This afternoon, in a fit of reader upset, I tweeted a general complaint about Fantasy Empires. You know the sort: the utopic paradises that rule for thousands of years in perfect peace until Something Happens, usually addressed by the plot of the book in question. Maybe these paradises of perfect rule fell ages ago, taking all learning with them and plunging humanity back into the Stone Age. Or maybe they're still hanging around in the twilight of their decline, just waiting for the right missing heir or new enlightened ruler of the people.
Whatever their fate, Empires are as much a part of classic fantasy as swords or sorcery, and they bug the hell out of me. Not because I have problem with organized government, but because many fantasy empires also come along with absurdly long timelines that are, frankly, far less believable than any magic portal or mythical creature. Maybe an empire lasted a thousand years before it fell. Maybe two thousand. I actually just finished a (not to be named) novel that featured a long fallen empire that had enjoyed a jaw dropping four thousand years of peace and prosperity before being overthrown by some uppity corpses and their establishment hating necromancer turned king. For reference, 4000 years ago Earth time, most human populations were still in the Bronze Age.
When I mentioned this on Twitter, I got an overwhelming, and very well thought out response. So much so that I was inspired to write a blog post about the issue. Have I mentioned how much I love you guys? 'Cause I do!
It's not that I have anything against the idea of a long dead empire filled with the promise of a better life and new ideas for people of this time. That's great trope, and one that's well grounded in our own history. It was, after all, the rediscovery of Roman and Greek culture and knowledge that kicked off the Renaissance. My problem is with the crazy timelines author pull out when they want to impress people. As one of my awesome Tweeples (@franklinnoble) points out, the Warcraft Lore has a shocking ten thousand years where basically nothing happens. Ten thousand years! That's pretty much all of human history as we know it reduced to a "meh, some stuff, whatevs."
It doesn't matter what kind of story you're writing, or what kind of Empire you create, they all have one thing in common in that they're full of people. Oh maybe not humans in the technical sense, but they are full of characters written as humans by humans who generally share human traits like bravery, ingenuity, greed, laziness, etc. The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly. They invent, they innovate, they get angry and riot, they fall under the sway of charismatic leaders and revolt, they change the world. That's what people do, they change their environment, and unless an outside force (immortal Godking, magically enforced happiness and placidity, widespread institutionalized immortality, etc.) is forcing them to be still, they're going to be moving and shaking their world.
This isn't to say you can't have a long lived empire. But, as many people on Twitter pointed out, all the great, long lived empires of our world (Egypt, Rome, Byzantium, etc.) went through enormous shifts, changes and upheavals. They survived yes, but not as unified wholes. They changes along with the people in them.
To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it! But unless there's a reason for such a long period of stillness, this sort of lazy zero adding does more harm than good. At best, it stretches disbelief, at worst, it paints a picture of a lazy, stagnant world.
Now, I'm pretty sure this bothers me A LOT MORE than it bothers other readers, but it's still something I'd really appreciate more authors thinking about, especially those in my beloved Epic Fantasy field. I'm not saying you need a detailed history of every year, especially if they're not important, but a little thought and effort to put your history on a human scale would be, by this reader at least, very appreciated.
Hearts and kisses,