Imperial History: The 10,000 Year Syndrome

Author Rachel Aaron recently expressed a dissatisfaction with writers within the various SFF genres who commit to their work through lazy world-building, mainly, whenever they talk about all these long and glorious empires, whether terrestrial (fantasy) or interstellar (science fiction) which have held out for thousands of years, even tens of thousands in some cases. In fact, she has a very interesting blog post about it that has generated a fair amount of discussion.

Largely, I do agree with her position, and that of some of the commenters, but as I mentioned there, I do have an issue with a couple specifics that are mentioned, and the points that are raised.

My main point of contention is this: that the entire argument is predicated on the view that we are looking at these make-believe empires, whether in fantasy or science fiction, through the comfortable lens of our own reality. For authors working in speculative fiction (and I stress those two words), there is a necessity to go beyond what we find real, because that’s the point of the fiction. I read these books because I want a certain amount of escapism. I want to go beyond what is real and read what might/could be possible. I want to see how alternate worlds would have developed.

As such, I don’t mind it whether or not a certain empire or faction in the setting has ruled for thousands of years. In our own extremely turbulent history there has been no empire that has lasted more than a handful of centuries and so we tend to consider it completely realistic that that is how it all should be in the fiction we read and write. But we have to look beyond that.

We have to consider that there exist very few SFF settings where there are as many cultural, societal and psychological differences within a faction as there are in the real world. Our own global society is divided by ethnicity, by culture, by geography, through politics, by religion, by mind-set, and so on. There are hundreds of countries in the real world, all jockeying to be in a position of power over the others and always seeking to outdo each other in any way possible. The workings of the United Nations and its various committees, the way that all these countries interact with each other with respect to real-life crises and events such as the War on Terror, the Julian Assange Extradition, the Eurozone crisis, the Arab Spring, etc, show how disunited and divided we are as a species. Every political entity has its own spin on things, and they all want to prove that their way is right.

Rarely, if ever, does it happen that an SFF setting is so divided. Yes, the scale is much greater within an interstellar setting, that goes without saying, but even then, consider how many different factions we end up dealing with. Star Wars is a perfect example of that. All the races of the galaxy far, far away generally work together to maintain a certain status quo that theoretically benefits everyone and prevents outright war from occurring. War is bad for business, so goes a saying.

Our world is incredibly complex, beyond the understanding of anyone, and we look to our speculative fiction to provide us with a dose of simplicity that our lives otherwise lack. Would it be nice to see a hundred different species in an SF setting each with their own complex motivations for doing what they do, or a hundred different fantasy kingdoms vying for power over an entire world? Sure, why not. But then the setting begins to lose its charm. Shared world settings can do this type of thing fairly easily in comparison to non-shared world settings. Can you imagine that an SFF author like, say, Brandon Sanderson would spend years just doing the world-building and working on the minutiae? Or Adam Christopher? Aliette de Bodard? Juliet E. McKenna? Elizabeth Bear? Or any other authors who don’t write in shared-world settings? Its just not possible.

The interests of these authors are in telling focused stories about a fantastic world, or worlds, that balance the simplicities with the complexities, and not in an imbalance towards the latter. That’s much more the provenance of writers who work in the comics industries and for properties like Warhammer, Star Wars, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, etc. And that’s because there’s a multitude of authors writing within that same setting, working on different aspects of that setting and forming a cohesive whole year in, year out. These worlds have incredibly complex lore and are continuity-rich, often with contradictions and overlaps.

That’s not to say that tie-in fiction authors don’t tell focused stories, but more that their toolsets are much more vast and they work within a basic framework where everything is expected to work together in concert with each other. They do have to work within some limitations, and authors writing original fiction don’t have the same restrictions. They can let their imaginations run wild and unchecked in a way that those on the other side of the fence cannot.

 Then there is the fact that our technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two thousand years, and has seen an exponential rise in complexity in just the last fifty years.

That sort of progress is almost entirely absent in any SFF setting, within the context of my own experience. I am told that Terry Pratchett’s various Discworld novels and Brandon Sanderson’s Alloy of Law are an exception to that statement, but since I haven’t read either of them, I can’t comment on that. In general, SFF cultures don’t experience such hyper-development because either their technology levels are completely fixed, as in the case of fantasy settings, or because a certain technological level has already been reached, as in the case of science fiction settings, and the only progress happens in niche tech-trees.

As a friend of mine said when I discussed this blogpost with him, the root cause for this lack of development is quite possibly the fact that these worlds (within fantasy) have magic. When you have species that can do wonders with magic, architecturally most of all, a lot of the problem-solving aspects of technological development are taken out of the equation. In most high fantasy settings, Elves are often at a peak of development where their magic makes them superior to almost every other species within their setting. They have such a mastery over it that others cannot hope to compare. Whether the Elves spend their lives in forests, such as the classic Tolkien-esque Elves, or in great cities built up through the wonders of magic, such as the non-classic Tolkien-esque Elves that can be found in Warhammer or William King’s Terrarch Chronicles novels, it is the magic that is always the important factor. Control over magic defines a fantasy setting, whether it is Warhammer or Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth or Dragonlance.

As far as a science fiction setting is concerned, I am not sure how this concept would translate. It is an impossibility that everywhere within a galaxy the level of technological development is at an even keel. We’ve seen this repeatedly in Star Wars, Star Trek, Andromeda, Stargate and any number of such sweeping space operatic television shows. Even when it comes to written fiction, this has come up repeatedly, such as in Warhammer 40,000 to use a prominent example. I am sure there are others. Technological conformation just isn’t possible because the biggest factor is resources. But generally, there is a basic level that can be considered a standard. When you have a ship that can go at Warp 10 or can do the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs (an entirely cheeky example!), what really is the motivation for you to develop an engine that can go faster?

A quote that is often thrown around, in various guises, is that war creates progress. You can take it both ways, and here’s how (allow me to digress a bit).

Star Wars – the galaxy, over a period of more than ten thousand years, has seen large-scale conflicts every handful of generations. Whether it be Empress Teta’s war to unite the entire Core, or the various Jedi-Sith conflicts such as Naga Sadow’s invasion of the Republic, the invasion of the inter-galactic Yuuzhan Vong, or others, technological progress has been in small amounts on the galactic scale. What really improved? Lightsaber quality, cloaking technology, faster and more destructive starfighters, faster ships (fast being rather relative and in incredibly small increments).

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels – the main technological barrier that the galaxy experienced here was the miniaturisation that the people of the Foundation developed, and that too only because they had extremely limited resources to play with in the first place. There was also gravitics, allowing ships to use gravitic energy rather than more conventional forms to get in and out of a planet’s atmosphere. What really improved?

Star Trek – over the few hundred years of its history, the rise in technological sophistication has come in small steps, and has mostly dealt with specifically military technology, or technology that could be easily adapted for military purposes, whether for offense or defense. There was the holodeck, a supreme feat of computer engineering that is near unparalleled, but even then, such things did not have a cultural impact. What really improved? Faster ships and more potent weapons.

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn setting – the Lord Ruler has ruled for almost a thousand years and nothing has happened to change the status quo. No increase in technological or magical sophistication. In fact, he goes out of his way to make sure that anyone displaying even the hint of magical problems is ruthlessly dealt with, barring those among the nobles, and then only because the Lord Ruler is sentimental. The quality of life certainly did not improve. People were miserable before, they were ten times more miserable after. Several rebellions sprung up, and they were all countered easily because the Lord Ruler kept his people suitably suppressed.

Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemian novels – there was next to no technological development in those books across at least six generations. There was a fair bit of magical development and sophistication with each trilogy, but the world never changed, only the Kingdom did, and, to a degree, the Empire of Great Kesh. What really improved? More magicians, more magical schools of thought, that’s all. And this is all counting the fact that the Kingdom has born the brunt of some of the worst wars in Midkemian history. It has existed for several hundred years, and grown in the process, but by the time that events come to a head in the first book of the series, Magician, there has been relative peace for several years. And none of the wars have spurred on any kind of progress within the society. Things are as they have always been, for the most part, excluding the return of Greater Magic to Midkemia.

The Dragonlance setting – absolutely no improvements in technology, and, as far as I can tell, no improvements in magical sophistication either. The setting was technologically stagnant and could not breach past a certain level of complexity. When the evil Dragons turn into warlords and warladies on their own and carve out the continent of Ansalon amongst themselves, there are certain changes in how magic is accessed and used, but that has come at a great cost to the entire world, and is certainly not the result of the rise and fall of any empire. What really improved?

Fantasy settings almost always have an inherent barrier to technological progress. They are locked into a particular mindset and they lack the necessary tools to improve in that respect. Gunpowder fantasies, such as Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series, give us a tantalising version of what can happen but even those rarely go any further. Warhammer Fantasy is another great example of this. The Dwarfs are able to develop things like steam-driven war-engines, gyrocopters, and cannons, but that’s it. The setting doesn’t progress any further than that. The same goes for the WarCraft setting.

Compounding the lack of progress is the fact that these societies and cultures are all presented to us as “basics”, this is how things have always been like. We don’t see a small tribe settle a ramshackle village which grows into a town, a city, a metropolis over the course of hundreds of years. We don’t see the development of language, culture, politics, familial relationships. All that has already happened in a far distant past. We have the benefit that we have a recorded and speculated history where we know how we developed as a species alongside tens of thousands of others. We know of Darwinism and archaeology of all types has revealed much of our planet’s past to us. But how does that translate into a fantasy setting that is an extension of our world? No fantasy setting, to my knowledge, has ever been that detailed, and that level of detail is just pure impossible.

You can consider J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion here, but remember that even in that case, the fantasy master skipped over all these details. One day there was nothing, then there were the Elves and their societal progress was exponential. One day there were just the Elves, and then there were Dwarfs all of a sudden. One day there were just the Elves and the Dwarves, and then suddenly there were Men. Exponential growth happens and we never see anything of it. And once a certain level of cultural and technological sophistication is reached, there is no more progress. The only progress that I’d say there is in the Middle Earth is in the architectural, at most.

So, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with the topic at hand. There was talk in the original article (and in the comments) about peaceful empires where life is good and people are content with their lot for several thousands of years, without any conflict.

Personally, I try to keep an open mind. Just because something doesn’t exist or hasn’t happened in our world, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen in a make-believe world where we set the restrictions and guidelines for everything. An empire can certainly be at peace for a long, long time, because that peace is defined individually. The Kindgom in Feist’s novels, despite the occasional war with Kesh, Queg and the Eastern Kingdoms was at peace. People lived largely contented lives and didn’t go out of their way to improve their lives. The nobility dealt with the populace with a balanced, even hand and they fulfilled their obligations. Despite several large-scale conflicts over the years, the various incarnations of the Republic in Star Wars was often at peace. Even the Galactic Empire established a certain peace, bought and maintained by a high cost in harsh discipline and utter ruthlessness towards all non-conformists. Despite wars with the Klingons and the Romulans, and the Dominion and the Borg, the Federation has seen ample peace in its short history.

We have to keep in mind that writers cannot go into incredible amounts of details and flesh out everything. To expect otherwise is just unrealistic. Its not a case of being lazy, although I suspect that this is sometimes the case regardless, but of expedience. The writers are focused on the here and now, rather than the past.

And as we know well, history is written by the victors. And those in power often don’t tell the truth.

A fantasy empire that has existed for any significant amount of time will define peace in its own way. Border disputes with lesser kingdoms? A mere annoyance. A rebellion that is squashed by superior tactics and manpower in short order? A trifle. The best example is of the Galactic Empire versus the Rebellion in Star Wars. The latter was a, galactically speaking, a VERY small movement that initiated conflicts in the Mid-Rim and Outer Rim regions. It was never a credible threat to the Empire because the economies of scale were just too disparate.

People seek to innovate, to improve their means when they have the motivation and the resources to do so.

In a fantasy setting, magic sets up automatic and basic barriers to such innovation. It concentrates the ability to make a change within the hands of a handful of men and women, and these groups are often always insular and interested only in increasing their own power. As an aside, and to bring it up again, Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood steps around this restriction in a really innovative way and shows how an emerging magical ability, the ability to manipulate gunpowder, is changing the playing field when it comes to the “standard” magical abilities, concentrates within a small cabal of sorcerers who are bound to the rulers of the various kingdoms. For those who cannot use magic, they are at an automatic disadvantage, and they just go on with their lives. Particularly charismatic individuals employ magicians of whatever stripe to help them build their empires and kingdoms. But the focus is never on progress, it is on power.

In a science fiction setting, the ability to make a change on an interstellar level is next impossible in the hands of a few. The Luke Skywalkers and Han Solos and Leia Organas and Ben Kenobis are far too few and far in between to be incorporated into any sort of basic, standard rule on the subject. The protagonist of Jean Johnson’s Theirs Not To Reason Why series, Ia, is that infrequent example of one person changing the course of the future, for better or for worse, but one person cannot do everything, and relies on others. In the case of Ia, she relies on her family, her friends, her fellow soldiers, her superiors, her government itself to make the necessary changes. They may not all be aware of the changes, or the progress that she puts in motion, but they are the principal actors. She is just the coordinator.

And this is why, ultimately, I am fine with empires and kingdoms in SFF which have, to us with our real world perspectives, existed as entities for thousands of years. With peace being relative, it is actually of little consequence that the author says that there has been peace. There is always conflict, just not on the same scale as that we know of from our own recorded and speculated history. To expect otherwise is to be unrealistic to ourselves.

What do you think?

Note: There is a very interesting discussion to be hand within this context where the Warhammer 40,000 setting is concerned, where a galactic civil war has been raging for ten thousand years and the Imperium of Man has existed for at least that long, but has suffered through tens of thousands of conflicts, large and small, in that time frame. It is a discussion that I’d like to explore in a future blog post. In the meanwhile, in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.

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Posted on May 25, 2013, in Editorial and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Good post, and there are some interesting points in there. I think one thing to bear in mind with the settings you listed such as the Star Wars, Warcraft and Warhammer Fantasy universes, as well, is that canonically they’re generally written up to a certain set date, beyond which hasn’t been expanded yet, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that after these dates there will be more, gradual technological process that the audience won’t see. China Miéville does that very well in his Bas Lag novels, actually, as each one is set hundreds of years apart but on the same world, and progresses from a 17th century level of technology in The Scar to a technology level we’d see in the Industrial Revolution with the last book in the series, Iron Council.

    Also, I think your ‘History is written by the victors’ point may be a valid one to consider when a book says that the Empire/Imperium/Whatever has lasted for ten thousand years, especially when we look back at old historical texts; various kings and rulers supposedly lived hundreds of years, if not thousands, and so their empires would have also lasted with them. It would be a situtation of: “Well of course our empire is ten thousand years old! The Glorious Emperor Dave ruled wisely and justly for the three thousand years of his life, and he was preceded by the Benevolent Empress Angela, who ruled our nation until her death when she was four thousand years old. And Empress Angela was preceded by the Great Emperor Barry, who lived for three thousand years just as Emperor Dave did. It’s all written down in the history books.”

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    • We are still talking about the Imperium of Man having existed for 10,000 years and still going, although in-universe, there is the talk of the End Times by the end of the 41st Millnennium, and that the turn of the millennium will find the Imperium completely doomed.

      In Star Wars, there is still more than ten thousand years of history to sift through.

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  2. There are a great many civilizations on Earth that have been around for more than a few centuries. China, India, Egypt, the British Empire, all these existed thousands of years ago (except the British, but just shy of a millennium isn’t half bad).

    Along with long-lived races comes the prospect of even longer-lived cultures. A dragon can hold his territory by personal force for centuries, and an immortal wizard might do likewise.

    A pantheon of gods might oversee a world as well, and keep it in a manner they find pleasing, thwarting its progress in technology (heresy!) and propping up dynasties.

    Positing that fantasy civilizations might have lasted longer than Earth’s is not lazy world-building; assuming that civilizations that exist in world with magic, gods, and monsters would behave just like civilizations on Earth is lazy criticism.

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  3. Interesting. I have long contrasted Star Wars and Warhammer 40k in this way as one irritates the hell out of me and the other doesn’t.

    I love Star Wars and have been playing a lot of the Old Republic MMO which is a great game. But I cannot comprehend why things are more or less the same in this era as they are during the films set many thousands of years later. In particular Tattoine. Why hasn’t that advanced? It’s not the limitations of the environment. In the last couple of hundred years in the real world, life in Saharan Africa has advanced rapidly and will no doubt continue to do so.

    Perhaps the thing that bugs me the most is that it’s not just war that drives change – population growth does as well. In reality settlements grow and develop or are abandoned entirely.

    The lack of change over thousands of years basically strikes me as a combination of lazy writing and the requirement to meet expectations. Tattoine is the same in the Old Republic because the creators wanted the viewer to get that sense of familiarity with what is in the films. So everyone lives in the same mud huts and listens to the same music in the same cantinas, and the population doesn’t change at all. No settlements expand due to rising populations. No immigration or emigration occurs. Nothing changes. That bugs me because things just shouldn’t work that way.

    In just a few thousand years of our own history, we’ve got from basic tool-using primitives to embracing agriculture, to forming settlements, to raising empires and then having them crumble to return us to the dark ages. Then feudalism, renaissance, the screwed up Victorian years, two world worlds and then the tech explosion of the last 50 years or so.

    People just don’t remain desert nomads for thousands of years, and particularly not when there is easy contact and travel to other civilisations. In Star Wars, ships can hop between systems like we can travel to the next town! And so it bugs me.

    Warhammer 40k on the other hand, doesn’t bug me at all. The Imperium remains more of less unchanged for ten thousand years following the Horus Heresy events. And the reason I don’t mind this? Because it is explained. Change invites Chaos. The Imperium is forcefully kept in a state of stagnation because it is necessary for survival.

    Just a simple one sentence explanation, and for me all is good with the world.

    Just my waffle thoughts anyway.

    I’ve done a fair bit of world-building that’s been generally well-received, and it never occurred to me to use the thousands of years old empire trope. Fundamental to both of the major projects I have done is that the world has changed massively over the last couple of hundred years, and that crucially, is still changing. It’s this flux that for me invites the most interesting stories, as people in the worlds cope, react and survive through these changes.

    I find change thrilling (which I gather is odd for someone with Asperger’s), and I am genuinely excited to see what will happen in the next ten, fifteen, fifty years. I love not knowing how the tech of our world will keep developing and what impact that will have on the world, and I love not knowing where I’ll be in a year let alone beyond that. In my world-building projects, I try to reflect that thrill.

    This waffle brought to you by lazy Saturday morning in bed to the soundtrack of cat meowing to be fed.

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    • Great point about Tatooine, never really considered it that way before.

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      • Have had more thoughts on it since this morning. 🙂

        It strikes me that the current tech revolution we are going through in reality really ins’t being driven by warfare at all. In fact I’d argue that basic military tech (ie weapons and vehicles) hasn’t really changed much at all since WW2. Tanks are basically the same just gradually evolved with improvements over previous designs, Similarly with fighter planes which really havent seen a massive change since the introduction of the jet engine in the 50s. Guns, missiles, rockets – no change there. The modern inventions have been computers, microchips, mobile phones. And I’d say what has truly driven the innovation over thelast few decades hasn’t been war at all – it’s been simply the ability to create even better tech. As new tech is developed, so does the potential for even news stuff. In short, tech innovation is what drives tech innovation and the desire of humans to see what can be achieved.

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  4. Incidentally, I rate some of the best world-building I have ever seen as the setting of Avatar the Last Airbender and The Adventures of Korra. In Avatar we see a quirky feudal Japanese type setting that is highly influencedby its magic system and a long term world war. Nothing majorly special there, and at the end of the series, world peace is achieved. Where it got really clever enough that my jaw dropped was in the sequel series, Korra, which was set several decades later. They could so easily have staged numerous stories in the setting of Avatar. Instead, those chose to develop the world and they obviously put a huge amount of thought into it. The onset of world peace introduced a cultrual and technological revolution that is again highly influenced by the magic system. And so in just a few decades, the feudal peasants are now driving energy-guzzling motorcars, forming organised crime syndicates and political cults, and enjoying organised televised sport. It’s -believable- and also really obvious that the flux will continue. Really good stuff.

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  5. We cannot forget the Sumerian Kings if we want to go to the extreme and mythological aspects of it. 🙂 Especially the total reign of the Antediluvian Rulers: 241,200 years! (43,200 yrs. being the longest and 18,600 yrs. being the shortest.)

    Anyway, had to pull myself out of that rabbit hole I down willingly at TV Tropes to find the relevant tropes related the main tropic (And clinking a myriad of other unrelated links.): Medieval Stasis, Vestigial Empire, and Sci Fi Writers Have: No Sense of Time. Might take you a quite a while to sift through all them… Especially the first one listed there and its blog’s main topic. It’s vast.

    Plus on a another short note, the subject of the Azeroth experiencing nothing but peace before Warcraft (original) happened that 10,000 year timetable, the lore nerd in me kicked in. But to keep things short, I gathered on the top of my head that there’s been about 8 major conflicts that happened on Azeroth. Except, that’s mostly expanded universe material which isn’t really experienced in aside being mention in WOW itself and some of the tie-fiction. Beyond those 8 events, all of the big name races have been fairly unified and at peace with each other. On the technological advancements of Warcraft, again, there hasn’t been major advancements on that side of things either minus some new airships, a submarine and defective goblin-made rockets.

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