Limyaael (limyaael) wrote,

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Keeping static worlds plausible

The last of this particular set of rants that’s taken me…oh…only two months to write?

And another where I don’t particularly like the conceit I’m writing about. I favor worlds that move on, even if not quickly. But I did promise that I would give some consideration to it.

1) Realize that it’s next to impossible to write about a completely static world. After all, if nothing changed in your world, no action could happen there. No one could eat, walk, breathe, sleep, dream, dance, or tell awkward-but-really-beautiful young women how beautiful they were. And there would be no natural change, either, no flow of time, alteration of seasons, or rising and setting of the sun. Nonhuman animals wouldn’t be able to migrate or hunt, give birth or die. I suppose it might be possible to write about a world like this, but I see no alternative to a vignette or a series of vignettes, all portraying a frozen group of beings. Or things, really, because if nothing has ever changed, would life have arisen?

Of course, most authors writing about “worlds without time” don’t mean this; they mean a society that doesn’t change, or a group of people who never grow up, a la Peter Pan. That’s still not a world, though, but only the human aspects of a world. Know what you’re getting into when you enter an “unchanging world.” What has stopped? What continues? Is this mysterious halt in the flow of time preventing the supercontinents from breaking up? Does rain never stop falling? Did the magic or other force that froze the group of children at a certain age care about freezing all the bluebirds at that age, too? Those are important questions, I think, because they can help you derive cleaner, more self-consistent metaphysics for your world. Even if magic has to remain absolutely mysterious, and no one really knows how or why the Great Wizard Kasa’numbnuts prevented everyone from aging, it’s to your advantage to know how your characters will react to the sight of animals aging and dying, or if there’s no age and death even for them.

2) Don’t invest the whole responsibility for keeping a society static in one institution. Among the many, many things that bother me about fantasies based sloppily on medieval Europe are the Church-shaped holes that many of them have. Instead, they have a weakened church, or many small ones with schisms between them, or no centralized religion at all. This bothers me because a lot of medieval European political history centers on the particular relationships monarchs had with the Church, or the things the Church did to try and preserve its temporal as well as spiritual power. Rip those monarchs and countries up and drop them into another world with that anchor gone, and they don’t make much sense. In particular, the apparent resolve never to alter one’s manner of living or dig into scientific discovery, while magic isn’t widespread, doesn’t make much sense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Church alone will keep a society static. Yes, arguably the Church’s hegemony in medieval Europe slowed down things that would otherwise have happened much earlier (political independence of monarchs, cascading scientific discoveries about the nature of the solar system, the Reformation, the Renaissance, acceptance of “vulgate” languages as being just as good as Latin). On the other hand, the Church gave a huge push to the Renaissance, especially because so many of the great artworks were religious in nature, and if not for the copying that monks did, many older Greek and Roman manuscripts would have been lost. And the Reformation proved—as if this were ever in any doubt—that small religions fighting for power can be just as cruel as a great religion fighting to keep power. And a country that was fiercely Catholic and stayed loyal to the Church (Spain) still created changes when it finally coalesced as a nation, not least helping to bring about the sudden accidental knowledge of two huge continents in the other hemisphere.

So, if you want to keep a society’s religion or class structure from changing too fast, or provide an excuse for three thousand years without any substantial development of either technology or magic—which is much longer than the actual medieval period in Europe, regardless of how one counts—then your best bet is a linked series of institutions, which depend on each other, much as the monarchies worked with the Catholic Church as well as against it. They need to have a stake in keeping things the same, at least if you portray them as actively working against change (see points 4 and 5). They need common interests, goals, or methods. They need a reason to be in the power in the first place, and they need a reason to be worshipped, adored, feared, respected, and tolerated; it can’t just be the old fantasy stand-by of, “Oh, everybody else is too stupid and oppressed to do anything until the hero arises.” Think about each institution as an intricate cog in a great machine, not one as the center of a spiderweb that everyone else is just dying to break free from.

3) Shed twentieth-century and twenty-first-century notions of how fast things should go. One thing that often seems to happen in fantasies is a notion of static worlds—“Nothing changes ever”—competing with a notion of rapid and sudden changes as the only ones that matter —“Everything changes overnight.” The first is bothersome, but the second is scarcely less so. I think it comes from authors once again applying the notions of modern Earth to their created worlds. Your world is not “backward” simply because they’ve relied on steam power for a few centuries instead of moving on to oil.

I once read a claim that someone alive in 1909 lived more like someone alive in 909 than someone alive in 1970. I don’t know how true that is, but for a fantasy world, it applies a sobering message. No, your world is not full of dumb people just because they haven’t invented the computer yet. No, your world does not need space travel in order to prove itself “advanced.” No, there’s no way for someone to be playing with pebbles one day and have a functioning car the next, unless someone who’s the product of a history in which a great deal more invention has been done comes and gives it to him.

The history of technology needs a good, long, hard look when you start trying to plan out worlds in which you want technological revolutions to happen. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of these; I’ve seen many more where the hero turns out to be the only genius in the world capable of “inventing” an airship just when he needs one to get away from the bad guys. But I would welcome more tales of worlds undergoing a Renaissance or an Industrial Revolution (or, for that matter, a world where they finally tame wild magic, and that causes changes in living). And I would welcome more tales of worlds where that is a communal effort, and where one discovery depends on another, so that of course one person can go further in a lifetime than another; he’s using knowledge mined and verified by other people who have already done that work for him.

So don’t leapfrog over all the steps in between. Don’t insist that your hero who’s from twenty-first-century England, or your heroine who just happens to have read a lot of books, is capable of lighting up every street in your world’s largest city. How much does your hero/heroine actually know about electricity, or gas, for that matter? Authors like this seem to presume the knowledge is already there. It is, in our world. It might have no reason to be, in a fantasy world.

4) Watching change/rebellion/revolution carefully is not always evil. So someone is in power, and that someone is holding back change. He or she wants to stay in power, doesn’t want people who are beneath him or her getting ideas about their station, and is inherently suspicious of ideas or inventions or people that challenge that power, no matter how much they might benefit a great mass of those who are not rulers.

Yes? And?

I don’t think of this as evil. I think of this as pragmatic. Usually, when people get into power, they don’t amiably throw up their hands in the face of the next revolutionary who comes along, nor should they—and don’t tell me that that revolutionary has worked so hard to take power merely to yield it to someone who has a better idea, too, or you’ll make me laugh. The new idea or invention or person might benefit a great number of people. On the other hand, if it throws the power structure into bloody chaos, the bloody chaos might outweigh the benefits. And people getting “ideas above their station” could be those who genuinely have good ideas and are rising against a tyrant, or they might be dangerous crackpots launching a backlash against newer ideologies that challenge their silly preconceptions. And you know the even scarier thing? It might be impossible to judge which is which until this new revolution/shift in ideas is historical. But the leader/ruler/person who’s in power and responsible for keeping things running has to judge now.

If you create a static world for the sole purpose of disrupting it by introducing a rebellious hero who brings about massive changes, I say follow the changes to their logical ends. What unintended consequences and side effects do they have? What good lives and ideas and freedoms do they cost as well as bad lives and ideas and freedoms? What prices get paid and then rationalized away under the local equivalent of “Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs?”

And that’s not even saying what happens when the hero becomes the ruler. Will he want to keep his rule in place? I’d say he would. Then does he become automatically evil for not allowing the free play of rebellion and revolution to happen? No, you say? Why not? That was the crime the previous ruler was accused of.

Please, enough of this “there are good people and evil people in the world, and it is so easy to tell which is which.” I’m against change being considered as an ultimate evil, too, because then you get tiresome fantasies where the only possible good motivation is getting the “rightful” monarch back on the throne, even if he’s been raised among peasants and knows nothing about ruling, and restoring the unbroken line of the right people fucking the right people. But a ruler who attempts to retain power and halt or moderate change is not always being an idiot.

5) Inertia is a mighty force all on its own. A lot of the time, people who work against change in a fantasy world are portrayed as actively working against it. They all know what will happen if the rightful king comes back, so they make sure to take the rightful king into the forest as a baby and leave him to be eaten by wolves. (Why they never stab the rightful king through the heart, a more permanent solution that prevents friendly wolves and shepherds happening along at the right moment, is beyond me). Then, when they know the rightful king has come back, they launch Nazgûl dark lieutenants at him, instead of hoping that he’ll trip over a rock in the dark and break his neck. Anyone who proposes that women be treated equally to men is in for a lot of philosophical debate. Anyone who frees slaves likewise gets a long economics debate, or a confrontation with slaveholders who are Evil™. Anyone who leaves home can never do it for an ordinary reason, but it must be because they are the secret heir to something-or-other or they are being abused, and the family who might be happy to see her go instead tries forcefully to prevent her from leaving, just in case she tells anyone about the abuse.

But, see, that ignores the fact that one very powerful force in social interaction comes from indifference, apathy, that a lot of people are very happy to let things just run along as they have been from day to day without doing anything to change them. When someone does come along and try to change them, people resist not out of a sense of specific, outraged principle or because they hate the person trying to change things, but because it’s hard to change. It’s simpler to go on treating people the way you’ve always treated them, or to make noises about not supporting slavery or sexism but go on ignoring them, and kind of resenting those noisy abolitionists/feminists who are making so much noise when you’re trying to pay your taxes. It’s much easier to make tearful apologies to someone you’ve abused and then resort back to abusive behavior than to heal or to have no other purpose in life than making the abused person’s life miserable.

If you want a plausible, slowly changing world, take on inertia. I always wanted to see what would happen if a hero made someone tearfully promise to mend his ways, then came back six months later to see him still owning slaves or abusing his daughter or abusing his wife, because, after all, it is hard to change. And if you want people to be slow to help someone who goes around proclaiming that she’s really the lost Princess Krystallynne and rightful monarch of the Five Kingdoms, you don’t have to make them all personally hate her; you can just have them shrug their shoulders and say, “Too much work.”

Poll up in a short time.
Tags: fantasy rants: autumn 2005, world-building: history, world-building: society

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