Posted by: kshayes513 | March 16, 2010

Boskone 47: Worldbuilding Legal Systems

The last worldbuilding panel I attended at Boskone 47 was “Legal Systems in Worldbuilding.” Panelists were Leah Cypress, Glenn Grant, Kate Nepveu and Ken Schneyer.

As the program description says, “many authors assume systems of rules or authority that are only superficially different from models in our own past or present.”

The panelists ask, why do we care about legal worldbuilding? The world is one of the characters, so we want it to make sense. Legal systems govern the transfer of property and power, lineage and inheritance, conflict resolution and criminal proceedings, and even attempt sometimes to change the shape of society.

However, a legal system that is completely consistent and makes perfect sense is unrealistic. Legal systems evolve over time and change constantly as society changes. And of course, the laws are usually years (even centuries sometimes) behind the changes in society.

One panelist advised all worldbuilders to read an intro level college anthropology textbook, because it shows how all the pieces of a society fit together, including the legal system.

A few real world legal systems cited as examples:

Medieval Icelandic law, in which shame was a powerful social tool.

The American legal system, in which civil lawsuits have escalated to being a hugely traumatic experience draining everyone’s wealth and energy, especially for the defendants. (Imagine a different kind of conflict resolution where a trial is not such an ordeal).

The intersection of Frankish and Roman law in the late Roman empire; a Frank was subject to the laws of whatever tribe he belonged to, while a Roman was subject to the laws of whichever province he was in at the time. (No doubt this led to a lot of legal maneuvering as people tried to get their case into the jurisdiction most likely to favor them!)

The Odyssey, written at the transition between matrilineal and patrilineal inheritance; the whole epic is an argument against matrilineal succession (whoever marries the Queen, Penelope, gets to be king).

In other real-world legal systems, there are whole different classes of rights that we don’t use. (an example from my own reading: today we have a bipolar view of slavery: slave/freeman, and nothing in between. But medieval Europe and many other societies have had whole ranges of legal status with many specific degrees of freedom and unfreedom.)

Certain practices in our legal system seem to us to be so fundamental that we can’t even separate them from our notions of  justice and fairness. Our jury system is based on an assumption that that a trial procedure can arrive at the truth. Our criminal system presumes the accused is innocent until proven guilty. We also assume that a fair trial requires an impartial judge and jury.  Other legal systems make very different assumptions about the same situations. French law presumes the accused guilty until proven innocent.

One common fault of many speculative fiction worlds is to have a complex imagined society, with extremely mundane ways of resolving conflict.  Perhaps because of the assumptions just mentioned, most of us are unable to imagine any other “fair” way to work out a conflict than the ways we are used to. But let’s not forget that in medieval Europe, trial by ordeal and trial by combat were considered quite fair and reasonable!

Finally, some works of speculative fiction mentioned by the panelists as addressing the question of law in interesting ways:

China Mieville, The City and The City

Janet Kagan, Hellspark (also mentioned in the language panel)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream

Ursula K Le Guin, The Telling and The Dispossessed

J K Rowling, the Harry Potter series (Schneyer notes that the wizarding world’s use of law seems so inept, he’s convinced Rowling made it that way deliberately)


  1. This conversation reminds me of one of Kim S. Robinson’s Mars books. A major focus was on the way the Martian colonists developed a constitution. Rather than frame the event around states, the aspect of a geographic area was only one criteria. The people had to think about interests for the planet, so a green group evolved, which was different from a totally Red group that wanted to preserve the integrity of the planet. Yet another consideration was the occupation. So researchers, technical people, security and other forms constituted another criteria. The legal system was formed by the planet’s culture. The people had left Earth and older legal systems behind. They had to form new ones.

    This might be a message for our present world as we evolve into more of a global society.

    What do you think?


  2. I think much of Rowling’s treatment of the Wizarding legal system stems from her experiences with groups such as Amnesty International — not to mention her time as a single mother on assistance!

  3. Wow, you took great notes! It’s flattering.


  4. Thanks, Ken! It was a fascinating panel, on a topic not often discussed in the context of worldbuilding. Thanks for helping make it happen.

  5. […] Worldbuilding Legal Systems: If you’re building alien legal systems, this will help you keep them distinct from the ones closest to home.  Especially if you’re Canadian–nobody wants to read about publicly drowning criminals in mayonnaise, you sickos. […]

  6. Not sure if this will be seen, since this is an old post, but this is an interesting topic I’ve been thinking about in my own world building. I’ve been trying to come up with sometihng a bit different, and one idea I had was a sort of hiarchy of elected senators where there are city, regional(state) and a national senate. The senate would both act as the legislative and judiciary.

    One complaint about this from another conworld builder was it would cause a sort of tyranny of the majority if judges were elected. One thing about this though is, judges are apointed by a person who is elected, so I’m not 100% sure I agree that the one layer would make a big difference. Also, I was thinking the idea of so many groups that this would be impossible, as noted in the Federalist papers for the US constitution.

    The second objection was that the same people who make laws shouldn’t be the ones enforcing/interpriting them. This seems fair, and probibly will split them into two gorups.

    Anyway, what do you think about this government system, and the objections? Feedback is very appreciated!

  7. Hi, Foolster!
    Interesting ideas. I think your friend raises some good questions, but to me, they don’t invalidate your concept.
    Tyranny of the majority is nearly always what happens in a representative democracy, especially in a system with only 2 or 3 political factions/parties (Another question for you: what political factions,if any, does your country have?). I wouldn’t worry about how many different groups you have; humans excel at creating complex systems (assuming your society is composed of humans or something like them). I think most real world societies have local, regional and national governments of some sort.
    Having the national senate also be the judiciary would probably not make for good, fair government – but then, this and the other objections also assume that both you as worldbuilder, and the people of your world as a society, are trying to form the best possible government for everyone. This is not always the goal of real world governments, especially before the modern era. And from a storytelling perspective, a good government that works for most of the people, most of the time, does not provide nearly as many dramatic opportunities.
    Thanks for commenting.


  8. Thanks for the quick reply!

    I guess I should have mentioned they are lizardfolk, though really I don’t see that as a major difference in the way they think anyway. (If your interested, my name is the link to my wiki with info on them, including culture, religion, language and customs)

    I’m thinking the political makeup is more like in Europe than in the US where there are many many political parties, though ideologically perhaps they are closer together than in modern times, mostly belong to the prominent religion, Santh and tend to be conservative. Perhaps the author of the Federalist Papers would too hold true, and the “majority” would not be able to get a hold in Saltha, and so it’s not a real issue after all.

    “but then, this and the other objections also assume that both you as worldbuilder, and the people of your world as a society, are trying to form the best possible government for everyone.”

    Well, the idea is this new government is built on the ashes of a very corrupt and tyrannical one (a monarchy) that was finally brought down, so I would think they would in forming this government avoid the problems of new tyrannies, much like how the US government was formed. This is why I’m concerned. I know whatever system I come up with isn’t going to be perfect, (Real world ones certainly aren’t!) but I don’t want it to be unrealistically tyrannical either!

    On the one hand, I would like to have some differences than the US’s real-world goverment, but as I said, I don’t want it to be something they wouldn’t develop because it is too tyranical.

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