Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thoughts on Fantasy Empires

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, 
Reader Rachel


Django Wexler said...

This has always bothered me as well! There doesn't seem to be any real *reason* for it, either; I think a lot of authors just kind of pick a number out of a hat to represent "a long time" without really thinking about what it means.

I think also they underestimate the speed with which people adapt to new circumstances and assume things have always been that way. After three or four generations (a mere hundred years) in a pre-literate society, it might as well have been forever.

It may also be related to the problem where fantasy authors feel compelled to have complete histories of everything. (As opposed to real history, which gradually gets vague as records get sparser and sparser.) It always bugs me when they give a timeline that starts with "0 -- Creation of the Universe".

Unknown said...

This has always bothered me too. Especially the '10,000 years' thing-- 10,000 years ago, humans invented agriculture. I think people just really don't think about how long a period of time those numbers encompass. It's actually what made me disbelieve in Asimov's Foundation the second time around-- the Empire is stated to have lasted about 20,000 years, and not just across one world but across multiple planets and multiple solar systems. It is completely unbelievable. Of course, that's getting into the problems of a single homogenous culture across an entire planet and somewhat off-topic.

Gregory Lynn said...

I have had a similar gripe with long ago empires, not that they lasted for a long time, but that they are almost always regarded as being better than the contemporary.

I blame Tolkien.

The fact of the matter is, though, that while there are peaks and valleys, the overall trend line is upwards. People are always striving to make their lives better. Sometimes they succeed and in doing so make a lot of lives better. Then the next generation comes along and does the same thing and next thing you know a species that 2000 years ago was sacrificing goats so they'd have a good crop is instead cloning goats, putting space stations in, well, space and all but eradicating smallpox, polio, and infant mortality.

Things get better. The most educated people in the world two thousand years ago didn't know some of the things that were taught in my freshman biology class that form the foundation for whole branches of knowledge.

Also, in regard to empires, I'd give empires in space some slack as long as they don't pretend faster than light travel is possible.

Today an empire can fall apart in a matter of months. In the not too distant past, it was a few years. But in space, once you get bigger than a single solar system you're talking about news taking decades or more to travel from one place to another.

If Rome falls tomorrow and the most far flung bits of the empire don't hear about it for a thousand years, when is it that we can point and say the empire fell?

Anne Lyle said...

Heh, I'm planning a series with an empire in it - but it certainly won't be ridiculously ancient! Mind you, I read a lot about the Roman Empire in my 20s, which barely lasted half a millenium from Julius Caesar to the last emperor Romulus Augustulus. Sure, they counted the additional 700 years since the traditional founding date of the city, but it was a kingdom and then a republic during that period, not an actual empire.

I think you're right, that writers see huge time spans as giving the story epic scope - but if all they do with it is say "nothing happened", that's not terribly epic, is it? It's like saying "this planet is five times the size of Earth but it's 90% ocean so everyone stays on this one main continent". It's not epic unless it has an effect on the story.

Abhinav Jain said...

You know, I'd be very interested in what this "10,000 years of peaceful history" in WarCraft is. I used to play the game, both the various RTSs and the MMO, and I don't particularly recall any such lore. I could be mistaken of course, so I'd like to know more about it.

Also, isn't the entire argument 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?

In our turbulent history there has been no empire that has lasted more than a handful of centuries and so we consider it completely realistic that that is how it all should be in the fiction we read and write.

In fantasy, the societies are all stagnant in that their technological levels are fixed. They are all primarily set in a pseduo-era of our history where there were kings and queens, knights and barons, cavalry and spearmen, and we believed in monsters such as dragons and leviathans and the like.

@Unknown: what's believable about an interstellar empire in the first place?

@Rasputin: No offense, I find it completely ridiculous to believe that an interstellar empire is more believable than FTL. Why can't FTL be possible? Just because we don't have the technological know-how?

Anonymous said...

Over 10,000 years, or even 1,000, not even the plants and animals would be the same.

But don't blame Tolkien for the golden glow of long ago empires -- this has been a constant of human storytelling since prehistory.

An interstellar empire would likely take a long time to fall -- just as the Roman Empire did, but, like the Roman Empire, it wouldn't be static.

KJ said...

'Also, isn't the entire argument 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?

In our turbulent history there has been no empire that has lasted more than a handful of centuries and so we consider it completely realistic that that is how it all should be in the fiction we read and write.'

That was what I was going to point out. I started reading this blog post and I thought 'whoops' - guilty, guilty, guilty! The only thing is that the Empire I've created, though it's ruled for a long time, it's not stayed fix - it's acquired and lost regions and only the in last couple of centuries has it not changed 'much' in terms of physical geography. The politics have changed too - martial law to a more democratic approach. There are still uprisings and revolts etc. (Also more based on Persian and Asian history, so little European influence!)

I also have a pacifist nation but it keeps itself isolated and so is able to stay similar over time - I mean N. Korea is century behind the rest of the world, right? Also, what if some nations make conscious choices, like Bhutan, to put other stuff ahead of economics and power? They have a different trajectory/perspective of progress.

But I'm glad this post came up because it flags up some good questions. I basically figured that without technology in the world, will the world change AS rapidly? Maybe, maybe not.

Anonymous said...

Change is an essential part of the universe. Everything -- rocks, plants, animals, society changes -- probably at a constant rate -- you could probably find the rate in some scientific paper.
Plus, all societies have technology, and likely a fairly constant rate of technology. The nature of the technology changes -- Egyptians knew stuff about stacking blocks of stone that we have no idea of, aborigines have a sophisticated knowledge of their environment that we totally miss.
Humans, as a storytelling species, have this myth of permanence -- it's not true, but we can't help believing in it anyway.
So 10,000 year old empires are just part of the human mythology, along with the creation myths, part of the eternal conflict between the human rational but very imperfect mind and reality.

Paul Weimer said...

You can, as I said in that twitter conversation, have a long Empire. But continuously and at peace without interregnum?

It's not only bad worldbuilding--its *boring*

KJ said...

Granted, everything changes. But I think the issue is the *rate* of change. I guess, as a race, human change relatively rapidly compared with the rest of stuff on Earth.

And yes, stories are just another form of myth so if a sense of permanence features, then so be it. I don't have an issue with that essential notion, as long as characters are developing and changing.

raaron said...

While almost all cultures look back to an earlier "Golden Age" from which they have fallen, I think the culprit in the SF&F field was Isaac Asimov and his future history of the Foundation, as one of the other commenters mentioned. That one lasted for 20K years, across the entire GALAXY. Tolkien didn't help matters, but Asimov set the template.

Apparently even Asimov himself decided this was a bit too much to ask people to swallow. So he decided to "fix" things.

[spoilers ahead] When he returned to the Foundation universe late in life, he wove his Robot stories into the architecture of the Foundation. It turns out that his long-lived Galactic Empire had actually been managed from off-stage by telepathic robots who manipulated humans and pushed them toward peaceful co-existence while keeping them ignorant of their own history and tamping down any bursts of creativity or unrest. They maintained the Galactic Empire in near-stasis -- thus protecting the human race in accordance with the Three Laws of Robotics (plus a new one, the Zeroth Law).

OK, got that? Robots. The ultimate deus ex machina. That's how it happened.

Yes, it's awful. But it's awful in such a grand way that it ultimately becomes almost poignant in the hands of David Brin and others who could actually write and who were hired to finish the series after Asimov died.

Moral of the story: if you're going to have a cultural backstory as big as the galaxy, you'd better have something really audacious to explain how it happened.

Chris DeBoe said...

Sir John Bagot Glubb wrote a booklet called The Fate of Empires, in which he pointed out that most empires last roughly 250 years before falling. He does a certain amount of handwaving and shoehorning things to fit his thesis--for instance, he calls Rome 250 years as Republic and 250 as Empire--but he did come up with some interesting patterns. So...250-300 year empires, sure. 2000 years? I suppose someone, somewhere, has said "the Roman Empire lasted from 753BC to AD1453"...but not with universal peace and prosperity.

Sidrat said...

I've read the blog and my first thought was War Hammer 40K - the science fiction desktop gaming world.

Apparently the entire universe has been at war for millenia - That's a long time, with a lot of resources, casualties and lost/found/misunderstood technology.

It's totally unbelievable to think any centralised infrastructure will last that long under the heading of All out war - but it helps the battle settings, the novels are more realistic. There are many worlds where war does not happen and people go about their lives that doesn't warrant a footnote compared to the heroics and backstabbing that is otherwise occurring and that people want to read about.

I'm starting to believe it's about context - yes it's lazy to say a story is set in an Empire 40K years old and concentrate on a snapshot of a few pivotal months where everything changes for everyone immediately.