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.
Posted on May 25, 2013, in Editorial and tagged Blogpost, Editorial, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Imperial History: The 10000 Year Syndrome, Rachel Aaron, Science Fiction, Space Opera. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.