The overcivilized empire

When I went to the summer program for my repressive religious boarding school, to decide if I wanted to go, they divided all the girls into teams, with current students as the leaders. One of my team leaders was named Monalyza. She was Brazilian and had gorgeous curls and a delightful smile. I looked up to her so much. I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t part of the reason I decided to stay.

But after the program ended and I decided to stay on for a student, I learned a new rule: ninth and tenth graders would not be allowed to speak with eleventh and twelfth graders. So Monalyza and I would pretty much never communicate again.

But we did pass in the halls sometimes, and when we did, she would make eye contact for a second, her eyes would sparkle, and she would look away, stifling a little smile.

I reacted very normally to this phenomenon. That is, I kept track of every single time it happened with little tally marks in my planner. Which I’m sure is a typical thing straight girls do when an upperclass girl smiles at them.

Photo by Jill Wellington on

This is a very long anecdote to explain the way in which, the more repressed you are, the tinier a gesture it takes to be meaningful. We weren’t allowed, for instance, to tell someone we liked them, single them out, or be friends. But there was a whole language of things we did do: carry someone’s laundry up from the laundry room for them, make their bed while they were in the shower, even iron their shirts. And we did that stuff incessantly because girls are going to love each other no matter how hard you try to make them only love Jesus.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is probably where I got my addiction to media in which everyone is really repressed and overcivilized. Imagine if you couldn’t say “I love you” but could send a rose of a color corresponding to the exact flavor of love you felt. Or you couldn’t say “I support the rebellion against the king” but you could cut your hair short. Meaning is imbued in things that wouldn’t need to have meanings if people could say what was on their minds.

And that’s where the overcivilized empire trope comes in. Well, that’s what I call it. This is when an empire, having reached some level of dominance and developed a noble caste, starts getting loaded down with a lot of complicated customs. Restraint is generally valued, as it’s the mark of a noble person. But in exchange, the nobles develop whole languages of art, clothing, flowers, perfumes, or music. These idle rich love to pass the time creating art forms purely for fun, but (if you’re in on the lingo) there can be meaning embedded.

The first reason this is fun is because of the potential for misunderstanding. Does the new ambassador support the opposition party, or does he just like wearing his hair short and not know the rules? Can our hero simultaneously signal to her allies and plausibly deny having said anything to everyone else?

The second reason is the immense weight it gives to small things. We joke about the sex appeal of a Victorian lady’s ankle, but–sure! If you never see an ankle, it becomes sexy! (Which is the same mechanism by which breasts are not considered especially sexy by some cultures–they’re always out.) There’s something to be said for the emotional possibilities of seeing or touching skin that’s not usually covered, making eye contact across a room while not speaking, or sending a message hidden in flowers and hoping the other person picks up on it.

A few of my favorite examples:

Teixcalaan: A prime example. The Teixcalaanli, in A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace, have reached a high level of cultural refinement. They make up complex poetry on the fly and think of everyone outside as barbarous.

Cetaganda: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cetagandans are one of my favorite fictional cultures. Not because they’re the good guys–they’re emphatically not–but because they’re thoroughly built out and incredibly over-socialized. Layers upon layers of nobility, genetic engineering, gracefully arranged spirals of gifts ranked by the prominence of the giver.

Imperial Radch: This empire, in Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, has a culture amalgamating that of many conquered peoples. But you can tell the Radchaai by their constant wearing of gloves–you wouldn’t dream of appearing in public without them. That, of course, allows for lots of shock and transgression if people ever do. They also like to collect fine china tea sets.

The Masquerade: What could be more over-civilized than a society where you don’t show your face at all? The Traitor Baru Cormorant introduces these baddies, and I find them fascinating.

What other over-civilized fictional cultures can you think of? Are the customs only set dressing, or are they used for interesting effects?

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