The laws of the land reflect history and past morals, and hopefully the growth of a society into one that cares for their citizens rather than punishment. Sounds utopian? Perhaps, but that is what books are for – to dream of a place to escape the realities of our times.
Laws are made in a few different ways. The system used by Commonwealth countries such as Australia are based on the rich history of legal precedent of the UK. That said, we used the structure, but it’s not a copy- Australia and New Zealand were the first to legislate for women to vote. But one law builds on another, with backup guidelines, various agencies and several levels of government to manage different parts of the laws.
There are benefits to historical legislation that eventually it is accepted as a societal norm. The problems lie in the change of acceptable behaviours and the slowness of changing legislation to reflect current norms. The status of women, child labour laws, human rights, and food standards are all things that seem to be have to be fought for and changed every generation. Each time money can be used to sway the opinion of politicians and the public.
So for writing, the world in a stable legal system can ignore much of it as a given. But it can be a vital part of a book that involves mystery, crime dramas, police etc as characters. For drama we can add in protestors, criminals within the system, all sorts of plot twists. Or even go a little into the past and explore the world in the 60’s before no fault divorce, women being unable to have their own bank accounts, or further back to even darker times. Or examine the way legislation treated the mentally ill, or the criminalisation of drug addiction, or the failed prohibition of alcohol. Or explore the more recent past, where the pandemic revealed surprising government powers to corral the population.
Star Trek epitomises the development of law into a stable world and even galaxy spanning government system. A world order of peace, where people work for the common good, not just to survive. A hard fought society, coming after eugenics wars and no doubt many smaller disputes. But it’s not all a bed of roses. Quite often the crew are endangered by local planet laws and customs. I recall reading a very old scifi short story (author escapes me) where the local laws involved eating visitors. Or laws develop on a colony planet based on a bastardized set of rules from the lost ship, as in Midworld by Alan Dean Foster.
Fantasy novels often default to a semi medieval system of crime and punishment. Often brutal with police or guards wielding power. Royalty is also often a feature, with power struggles and wars offering employment and drama. RE Howard’s Hyborian age with Conan was such a world, although he varied it with leadership by religious sects, proper kingdoms and more remote tribal laws. A travel quest can become entangled in many variations of local laws and customs, not to mention the ‘we don’t like strangers in town’ scenario.
Laws may also be on a smaller scale, limited to the word of the chieftain of the area. Solomon deciding the fate of the baby in the bible is one such type. Justice then depended on the morality and honesty of the law givers, or on the ability to provide a bribe or wield influence.
Religion is often a powerful influence on legislation. The Ten Commandments, the decisions of the Druids, the words of the Delphic prophecy, the results of entrail divination. These all reflect the balance of power of the time and can therefore cause some ghastly consequences for some segments of society. The personal battle of a lawgiver against a lawbreaker in the family for instance. Do they sacrifice their child to the letter of the law, or do they realise it’s harshness and run? Stephen Donaldson explores this anguish in his Thomas Covenant series quite often. The conflict often breaks the person into madness.
It’s been interesting and horrific to see the changes in the USA because of underlying religious and political beliefs and probably a lot of dark money. A system that looks superficially like the more stable Westminster system, yet is based on elected judges, sheriffs, etc that vary judgments based on their political and personal beliefs. A system based on individual rights rather than the more socialist taking care of people. Interesting and horrifically close to the post apocalypse genre in many ways.
Some of the darkest times in history are when a powerful leader controls a regime and makes more laws that crush human rights. In many parts of the world this is still the case. We as a world have fought against these people, and out of those times comes examples of heroism, of bravery against the odds, and horrors too. But stories emerge, and ones that explore the darkest aspects of what it is to be human.
So legislation can be a dull topic, but within it is the past, when people fought for change. It also holds the seeds of the future, a society of balance and peace, and growth for all beings.
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