I think about privilege a lot. It’s something that I suspect a lot of children of immigrant parents have to think about, especially when they grow up listening to stories of their family’s poverty. “We worked so hard so that you could live well!” my mother has often told me. “Appreciate the sacrifices we made for you!”
As a result of these constant reminders, I’ve never doubted for a moment that I’m privileged for growing up in Australia. But it has been a lot harder for me to figure out exactly how my privilege affects my life, besides an abstract notion of “having more food and money.” The thing about privilege is that its hand is mostly invisible, and so even if we can detect some of the benefits, we often don’t notice how it seeps into our very way of thinking.
These days, I think of privilege like this: it’s a cushion that gives you less things to take individual responsibility for. Like how “male privilege” insulates men from having to think about protecting themselves from sexual harassment in public places, or how “white privilege” stops white people from having to worry about being stopped by the police just because of their appearance, the privilege of growing up in a developed nation absolves us from making decisions about our health, education and finances that we’d struggle to navigate if left to our own devices. We benefit from society’s collective knowledge, even when we understand very little of it.
The worst thing a privileged person can do is pretend that the invisible cushion is the result of their own handiwork.
That’s what I think about when I read How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom. It’s the kind of story you’ve probably seen before, about a person from the modern world going back in time or into a fantasy world and advancing their societies using modern knowledge. Somehow, this average shmuck has all the specialist knowledge and administrative expertise to enact sweeping social and economic reforms to immediate success. We all know that things aren’t so simple, but it’s a thought experiment we like to entertain because a part of us thinks that we’re cleverer than the people of long ago.
In truth, we grossly overestimate the amount of knowledge about the modern world that the average person can have. Take medical knowledge, for instance. Even medical specialists would only consider themselves experts in a particular area of medicine, not the entire field. Most of us only have rudimentary knowledge at best. I can vaguely explain how antibiotics work, but I wouldn’t know where to begin if I were asked to make it. I trust doctors, not out of my own knowledge, but simply because of faith in the medical institute.
The knowledge of my society isn’t truly “mine” to claim. What right does a person like me have to lecture the people of the past about how ignorant they were?
Realist Hero is aware that nobody has all the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, but it doesn’t let that get in the way of its “what if a medieval fantasy society became exposed to modern ideas?” scenario. Kazuya represents the collective knowledge of humankind that no single person would probably possess. The level of general knowledge that he displays isn’t actually that unrealistic for a well-read history geek, but his insight far surpasses that of the average person. It is not a surprise that the audience surrogate character in the first volume is the princess Liscia, who reacts with awe whenever our protagonist spouts factoids.
Kazuya is smarter than the average person, but he makes us feel smart, because his explanations are so clear and simple that they tempt us into thinking that we know all of that knowledge off the top of our heads, too. Yet rather than his knowledge, it is narrative convenience that makes him appear smart. For instance, he has a remarkable level of confidence in his social and economic policies that people who actively work in those fields don’t have.
In Poor Economics, a book based on studies of various aid initiatives in developing countries, the authors Abhihit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo note:
Economics (and other experts) seem to have very little useful to say about why some countries grow and others do not. Basket cases, such as Bangladesh or Cambodia, turn into small miracles. Poster children, such as Côte d’Ivoire, fall into the “bottom billion.” In retrospect, it is always possible to construct a rationale for what happened in each place. But the truth is, we are largely incapable of predicting where growth will happen, and we don’t understand very well why things suddenly fire up.
The same principle is at work in Realist Hero. Even when Kazuya’s policies are derived from cases where a similar policy did work in the real world, that doesn’t mean that you should draw the conclusion that it’s universally applicable.
If I could pinpoint one area where the success of Kazuya’s policies are driven more by the author’s wishful thinking than reality, it would be in how receptive the people of the kingdom are towards Kazuya’s innovations. For example, in volume 1, Kazuya introduces new ingredients that were never regarded as palatable by the populace before. All of his food ideas, especially the noodles made out of slimes, are eagerly adopted overnight.
This is far from the only case where the characters living in a medieval society immediately overturn their lifelong ways of thinking. Realist Hero seems to take the general stance that if people are just given the knowledge and tools to succeed, then they will use it. But in reality, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as we would like (see: why people in Malaria-stricken countries don’t use the free mosquito nets they’re given). In that sense, Kazuya is more of an idealist hero than a “realist hero”.
To be honest, that’s exactly what I like about this novel. Among all the fictional scenarios I’d like to see happen in the real world, “people learning to get along and work towards a common goal” is high up there. Even Kazuya’s opponents tend to be good people at heart and will see reason after a proper conversation. On top of that, Kazuya exclusively uses his powers and privilege to make the world a better place. It reminds me of how most people, when given powers and the freedom to do what they want in an open world video game, still want to be good Samaritans within the fictional world they’re role-playing in. Power fantasies aren’t just about sleazy exploitation and ego stroking – at its core, it’s simply about feeling good about oneself.
Nevertheless, I have to remind myself that not all of Kazuya’s ideas are genius. The premise of an “enlightened” modern person swooping in to save a less “civilised” society from their own collapse is not uncommon in fiction, and it reeks of the “White Man’s Burden” to boot.
I’m reminded of an occasion in university when a friend of mine told me his belief that monarchy is the ideal political system, but only if the monarch was enlightened and had the best interests of the people in mind. That way, they could enforce top-down measures quickly without being obstructed by the trappings of democracy. A benign tyrant, if you will.
That’s the kind of leader you see in Realist Hero.
I can’t blame the novel for its appeal. For all the problems of the modern world, life is better now than it was for the people of the past. The idea that someone with today’s knowledge would be considered the wisest of kings seems like a comfort. But that way of thinking is rooted in privilege and the unfounded belief that the knowledge of our society is something we achieved for ourselves.
After all, it is privilege that deludes us into believing, even for a moment, that if only we were made into kings we could fix the problems of the world.