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Society not advancing

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Yora, Dec 4, 2019.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Lots of guides on worldbuilding have the item that good fantasy have to avoid being stuck at medieval development levels through different time periods.

    And I am always wondering: Why?

    Not saying outright that this is wrong, but what is the reasoning behind this very common advice? I've never been able to find out what problem this is supposed to adress.
  2. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    YoraYora Lord of the Rings is good fantasy. Lord of the Rings is stuck at (early) medieval development levels. Therefore, the advice is wrong.

    I believe the reason "why" for the advice is (if you are) attempting to create a world that feels more "natural" - as opposed to deliberately-mythological feel of Lord of the Rings - because real world was indeed not stuck at medieval development levels. But even that is actually wrong, when you look outside Europe - Japan didn't advance one whit from medieval level until Europeans came, China also stalled out eventually, so did Arab world, India, Africa and... everything except Europe and Ottoman Empire, basically. And even Ottoman Empire was lagging behind Europe by 16th century.
    Malik and WooHooMan like this.
  3. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    I agree that it would be better to explain why technological advancement has slowed down rather than try to use Europe as a model for the whole world or force in advancement in technology that does not serve the story.

    I know I have made thought experiments with a world where technological knowledge is segmented and separated from each other by a powerful series of guilds.
  4. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    Indeed, but you don't even need guilds. Chinese failed to discover fine-grain gunpowder required for cannon and firearms despite using rocketry (so large-grain gunpowder) for very long time. Japanese only got gunpowder weapons when Europeans came, and kept using these first models until the next contact with Europeans. And so on.

    And if you have magic, that is convenient gremlin right there. And of course, you can use actual gremlins...
    Gurkhal likes this.
  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I would also look at time frames. For a lot of the world, for much of the last few thousand years, the technology and society prevalent at the end of a human life was pretty much that which was around at the start. It is only in the that last few [20, 50 200?] years and often only in the "West" that things have changed greatly.
    The old adage "If it ain't broke don't fix it" cames to mind...
    I'm guessing that most stories get written at or around the point when the "it" breaks...
    One of these stall that I like was and American lead weapons amnesty in Afghanistan in the 2000s when rifles [Martini Henry?] taken off the British in the 1870s were being handed in. Much patched up but still very effective weapons...
    Yora likes this.
  6. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    The Bronze Age lasted around 2,500 B.C. to 1,200 A.D., though the precise time span seems to vary, with some sources putting it as early as 3,000 B.C.

    That's a good 1,300-1,800 years, so I don't find a thousand year long era to be a stretch.

    I don't think the problem is that the society never leaves the Medieval era, just that thousands of years past and nothing changed at all. Even in the Middle Ages, there were still advancements and changes in technology, culture and language. The Middle Ages are often divided between Early, High and Late.

    Now, nations shouldn't exist for thousands of years, at least without any change occurring, but it's fine to have the same ethnic group living in the same area for millennia as different kingdoms rise and fall.
  7. MrNybble

    MrNybble Sage

    Depends on lots of factors. Does the writer want to start from a basic point and build up from there? Easier to keep interest if things progress instead of downgrading a society. Just happens medieval times is the lowest point people can relate to. Natural disasters could keep knocking back the society. If our own sun sent more solar flares toward earth, we would never have time to enjoy things based on electricity before they fried among other fun things. Religious beliefs can influence progression greatly. Losing knowledge or technology can keep things still or regress them. Some areas in the world can be isolated giving rise to differences that could span thousands of years. We are still finding lost tribes of people on earth that haven't discovered how to use metals or agriculture.

    If writers feel like they must explain why their world is stuck at a certain level for hundreds is not thousands of years, they have many reasons to pick from.
  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

    Perhaps one important mistake is to equate change with progress. Having the same nations, the same institutions, and the same customs staying in place for thousands of years really is not very realistic. Things do change over time, but those changes are not automatically progress. But the rapid pace of technological progress we are used to really is an extraordinary phase of the last two centuries. When you look at 10.000 years or agriculture and permanent settlements, just looking at the most recent 2% isn't good evidence. I also notice it frequently in sci-fi, where technological and social trends of the 20th century are extrapolated to continue forever.
    I really don't see how humanity in 1000 years will colonize hundreds of planets with trillions of people, when large parts of Europe already have shrinking populations. It's entirely possible that electronics and computer will be fully matured technologies within another century and people run out of ideas how to take it into new directions. We still generate a huge amount of our power with coal plants that aren't meaningfully different from matured steam engines. And while current developments in fusion power get their heat from quantum physics instead of burning coal, that heat is still going to be used to power a steam engine.

    But regardless of how realistic static worlds are, in what situations does that actually matter? I can't think of many fantasy worlds that include time travel. How would readers even know how things were hundreds or thousands of years ago? It seems a bit like a nonissue to me.
    Aldarion likes this.
  9. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    something to take into account:

    humanity, modern and otherwise, has been around and sapient for...several hundred thousand years. During the overwhelming majority of that time, the social model was hunter-gather tribes - take a character from one such tribe 200,000 years ago, move him to a point 100,000 years past that, allow for a bit of evolution...and the societal changes are cosmetic at best. 100,000 years with no change to speak of - 20 times the length of recorded history, and on the order of 10 times longer than the dawn of agriculture.

    Now, lets bump things into the semi-civilized span. Farms. Metalworking. Fabric. Domestication of horses, cattle. Communities into the thousands or tens of thousands, with structures built of brick or stone. Kings of one stripe or another turning up in pretty much every culture. These societies ranged from barely a notch above the stone age to sophisticated...in some ways. Again, though, there is a fair bit of interchangeability: take somebody from early Greece, move them forward in time by a thousand years, allow for changes to the language and religion, and much of what that person sees and experiences will be familiar.

    Collectively, these societies never made the leap to 'technological civilizations.' Some, like the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, had artisans and scholars who devised brilliantly clever mechanisms - but these were essentially 'toys for the elite.' Reason being these cultures relied on 'people power' - slavery and variants thereof - to function. The elites measured their wealth in part by the amount of people they controlled. Advanced technology threatened that control.

    (When you look into the history, the wars, the egos, the persecutions, and the rest, it becomes apparent that our scientific technological society came about almost as a fluke or freak accident - it required a rather impressive number of mathematical and technological developments to occur in a specific order.)

    On my primary world, the principle nation is making a painful, chaotic transition from 'Iron Age' for want of a better term to 'semi-technological.' The drive for this has two main provinces: one where knowledge is held in esteem, whose academia possesses a system of logic capable of testing at least some knowledge; and the other province, once a bit isolated, noted for its capable and innovative artisans. At the time of my primary tales, they'd collectively made it to hot air balloons, blasting powder, and bicycles, and were just starting to experiment with railways and electricity. These developments happened out of political desperation with the fate of the nation at stake, but were bitterly opposed every step of the way.
    Gurkhal likes this.
  10. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

    This I disagree with. It suggests a massive conspiracy between the elite to stamp out all technology. Which feels unrealistic. It also ignores simple economics and greed. Slaves, like other resources cost money. Both to buy but also to clothe and feed. If you say to a landowner "I have a machine which makes your slaves 10% more efficient" he'll be interested. If it increases his profit or decreases his costs then he'll use that technology. He'll probably even do so even if he's part of the big conspiracy which agreed not to do so (he'll just do it secretly).

    So while a group of people might feel threatened by technology, most individuals will still want the benefits of the technology.

    It is true of course that if slaves are your main workforce then you will have less incentive to research technological solutions.

    A good book about societies advancing for me was Sapiens by Harari. It investigates precisely this idea about how we ended up here as a species and how we advance. Just ignore the last couple of chapters which were a bit "preachy" in my opinion.
  11. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I've seen historians claim that slave manufactured cotton in the United State was becoming unprofitable well before the 1860. It was only because of new machines that allowed the slaves to get more work done in a day that kept the plantations in business.
  12. Malik

    Malik Auror

    The primary reason to not have a stagnant society is that it's usually such a cop-out. Most authors, especially beginning authors but the big kids do it too, don't give a plausible explanation as to why it's stagnant, much less as to why it's stagnant at a particular point in time and has been for X millennia.

    The world where my current series is set is a moon orbiting a gas giant. The tidal forces trigger cataclysmic earthquakes. Every thousand years or so, vast swaths of the world get wiped out, so they're constantly rebuilding. They get about as far as the early Viking Age--Germanic tribal law, early Shogunate-era feudalism, an artisan class, simple shear steel--and by the time they get it worked out and functioning well, the next Big One comes along and they're starting over again with wooden longhouses in the forests and stories of the Good Old Days, which become tales of the ancients. They have a thousand years, tops. That's as far as they can get.

    The tidal forces causing these earthquakes also form jagged tangles of sheer mountains that are impossible to cross with a large army, so they have no massive wars of conquest or exploration, and also almost no sharing of innovation.

    The oceans are uncrossable because the tides are massive, and the canyons and mountain peaks formed by the earthquakes, coupled with the huge tides, mean the waves are Nazare-sized on a calm day. So, no global trading economy, no seagoing exploration. Boats go up and down a couple of big rivers.

    Villages are rebuilt upon the ruins of the last, layer after layer after layer. Population centers crop up around castles and fortresses because the world is made of monsters. Because of this, a rough form of privatized rule with interlocking fiefdoms works well enough. There's no reason to develop anything more. They're all stuck in one corner of the continent.

    Point being, the cause of the stagnation is fundamental to the entire world. It affects literally everything.

    The advice not to do have a stagnant fantasy world should really read "Don't do it unless you make it make sense."
    James Wilson and Gurkhal like this.
  13. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    To be fair, lot of fantasy uses magic, and magic can indeed stagnate technological development. I would explain the concept, but it would be better (though not quicker) to read the Road Not Taken by Harry Turtledove.
  14. Yora

    Yora Maester

    When I started working on my setting, one of my first goals was to create a world that reflects how people historically had no perception of society advancing. Look at medieval and renaissance paintings of bible scenes, and the landscapes, buildings, and clothing look exactly the same way as they do in paintings about scenes that happened in France in the 13th or Italy in the 16th century. Maybe you could hypothesize that artist were trying to remove any sense of distance between viewers and the depicted scenes out of religious reasons, but I find it much more likely that they didn't know any better.

    Unless you have a story set explicitly in a Renaissance or Industrialization period, I think characters should think of their world as culturally static and unchanging.

    I did deliberate planning to create a world in which this is not just something that people believe, but is actually true oven even longer time spans than it was historically. But I also feel like I really don't have to explain anything. The circumstances that impede progress also wipe away old monuments and make history keeping almost impossible. What historic accounts do exist go back only 500 years and anything that is remembered from earlier are legends from the age of myth with no chronological or geographic order. I don't see any circumstances in which characters could ever get information of something that was a thousand years ago. Creating an ancient history in which society was different just so the setting does "not have medieval stasis" would be completely pointless.
  15. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    My principle sources were 'the ancient engineers' by DeCamp which is a sort of history of technological development, an 'Mathematics for the Millions' by Hogben which is a fifty year old math textbook with abundant 'math history.' 'massive conspiracy to stamp out technology' is close, but not quite correct. More of a 'effort to stamp out innovation that threatens the elites wealth and power.'

    One of the accounts in DeCamp's book was from the late Roman period. The elites of the the time wished to build a aqueduct/canal system, but lacked the raw manpower (slaves) to do the job. So, an engineer ('Anonymous') approached these fine fellows with plans and models of what we would term 'heavy machinery' - earth moving equipment (using muscle instead of motors). The elites (and DeCamp, apparently) believed these devices would work and drastically reduce the number of slaves needed for the project. Then they said no, because that reduced the value of the slaves, and their overall wealth along with it.

    From Hogben's work was the example of what we call the 'Pythagorean Theory,' the discovery of which was erroneously attributed to the Greek philosopher of the same name. It was actually used in Egypt before that, for surveying after river floods - but was also a priestly secret.
  16. Riva

    Riva Minstrel

    I think that the question would be why is it advancing.
    As others said, the european case was particular: there were many factors that coadiuvated the evolution of technology, and those are to be searched in the socio-political and economical context. In europe one of the major factors I think would be the emergence of a pragmatic view from the people, this can be traced back to Lutheranism and Calvinism, wich valued labour as a virtue. This utilitaristic way of thinking would permeate europe in the centuries to come and would eventually give rise to a sort of protocapitalism and the correlated middle class: rich men who didn't work the land but weren't noble nor part of the high clergy. This new class, who will eventually become the bourgoisie, put the model of the tripartite society in crisis. The aforementioned model of society was theoretically (although in pratice there were some technological advancements in the middle ages) stagnant as the third state produced food for themselves and the parassitary nobility and high clergy, who just consumed and didn't invest their richness to increase production.
    It was that mentality of the middle class that drove it to find new ways to be more productive and increase its wellbeing.
    With the advent of illuminism and the french revolution craft corporations were banished from many states in favour of free market. This laissez faire policy promoted a competitive environment that pushed even more the strive to augment production, and so we had the mechanical loom, steam engine, ecc...
    But all this could also have never happened.

    Maybe what I am trying to say is to take a close look at the way of thinking of your people, their forma mentis, and think if it would make sense to have more or less technological advancements.
    So neither stagnation or advancement is inherently good or bad world building, I think. But if you have something, it would be better to find what's it cause, it would make the world more believable (that goes for both stagnation and advancement, as also other things)

    As for the reason for why it's considered bad worldbuilding to have the same tech level for millennia, I'm not sure. Though someone else here said something about taking into consideration only recent (western) history in consideration. That to me sounds like a reasonable explanation to the bias you mentioned.

    (Hope I didn't get something historical wrong, I know there are some historians here who know better than me, sorry in advance :D)
  17. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    sounds a bit like my (still) underdeveloped 'World 2,' inspired in part by Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Short Sharp Shock' and from spending way too much time staring at colored relief maps of earth in my younger days. The principle continent is a narrow ribbon of land, usually on the order of a few dozen miles in width, occasionally widening to several times that (but rarely more than 100 miles) and sometimes being dropping to just a few thousand yards across - but literally circling the entire world on a rough NE/SW axis (about 25,000 miles) - though there are a few tidal straits. There are abundant capes, long peninsula's, barrier reefs and offshore islands, some extending for hundreds of miles, but past that, far as most folk are concerned, it's all monsters storms, ship killer shoals, and a few isles whose locations are mostly myth and guesswork. Like the primary world, this one was terraformed and populated by the 'ancient aliens.'

    The inhabitants are a range of races with radically different views of the world and their places in it. A 'semi-sacred' road of sorts (theoretically) runs the Strands length, connecting these settlements (and 'holy sites' created by the aliens), and pilgrims and merchants are common enough upon it, but much of the time, the rule is 'keep moving.' Storms, strange plagues, and monstrous attacks cripple or destroy many of the settlements. Few of these communities top 10,000 citizens, those with 100,000 can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

    Much of the Western Strand is under the patchwork sway of the 'Dimmurian League,' a often corrupt collection of continually feuding fiefs and city-states, cooperating mostly on a common currency, upkeep of the road, and mutual defense (with abundant laxness and cheating on all three counts.) Desperation being the mother of innovation, some places became 'shining cities on a hill' - with (very roughly) 17th-18th century technology, but still imperiled all the same - there's always the next tsunami, marauding aquatic abomination, or 'pirate' fleet sent by this or that jealous neighbor. The advancement is local and under continual threat, rather than general, though some goodies - solar forges and spyglasses and clockwork engines are in common circulation.

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