Tim Stead - Fantasy Writer

Crime and Punishment - January 27th 2014

Writing fantasy is, in a way, similar to writing science fiction. It allows the author to play around with social systems, to invent technologies (magic), and to see how people react to them (in your own mind, of course).

One of the major themes that comes to mind is crime and punishment. Because all is based on a mediaeval foundation it seems sensible to assume a fairly brutal attitude on the part of societies to their malefactors. The death penalty for murder is almost a given. Governmentally, these societies are primitive. There is no civil service, and in general no prison system. In the absence of incarceration there is a need to be creative about the kinds of punishments that can be meted out.

For major crimes, such as murder or treason, it seems that the death penalty must stand. I’m not a big supporter of the death penalty, personally, but the societies in my fantasy worlds see it as common sense. How far down does it go? Historically it has been applied to offences as various as blasphemy, theft, adultery (indeed, in some places this is the modern practice), and many other seemingly trivial offences. I prefer to find something else.

Fantasy societies are not likely, I think, to consider rehabilitation. There is a crime, there must be a punishment. There is loss, there must be restitution. It’s the sort of eye for an eye justice that appeals.

So that’s what it comes down to. If the offender has money or property, it can be taken, sold, and restitution made. This would only apply to crimes against property. If the offender has no property then he or she will probably lose his or her freedom. Again, we’re not talking about prison. This is limited term slavery – the modern version is often labelled community service – but in fantasy worlds it seems logical that the beneficiary should be the person against whom the offence was committed.

There are two options. The slave contract could be sold on the open market, and this would be interesting in that buyers would bid a number of years against the price, as opposed to the other way round. For example – if a judgement gave the victim a thousand pounds worth of restitution, then bidders would say how many months/years of the offender’s service they would be prepared to pay a thousand pounds for. The shortest term wins the auction. In this case a skilled man might expect a shorter sentence. This is wonderfully open to abuse in terms of plot devices!

The alternative is that the value of the offender’s service is assessed by the court and so the term of slavery, and the contract is given to the victim.

In both schemes it is necessary for the law to protect the condemned. Convicted slaves have rights: to life, to food, to shelter etc.

It is perhaps paradoxical that modern corporations have found that employment is actually cheaper than slavery. Condemning someone to ten years as a Wal-Mart employee would be a lot cheaper than six months in prison where food, healthcare, shelter and security must be provided.

As for blasphemy – if the gods are offended, let the gods extract whatever price they deem fitting.