ConFusion 2015, Panel 1: What About Peaceful Societies?

The moderator for this panel was Kameron Hurley. Panelists included Annalee Flower Horne, Saladin Ahmed, James Frederick Leach, and Steven Erickson.

“What is a peaceful society?” “Is it possible to write an engaging story about a peaceful society?” “Where do we find the conflict necessary for a good story when we write about peace?” These are some of the questions the panelists addressed during this, the first talk I attended at ConFusion 2015. It turned out to be quite a complicated topic. It also underscored the point that THESE PANELS NEED TO BE RECORDED!

These are some points brought up by the authors, roughly in order from my notes. Interspersed are my thoughts on the subjects mixed with what I remember of the conversations.

S.E. Peace as a survival mechanism

This was an interesting take on the question. Peaceful societies would necessarily be more robust than those which are continually in conflict. Though conflict can drive progress, that presupposes the not-necessarily-accurate idea that progress is objectively good or necessary. Note that this doesn’t necessarily equate peace with passivity. And it is contextual. A society which is internally peaceful may have arrived at this state through extreme violence. Which brings us to…

S.A. Peace is the quieter moments of empire. In “peaceful” times, what violence is being ignored?

The example here was the Clinton years, when America was prosperous and we were not involved in any particularly large wars. For the U.S., it was a peaceful time. For everyone else, not so much. And in that time there was extreme violence worldwide. Crime here in America, wars and battles and massacres all over the globe. We had just finished an excursion to the Middle East and were not far away from doing it again.

A.F.H. positive and negative peace

There is the peaceful community which is often represented in fiction as idyllic, utopian, often populated by hippie analogs. And there is the totalitarian regime where dissent is not tolerated, but society is peaceful. Another way to look at it: Did the people choose peace, or was peace chosen for them?

J.F.L. Can any society be peaceful? Also, Conflict vs. violence

The answer here was left open, as it was too big a question to give the necessary attention to in an hour-long panel. As with so many other points in this panel, a large part of the answer came down to the scale at which the question was asked, and the lower boundary for “peace”. A household may be peaceful, but it is located in a crime-ridden neighborhood. That neighborhood may be in a quiet, prosperous city. That city might be in the middle of a country that is at war with its neighbors. So depending on the spatial and temporal boundaries of “society” the answer here was “maybe?”

K.H. Is the default state of humanity one of violence?

Wow, what a depressing thought. A couple of ideas got tossed back and forth, talking about specific cultures, going all the way back to the Neanderthals. But we quickly realized that…

S.E. We have no basis for comparison.

We have not (yet) been able to observe another civilization as advanced (?) as ours. We have only humanity as the yardstick by which to measure humanity. We have committed a tremendous amount of violence against ourselves over the last couple hundred thousand years, yet in aggregate the percentage of people in violent conflict at any given moment is quite small.

S.E. We haven’t reached a post-scarcity state.

Another interesting idea from Steven Erickson. As long as resources are scarce, there will be conflict. The only post-scarcity society in SF that comes to mind is the Federation in Star Trek. Of course few of the civilizations they encounter are post-scarcity, and this may drive some of the in-universe interactions. Assuming territory expansion is a driving force, no civilization in the universe ultimately lives in a post-scarcity

S.A. Not enough dystopian literature deals with scarcity. Thus a lot of S.F. conflict feels trite or trivial

This is a very good point. Retrieving a stolen amulet or seeking revenge for a courtly slight may make a good story on the face of it, but it feels like, well, there are other ways to resolve the issue. If your people are starving and desperate to the point that invading your neighbors is an improvement over the statis quo, that makes the story feel real. For instance, in a plurality of kung fu movies from the 70s, the first fight starts with the line “Hey. You lookin; at me?” That’s a mighty small base on which to build a compelling story.

S.A. Why doesn’t Fantasy address scarcity?

I wracked my brains for a long time after this comment. I can’t think of any fantasy novels which deal with scarcity on a societal scale as a major plot point. Sure, half of all fantasy novels start out with $character, who is a starving beggar in $city, discovering his or her true identity. But once $plot_hook kicks in, there is no more talk of scarcity or resource management.

K.H. Discovering society through story, rather than story through society

The idea here was that authors generally seem to do a large amount of world-building, then go into the world to find the story. Hurley’s idea was that it is equally valid, and often preferable, to come up with a story and see what kind of society would coalesce around that story. For writing about peaceful societies, it is difficult to imagine a peaceful society, because there are so few around which are larger than e.g. an Amish village.

J.F.L. Coming of age as conflict. Fragmentary frames of reference.

Put this another way, it is possible to outgrow a peaceful society. The problem with any ostensibly utopian community is that it is made up of people who are constantly changing and evolving. What was the ideal situation one day may not seem so on the next. And peace/lack of conflict may exist in a temporary bubble in the middle of turbulent times.

A.F.H. “War is the price of peace” is ingrained into the American mythos

This ties back to Saladin Ahmed’s remark about peace being the quiet moments of empire, and could be said to lay behind it.

A.F.H. Conflict is contextual. The more alike we are, the more the small differences matter to us.

This is demonstrated every time a stable population is disrupted by infighting. Also because people are human. No matter how small or homogeneous the population, they seem to inevitably divide into “us” and “them”.


And this is the (unsurprisingly short, considering the topic) list of books which were mentioned by the panelists:

Dan AbrahamA Shadow in Summer from the Long Price Quartet
Molly GlossThe Dazzle of Day
John Knowles – A Separate Peace
Paul Park – Starbridge Chronicles
Kim Stanley RobinsonPacific Edge


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