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Stories like ours


Excerpts from The Princess (Nicole Ianello, c. 1500).

Introduction

The term "Princess", in a strict sense, applies to those women who are of nobility, perhaps the daughters of kings and queens. They are stereotyped, perhaps justly, as being weak and helpless, unable to give a thought to their nation and their people or to anything but their courtship.

It is not to or of those people I write, but instead those women and men who desire to lead their people. The "Princess" to whom I refer is no one woman, but rather any who emulate the model I present. There are too stereotypes of what the sexes are and are not. I wish not to perpetuate those: I appeal to them, if at all, to remind those who read that the "masculine" vision of brute strength only is not the sole way to view the world. Were I to climb the great mountains of the west, I could gaze down upon varied states, and each would have its own way of being run. I seek to describe what I believe to be the right.

Duties of the Princess

The Princess must have many responsibilities if she is to be an effective leader of her people. If she focuses too much on one area, she will lose sight of the rest. Much is spoken of the glory of ascension from the life of a normal citizen to positions of power. This is guided by two great forces.

The first of these is politics. She who speaks well will win the approval of her people. The second, and the more dangerous, is that of trade. For with coin there is much power, but those who lack it can grow discontent. Therefore it is better for a princess to rise by way of debate than to put trust in coin. She should too take care that all her people have what they need, and do not need to resort to coin to obtain it.

It is good also for all to have arms. Those unfortunate few that lack arms are not only misproportioned, but also incapable of performing tasks as simple as writing without expending great energy to find an alternative way to do so. So it must be another duty of the princess to promote the health of her people by establishing hospitals and letting doctors freely practice their art, that all might keep their limbs.

On Praise and Blame

We are indeed fortuitous to live in such a world as our own. For we have been granted the power to create our ideal. A great many have imagined states such as nobody ever saw or knew, and have departed from their homes to construct such fantasies. There is such a difference between the outmoded relics of the past and the glories of the future that they who neglect the ideal to study the real will come to ruin among the bitter and cynical systems that comprise the old realities.

There are many traits that determine a person's mind, and how they act as a result of those traits will bring them either praise or blame. But it is not possible to win the praise of all: therefore, a princess would be unwise to strive for such. Rather, she should instead follow what she believes is good.

When praise and blame are to be given, it is more honorable to blame oneself and assign praise to another.

On Love and Fear

Both love and fear are emotions, and are determined not by the rule of authority. Neither, however, are they determined by a person's mind, for emotion stems from beyond reason. So it is an unwise goal of a princess or any other to seek to be loved or feared. Again, by doing what she views as right, she will either do right or wrong for her people. If right, she will grow to be admired; if wrong, it is the right and duty of her people to replace her. Leaders of the people are chosen from among the people, and if they no longer do good for the people, they should be replaced.

When crime is committed, the princess must not be afraid to address it. But instead of casting retribution upon the criminal, she should attempt to teach them the error of their ways. If she confiscates their property, she gives more strength to coin: if she confiscates their person, she gives less strength to her own ideal by, in the most drastic cases, repeating the action.

So by striving to do right, a princess will put her thrust in her own belief. The concerns of others can be of importance, but if she seeks to please them before herself, she will lose sight of what she truly holds most dear, and that is what should have first guided her into her role. Thus she undermines her office. If a princess truly arises from the people, her aims and values will align with theirs, and by following her belief, she will do the best for them.

The Way to Keep Word

It is indeed praiseworthy for a princess to keep her word and live with integrity. Yet the crafty use of speech demonstrates great skill as well.

You should consider, then, that there are two ways of fighting, one with thought and the other with force. The first is properly a human method, the second that of brutes. If the first does not suffice, the wise princess will truly evaluate the problem's worth.

The princess can still draw inspiration from lesser beasts. The bird overhead sees the world as it is, with the princess indistinguishable from any other. The cat is aloof, the zebra's stripes divide the world in two: from all of these can she learn. She may thus desire to see that animals too are protected from the most grievous harm. But humanity, as the greatest of all creatures, still deserves to feed on beasts, as they in turn must feed on plants or others to grow hale.

How a Princess Should Act to Acquire Reputation

Nothing gives a princess more prestige than undertaking great enterprises and setting a splendid example for her people.

A princess ought to show herself an admirer of talent, giving recognition to men and women of ability and honoring those who excel in a particular art. Moreover, she should allow for those who have talent to rise to prominence over those who lack it. This is of course difficult if she too desires that all may live with what they need. A princess may be a success even without finding a balance between these two conditions, for it is a difficult challenge indeed. One should not be shamed to admit defeat in its face.

To give up in the face of a seemingly implacable force may or may not be the right thing to do. When it is the will of the people that the princess be replaced, it is indeed right for her to abdicate. When an enemy offers terms of peace that may lead to a safer life for her people, it is the princess's sad duty to consider the decision.

But in other circumstances, it is the princess's role to hold out and in doing so hold out hope for her people.

Mary Backs

Mary Backs is the author of The Seven-Color Theorem trilogy, that parodies socialism. The title refers to the fact that any map drawn on a torus (donut-shape), no matter how complex, can always be colored with at most seven colors so that no two entities sharing a border are the same color, a truth that the protagonist tries to prove. The books are all set in the same fictional country, a socialist (or perhaps communist) society that stifles freedom. In the dystopia, people are randomly forced into tedious occupations with little intellectual stimulation. An authoritarian government mandates equality in all things: the intelligent are not given opportunity to advance within their work. Competition is impossible: a desire to "make everybody feel special" permeates the corrupt educational system. Although a film adaptation of the first book was created, plans for the second two to be adapted have fallen through.

The novels focus on an would-be mathematician. He has been given the menial position of bakery janitor, but in the first book, he becomes slowly fascinated with the donuts his co-workers bake. Eventually, his obsession drives him to crime. After hours, he sneaks back into the bakery and bakes his own donut to own and keep. (Possession of private property is illegal in his nation.) The book ends after his moment of triumph, his prize safe in his house.

This, however, leads to a nervous effort to hide from the police, the general plot of the second book. The protagonist balances his humdrum life in the bakery with his contraband rebellion outside. But eventually, his crime is discovered. The climax is a dramatic fight scene: guns are banned in the nation, so he fends the police off with his mop. Growing tired, he finally gives up. Instead of holding out, he hides the donut under his shirt, but the time he spends doing so allows the police to arrest him. As the second book finishes, he is sent to prison indefinitely without a trial.

Languishing in his cell, he tries to solve a topological puzzle, sketching on the surface of the donut. It begins to flake over the course of the third book, a degeneration that is a metaphor for the protagonist himself as he slowly loses physical strength and mental connection with reality. He traces patterns over the donut to create a fictional world of different nations. As the oppressive imprisonment drives him insane, his thoughts weave between his confinement and his imaginary capitalist paradise, where he is hallucinatorally successful (more so than others) through his own genius and effort. (The author Backs skillfully switches fluidly between one fictional reality and another, seemingly well aware of the irony.) The final chapter ends with him receiving an award in the country that has become the truest existence for him: his mathematical insight has solved a long-standing problem. In the epilogue, prison guards extricate his corpse from the cell, but are unable to understand the brilliant proof, written in his own blood, that covers the ceiling, floor, and walls.

As a promotion for her books, Backs created a website, StateNations.zz. It is an interactive computer game where users can create their own country-or countries, as Backs did. The first nation was a copy of the "real" nation in which her books are set, but she let it die and replaced it with one patterned off her own ideals: the capitalist federation into which her protagonist hallucinates. This was recently deleted for unspecified violation of site rules, much to Backs' chagrin. Before its deletion, its web page read something like the following:

The Untied States of America are a massive, economically powerful nation, notable for their attempts at world domination. Their diverse, squabbling population of 300 million people enjoy, or are oppressed by, countless economic freedoms, and are also politically free to vote any idiot into office.

The bureaucratic morass of the government focuses on Attack, though Disorder and Commerce are also on the agenda. Tax rates are between 10 and 35%. A powerhouse of a private sector is led by the Finance, Manufacturing, and Professional Services industries.

Voting is voluntary, counting votes of the opposition party may also be, the government may detain foreign nationals indefinitely, and the nation's political style is forcibly imposed on foreign nations. Crime is a problem. The Untied States' national animal is the bald eagle, which has recently been removed from a list of endangered species, and its currency is the dollar.

The Ashahnemas are a collection of folktales from Zwangzug. In many cases dating back over 1500 years, the oldest stories originally trace to the first inhabitants of the nation: rainforest dwellers in the nation's southwest. They are still told in indigenous dialects. Over time, other legends have been added to the set, and even today there is no precise list of which stories do or do not qualify.

Thematically, the stories cover common human subjects: war and peace, love and loss, honor and shame. Common messages include the value of wisdom and the danger of tyranny, though these are never explicitly "tacked on" but rather interpreted. These morals have always had relevance to the people of Zwangzug. A common joke describes a professor that assigned the Ashahnemas as reading material to understand the national psyche. A student returned several days later, complaining that he had tried to read them, but they were complex, eccentric, and incomprehensible. "So?" shrugged the professor. "You have become educated."

The Ashahnemas were included the World Heritage Sites & Treasures List; Zwangzug has promised to "preserve and protect" them. Due to their widespread popularity, there is no danger of their loss. However, the simultaneous inclusion of the rainforests of their origin implied the much more ambitious task of defending the indigenous peoples and their languages. With many tribal youth migrating to more urban areas, the survival of their peoples has often seemed precarious. A governmental commitment to their conservation represents a change to a more dedicated policy.

Various translations of the Ashahnemas exist, mostly into Descriptive English. Perhaps negatively, the version popularly regarded as most "authoritative" is the Holtz-Schmidt translation, itself relatively old. The lofty language used by the translators has made the content itself seem outmoded and inaccessible. The recited versions are likely to be much less formal. More modern translators consistently work to bring phrasing in line with current usage, as well as creating Algebraic English versions. It was hoped that inclusion in the WHSTL will promote translation into more languages for a worldwide audience. Indeed, a translation into Wymgani was published in Ariddia.

Few (though perhaps more in the rainforest of their origin) would attest to the absolute accuracy of the legends. Due to the absence of reliable historical study in Zwangzug, there is little against which they can be compared. Despite this, many scholars believe that at least some of the stories are based in fact.

The best way to understand these stories is, of course, to read them. As it would be prohibitive to post them in their entirety, however, these examples are given instead. These are both from the Holtz-Schmidt translation, with recent commentary.

"Once there was a king, and great and many were his lands. But a baron that ruled under him grew mad with war, and raged most bitterly against him. Blood ran rife and hearts ran wild, and friend turned against friend. Finally, the king let the baron keep his land and be free of the rule of the king. The baron rejoiced and proclaimed great festivities and merrymaking. Throughout his new realm, workers left their crops and celebrated with their families. But while their fields lay fallow in the heat of the summer, a great flood rose up, and neighbor opened their door to neighbor. In the lands of the baron were told epic stories from a scribe in the lands of the king, and it warmed the souls of all through a night of storm."

This rambling story is as good an example of the Ashahnemas as any. Several insights can be gleaned from the tale. Mention of a "scribe" indicates some knowledge of writing systems, which may explain how so many stories survived so many years. The story also mentions the (partial) defeat of a monarch, a common plotline: it has been wryly observed that there aren't enough ruined empires to account for all the Ashahnemas. While the nation's founding myth is the best-known example, there are many others.

Nevertheless, the hypothetical student's confusion is evident. For one thing, the characters have no names, a common occurrence. For another, it is difficult to determine where the focus is supposed to lie (with a crazed secessionist? a natural disaster? a popular scribe?). It is difficult to tell where one story ends and another begins-a problem made even clearer in the following example.

"A prince once desired that the women of the land adorn themselves, and he issued a proclamation that he would find a woman exceedingly beautiful to take as a wife. Far and wide he searched, until his eyes beheld a woman of surpassing appearance, and he asked her to be his bride. With gladness she accepted, and with gladness her family prepared her to be wed. But her sister too had yearned to wed the prince, and though she was gladly honored that her sister would, her desire to marry the prince seemed to turn to jealousy. So her father implored with the prince to take a second wife, for in his land such things were done.

But while the officials of the court were inquiring as to whether it could be done, the prince went out among his people. Among the throng that clamored to greet him was a farmer who toiled most diligently amongst the furrows, and bore his tool in hand as he attempted to greet the prince. His tool swung and hit the prince's face. The farmer fled in shame, for once the prince awoke, his face was disfigured. The sister of the maiden who would wed the pricne grieved, for her sister's joy would be diminished. She did not temper her pain with the thought that a prince with a scarred face would be easier to wed. But the court declared that she could not marry the prince.

So the maiden first selected married the prince. Her eyes wept when she beheld his face, and she felt guilt that her sister could not too marry him. Torrential rain fell on their gala. But her parents prepared a great dowry for her sister when she was married, and so was she consoled. In years to come, it would still give her great pride to be known as the sister-in-law of the prince.
When her sister learned of that pride, she found the power to forgive herself for her victory. She and the prince grew to love each other deeply: they had long lives and many children."

This story implies, for one, monogamy among its original narrators, as the phrase "in his land such things were done" (emphasis added) implies that it is an explanatory note detailing a custom with which its first hearers may not have been familiar. The mention of "torrential rain" once again shows that the rainforest environment may have influenced it.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the existence of what Holtz and Schmidt classified as a separate story. It recounts the comic and tragic tales of a royal dynasty plagued by various negative incidents. One of its characters, a prince, suffers a disfigured face from the accidental strike of a furrow-worker who is blamed by the kingdom. The nearly-identical accounts imply that there is some commonality between the accounts, but the difficulty in deciding whether a sequence of events constitutes one story or two is a common reason why so many numbers of Ashahnemas are given. But despite their varied connections and plotlines, the stories almost overwhelmingly finish on a hopeful note.

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