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by Pete Grey
And its not the Empress Wave, though that was one of the triggers for the current anarchy and chaos that reign within the core sectors of the Consulate.
The real cause is the timeless bane of any large empire: internal pressures and imperial decrepitude.
The real problems of the Zhodani Consulate are outgrowths of their prevailing political culture, especially the inability to maneuver within the narrow confines of their social contract.
The former Imperiums view of the Zhodani Consulate was never rational or coherent, but rather hysterical and ill-informed. Even with the current blather about "emotional sovereignty" put aside, Imperials often treated the universe in a spectacularly ignorant and self-interested way, and the Zhodani weren't spared this narrow-mindedness. It is especially telling that until the Regency era, there existed no declassified studies or comprehensive reports on the Consulate available for public consumption.
Certain misconceptions informed only by fear and prejudice against the Zhodani ran rampant. The worst was the misperception of the nature and purpose of psionics in their society, and the degree that it anchored their social contract and political system. Imperials mistook the application of psionics within Zhodani society, for being the end justification of their system, when in fact it was only the means. The real end of Zhodani power and government is actually quite understandable and familiar to us: the creation of an earnest, egalitarian socialism.
That something so obvious could be missed by trillions of otherwise rational human beings simply goes to show how disfunctional the Third Imperium became in the centuries after the first couple of Frontier Wars. In a fashion resembling the European empires of pre-World War I Earth when confronted with the socialist programs of revolutionaries.
In both cases an elite with little inkling about the lives of their people, clinging to an anachronistic system of privilege and power, overreacted to the designs and legitimate grievances of common workers and well meaning academia. And they became paranoid of a socialistic dogma that in truth they did not grasp or understand.
The most reactionary of Imperial nobles, which included a great deal of the bureaucracy and military, looked upon the Zhodani system with an unease they couldn't place. How could the Zhodani proles be happy? With people constantly intruding into their minds? It can't be because the Joes are doing something that they were missing! It must be because the Joes are in league with Satan!!!
(This is dead serious. The last line is quoted from an actual memo circulated around the Imperial Ministry of War in the aftermath of the Third Frontier War. It went on to claim they used their alliance with darkness to obtain magical powers to mesmerize people and threaten the Imperium. The author of this memo was none other than the Duke of Fornast...)
The Psionic Suppressions would never have gotten out of hand as they did had the reactionaries (the majority of the nobility in fact) hadn't whipped up anti-Zhodani sentiment, and destroyed whatever credibility that psionics had within the Third Imperium as a result. All of this vitriol happened at a safe remove from the actual point of contact with the Zhodani. In fact the only people who had any real inkling about the Zhos were the very people who stared across the border at them with uneasy wariness.
While the Marchers hatred of the Zhodani was a contributing factor to the tall pile of anti-Zho paranoia, it was nevertheless based upon real experience, and was not a bogey-strawman for the growing tensions within the Imperial core. So when confronted with their own contradictions, whether in the antebellum period, or most gravely during the Rebellion and post-Collapse period, there was no scapegoat for their troubles. A spade had to be called a spade.
Essentially Zhodani social contract is based upon a tradeoff between happiness/security and social control by an all-powerful psionic elite. In the wake of the ancient Qiknavrats plague, the discredited nobility filled the vacuum of authority, and secured the loyalty of the directionless and scared lower classes in that dark time.
The nobility offered a rather Faustian bargain to the "proles" class: a rigid socialistic society where their happiness was assured, in exchange for their full conformance and social obedience. Since it was an improvement over the chaos of the Plague, the lower classes quite willingly assented to the plan.
Contrary to Imperial propaganda then, the Zhodani Proles knew then, and know now, what they were getting from their nobility. The proles lived in a rigid, conformist society, but that was the price for happiness and security. And it was ostensibly democratic, in that the proles had access to their ruling classes, who listened and legitimately cared to their needs in return. The Zhodani Consulate was a "happy police state."
And to provide an additional outlet for dissatisfaction, the nobility tested the prole community for psionic abilities, enabling the talented few to rise in social standing to eventually become nobles themselves.
The enemy of the state wasn't any group or people, but rather the emotional states of resentment, alienation and fear. The Tavrchedl, a combination fire department/public health service, were granted access to the minds of the proles, and they reserved the right to "reeducate" the lost members of the flock, to set them straight on the path of truth again.
And remarkably, Zhodani society coexisted peacefully this way for 8,000 years, with only a few bumps in the road, to mar their perfection.
But Zhodani society has a dark side to it. All things cast a shadow, even seeming Utopias. The Zhodani have a few secrets of their own, and this is the foundation for their current troubles.
There are two negative aspects to Zhodani society that loom large. And they both stem from the price that they pay for the happy social contract that was established for the perfect society.
The two effects of the Tavrchedl and the Zhodani Way is to go against the natural order of human existence, and to stifle creative thought and alternative freedoms. The cost of this arrangement comes in sclerotic rigidity, and societal "flammability."
Addressing fear and resentment is imperative to the security of the Zhodani order. If proles were left unattended to their devices, those negative emotions could become resistance against either the political order, or sociopathic behavior against society in general.
To eliminate resentment is impossible and against the natural order. Instead the proles were to be "medicated" with the aid of the Tavrchedl and reeducation, and the spread of resentment was to be prevented. But to prevent the spread of resentment means ultimately an attack upon language, symbols and the articles of reason and speculative thought. Not that the Zhodani have anything against reason and thought; but they did not want it within the public sphere, outside of institutional boundaries where it could be controlled.
The Tavchedl were like firefighters or public health doctors in that they were to prevent the contagion of rampant resentment. But like wilderness firefighters who aggressively attack every little blaze, or doctors who overuse antibiotics in eliminating disease, their charges become more vulnerable to the recurrence of fire or illness, often in a catastrophic manner.
And the medicating of individual alienation missed an even bigger part of human existence: the normal angst and unhappiness of everyday life. So even if the Tavrchedl eliminated the blazes of conscious desire, they could not eliminate the causes of human dissatisfaction. In other words the fuel for human anguish and anger would simply build up, like a hundred years of old-growth, or atrophied immune systems.
This is the flammability, and it explains the intense paranoia of Tavrchedl operations, and the fear of "outside contamination." Fortunately for the Zhodani, only once did they lose control, with the Meichntid Ibl, and that was safely contained.
This overzealousness reveals the rigidity. The remarkable arraying of forces against human dissatisfaction not only undermines reason, it creates a rigid "co-dependent" social order, a perpetual machine as it were, where the "sheep" of the masses are placed in a perpetual state of vulnerability, and the protectors exist in a state of permanent vigilance.
This is a dictatorship, albeit a supposedly benevolent one. The means by which the nobility secure the control of the masses is through the promise of benevolence rather than the use of coercive force. But this is no different from the co-dependent partner who is granted dominance and mastery on the basis of the love rather than force. Protectors need something to protect, whether it be society, or old growth forests.
While Zhodani society is certainly better than the old Imperium, it is less than ideal. It is a fragile and ultimately inflexible society that can only exist in a vacuum of its own devising. The Zhodani have been lucky in their astrographic location and isolation. Until the Empress Wave, of course.
If the Proles are the fuel in any potential inferno, then it was the Imperium, and the Consulate governments anti-imperial activities that provided the accelerant for a potential fire.
The distrust of non-psionic minds among the nobility extended most to the Third Imperium. While it is often declared that the TI was attacked by the Consulate because of its "aggressiveness" and unquenchable desire for conquest, one salient fact is overlooked: in all five frontier wars, it was the Zhodani who were the aggressors. And it overlooks the fact that after the Second Frontier War, the TI ceased expanding its borders, and actually began to lose territory as a result of over expansion.
It was Zhodani inability to understand Imperial society that fueled their aggression. In this they reflected growing Imperial prejudice, though that took longer to develop than preexisting Zhodani attitudes. If Zhodani society was a vague threat to the Imperial nobility, then the seeming stability of the Imperium was a definite threat to the Zhodani social order.
The Consulate government made a number of half-hearted attempts to "reform" or modify the Imperium into the image of pleasantness, but they only managed to inflame their neighbor, through their military attacks and their dunderheaded and illegal support of Imperial Psionic Institutes. For a society that prided itself on its psionic abilities, this inability to clearly see and understand the Imperium casts aspersions on its leaders and institutions.
But the fear of the Imperium created a fault line, a condition for burning as it were. Zhodani social philosophy is utterly blank, some value X where everyone simply accepts the social order of things as they are without question or concern. But Consulate operations against the Imperium required the development of an ideology "X plus some value Y and Z", to distinguish and justify their actions. Unlike the internal enemies of human emotion, the Imperium was a real target, and could therefore had to be treated with objective means.
But the question of what to do to the Imperium created controversy, and eventually factions within the greater communal consensus of the nobility and its institutions, and divided them into pro- and anti-imperial factions of increasingly hardline persuasions. This was significant in that the normal harmonious inertia of Zho society was being distressed by an argument whose premises exceeded, and at times overrode, its self-interested workings.
But Consulate military and intelligence operations also entailed the risk of contamination from captive Imperial sources, or through inadvertent contact by Zhodani POWs with Imperial society. And it was the Zhodani military triumph in the Third Frontier War that brought the lethal virus into Zhodani society.
Underlying the Zhodani "Troubles" is the convergence of unrelated phenomenon at the same point in such a manner that it fractured Zhodani Society. Usually these phenomenon are insufficient to wreak the kind of havoc that the Consulate is enjoying, but in conjunction they have created what sociologists would call a "cascade."
What and epidemic is to disease, and an inferno is to fire, a cascade is to the popular assimilation of ideas. The circumstances for a cascade to occur are rather simple: either through peer modelling, and observation of fellow societal members, or through acceptance of an idea's inherent usefulness.
Either way the status quo of Zhodani society has been rejected in some fundamental way by the Zhodani people themselves. And as a result their society has fractured along previously hidden fault lines, and into open warfare between regional, economic and cultural groupings.
The how and why are more easily understandable. Zhodani society had been a vacuum, a carefully insulated inner state based upon mutual dependence. That state had no other compelling argument in its defense, and it was too specialized and narrow survive wider contact with the real world outside. The bottom line is that there was no system of JUDGEMENT, of dealing with the real world, for individual Zhodani. Psionics made it easy to medicate individual problems, without admitting their intractability. Eventually everyone emphasized stasis over any real solutions, or even admitting the existential dilemmas of ordinary life.
The events that have shattered the Zhodani Consulate are:
Cascades only occur when the status quo is found to be wanting. They either lead to short-lived fads, or they can utterly transform a society in an eyeblink, sometimes with devastating consequences. And the speed with which they occur varies with the degree of information exchange. That means that the breakdown of Zhodani society isn't just confined among the proles, but is being lead and perpetuated by elements among the nobility, Tavrchedl and Consulate bureaucracy, with the proles following in their leaders examples. The breakdown is originally vertical in nature, from the top down, and then spread horizontally within the prole population.
And as for the WHAT that shattered Zhodane?
The convergence of the three trends mentioned above: Religion.
Psionics simply denied the problem without addressing the real world, and the Zhodani were left with a gnawing hunger for individual meaning, something their nobility couldn't address. But the breaking point was when the nobility and intendants, too, began to tire of their narrow existences, and yearn for meaning as well. And that yearning is related to the Empress Wave, the existence of competing Imperial religious traditions.
This was done with the best of intentions, and it was set up in a fairly ethical manner. Domestication transforms the otherwise ornery relationship between two parties into a ridiculously simple paternalistic, if not parasitic, relationship between a master and their valuable property. That oversimplifies the noble-prole relationship a bit, but it crystallises what Zhodani society was before the "Zhodani Collapse."
It was a happy relationship, but then humanity has a bias for animal husbandry. We tend characterise in a self-serving manner our charges as loving, simple creatures bereft of their survival instincts, happy with their lot in life, utterly grateful to their masters, and both harmless and totally dedicated to their usefulness. The proles recieved absolute security and happiness, at the expense of their more rugged human aspects, and utterly trusted the nobles.
But what Zhodane created was the societal equivalent of an agricultural monoculture. And the only reason that it developed to the stage it did, was because of the Consulate's remote location away from the other major races. (Except the Vargr. But the Zhodani just wrinkled their little noses, and shrugged their shoulders at the mere mention of THEM.) The elimination of rough human emotion and violent tendencies had created a basically homogenous society of boring, humdrum sameness. Which was good for the Proles: everyday life was as safe as sleeping in one's own bed. (Regency wags used to joke that the lives of the Proles were so boring it made cricket seem interesting by comparison.)
But like other livestock, the lives of the proles depended upon the loyalty and diligence of their masters. Should the farmers discover something better than their current lots in life, the farm will go to seed, and the animals will starve, or be sold at their master's wont.
The nobility, like good yeoman farmers of old, were exhorted to hard work and good deeds, and for the most part, for most of their history, the majority of them were totally dedicated to their tasks. But farming is at best boring, painful drudgery. And the lives of the nobility were little different. The desire for something more to fill the nameless void they could not name drove many of them to itinerant travel, eccentricity and strong drink. The Imperium, Solomani and other alien races confused them with their differing cultures, and xenophobia and the need for conformity prevented serious consideration of differing perspectives or ideas.
Among the Solomani, with their vast panoply of religious ideas and experiences, there is a phenomenon they called the Jerusalem Syndrome. It took its name from those Christian pilgrims who travelled to the Holy City, and were overwhelmed by sensations of elation and euphoria. These pilgrims, being so close to the reliquaries of their faith, came to feel as if they were annihilated into the essence of God's will and were now fully apart of divine providence, or were the walking embodiment or rebirth of divine salvation and will. Eventually the Solomani, and Imperial psychologists, extended the term to all religious devotees who demonstrated this kind of conversion experience.
Had the Zhodani simply exchanged notes, or had taken the time to understand their human cousins, tragedy might have been averted. But the Zhodani were repulsed, as many ancient Solomani once were, by the darkness they percieved within the wilderness around them. And like those ancient Solomani who came in contact with indigenous peoples living with wild nature, came to look down upon these peoples as savages unworthy of study or contact.
(Author's note: There are two things to glean from the preceding paragraph. First the Zhodani were no less racist than any other major race. Second, they were dominated by a dualistic philosophy that divided the world into psionic/Zhodani heaven and non-psionic hell. The last part is especially interesting because the Zhodani were not so much biased towards psionics, as towards a society that modelled itself on theirs. If they encountered a society where psionics were not being used in a manner to their standards, they were as contemptous towards it as to any other non-psionic society. And that explains their muted hostility towards the Thirz Empire.
In the end the Zhodani, despite their Fahrenheit 441 inspired culture, were no different from those snobbish Victorian Era aristocrats that clung to the old agrarian order they were accustomed to, and championed it against the egalitarian and democratic agitation of city-dwellers and workers.)
The Zhodani encountered the Empress Wave either on their Third or Fourth Core Expedition. It is speculated that the reason for the core missions, and the Ancient relic that inspired it, are somehow related to the phenomenon behind the Empress Wave. We may never know for sure. But the Zhodani knew about the Wave a full 2500 years before Longbow detected it. And the they found it to be a painful nuisance. Whatever followed the first part of the Empress Wave is apparently more powerful in psionic intensity, and psions that experienced it suffered elation, hilarity and euphoria, and even profound visions or psionic "echos". These are commensurate with side effects from the Ancient core projector, and with the symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome.
Since the Zhodani preferred to keep religion out of their society, since it complicated the one-dimensional lines between proles and nobles, Zhodani psions who encountered the Wave before it even reached the Consulate had no means of expressing their experiences or venting their emotional reactions. Had they been able to, the rationalisation of religion, or perhaps better psychology, would have calmed them down. But instead it was further complicated by the Consulate governments adversion to these encounters, requiring reeducation of those affected. Zhodani reeducation, however, tends to short-circuit adverse emotions before they can be articulated, and this intensified the agitation of "Waveriders". And the strength of the wave was such that Zhodani therapists were unable to replace the engram with their own. The result was frequently madness, sociopathic violence and suicide.
So powerful were the suggestions and visions that for at frequent intervals nobles and intendants caught within its path embarked upon violent crusades against their motherland, often out desperation, somtimes out of revenge against ham-handed reeducating. These lone sociopaths were responsible for the trickle of battles that Longbow observed. The Consulate government decided in the end to create a moving Quarantine, either psi-shielding affected psions, or by attempting to "leapfrog" psions by jumping them past the wavefront, and finally just declaring affected areas off-limits until the phenomena cleared up, and Tavrchedl units could clean up. As long as the nobility remained as a unit, the problem would eventually dissapate.
But the nobility, as mentioned before, were an eccentric and dilletantish bunch. And a number of them had become knowledgable, either through travel, or through military service against the Third Imperium and its allies, of the basics of religious belief and formation. It was from these sources that the Word would come, and a number of the Farmers would leave their plows, tether their livestock to chariots and artillery and raise the flag of insurrection.
In the end the Third Imperium was done in by its hubris. But for the Zhodani Consulate, the end came from its insistence upon perfectionism and cartesian didactism, which makes more for a comedy than a tragedy.
When some Regency wags finally heard how the EW was tearing apart the Consulates bucolic society, they took to calling it "Mad Cow Disease." It is worth noting that Regency wit is beginning to resemble the old Imperial Cores in its air of self-adulatory contemptousness.