I have a lot of interests, especially when it comes to learning, which is a large part of why I try to read so broadly. One of those interests that is especially conducive to indulging through books is philosophy. Although I don’t have any philosophy book reviews on the site yet (maybe someday I’ll make it all the way through The Collected Works of Xenophon), I have done quite a bit of reading in that field, and even non-philosophy books, even in genre fiction, in some ways are explorations of philosophies. Some are more overt, like Ayn Rand’s novels, while others are much subtler, maybe even an unintentional side effect of the writing. Inevitably, it’s always there.
For me, where philosophy becomes most relevant for my writing is in building governments. Governments are perhaps the most overt expression of a philosophy organized and implemented on a large scale, even if it is rarely expressed as such. Most ideological disparities actually derive from underlying, philosophical differences in how the world is viewed. Besides helping you better understand the why the next person you’re arguing about politics with thinks the way they do, understanding that can also, I find, allow you to make more interesting and unique governments for the nations in your invented worlds.
This does not need to be limited to novels that are attempting to serve as a sort of referendum on the best system of governance – it’s a fantastic way to build more believable detail and complexities into your story to better immerse your readers into the world you’ve created. Most writing seems to lump governments into a few, default categories: the republic, the democracy, the dictatorship, the kingdom, and the empire, with an occasional theocracy thrown in there. Yet in reality, there is a huge amount of nuance within these general terms, and so many more forms of government, all based around different philosophies regarding the role of government and how assumptions about human nature impact its structure and implementation. So why would authors insist on limiting themselves?
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin provides several examples of how using unique systems of government can really deepen a story. Her interstellar civilization is not a sprawling, galactic empire – it’s a sort of loose coalition of planets with similar ideas that doesn’t actually try to govern its members in a classical sense. On the planet, she has a kingdom, but it’s not a straight feudal system; instead, there are ministers, aides, and advisors with varying levels of power and influence. Plus, the nature of the species makes consistent primogeniture as a mode of succession complicated at a minimum, so the hereditary nature of the throne is far less straightforward.
I often try to incorporate these ideas in my own writing. As I understand it, from my reading of history, democracies only flourish or even arise under certain, societal circumstances, but some fashion of representative government often forms when multiple nations are united through alliances or treaties under a single, larger power. So when I was writing Blood Magic, I created what I called a Primedom, which is sort of a combination of a meritocracy and a standard kingdom. Instead of being hereditary, the current Prime selects a youth from the population at an early age to be raised and trained as Sub-Prime. All of the governors have input into this decision, and usually the Sub-Prime is selected from a different province than that from whence the Prime came (not that any of this has been explained in such detail yet in the stories).
Taking the ideas of philosophy and governance, or really any idea, to an extreme is a great way to find something interesting for a story. My Fo’Fonas series heavily leverages ideas drawn from philosophy both for unique world-building and for characterization and plotting. There are definitely reflections and parallels of civilizations and history here on Earth, but by making those associations relatively loose, and taking the ideas represented towards an extreme, I (ideally) manage to avoid any obvious echoes or overt commentary. Which is important, because in that story international and national politics are a major driver of the overall plot.
A word of warning, however: if you steep your work too heavily in heady philosophy, and you have a preferred philosophy/system of governance/implementation, you risk spending much of your story either intentionally or inadvertently polemicizing your audience. While not necessarily wrong, my personal view is that stories should be about telling a story, not advancing a certain “answer” or agenda. They can accomplish that, but it should not be how the story is shaped and crafted.