This is the fifth part of a series of articles on The Tyrant Baru Cormorant—part review, part meta, part commentary. For intro and links to the others, go here!

This one’s kind of a heavy one: I want to look at how the book handles genocide.

  1. Genocide
  2. The Pranist and Cambodia
  3. Genocide and agency
  4. The significance of genocide
  5. Last word on Kyprananoke


The Tyrant Baru Cormorant does not use the word ‘genocide’ directly, but it discusses it at several points.

The Kettling plague on Kyprananoke has broken quarantine and spread out of control. Due to its long incubation period, ships could carry it to other ports before realising they are infected—Kyprananoke has become a plague bomb, threatening the rest of the world. Baru notes with disgust that the brain must have chosen Kyprananoke precisely because there’s a chance the plague may be contained.

The plague has also opened the door to a complete collapse of the social order, and factional violence between the Kyprists (former Falcrest puppets) and various groups of Canaats. Certain factions of Canaat are, with weapons such as machetes, attempting to purge anyone with signs of surgery or any other evidence of allegiance to the prior regime. To a Falcresti observer like Juris Ormsment, there is little question that the new regime will be as bad as the old, because of the necessities of holding power:

She turned her spyglass on the kypra islands. The first thing she saw was a raft of corpses swarming with crabs. Most of the capital islet Loveport had gone up in fire overnight, torched by Canaat rebels. Now that the initial rush was over, both sides were busy consolidating their territory and purging their ranks. Anyone with insufficient commitment would be killed as a collaborator; anyone who refused to denounce and punish collaborators would be killed as an enemy of the revolution (or of the state). It would go this way because that was how it had happened in Falcrest, after Lapetiare’s revolution. In a few weeks the Canaat leaders would turn on each other, and the winners would build a new government as cruel and selfish as Kyprism, because if they were not cruel and selfish they would be torn down by those who were. And the cycle would begin again.

Baru, meanwhile, resolves to go ashore anyway in her newfound deontological idealism, to help negotiate a truce for water, and manage plague. She owes, she says, these people her solidarity: after destroying one revolution on Falcrest’s behalf, she wants to do the right thing this time.

Falcrest, however, has an eventuality in place: it has created an ‘apocalypse fuse’, charges designed to explosively collapse one wall of the caldera near the island, so that the displacement wave will be concentrated by the remaining walls. This will create a ‘megatsunami’ that will rapidly wash over the entire island, killing everyone in one stroke. This somewhat complicated plan is inspired by real events: in 1958, an earthquake near Lituya Bay, Alaska caused a similar concentrated wave which completely scoured the trees up to 524 metres from the normal sea level. In 1963, a landslide into the filling Vajont dam reservoir created a wave over the top of the dam, which wiped out several downstream Italian towns.

Naturally, this Chekhov’s superweapon is fired—fired by Iscend Comprine, acting without orders, after none of the cryptarchs are prepared to pull the trigger. (In fact, Tain Shir is even asked to disable the weapon, but arrives too late.)

The Pranist and Cambodia

Even in the throes of meningitis, Baru is unequivocal on one point: the horrors of the Kyprananoki ‘democlysm’ are ultimately of Falcrest’s making. She expresses this point repeatedly throughout the book…

many quotes

To Svir:

“The rebels will be blamed,” she gasped. “Because all their evils are done in the open. The Kyprists are worse—they just make their crimes into laws—you must be sure it’s remembered! There was a tree where Canaat dashed children to death. But the Kyprists had jails, jails where they did as much and more.…”

On the island, after she witnesses a Canaat warband carrying out horrific massacres and training themselves to commit further violence through corpse-mutilation and deliberate disregard for Falcresti sanitation:

They were insane. They were insane and it made perfect sense to Barhu because this madness was, like her, made by Falcrest: a pattern of authority by bodily violence which remained, like a scar, after Falcrest departed.

This terror was ultimately created by the Kyprists, by their ruthless barbers and their use of mass thirst as a weapon. Kyprism was in turn an artifice created by Falcrest’s decapitation of all Kyprananoke’s traditions and the installation of a biddable new ruling class. No matter how vivid and imminent the horrors here, Falcrest was in a distant but powerful way responsible.

But Barhu could not bring herself to forgive the Pranist and his warband.

No matter the cause, these were people doing evil. To absolve them of guilt would be to deny their humanity, to deny that they had some intrinsic dignity and moral independence which only they could choose to surrender. To say that these people were doing monstrous things entirely of their own monstrous nature was to deny Falcrest’s immense historical crimes. But to say that these people were doing monstrous things solely because Falcrest had made them into monsters was to grant Falcrest the power to destroy the soul: to permanently remove the capacity for choice.

In a dream with Tain Hu:

She had learned how people could disembowel themselves. She had learned about the grove of smashed children, the sinkhole full of corpses, the terrible crimes committed in the name of revolution.

But the savagery and the barbarism were ultimately Falcrest’s. Falcrest had destroyed Kyprananoke’s old laws and agriculture. Falcrest had put merchants and barbers in charge, ordered them to stamp out disease, to maximize profit. Falcrest had erased Kyprananoke’s history and replaced it with a sketch of cleanliness and exploitation.

Later, Baru tries to explain what she saw to a group of Taranoki people in effective exile:

“You don’t understand!” But how could they? How could anyone who hadn’t seen it? “Listen,” Barhu begged them. “Kyprananoke was Falcrest’s holding before we were. When they were done with Kyprananoke they left. But it didn’t stop. The people they’d set in power held their posts. The wounds they’d cut kept bleeding. All the old ways of agriculture were gone. All the old ways of justice were disposed of. All the water was in the hands of tyrants. Things got worse and worse. There was resistance, and revolution, but it was as hard and cruel as the regime it fought. And when the situation became so terrible that it endangered Falcrest, they reached out and wiped Kyprananoke off the map. Everyone there is dead. They tried to get free of the chains Falcrest left behind, and Falcrest killed them all for it.

This is striking, because in terms of how it’s carried out, the brutal massacres-by-machete we witness on Kyprananoke resemble most of all the history of the Cambodian genocide, from the hyper-autarkic nationalism to the targeting of people with signs of surgery (late in the genocide, the Khmer Rouge took wearing glasses as a sign of being an intellectual).

A short Khmer Rouge history

While an attempt at telling a detailed history of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power is kind of way beyond what I’m capable of making for this article, it could obviously not have happened in a vacuum.

The Cambodian Civil War was essentially a product of the neighbouring Vietnam War, one of the most famous proxy wars in which Americans, Soviets and to a lesser extent the Chinese were burning down the country for the sake of spreading their bloc’s economic and geopolitical control. The background was that in the 50s, a native Leninist movement supported by the USSR had rebelled against French colonialism, and ultimately succeeded in splitting Vietnam into a French controlled south half and a Leninist north half. The leninists hoped to reunify the country, and to that end, supported an insurrection in the south, and then an open war. The Americans showed up to help the French, as part of their policy of trying to ‘contain’ communist movements in Southeast Asia.

Faced with the massive war infrastructure of the American state coming down on them, and without equivalent on-the-ground support from the USSR and North Vietnam, the Viet Cong insurrection and North Vietnamese army could only effectively fight by resorting to the suite of brutal but effective guerilla tactics. The Americans replied with incendiary and chemical weapons, massive bombing campaigns, etc. etc. Before long the war edged onto neighbouring Cambodia.

In the 60s, Cambodia was another former French colony, then ruled by a monarchy led by King Sihanouk, and pointedly neutral between the sides of the Cold War. This neutrality collapsed in the mid 60s; Sihanouk, anticipating that they’d win the wars, attempted to court the Leninists, without upsetting the Americans too much, and allowed North Vietnamese soldiers to hide in Cambodia, which led to the Americans coming in to bomb them. By about 1970, he was booted out by a right-wing coup aligned with the Americans, and a civil war started which lasted half a decade.

The war was marked by enormous country-wide firebombing campaigns by the Americans, dropping incomprehensible amounts of ordnance. Their target was the Khmer Rouge, who were ideological weirdos by all sides’ standards, but a convenient local force for the Leninists and Maoists to back. Especially once Sihanouk lent them his support in exile, and the Americans continued to bomb without much regard civilian or combatant, the Khmer Rouge rapidly grew into a major popular movement.

The Khmer Rouge started out their trend of atrocities here, from torture to the use of child soldiers. But like anything in the Cold War, it’s hard to work out which reported horrors definitely happened, since most of the reports on it are themselves highly partisan. It generally does seem to be agreed that by the time the Khmer Rouge won the war, the cities were full of starving refugees and the country’s economic capacity to feed them had been devastated, so the first act of the new regime was that the Khmer Rouge ordered a massive migration out of the cities—a not entirely incomprehensible measure, but reported on as a ‘death march’ driven by force.

From there, the Khmer Rouge went on to do far, far worse than simply failing to handle a crisis. They pursued an incomprehensible program of trying to turn the entire country into an entirely self-sufficient system of low-tech agricultural communes, a cartoon of Mao’s (even larger and more catastrophic in terms of starvation deaths, but not as intentionally deadly) ‘Great Leap Forward’, combined with a weird sort of 11th-century LARP.

So while the Soviet and Chinese agricultural ‘collectivisation’ programs, while devastating, had the purpose of achieving something like the enclosures, introducing more efficient agricultural techniques so they could turn the self-sufficient peasants into an industrial proletariat… the Khmer Rouge’s objective seems to have been the opposite: they wanted everyone working in the fields, purged of any ‘foreign’ influence.

To pull off this attempt at a social ‘reset’, the Khmer Rouge killed people. A lot of people.

By the time the North Vietnamese invaded the country again and kicked out the Khmer Rouge (who then briefly received American backing!), about a quarter of the population of Cambodia had been killed, somewhere between 2 and 3 million people. Many died of starvation and disease, but a huge proportion were deliberately tortured and killed by bladed weapons, sharp sticks and random farm tools (since ammunition was scarce). The victims were interred in enormous, shallow mass graves, which have become sites of commemoration—places whose stacked ranks of skulls are kind of incomprehensible, even knowing what happened.

I have not read into this depressing subject enough to be able to say how the Khmer Rouge’s intentions converged on ‘kill a quarter of our population’, or who might have fought against it. Even in the wake of the genocide, they attempted to blame the mass death on the Vietnamese invasion. And in a particularly ugly episode of leftist history, reports of genocide were treated as false propaganda concocted by the Americans (not implausible), and the Khmer Rouge enjoyed a brief popularity with certain leftist student movements.

The Vietnamese established a puppet government, which the royalists and Khmer Rouge opposed, backed by the US of all people. Peace accords begain in the 90s, contemporary with the fall of the USSR, and the UN established a ‘transitional authority’ with a powerless Sihanouk put back in as constitutional monarch. In 1997 there was a coup d’etat and Hun Sen, leader of the Vietnam-established Cambodian People’s Party, took control, and has been running the government ever since, including holding the genocide trials. Cambodia is slowly on its way to becoming a functioning capitalist state again.

Genocide and agency

Baru brings up the really ugly thorny question of ‘agency’ in events like this fictional genocide and the real Cambodian one. Of the quotes above, this one addresses it most directly:

They were insane. They were insane and it made perfect sense to Barhu because this madness was, like her, made by Falcrest: a pattern of authority by bodily violence which remained, like a scar, after Falcrest departed.

This terror was ultimately created by the Kyprists, by their ruthless barbers and their use of mass thirst as a weapon. Kyprism was in turn an artifice created by Falcrest’s decapitation of all Kyprananoke’s traditions and the installation of a biddable new ruling class. No matter how vivid and imminent the horrors here, Falcrest was in a distant but powerful way responsible.

But Barhu could not bring herself to forgive the Pranist and his warband.

No matter the cause, these were people doing evil. To absolve them of guilt would be to deny their humanity, to deny that they had some intrinsic dignity and moral independence which only they could choose to surrender. To say that these people were doing monstrous things entirely of their own monstrous nature was to deny Falcrest’s immense historical crimes. But to say that these people were doing monstrous things solely because Falcrest had made them into monsters was to grant Falcrest the power to destroy the soul: to permanently remove the capacity for choice.

Who causes events like a genocide? Who is ‘morally responsible’ for something which can only be carried out by a massive social system and process of history?

It’s a question which criminal justice systems, including international courts for ‘crimes against humanity’ such as genocide, takes to have a clear answer: the one who carried out a specific prohibited act, and can be proven to have done so, should be (however belatedly) punished by execution, imprisonment, etc. The justification for this is presumably more about providing closure to the victims and a symbolic gesture, since for it to act as an effective deterrent, it would have to happen a lot more quickly and predictably. To end up in court for genocide, you have to lose the war first.

Meanwhile, proving that ‘a genocide’ took place, or denying it, becomes its own political project: either to muster support for acts against an enemy by telling everyone about the heinous things they’ve done, or trying to clean the reputation of a political movement that one otherwise finds appealing. This can be somewhat successful, at least in certain regions: you can expect very different answers about whether there was an Armenian genocide inside and outside of Turkey.

(Every single genocide, so far as I can tell, has a movement to say “it didn’t happen, and anyway, they deserved it”—stretching and disregarding evidence in whatever fashion required to satisfy the emotional need, like any conspiracy theory. Getting people to agree to deny some atrocity, and even treat it as a joke, seems an effective way to maintain a cultish political movement by quietly alienating that person from anyone who’s not on board. I had my own experience with this when I encountered Maoists online a few years ago, and spent far too long looking into their attempts to deny various atrocities committed under Stalin and Mao out of a misguided belief that there was anything to be seen there but a cult.)

Whatever role a state monopoly on violence has in maintaining a social ‘peace’, this punitive approach does not seem to have done much to stop acts like genocide from taking place. The Cambodian genocide has plenty of company in the 20th century alone. Hell, there are several genocides that appear to be in progress right now: the Saudis blockading and bombarding Yemen, China’s treatment of Uighurs, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya…

I know there’s an entire academic field devoted to working out the causes of genocide, and I don’t pretend to know all the factors that make it more likely. You could name the sudden appearance of colonial borders disrupting the existing social systems and generating movements to purge ‘outsiders’, you could point to the memetic adaptivity of nationalist and indeed ‘ur-fascist’ ideologies, you could look at economic factors like attempts to redirect class struggle during economic strife, idk, this is just scratching the surface.

When we invoke these factors to attempt to explain why a genocide happened at a particular place and time, we sort of remove the focus from the people actually carrying it out—people who are, in Baru’s words, undoubtedly ‘doing evil’. She describes the dilemma of analysing broad historical forces effectively; we can simply replace Falcest with the force of capitalism and colonialism and more generally history.

I think as far as my belief, I find it hard not to accept that the capacity for ‘unimaginably’ heinous atrocities, like the corpse mutilations etc. which always accompany a genocide, exists in just about everyone. Just like the capacity to treat people abusively, or disregard obvious harms. Our behaviour is in many ways incredibly plastic—though we change on very slow timescales. But I’ll come back to this question of subjectivity and intent later, when we consider Baru’s explanation for Falcrest’s power.

The significance of genocide

Baru witnesses many horrific massacres over the course of the book, and causes a fair few herself (and their consequences motivate much of the plot). But what takes place on Kyprananoke, and what is in the process of happening on Taranoke, she considers far worse than one would conclude a direct reckoning of number of deaths. Baru’s world does not have a notion of genocide, which in our world was only recognised as a specific crime and entered international law in the years after the second world war (in part thanks to the writing of Raphael Lemkin linking the Holocaust to prior genocides, like the Armenian one).

But even without the word, when she speaks of destroying a culture in this way, genocide is what she has in mind. To Baru, a culture is defined by a particular way of living in the world—a set of practices that are adapted to a specific location, in ways that may not be obvious to Falcrest’s notion of scientific superiority. This comes out in a later conversation with Ulyu Xe, where they exchange a few anecdotes about Falcresti epistemic arrogance:

“When Falcresti sailors arrived they thought the nardoo seeds would be good provisions for long voyages. But the crushing, the washing, and the cooking are all time-consuming and dull. So the sailors skipped the simple women’s work, milled the seeds into flour, and used the flour for bread. And they ate the bread, and shat their bodies out, and starved. They had all the best of Incrastic science and they couldn’t figure out what the Devi-naga all knew.

“It’s as if…” She groped for a way to say it. “It’s as if all the people who live anywhere in the world, no matter how primitive or savage Falcrest says they are, are accumulating interest. Learning things which can only be learned by being who they are, for as long as they have been. Oh, damn it, am I just calling them stupid? Am I just finding roundabout ways to say that these people are too backward to do science?”

“That’s a Falcrest conceit,” Xe countered. “We’re saying they’re clever in a way that’s not valued by Incrasticism.”

“How? How is it clever to do whatever your ancestors teach you?”

“Because your ancestors are smarter than you. Not any one of them, but all together. All those different ways of seal-hunting and flour-making combining and leaping down from generation to generation, sieved out by centuries of practice until only the best forms remain.”

Falcrest’s genocide of Taranoke is not just the extermination of a quarter of the population, but the disruption and attempted annihilation of the patterns that the Taranoki people were living out prior to their arrival. And they had carried out genocide long before Iscend detonates the charges.

Of course, ‘genocide: bad in fact’ would not be a particularly novel thing to say. What I want to note here is how this fits into the broader themes of the book: the ecological angle it takes on life. In this view, cultural evolution is like speciation and radiation; genocide is extinction. A culture is a pattern of behaviour, perhaps—but what is an organism but a pattern of behaviour of atoms and molecules and so forth, one which can reproduce itself through time?

This view of a way of life as ‘possessing’ something, which can be lost, is not so far from the UN’s own definition of genocide, which begins:

Genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings; such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions represented by these human groups,

Baru takes a similar line, thinking of Falcrest’s aspirations to conquer and ‘digest’ the Oriati Mbo:

(…)And there were other good things in all the peoples of the Mbo, things no one could imagine or invent, ideas which could only be produced by being who they were, in the places where they lived, with the history they had.

Oriati Mbo was a book of incredible and unread wisdom. A book made of millions of living souls.

And Falcrest wanted to erase the book. Burn the pages for kindling, the people for labor. No one in Falcrest understood that there was anything written in it at all. They believed that some societies were civilized and some were primitive and that the civilized had nothing to gain from the primitive at all.

This notion has some power—at least in terms of recognising a culture as a living process, one that is evolving, not something static and eternal. But I also think there is a danger in framing genocide all about what a group might contribute (to whom? they already have it), even while recognising that part of the justification process for genocide is to deny the creations and accomplishments of the targeted group. Even were the dynamics of a certain group somehow provably reducible to things which existed elsewhere, even if it was true that the ‘civilised’ had nothing to gain on their terms, genocide would be evil. But that’s kind of obvious, perhaps.

Barhu’s emphasis on gain and loss perhaps comes from her own, personal preoccupation with trade—something which will prove to be at the heart of her plan to destroy Falcrest.

Last word on Kyprananoke

How do we apply this to Kyprananoke—where, on the one hand, we have people like the Pranist doing horrifying massacres up close and personal, but on the other, the whole situation is a product of the arrival of Falcrest and the regime they imposed?

One thing I think the book does very well in making clear is that genocide and ‘democlysm’ is not one dramatic event (the final drowning of the island) but a protracted event, civil wars and brutal regimes shading into each other, each tragedy producing another.

The term ‘democlysm’ comes from the Falcresti observers, ‘a chaos made of man’…

Nullsin shuddered.

The Kyprananoke archipelago had fallen into democlysm, the word great Iranenna (she’d read her prerevolutionary philosophers, in school at Shaheen) coined for “a chaos made of man.” Nowhere in nature could you find bloodshed like this.

It’s easy imagine how this perception—of ‘bare life’, to look back at the previous article—would justify Falcrest’s brutal ‘order’. But chaos is a sense of unpredictability, and the democlysm is far from unpredictable; it’s a very natural consequence of colonial rule. (It is also far from true that no such thing happens in nature, as anyone who has read about ant colonies can attest.)

One thing I found out while writing this was that Barhu’s shore trip on Kyprananoke, and the whole sequence with the Pranist, was actually quite a late addition to the story (according to this Reddit answer).

I thought the handling of Kyprananoke in the earlier drafts was way too cursory, so I added the episode where Baru goes ashore to try to stop the whole mess—I just couldn’t believe she’d willingly let it turn out the way it did, and knocking her out with meningitis to spare her the decision felt like a cheap out. She had to show that this sacrifice was too much even for her.

It’s certainly a powerful addition, and I think pretty vital for really cementing Kyprananoke as a place before it’s wiped away. And the discussion of genocide provides important framing for the later discussion of Falcrest and agency.