Principalities & Powers

The Jungle of Empire

One of the redeeming features of imperialism is that it makes for great adventure stories. The works of H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling and the literature of the American West from James Fenimore Cooper to Louis L'Amour would not have been possible without the empires and imperial problems that provide the setting for their tales. The reason for the relationship ought to be fairly obvious.

Empires offer all the standard fare of blood, guts, intrigue, romance, and action: villains plotting to overthrow civilization, heroes striving to protect it; crumbling cultures and uncharted jungles that house mystery, danger, and immense rewards for those bold enough to seize them. Empires may make deserts and call them peace, but at least they also offer a lot of entertainment that sometimes lasts longer than the civilization that imagines it is perpetuating itself through territorial expansion.

Today, we still have empires, or at least one, but the literature it spawns makes the penny dreadfuls and potboilers of the Victorian Era seem like the stuff of Homer and Vergil. I can think of no great adventure tale to emerge from the consolidation of what may turn out to be the largest transnational apparatus of power yet to appear in history, and the cosmopolites of the American megapower will have to pass their idle hours with Stephen King and Tom Clancy. The best spy novels produced by the Cold War, such as those of John Le Carré,...

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