It’s a common parlor game (if parlor games still exist) in fannish circles to imagine what character X would do in character Y’s situation, or what if X and Y swapped books. Indeed, there’s an entire subgenre of fanfic (fusion fic) that imagines what if characters with the same actors had their personalities muddled up or swapped outright: Citizen Unicron, for example, or Popeye the Sailor Moon. Such things tend to be more amusing in their high concept than their actual execution. The joke usually lasts as long as the few moments it takes to ponder the common points between Sherlock Holmes and the Star Trek remake’s iteration of Khan.
You would think that Andy Duncan’s high concept is similarly fleeting: what if Bilbo Baggins had been the ancestor of the U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo, segregationist and member of the Ku Klux Klan?
Yet after the initial amusement of ha-ha-they-are-nothing-alike, it turns out there’s merit to the idea. The typical epic fantasy setting is full of humans, elves, dwarves and so on, and the way these species interact with each other can be fruitful fodder for taking real-world race relations and examining them in new lights. (Although if parallels to race relations are made, there is a chance of getting things disastrously wrong and highly offensive, as a number of epic fantasies have inadvertently achieved.)
So, we have Senator Bilbo in Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings featured a Shire-moot, a place for the local politics to be discussed, but here it has been turned into a more modern environment. The chamber has just enough of the Senator’s supporters to make a quorum, and he is in the middle of a filibuster against an immigration bill to let more non-hobbits into the Shire. This is not the first bill from the Buckland delegates he has defeated, and he is proud to defend what he holds dear.
All of the Senator’s usual tunnels had been enlarged to accommodate the bulk of his two bodyguards, who nevertheless had to stoop, their scaly shoulders scraping the ceiling. Loyal, dim-witted, and huge – more than five feet in height – the Senator’s trolls were nearly as well known in the Shire as the Senator himself, thanks partially to the Senator’s perennial question from the press at election time. “Racist? Me? Why, I love Gogluk and Grishzog here, as if they were my own flesh and blood, and they love me just the same, don’t you, boys? See? Here, boys, have another biscuit.”
Later, once the trolls had retired for the evening, the Senator would elaborate. Trolls, now, you could train them, they were teachable; they had their uses, same as those swishy elves, who were so good with numbers. Even considered as a race, the trolls weren’t much of a threat – no one had seen a baby troll in ages. But those orcs? They did nothing but breed.
This starting point is crucial. It shows the Senator firmly in his element, politically crushing all opponents. He is overpowering here to heighten the contrast in the second half of the story, when he goes out into the community and gradually realizes that the public’s views are no longer in line with his own.
This justifies why the story exists. The first part is fun, but by itself it’s essentially a series of jokes about modern politics with the names changed. The second half provides the narrative: the fall of a man (or rather a hobbit) when he discovers that the times have changed and he has been left behind. It’s an effective arc, one used many times in mainstream fiction. But by using a fictional setting and fantastic races the story can be more forceful, the fall more extreme, while retaining an undercurrent of humor from the premise’s weird juxtaposition.
That defends why this story is speculative fiction; but why use Tolkien’s world specifically, aside from the Bilbo name? After all, there are no recognizable characters that show up. Middle-Earth has been the template for so much fantasy fiction that it has almost become a generic setting. Change a few place names and this story could take place in any fantasy land.
But I think its connection to The Lord of the Rings is an asset, especially at the end. One of the recurring features in the book is that of many races putting aside differences and working together against a common foe. For me this atmosphere pervades the world, which is why the Senator’s speeches are funny. They feel out of place not just because they’re in a modern political style, but because their content is at odds with the themes of the world. At the end the Senator is not just at odds with the mood of the people, but of the spirit of Middle-Earth, and that resonance increases the power of the ending immensely.
(That last point might be a bit of a stretch; after all, the peoples of Middle-Earth are pretty territorial, and races tend to live in separate locations with little mingling aside from trade. But I’d argue that because the narrative of The Lord of the Rings (and to a lesser extent, The Hobbit) comes from the point of view of characters that meet and ally with many races. Therefore, even though the spirit of cooperation is exceptional, it more informs the mood of the setting than its mundane provincialism (which is much less seen or rewarded).
Senator Bilbo by Andy Duncan
Availability: print, free audio
Word count: 4,000
First published: Starlight 3, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, 2001, Tor
Where to find it: The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, edited by Mike Ashley, 2008, Running Press
Seekers of Dreams: Masterpieces of Fantasy, edited by Douglas A. Anderson, 2005, Cold Spring Press
Year’s Best Fantasy 2, edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, 2002, Eos/Harpercollins
The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, collection, 2012, PS Publishing
A reading was featured in episode 32 of PodCastle, available here (the mp3 file, at least in my browser, is in really tiny text at the end of the post under ‘download’)