Fantastic History #66: Dueling–Bringing the Past Forward by Doug Engstrom

Back in 2013, I was thinking about what work would look like in the near future, contemplating a political movement that seemed determined to take us back to the Gilded Age, and planning to combine all that into vignettes of people in the mid 21st century talking about their jobs—sort of an SF-version of Studs Terkel’s Working. As often happens, none of this turned out as I expected, but it did produce my near-future thriller, Corporate Gunslinger.

The book is about Kira Clark, a young woman trying to make her way in a world that’s been transformed less by futuristic technology than by ideas imported from the 1800’s, including dueling’s comeback as a dispute-resolution mechanism. Since it portrays Kira’s career as a professional duelist, I had to consider what the institution would look like. Though clearly reaching into the past for legitimacy, dueling would also clearly be bent to serve the perceived needs of Kira’s time. As the quote says, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

For legitimacy, the duels in Kira’s world preserve certain trappings from the past. Dueling pistols are single-shot weapons, designated “seconds” watch over the preparations, and the combatants start back-to-back, walk ten paces, turn, and fire. As is often the case, these “historical” trappings don’t have a lot to do with actual history and everything to do with popular perception.

Although they are single-shot weapons, the pistols used in Kira’s day are far more accurate and deadlier than historical dueling pistols. Crucially, they retain the drama of deciding a dispute—and possibly a combatant’s life—in a single instant, which is a key to dueling’s popularity.

In historical duels, the seconds played a crucial role in attempting to negotiate the conflict and set the duel’s terms of engagement. In Kira’s day, those roles have been taken over by professionals who manage the special dueling facilities and provide the weapons and ammunition. When private individuals duel each other, the seconds mostly watch while the professionals act. On the field, seconds supply little more than moral support for the combatant they represent, and furnish agreement when the process is complete, in pretty much the same spirit as signing off on a complex, multi-page legal document while installing software.

The second’s role for a professional duelist like Kira is another matter. A professional’s second is usually their primary trainer and appearing on the field to offer advice and support is the final step in the rigorous, full-time preparation they’ve put their gunfighter through since long before the duel was scheduled. However, this role isn’t visible during the duel, and having both sides supported by a second on the field is another superficial trapping of “fairness”—another important key to dueling’s appeal.

The drama of “ten paces, turn and fire” appears to originate more in movies of our time than the dueling codes of prior centuries. Most codes I read left the distance and other details to be worked out by the seconds, based on field conditions and the combatant’s skills. Some even specified drawing lots to determine the order in which the participants would fire, which struck me as a testament to both the combatant’s courage and the inaccuracy of short-barreled, black-powder weapons.

So, if the “historical” elements merely cloak modern purposes in the trappings of time-honored tradition, what are those purposes?
When looking at the differences between our world and the world of historical dueling, a big difference, maybe the biggest difference, is the complete subordination of all societal goals to the perceived needs of business, especially large, publicly-traded businesses. Corporations have not only won the right to “personhood” but to more than that. Today, many firms insist that customers give up the right to seek redress in the courts as a condition of doing business, and that employees give up the right to speak via non-disclosure agreements. We no longer seem to believe that the economy exists to provide for society, but rather that society’s proper role is to serve as raw material for the all-important economy.

In Kira’s world, corporate dominance is even more complete. Borrowers can be compelled to offer their freedom as collateral, sacrificing their autonomy if they default, and enforcement squads roam the streets, tracking down indentured workers who have escaped their workplace. Burdened with debts incurred to earn an MFA in acting, Kira becomes a gunfighter to escape this fate.
So, when this society reaches back into the past to revive an institution that allowed rich white guys to “defend their honor,” what’s really going on?

Essentially, businesses have won the right to murder their most difficult and persistent critics. But, of course, they can’t come out and say that.

Instead, dueling functions as the last step in a multi-part system designed to ensure that in case of disputes, almost everyone will shut up and accept what’s the company wants to offer. First, most businesses have followed the lead of financial services and compelled customers to give up the right to sue if they want to do business. When disputes arise, they’re settled by a private arbitration system, which strongly favors businesses as “repeat customers.” When people are unhappy with that outcome, they’re offered a final out with ancient resonance—the dueling field.

The proceedings are overseen by the impeccably honest Association for Dueling, and everything from the pistols to the changing rooms are not only made as identical as humanly possible, they’re assigned at random to remove any possible hint of bias.
Except, of course, for the tiny little detail—just a technicality, really—that a flesh-and-blood person must represent themselves, while a business must choose an employee. And as it happens, this isn’t some random employee, but an employee who has trained for a year and spends all their working hours preparing to be a better gunfighter.

Somebody like Kira—aspiring actor, potential debt slave, professional gunfighter, and the protagonist of Corporate Gunslinger.


Doug Engstrom has been a farmer’s son, a US Air Force officer, a technical writer, a computer support specialist, and a business analyst, as well as being a writer of speculative fiction. He lives near Des Moines, Iowa with his wife, Catherine Engstrom.