I use Grammarly’s grammar checker online because having poor grammar is worse than serving warm beer to your future ex-father-in-law.
In this post I’m not going to trash on Fantasy as a genre or Sword & Sorcery as a sub-genre of any form of media, but rather I’m going to rant on about something which drives me crazy within the genre.
Have you ever noticed that many fantasy novels talk about legendary events in their fictional kingdom/land which happened thousands of years before the story’s present, and yet in that present, civilization still has advanced only to a medieval state of technological development? They still have only wagons, single-blade plows, and water wheels, and books are often still hand-illuminated, not mass printed. This would make self-publishing a bitch, but that’s not my point.
I’m currently reading George R.R. Martin’s Path of the Dragon, a fun short story in 2009’s The Year’s Best Fantasy (edited by David G. Hartwell). The heroine is now looking up at the statue of a harpy killed 5000 years before. 5000 years before the story’s present they had the weapons to kill a harpy, but in the 5000 years since that great victory, their civilization has still not developed tools more advance than swords, shields, and bows, and they still sail everywhere.
In 5000 years we have gone from the first oil-burning lamps to receiving images back from the Cassini Probe circling Saturn. 5000 years ago the Sumerians were just starting to use cuneiform writing instead of pictographic signs, and now we can access the sum of all published human knowledge with a device that fits in our pocket.
Now, before the fantasists get their jodhpurs in a knot, I want to put forth a theory to explain technological advancements, and why some civilizations don’t have them, especially in fantasy literature. Before this, though, I will concede the point that most of our greatest advancements have come about from the desire to kill each other faster and more efficiently. Many of the gadgets we enjoy now were developed for one military or another. What I want to address here, though, are advancements outside of the war machines.
We are lazy. Mankind… humans… peeps. We are inherently lazy, and it is our insatiable need to save time and energy and keep from getting our hands dirty which has brought about many of the grassroots advancements. We have gone from a lever and a fulcrum and manpower to lift one item at a time, to forklifts that can lift tons at once, and then drive the load across to the shipping container which will be lifted by a crane as big as many castles. We have gone from a pulley and rope system to move objects on and off a ship’s deck, to the Canadarm moving payloads on the International Space Station.
We are lazy. Proof: Using steam power to produce mechanical motion goes back over 2000 years, and yet it wasn’t until the 1700s that steam engines became common. Why did we wait 1700 years to make use of steam as something more than entertainment? Well, steam power as we know it now, is a great labour-saving form of power and in the late 19th century was even achieving 10,000 horse power. Steam wasn’t a big deal for 1700 years because there was already a cheap, common labour-saving source of power for most of that time… and it was slave labour. Take a look at civilizations who made use (and abuse) of slaves, and they were slow to try anything else with any seriousness. Once slavery became outlawed, devices began to pop up to save toil and sweat of the men and women who now had to be paid for their labour. As we all know, if an employer can find a way to get a job done with little or no expensive manpower, he will. Of course, some inventions caused a boom in the slave trade. The cotton gin is one such.
You’re asking what the hell any of this has to do with 5000 years of swords and bows and no advancement in a fantasy novel. Well, in some of those fantasy worlds, magic takes the place of (or supplements) slavery. Why invent a steam-powered battleship when a wizard can cast a spell and direct the winds? Why invent flying machines when dragons will do just fine? This sounds somewhat reasonable, doesn’t it?
Except that it’s not! In thirty years of reading fantasy, I have never read a single novel or short story where every man woman and child had enough magical ability that they didn’t need to lift anything heavy or carry anything on their backs or travel for miles by horseback or on foot. If everyone had magic, then I can understand why a society would stay at a medieval level of plow and broadsword for 5000 years. Maybe. But in almost every story I’ve read, magical ability is limited to the powerful few or the condemned few, and what that means is that if Johan down river has no cheap/easy access to magic, he’s going to look for easier and easier ways to move his goods up river to the market. He might start with a few good men on oars, then maybe a draft horse pulling from the shore. After a while he might think about a flat-bottomed boat with wheel of paddles on the back, doing the pushing and powered by men pulling on ropes or a draft horse walking on a turntable in the hull. Whatever he comes up with, as soon as his neighbour, Andre, sees the device, he’s going to try and do it one better. Then Johan sees Andre’s and makes modifications to improve on Andre’s already modified design. And so on and so on. The race is on and there is no end in sight…because Andre and Johan can’t afford slaves and they don’t have magic, and because they’re both lazy, greedy sons of bitches who need to feed their families and expand their businesses. From one mule to two. From two mules to six men. From six men to one horse and pulleys. From a horse to steam power. From a low-pressure, always exploding steam engine to a cast iron tank, greater pressure and more power. Then from two gears to three and then three to six, with sizes varying and then the torque multiplying tenfold. Like I said, no end in sight.
Some of you will argue that I’m ragging on fantasy novels and by their very definition as fantasy stories they can bend or break the usual rules. Of course they can. I hope they will. But for a reader
to suspend their disbelief and trust that magic exists in the story, the world still has to have certain conventions adhered to. If you go over the top with the fantastic creations, the story is lost within the imaginings. If you have talking dragons, horses with opposable thumbs, civilizations at the same level of social and technical development for 10,000 years, and everyone knowing everything instantaneously, the story about the half-deaf, half-elf, siamese twins in love with different girls, could get lost.
Wait! You say. There are numerous real civilizations/races/cultures who haven’t advanced! Yes there are. There are primitive cultures even now who only have the more-than-a-bone-knife tools they were given, having developed very little on their own. They hunt, they fish, they farm a little, and they are primitive. They haven’t walked themselves over the threshold and into the world of metal working and the printed word and agricultural needs to feed growing masses. Until we fucked with them, they were peoples of killing only for food, oral traditions, and healthy lifestyles. But when was the last time you read a true fantasy novel in which the world was a primitive one? Not just one part of it, but the entire world? If there are any such novels, they are few and far between. Most English-language fantasy novels fall out of the same European medieval mold, and they get it wrong.
That’s all I’m really trying to say. These writers are being lazy and not letting their imagined world evolve and advance as it should. Am I nitpicking? Of course. It’s what I do. Will I change how people create their fantasy worlds? Not bloody likely. I’ll incorporate some of it myself, but the masses will follow along the same, unenlightened path, because that’s what the publishers and readers expect.
But what do I know? I drive a bus for a living. 😉
That’s it, that’s all.
Ciao for now.
P.S. TESSERACTS SEVENTEEN is now available from Edge Publishing and it contains my absolutely marvellous short story, “Why Pete?”, which makes full use of technological advances as mankind tries to colonize the stars.
Excellent post, Tim! And I, too, find it hard to swallow the idea that things happened thousands of years ago and the society still hasn’t advanced. I feel the same about space operas in which some civilisation was massively advanced millions of years ago!