Geeking Out About Dragons and Alt-History

I’ve talked about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series before, which is an alternate history focused on the premise that many of the major governments of the world between 1600-1800 have had access to intelligent dragons as military, economic and cultural resources.

Novik’s series is focused on the adventures of a British naval captain and his accidentally-acquired dragon, who turns out to be a highly intelligent and strong-willed member of a breed previously found only in China. Over time, Captain William Laurence and the dragon, Temeraire, have grown increasingly estranged from the British military and now from British society as a whole. What originally started as a bit of a mash-up of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels has developed its own distinctive feel.

As I’ve noted previously, Novik’s alternative history has the escalating feel of galloping away from her in a way that I find kind of intriguing if also perilous to the coherence of the series.

The changes that her story has made to world history are now so comprehensive that they’re plainly straining her ability to keep all the balls in the air, which I think is one reason why the newest volume in the series sometimes feels a bit boring and glum, like it is stalling for time. Still, I really enjoy thinking through the cascading sequence of alternate events and conditions that she’s set in motion, like those thought-experiments where legal scholars sit down and try to figure out what laws would govern vampirism or lycanthropy if they were real.

Novik deserves a lot of credit for not just returning the status quo in each book to a kind of Napoleonic-era + dragons baseline. That’s what a lot of her fans seem to want: the comfort of keeping early 19th Century British military officers as British military officers, in a setting where the British Empire is a pleasantly nostalgic backdrop to the action. There are a lot of complaints from readers that the characters are “too modern”, the plot developments too politically correct. I think in many cases, these are readers who don’t really know much about the actual history of the British Empire (and therefore regard it as impossible that there should have been actual British people in 1800 who were anti-imperialist or at least indifferent to imperialism) and are more comfortable with non-Western people in such tales being nothing more than background elements. I agree that Novik is starting to use Temeraire as a kind of ‘modern’ critic of imperialism, but given that the European-trained dragons in some respects function as “anthropologists from Mars” (e.g., they’ve previously not had much exposure to human institutions or knowledge, but Temeraire’s sharp interest in these subjects has changed things), it’s not at all unreasonable that he should ask some basic questions, such as why lodging a claim of territorial sovereignty based on Captain Cook getting off his boat briefly makes any sense whatsoever.

Spoilers ahead for Tongues of Serpents.

Sending Temeraire and Laurence off to Australia is a solid low-key follow-up to the last volume’s major developments: it gets the characters away from the major global events unfolding, and lets Laurence slowly come to the next stage of his development as a character, turning his back on the British Empire for good. Temeraire clearly has already come to the point of regarding imperialism as nonsense, though in a dragonish fashion.

But enough information gets added to the picture of Novik’s alternative world that the next volume honestly should take place in a setting that is thoroughly unlike the early 19th Century in any respect: this is no longer just Napoleonic Europe + dragons. Here’s what I noted:

There are now at least two other major “dragonish” species of creatures in this world, with serious political and military implications. There are sea serpents, some of them trained and under the control of a renascent Chinese empire, and there are bunyips in the Australian outback, which aren’t under human control but are clearly intelligent and hostile to human beings.

In the meantime, an alliance of African kingdoms using weaponized dragons has attacked European ports in the Mediterranean in retaliation for the slave trade and have been given naval transports by Napoleon to Brazil, where they have continued their attacks, now on slave plantations. (I complained earlier about Novik’s idea that “the Tswana”, a single state/people from southern Africa, could have crossed the rest of the continent to North and West Africa as if it were more or less unpeopled and then carried out military operations from there, so I’m taking her continued mentions of “the Tswana” as being an alliance of multiple African states. Because that’s what makes sense to me.)

So let’s sum this up: Britain no longer has effective naval superiority in the eastern Pacific because of Chinese sea serpents, plus China is no longer the enfeebled Qing China of the early 19th Century, but instead under leadership determined to push back on European advances. African states are working in alliance to destroy the slave trade, European states no longer have territorial footholds in West or Southern Africa, and with the aid of Napoleon, Africans have begun an invasion of the New World.

In addition, we hear a bit more about North America in this volume, including the proposition that dragons there are increasingly being used by both European and Native American merchants for air transport of commodities rather than as military assets.

All that adds up to an utterly different, almost alien world, quite aside from there being dragons and such:

*No plantation slavery past 1810 anywhere in the world, assuming that the African alliance doesn’t meet meaningful resistance. Huge implications not just for the New World and Europe, but for Africa.
*Air transport of goods within continental landmasses, so no need for railroads or even canal-building in North America. (This is assuming dragon husbandry can produce sufficient numbers of animals to meet increased demand + sufficient food for the dragons. Industrialization of meat production might come earlier in this world!)
*Societies previously vulnerable to European expansion are strongly defended: it’s hard to see how Europeans would gain imperial hegemony over the Australian outback, China, or Africa.

Now add to this that whether she knows it or not, Novik is laying the groundwork for some kind of dragon liberalism, that Temeraire is more or less heading in the direction of a dragonish verison of the Enlightenment. I’m not sure Novik will want to pull the trigger on this particular mantlepiece gun, but it’s hard to see how she can avoid it. I keep wondering why Temeraire hasn’t read Rousseau, Voltaire, Adam Smith, John Locke, Montesquieu and so on, given his interests. (Maybe he has and I just missed it, but…) Conversely, of course, imagine what Enlightenment thinking would have looked like if there was another unmistakeably sentient species sharing the planet with human beings, and what the intellectual consequences of news about the emancipated status of dragons in Chinese society in particular might have been within European society. Dragon Chartism can’t be far off. Though Novik has also done more and more in each volume to establish what the dragonish version of “reason” looks like, and it’s not entirely human. Dragons have a psychologically dependent relationship on the human that they imprint upon at birth, and dragons have an avid near-instinctive interest in loot and riches that has nothing to do with accumulation in the human sense.

Of course, the extent to which Novik is engaged in world-building is also raising a lot of questions not just about future events in her series, but about the implausibility of the past of her world. How exactly did Europeans engage in post-1492 expansion in the New World if the Incas and other Native American states had dragons? (We know that the Inca and Aztec Empires resisted Iberians successfully, but on the other hand, we now know also that Portugal has extensive holdings in Brazil. These are hard to reconcile.) What exactly do the Americas look like, anyway, and where on earth were all those African slaves going to? (Something I wondered about the last time I posted on the series.)

Why did West African states tolerate the slave trade in the first place? Did the Mongols use dragons, and wouldn’t that have made a difference in their conquests whether they did or not? More importantly, why have intelligent dragons ever tolerated subservience to humans? How could dragons make any ecological sense whatsoever given their need for huge amounts of meat? Some dragon breeds in the books are able to eat two or three large mammals per day. (Not to mention economic sense: even a small dragon force would have put a huge burden on most preindustrial societies.) I’m hard pressed to understand dragon evolution in any respect, even given centuries of artificial selection.

Etcetera. But like I said, I enjoy the extent to which Novik is at least allowing these kinds of questions to slowly rise to the surface in the series. I really do think it’s time for her to move into a completely new narrative line and start putting the dragons into the politics of the European Enlightenment: a dragon-rights campaign would make perfect sense, given the direction of the series so far.

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3 Responses to Geeking Out About Dragons and Alt-History

  1. It’s been a while since I’ve read the books, but iirc, the African society which includes dragons is deep in the continent. People living nearer the coasts could still be vulnerable to slavers.

    And I think dragons don’t achieve human level intelligence unless they get quantities of meat which they aren’t capable of getting without human help.

  2. FWIW, Peter Jackson has optioned the movie rights to these books.

  3. Neb Namwen says:

    Speaking of SF alternate history, I’m working on a treatment for a novel that might interest you, with the working title Lady Lovelace’s War. I’d be grateful for any constructive comments.

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