Not THAT uncivilised, then

April 6, 2014 Writing musings 4

All secondary world fantasy writers have one problem in common: just how advanced is this imaginary world? How far has technology progressed? The answers, of course, are as varied as authors themselves. Fantasy societies can vary from stone age through to quite sophisticated steampunk cultures. It’s entirely up to the author to decide just what scientific discoveries have been made in the created world.

Obviously, whatever magic is in effect will have an impact on this. Teleporting powers will remove any need for mundane transportation, for example. Magic heating stones will replace coal or wood burning fireplaces. Instant wizard zapping powers mean that guns and explosives are unnecessary. All these aspects have to be considered.

The default fantasy setting is some kind of pseudo-medieval world. There are swords, spears, bows and arrows. There might be trebuchets and windmills. Transportation is by horse (ridden or for haulage). The more imaginative might substitute some other creature for the horses (dragons, maybe?) or set the story in a pseudo-something-else era. But there’s a presumption that the setting should be ‘historically accurate’.

I would take issue with that. I see no point in being historically accurate about metal-working techniques or trebuchet-building, if there are wizards, dragons and magical swords around. Besides, who’s to say that a fantasy world would develop technology in exactly the same order that we did, or build it in the same way? Far more fun to play around with expectations.

My own world has the usual fantasy swords, horses and wood-for-heating arrangement. It also has a kind of wind-and-cable-powered train. It has indoor plumbing, with flushing toilets and hot water. It has explosives, but used for mining and demolition, not warfare. No trebuchets, though (they never had a need for them). And every society has books and wine, the foundations of civilisation (in my view).

Is any of that historically accurate? No, probably not. But then how much do we really know about history anyway? I recently enjoyed a lecture on the Picts, a society based in the north of Scotland in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the so-called ‘dark ages’ after the Romans left and before the Normans brought law and order to Britain. A pretty uncivilised era, you’d think, full of savages and barbarity. Yet at one of their settlements, fragments of Roman-style amphorae were found, which had brought wine from the Mediterranean all the way to the Scottish Highlands. There were pieces of glass from France. So these ‘savages’ were drinking good Mediterranean wine out of French glassware. Not that uncivilised then. And an object lesson in not making assumptions about history.

4 Responses to “Not THAT uncivilised, then”

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    I recently read a book that had a timeline of scientific, medical and technological advancement in various cultures around the world, and cherrypicked through those timelines to apply them to some of my own cultures. I…I have spreadsheets… I can’t help myself…

    But yeah, depending on the type of magic, it should have a huge impact on technology. As for our own world, many types of tech could have happened a lot earlier if not for the intervention of wars and plagues. I read a (different) book recently that mentioned that Ancient Rome was on the verge of steam power before it disintegrated. Imagine how different our world would have been if that had happened…

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