself with a large pool of loyal subjects. Maybe your character is military and values the new dragons they’re allowed to use against a smaller enemy. Maybe the flying trains finally run on time. Maybe your character is pro-conquest because her little brother was healed by the conqueror’s advanced medicine. Then again, maybe your character resents all those gifts, or the gifts are only going to certain segments of the population — maybe dragons get gifts but humans don’t!
With a charm strategy, the government will probably allow the populace to continue its old practices and hope to bribe them into complacency and assimilation. They may discourage the old practices through economic incentives, such as charging a fee to use certain services, or placing a tax on anyone who doesn’t join the conquerors’ religion. Or it could be as simple as social pressure, where those who assimilate have better employment and social opportunities.
You can come at it from either direction — if you know the government is passing out presents, then think about how the people respond, or if you know how your character feels about it, you can work backward to figure out what kind of government you have. It’s best to be consistent unless you’re contradicting yourself for a reason — you might have a well-meaning government official who’s trying to win people over but has no understanding of the local culture’s value system and who does more harm than good, causing other officials to use violence in response, for instance. Or you could certainly have a well-planned strategy combining both carrot and stick, with lofty rewards for those who join in and terrible punishments for those who do not. Just try not to have those in power flip-flopping whenever it suits your plot, because readers notice that kind of thing and will call you out on it!
THE NON-CONQUEST CONQUEST
This was an especially effective option in the ancient world, when “conquest” would’ve meant “bring me stuff.” The conquered party was generally left alone, allowed to keep its own culture/language/religion, but was compelled to send tribute at regular intervals, and might have a new governor. Tribute could be measured in money, food, luxury items such as spices or textiles, soldiers for the army, etc. (You could make this something totally weird and cool in a sci-fi or fantasy universe! Just think about what’s valued in your world. The Aztecs valued horticulture and demanded tribute in the form of rare plants for the rulers’ gardens, among other things. You could do wacky, like weird flowers, or you could do dark and make it soldiers or other human tribute.)
Naturally this ties into force, because you have to be able to make them bring the stuff, but it’s more of a transaction and less of a personal assault, (assuming the tribute is in stuff rather than people). You may still generate hard feelings, but you may also be seen as “Just doing your job,” because there’s less opportunity for individual conquerees to be affronted by individual conquerors, and an economic strain isn’t usually on the same level as an assault on your personal traditions. Characters who’re motivated by resentment for this kind of conquest will probably have strong feelings about their locality or ethnicity, and be offended because the tribe itself has been humbled, with any personal harms coming second. This can also depend on the quality of the local governor, of course… Depending on the level of autonomy, that person could make things very hard or very easy for the populace.
Part 2 will cover some more specific aspects, such as religion and education, that could play into any of these overall strategies. What do you think so far, and what have I missed?