This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert.
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About the Expert
Colleen Halverson has a PhD in English with a specialization in Irish Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The following post is based on her research for her doctoral dissertation entitled “Fragmented Histories: 1798 and the Irish National Tale.”
Rebellions are a staple of science fiction and fantasy, but oftentimes we see uprisings and revolutions pitted in dualistic terms of “good” and “evil,” with the brash, brave rebels on one side fighting against the oppressive Empire on the other. I became interested in colonial uprisings when I started working on my dissertation on the early nineteenth-century Irish novel. I found all these great books, primarily by women interestingly enough, depicting the 1798 Irish Uprising and I wanted greater context to better understand them.
This uprising was one of the bloodiest in Irish history, the death toll ranging in the tens of thousands. My impressions of this uprising were initially straightforward. You had the Irish on one side who wanted to overthrow imperial rule, and you had the English on the other who wanted to maintain said imperial rule. Simple. But as I began researching, I found a multi-layered conflict complicated by politics, religion, geography, new philosophies, and ancient grudges.
My novel Through the Veil features a rebellion, and the sequel to my debut will delve into it in more detail. Even though my novel is urban fantasy, I tried to apply what I learned from my research on the 1798 Irish Uprising in order to make it more nuanced and realistic. It would be impossible for me in a blog post to describe every group involved in this event, and because of my academic background, my research is slanted on the Irish side of things. But I hope by describing the various factions, it will help fellow worldbuilders to enrich their revolutions.
This includes the ruling class, the state, colonial agents, officials, their families, and the mercantile system catering to them. The Empire creates the economic conditions under which everyone in the colony must abide, and to justify their system, they create an entire culture to help validate its existence. In Marxist terms, we would call this “superstructure,” the dominant ideology that generally protects the interests of the ruling class. In Ireland, for instance, colonization began with economic interests at heart (but also political and religious interests, but that is a whole other post!). Ireland has fertile soil and cattle, so let’s take it. But over time, the ruling class had to justify its presence; thus they deemed the Irish “uncivilized,” “barbaric,” and “too emotional” to rule themselves. We see this ideology perpetuated in the “stage Irish” character in a lot of English theatre of the time. So even if you weren’t personally oppressing the Irish, if you were living in England at the end of the eighteenth century and buying theatre tickets, you might find yourself in a complex cultural system that perpetuated this sort of oppression.
Questions for Worldbuilding: How did the Empire come to power? What economic, political, and cultural interests fueled colonization? How does the Empire maintain power through ideology, cultural influence, surveillance, and legislation?
The Empire’s Dissidents
But every Empire has its naysayers from within its own ranks. Many members of the English intelligentsia spoke out against imperialism. For instance, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, inspired by the radical views of liberty circulating at the time, traveled to Ireland in the early years of the nineteenth century to aid in the Irish cause. The Irish resistance also found surprising allies in abolitionists who saw slavery and Catholic Emancipation as fundamentally linked.
Questions for Worldbuilding: What are philosophical, religious, social narratives within the Empire running counter to its claims?
Very few rebellions can succeed without the outside help of some wealthier, more powerful ally. In the lead up to the Irish uprising, the French saw an opportunity to gain a foothold in the country to aid their ongoing war with England. They planned two invasions, neither of which succeeded because of the weather (!), but this support turned the uprising from a small colonial skirmish to a major international incident.
Questions for Worldbuilding: Who are the allies in your uprising? What do they want? How do they overlap with the goals of the rebels? How do they deviate?
These citizens were born in the colony, but are a part of the genteel upper crust and see themselves as belonging to the Empire. Their hybrid identities are influenced by local culture even though they might find themselves beholden to the superstructure. In Ireland, this group was the Anglo-Irish, otherwise known as The Ascendancy. These were ancestors to invading forces and, for a time, they held government, enacted laws, served as local justice, and existed as intermediaries to the crown. Yet, many members of the Anglo-Irish felt particular affinities toward Irish culture and sometimes (sometimes not) sympathized with Irish causes, even if in a paternalistic way. The writer Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard Lowell Edgeworth were great examples of members of the Ascendancy who maintained one foot in English culture, and one foot on Irish soil, seeing themselves as “reformers” to a war-torn and impoverished land. In this way, they often found themselves in a nebulous “in-between” space within their social sphere.
Questions for Worldbuilding: What unique, hybrid identities emerge in your world’s “contact zone” (the space where two cultures clash, intermingle, blend, etc.). What issues are your intermediary characters sympathetic toward? In what way do they mirror the dominant ideology?
The Middle Class
Even the most oppressive colony will have its middle class amongst the native population. These tend to be low-level clerks in the civil service, merchants, or what was often the case for the Irish, Catholics who were able to live on land rented on extremely long leases. In Ireland, many scholars point to how for much of the 18th and 19th century there existed a “Hidden Ireland,” with powerful, wealthy families hiding beneath a façade of poverty to fool the English gentry. Largely centralized in urban areas, these are individuals who have just enough money to seek an education and enough leisure time to read and engage in some degree of intellectual life. This middle class is generally native, but can include intermediaries of a lower class. In Ireland, The United Irishmen began as a debate club with both native Irish and Anglo-Irish members, but turned revolutionary as the flames of rebellion took hold in America, France, India, and in colonies around the world.
Questions for Worldbuilding: In what capacity does your world allow for a middle class? What philosophies and ideas fuel their beliefs for an uprising? Who or what inspires them?
The Native Lower Class
These are generally poor farmers and factory workers with some or very little education. Because it was illegal for Catholics to pursue an education in Ireland under English rule, ad hoc schools called “hedge schools” emerged to serve this disenfranchised population. Because these schools existed in secret and outside of the superstructure, they did not transmit the dominant ideologies of the Empire and often undermined them. In the late 19th century, the Defenders emerged as a “home grown” group of discontents serving to assist Catholics against local persecution. While the United Irishmen stood purely for the ideals of Thomas Paine, the Defenders’ position was a complex web of Enlightenment values, Stuart politics, agrarian protests, and personal grudges. The United Irishmen and the Defenders would eventually join forces in the uprising, but they remained uneasy allies with many of the United Irishmen seeing the Defenders as local yokels and the Defenders viewing the United Irishmen as bourgeois charlatans.
Questions for Worldbuilding: What localized persecutions are fueling the feelings of rebellion amongst the lower classes in your world? How does their isolation from the dominant culture assist in a strong sense of identity amongst them? How do they see the wealthier, more privileged members of the uprising?
The subaltern is on the lowest tier in the uprising ladder. These are illiterate, landless individuals living a subsistence existence. In Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” she discusses how these shadowy, impoverished individuals are co-opted by the middle class to shame and belittle their imperial rulers. In other words, the subaltern is often spoken for, but she does not speak for herself. The middle class might imagine the subaltern’s desires as uniform, but for Spivak, they are heterogeneous, multi-layered, contradictory, ambiguous. A conversation between a middle class member of the rebellion and a subaltern might go as follows:
Middle Class Revolutionary: So tell me what you want.
Subaltern 1: I want a goat and maybe a new pair of shoes. And yeah, the Empire is terrible.
Subaltern 2: I want to kill that guy over there who happens to be a different religion than I am because he shot my brother in a gambling dispute.
Middle Class Revolutionary: Ok, so you guys are saying you want liberty and freedom from religious persecution. Got it.
Subaltern 1: No.
Subaltern 2: Did you hear what I said? That guy killed my brother!
Middle Class Revolutionary: (walks off) This is great, guys. I’ll put this in our next pamphlet. Really good stuff. Cheers.
Questions for Worldbuilding: Who is on the lowest tier in your uprising? In what ways are their needs “unknowable” within the ideological discourse of the revolution? How are their needs and wants multi-layered, localized, personal, and perhaps at odds with the larger movement?
Obviously, this blog post can’t contain all the complex players within an uprising, but I have found authors who move beyond dualistic thinking allow themselves to create rich, intricate worlds and characters. These are just some of the questions I asked myself as I crafted the world of Through the Veil, and they are constantly on my mind for its sequel as the tension between various stakeholders in the world intensifies.
About the Author
As a child, Colleen Halverson used to play in the woods imagining worlds and telling stories to herself. Growing up on military bases, she found solace in her local library and later decided to make a living sharing the wonders of literature to poor, unsuspecting college freshmen.
After backpacking through Ireland and singing in a traditional Irish music band, she earned a PhD in English with a specialization in Irish literature. When she’s not making up stories or teaching, she can be found hiking the rolling hills of the Driftless area of Wisconsin with her husband and two children.
Elizabeth Tanner is no Tinkerbell, and her life is no fairy tale. Broke and drowning in student loans, the one thing she wants more than anything is a scholarship from the Trinity Foundation. But after the ancient Irish text she’s studying turns out to be more than just a book, she becomes their prisoner instead. And when Trinity reveals Elizabeth is half-Fae, she finds herself at the center of a plot to save the magical races of Ireland from a brutal civil war.
As Commander of Trinity’s elite warriors, Finn O’Connell isn’t used to having his authority challenged. He doesn’t know whether to punish or protect the infuriating young woman in his custody. When he discovers the Dark Fae want to use Elizabeth’s abilities to control the source of all power in the universe, he’ll risk everything to help her.
At the mercy of Trinity and enslaved to the Dark Fae, Elizabeth finds herself alone on the wrong side of an Irish myth thousands of years in the making. Refusing to be a pawn in their game, Elizabeth has to fight her way back to the man she loves, but to do so, she must wage her own war against the magic that binds her.
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