There Will Be War: Without Chart or Rudder

The Plague, just as in our timeline, is a watershed moment for the society the Yngling time-travellers are trying to shape to their ends. The way it was released has – perhaps a little unjustly – completely destroyed the former prestige of the men from Dovre, while revealing at least one of the dangers of their utterly individualistic ideology. In fact, the threat of a single Yngling releasing a bioweapon or other WMD was never very large in the uptime, no greater perhaps than in our timeline; the Ynglings do understand about madness and accident, and the one thing they are good at cooperating on is war. Besides this, in the uptime there were always any number of strils around, some of whom had a technical education – unavoidable in running even a spatch-cocked industrial society. So they took steps to ensure that several people would have to go mad before anything of the sort happened. In addition to complete individualism, then, the disaster required Ask to view the downtimers as not really quite real, which caused him to get a bit sloppy about precautions; and then additionally to be slightly brain-damaged by his interview with the Angel, manifesting as bipolar disorder in his later years. A series of unlikely factors, then, culminating in a discrediting of the uptime ideology for the wrong reason.

The uptime Ynglings are running a state that is, by any measure, a complete disaster. Start with the caste system: Roughly two-thirds of the population are strils. They are not all completely without rights; in some of the older parts of the empire, in Finland and Germany, there are surviving remnants of old feudal laws and privileges, and hence a small middle class, who work as they please rather than by assignment from above, and are responsible for a vastly disproportionate percentage of the GNP. But by and large, the strils are shut out of creative work, and hence two-thirds of the population bumps along in industrial or agricultural employment, with no chance to use its brains.

Then, the remaining third is obsessed with personal fitness and hand-to-hand combat! Now, let’s be clear: Being able to take on five or ten ordinary mortals with a sword is a very fine thing, but it doesn’t contribute much to GNP. The educational and eugenic system that produces these excellent athletes and soldiers was a bit silly when wars were settled with rifles; with spacecraft and nukes, well, give us a break. But here is the real problem with the ideology of complete personal freedom: You can’t drop your guard! Anybody who didn’t go through the schools would be unable to defend themselves in a duel, get no respect, and probably end up dead fairly shortly. So, as the saying goes, it’s a trap! Once you get into an equilibrium of duels being the accepted means to settle disputes, and everyone training for them, there’s no way out. This is why Norway in the uptime can’t keep up with the Chinese, in spite of controlling most of Europe and two-thirds of North America either by direct control or through vassal states. (The Chinese, communists with no strong capitalist state to spur them into innovation, aren’t the economic powerhouse they are becoming in OTL either. But they can hardly fail to do better than Norway.)

So. The Yngling ideology is a disaster, and now the downtimers know it. But they know it from the wrong end – they abhor an aspect that isn’t so bad as all that, and are ignorant of the one that is. This may become important later. For now, though, the main effect is that Norway is left without any direction. The ruling class has lost all confidence in uptime guidance except on purely military matters. What’s worse, it has gotten used to having a fairly advanced, even if disastrous, theory to guide its steps. It is as though communism had been imported into an early-medieval state, adopted widely, and then shown to be a fraud: It is known to be wrong, but at the same time it is clearly much more advanced than any of its available competitors, since Smithian economics doesn’t exist yet. Which leaves mercantilism and Christian anti-usury laws as the main alternatives!

In a similar way, radical libertarianism is a disaster, but it is a well-developed disaster with a plausible-sounding theory behind it. Feudalism can’t really compete. It was never developed as a theoretical ideology, it just growed as an ad-hoc series of laws, precedents, and customs. As for modern representative democracy, constitutional monarchy, republics totalitarian and otherwise – none of these exist as theories of government. There is just the uptime theory, and “the way things are done,” with no theory on why or even much on what – you just know how to, say, suggest a new law, or bring a lawsuit.

Now, governments do of course stumble along somehow even without a formal theory of what they are doing. But to have such a theory, and then have it taken away with nothing to put in its place – that’s disorienting. At the top levels, then, Norway not only doesn’t know what it’s doing, it knows that it doesn’t know. As with a man balancing on a high wire, having to think about what you’re doing is not a good thing.

Meanwhile, at the lower levels of society, things are likewise going crazy – not from a sudden lack of ideology, but because no community deals well with death rates of 40%. Just as in our timeline, all sorts of nutty cults spring up, preaching that the Plague is anything from God’s punishment on the wicked, to Satan’s testing of the faith. Flagellants, ascetics, proto-Protestants who pray in the vernacular, you name it, we’ve got it. A difference with OTL is that uptime encouragement of the old faith leads to that being a much stronger current in the craziness, with the occasional mad shaman claiming that the Plague is caused by the lack of sacrifices to the Old Gods. Which leads, here and there, to people believing them, and hanging a dog, or a horse, or a man, depending on the degree of craziness. And in the nature of things, sometimes the Plague really does stop, locally, at roughly the same time. Just as happens also with various Christian expedients. (Indeed, the combination of exponential growth and human craziness is such that the nuttiest remedies are likely to be adopted just at the height of the Plague, which is right before it stops for lack of non-immune victims!) The resulting claims and counter-claims of what worked are not conducive to quiet religious contemplation. Nor is religion the only remedy; as in all hard times, the less pious will decide to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow they may die.

Overall, then, we have a society whose top level is off-balance, uncertain of what to do next, sure only of what it does not want – and partly wrong even about that. Meanwhile the rank and file are in turmoil. And while all this is going on, the geostrategic problem remains the same! Plague or no plague, ideology or none, Germany and Brittany are still out there, maneuvering for control of the Isles and the Kattegat.

It’s going to be an interesting century.

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