Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why I Hate Technologically-Static Fantasy

"Why I Hate Technologically-Static Fantasy"

© 2014


Jordan S. Bassior  

TV Tropes is a lovely site, in part because it has terms for almost everything one encounters in fiction.  One such term is "Medieval Stasis," which it defines as being

a situation in which, as far as the technological, cultural, and sociopolitical level are concerned, thousands of years pass as if they were minutes.

This describes much fantasy fiction.  Whatever technologies they had a couple thousand years ago, they have now:  this and no more.  Whatever cultures existed then, with whatever artistic, literary and musical developments, are pretty much what they have now, with perhaps the specific elements having changed in a non-progressive fashion (some being forgotten and new ones devised).  Whatever social and political systems existed then are what exist now, only the personnel having changed.

Such a situation is not characteristic of actual human history.  While it is true that technological change was very slow before the invention of agriculture and the consequent appearance of towns containing many thousands of people who could easily exchange ideas, once the first towns did appear (no more than around 10 thousand years ago) human technology began to advance quite rapidly on milllennial timescales (if that doesn't sound like much, consider that during the preceding Paleolithic, human tool kits barely changed from millennium to millenium -- more like what one encounters in Medieval Stasis fantasy).

The invention of writing speeded things up further, because now any major scientific developments could be recorded and made available to future generations as a base on which to build.  Writing appears around 6000 years ago, and since its invention there has been no millennium without significant scientific and technological progress.  Even a fairly stagnant culture such as that of Ancient Egypt progressed, both due to internal creativity and due to diffusion from other culture-centers (think the Hyksos invasion and the adoption of chariots, or the wars with the Hittites and the adoption of iron weapons), on millennial timescales.

The invention of alphabetic writing (and simplified ideographic systems such as the Chinese as usually applied in practice), which occurred around 3000 years ago, resulted in another acceleration of human progress.  Now, not merely priestly scribal specialists, scholarly aristocrats and merchant princes; but also gentries, merchants and the better sort of artisans, could make use of writing to record and transmit information to future generations.  Starting from around 2500 years ago, it is safe to say that technology, culture and society began to register signfiicant changes on a timescale of centuries rather than millennia.

This is often obscured by our perspective standing on the heights of a global industrial and information age civilization, looking down on the pre-industrial ages and seeing them all as "low tech."  For instance, one might accurately point out that people started using "swords" around 5000 years ago, and kept on using them all the way through the World Wars (Japanese officers carried katanas into battle as late as Okinawa), and that therefore nothing much changed in terms of personal weaponry until the invention of handguns a bit over 500 years ago.

That conclusion, of course, is wrong.  It ignores incremental and sometimes revolutionary improvements in technology, which over time can reach a point such that the earlier examples of that technology are far inferior to the later ones.

To take the example of the sword, the earliest swords -- forged over 6000 years ago -- were made of fairly weak bronze alloys which were not strong enough to enable multi-foot long blades:  any broadsword made of the early bronze alloys would have bent or broken at the first contact with armor or an opposing weapon, and after a few strokes have become a useless mass of twisted metal.  Thus, they were usually designed as "sickle swords" -- weapons with long hafts supporting relatively short sickle-like blades, reducing the stress experienced by the blade at impact and hence allowing it to survive through much of the battle.

Metallurgy advanced, even before iron smithing was developed.  The swords of later Bronze Age times were made of better alloys and by smiths who better grasped the capabilities of their materials.  These were recognizably similar to modern designs -- though the hafts were still longer and the blades shorter than any swords which we would design today.

When iron smithing was developed, around 3500 years ago,   it became possible to lengthen and sharpen the blade.  An iron sword could survive a whole battle with only minor damage if skillfully wielded (one reason, in addition to the expense of forging them, why swords were the weapon of military professionals was that amateurs would inevitably break them).  These longer and sharper swords became increasingly useful, and hence both tactically and culturally important.

Iron smithing is complex and there was progressive development in the art from early Classical through Modern times.  From the Celtic broadsword of around 2500 years ago to the Roman shortsword of around 2000 years ago to the Germanic broadsword of around 1500 years ago to the Medieval longsword of about 1000 years ago, to the Renaissance rapiers and  katanas of around 500 years ago, there was a steady technological improvement.  Swordsmithing probably reached its apex ~ AD 1500, but there has been incremental improvements even since then -- for instance, the average cavalry saber of AD 1900 was technologically superior to all but the finsest scimitars of the early Modern era.

I chose to focus on swords because they are both an iconic technology of fantasy (as in "sword and sorcery") and because they are the sort of technology which tends not to be lost in periods of social disruption such as barbarian invasions (quite the contrary:  weapons technology usually advances rapidly in times of general war!).  I could have picked any of a number of other technologies, both military and civilian, with which to make my point -- but I'm writing an essay here, not a textbook.

Swords, of course, while beautiful weapons, are not one of the basic human technologies.  The lives of most people in a society -- even of the urban dwellers, and even of the literate urban dwellers, would not be much affected by whether their warrior elites fought with swords, spears, axes, clubs, or their fists (though there are some in-obvious cultural effects:  for instance, the transition from bronze to iron weapons resulted in a transition from god-kingship based empires to urban republic based ones, because the cost of good weapons was now within the reach of the middle classes).

Instead, let's look at a really basic technology -- agriculture.  It was the transition from hunter-gatherer horticltural ways of life to agricultural ones which triggered civilization in general:  even primitive agriculture can support around 100 times as many people in most areas as can advanced hunting and gathering.  (This -- the "Agricultural Revolution" -- is a change so immense that even most fantasy writers sit up and take notice of it).  While some towns of a few hundred to few thousand inhabitants were possible in really favored areas (usually at rivermouths or lakefronts allowing multiple kinds of hunting, fishing and gathering), large towns of several thousand or more were impractical before the development of farming.  This started around 12,000 years ago, and by around 6000 years ago had reached the point of what we would consider small (though poorly-organized) cities in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent.  This is what we term the "Neolithic" to "Cuprolithic" period, because stone and other found-material tools were the basis of crafts technology, though by the end of this age they were being supplemented by copper for specialized crafts application.

Farming fundamentally changes the cultural game.  Hunter-gatherers live in fairly small numbers and with only limited social specialization:  every man has to know how to hunt and fight; every woman how to gather and practice crafts.  Limited numbers limit the size of the "social brain" which can consider problems.  Limited specialization limits technology because few can become real experts at anything.  Large projects are impossible:  one needs numbers and organization to build a Pyramid, or a Stonehenge.

With farming, population sizes can grow.  What's more, even though for economic reasons most people (90-99 percent, depending on the society) must farm as a full-time occupation, some people can instead study a craft specialty and make this occupation their primary source of income, trading their products to other people (including farmers and shopkeepers) for their (literal) daily bread.   Because they depend upon this specialty, they get very good at it.  What's more, they have an incentive to at least incrementally improve the practice of this craft.

The prices of specialization, unfortunately, are social inequality and anonymity.  Everyone in a hunter-gatherer community is roughly equal: at most, some families may be favored because of close kinship with a chief or shaman, though in small groups everyone is kin in any case.  As the village grows into the town or city, one is no longer "Jeff" nor even "Jeff the Potter," one becomes merely "a potter" or "a farmer," dealt with by ritual according to one's class and occupation rather than as a unique individual.  And if one's craft is more expensive, specialized and in demand, then one's status is higher -- the jeweler sneers at the potter, who sneers at the farmer.

Of course, the highest status occupations are those of priest and warrior.  The priest is important not only because he intercedes with the gods (even if they don't exist, this promotes social peace and harmony) but also because he normally has mastered some craft specializations of immense value, such as medicine or mathematics.  The warrior is important because he is much better at fighting and killing, a training which can be applied against foreign foes and dissident citizens alike.  The ordinary farmer may mumble cantrips or brawl with clubs or even hunt with spears, but farming is a full-time occupation most times of the year:  the farmer does not have time to master priestly or warlike skills, even if he is so inclined and there is no actual prohibition upon such studies.

Technological progress widens this divide.  The Neolithic warrior has only the advantage of skill over the Neolithic farmer (and in really primitive cultures is probably a farmer himself):  his weapons and armor, such as they are, are better by only a thin margin.  The Bronze Age warrior uses weapons which are functionally quite different from hunting weapons or farm implements, requiring the mastery of very different skills to use them, and his weapons and armor are expensive.

But the Bronze Age warrior also has a wider margin of superiority over the barbarian raider or rebellious villager:  his helmet, breastplate and shield can repel the arrows and spears of his foe, while his well-forged spear or sword can go right through their furs or leathers.  Due to the human desire for self-preservation, his mere appearance on the field, angry and hungry to kill, may put his foes to flight -- read the Iliad for a fairly-accurate depiction of such morale effects.

Hence, warrior elites appear beside priestly elites, and both become socially dominant.  They usually support each other in this dominance:  the temple sends forth warriors to enforce its demands for tribute to the gods; the temple consecrates a king to lead the warriors.  The threefold order known to medieval political science has appeared:  "those who work, those who fight and those who pray."  (For variety, compare the Eastern Indo-European Aryan concept, where there is a fourth fundamental class -- "those who trade.")

Generally speaking the specialized classes -- the priests, warriors, and elite merchants/artisans -- hold themselves above the mass of the people, who are farmers.  The exact balance of status varies from civilization to civilization, but usually two highest classes are the priests and warriors, in that order (often, priests and warriors come from the same families); and the merchants/artisans form a class between them and the farmers.

Organized by the priesthood and with this organization enforced by the warriors, the early civilizations develop irrigation and transportation systems which allow much greater crop yields per acre, and the transportation of the agricultural surpluses to the cities where they enable further urban growth.  One main functional difference, in fact, between a town and a city is that a mere town is usually able to subsist from its own surrounding farms, while a city requires a large agricultural hinterland, and must have the power or wealth to compel or purchase the surplus needed to survive, let alone grow.

The important invention which enables the growth of cities is writing, which enables larger-scale and more precise forms of social organization.  Writing, for instance, makes regular tax collection less disruptive, as specific taxation amounts or rates can be set, and enforced, upon citizen and subject alike.  It also makes it easier to organize large projects, such as the construction of irrigation networks or monuments.

We are now squarely in the historical realm emulated by most modern heroic fantasy -- a world of cities, farmers, wilderness, priests, warriors and kings.  On this most basic level -- the level of the peasant farmer and his relationship to the social elites -- human culture doesn't change all that much from around 4000 BC (the appearance of proto-writing)  to around AD 1750 (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution).

And this gets to the heart of why I hate medieval stasis fantasy.

Though it is usually glossed over by the more superficial fantasy writers, the fact is that this sort of  traditional agricultural civilization is built firmly on the foundation of a downtrodden peasantry.  What's worse, up to a certain limit (the point at which the agricultural workforce is so put-upon that it cannot grow, or even maintain its numbers), the civilization works better the more downtrodden the peasantry.  This is because the larger the taxes extracted from the peasants, the larger and more capable becomes the specialist classes who produce the goods and services which provide the civilization a competitive advantage over its rivals.

Now, there is a basic incompatibility here between economic and military needs.  Though the warrior elites provide officers for military organizations, they are not large enough to form complete armies, especially for the purposes of garrsion, engineering, and main battle duties.  The military must recruit for this purpose.  Since pre-industrial cities are unhealthy places save for the elites (until the 19th century AD, they were population sinks -- their death rates exceeded their birth rates, requiring constant attraction of new population from the countryside), this means that the (literal) rank and file of one's military must be recruited from the countryside.

But if one's peasants are to be enlisted in the army and trained to war, then this imposes a limit on how severely they can be oppressed, since past a point a militarily-competent peasantry will revolt.  There is a solution, a solution which provides a significant competitive advantage to any civilization which adopts it, and which consequently has been adopted by most pre-industrial civilizations.  It is a solution so horrible that it is one of the darkest stains in our history as a species.

That solution is slavery.

What one does is to degrade a mass of people -- they may be either war-captives, purchased foreigners or one's own economic failures -- below the status of peasantry, to the status of property.  They are almost always explicitly denied the right to wield weapons, or allowed to do so only in the service of elites.  They are used to perform the heaviest and most unpleasant agricultural or mining labor, often of a sort which causes rapid physical deterioration.  Some elite slaves may also be used for the less desirable sorts of crafts or scribal work -- there are even cases of slave-soldieries, though such often cease to be slaves save in name in a few generations.  And, of course, some slaves become favorites of members of the elites, and may enjoy a precarious comfort from such relationships (which often include routine availability for sexual degradation).  The Roman Empire is the (literally) classical example of a civilization based on a large slave underclass, and their dependence on slavery was one of the roots of their ruthlessness, since ruthlessness is necessary to manage a large workforce of slaves.

What a pre-industrial technological stasis means is that this horrible system, where most of the population is condemned to a dreary, short and unpleasant life as subsistence farmers -- and a large minority of them cease to be even human, in social terms -- is eternal.  One may defeat this or that Dark Lord who wants to make things even worse (perhaps by enslaving or slaughtering everybody), but not even the Good Guys are doing anything toward any long-term overall improvement in the surrounding society.  Indeed, to some extent the popularity of Dark Lords in this sort of story is to paper-over the essential hopelessness of the societies being presented -- because however bad things normally are, one can get behind fighting off the guy who wants to tear everything good down.

Real history can be pretty depressing.  There is a tendency for the same, stupid things to happen over and over again; a repetition of cruelty and oppression, fanaticism and witch-hunting, one disaster after another as civilizations rise and attempt to build something beautiful in the world, only to go down before barbarian invasion, climate change, or the exhaustion of local resources.

But there is one inspiring thing about our history.  No matter how bad things have sometimes gotten, there is an overall rise in civilization and technology, a path leading upward to the transcendence of this or that human liimitation, to the stars.

Absent this path, history -- and life -- are hopeless.

I prefer fantasy which does not block this path in the name of nostalgia.



  1. Indeed, I have read an observation about Paleolithic tools: that they do not vary from each other any more than beaver dams do. It might be an innate skill.

  2. I actually think that beaver dams are built intelligently -- though it's about the most brilliant thing beavers probably do. I used not to think so, but then I learned how smart prairie dogs are. No, they don't really build atomic-powered cities by the canals of a dying Earth, but they definitely have the potential to do so -- prairie dogs have a syntactical language. Prolly a simple one, but they are little creatures with tiny brains compared to ours, so it's surprising that they have one at all.

  3. Actually, that's not true about the downtrodden peasantry. A peasant yeoman who's healthy, skillful, and self-sufficient produces a lot more taxable produce than a half-naked, starving serf who lives like an animal. For example, comments by English people visiting France at certain low points in France's history.

    What's more, your healthy peasant works out a lot better as your peasant auxiliary fighter than your half-starved naked serf does. (The healthy yeoman peasant has time to go practice longbow, for instance.)

    Old Russia had a lot of showy showplaces paid for by the starving "souls," but they had no infrastructure to speak of, no military to speak of, and most of their nobles lived like other countries' peasants. The land went largely unused and wasted, compared to other countries.

    Treading down the serfs is just stupid, even in a subsistence society. Giving the farmers a good reason to work hard for themselves and their families always works better.

    1. Yes, but you're ignoring the issue of elite productivity . I know this is easy to ignore in the context of modern economics, because we don't think of the middle classes as "elites" (since in modern economies most of the population is "middle class") but in the context of a pre-industrial economy this is very difficult (it's on the order of hunter-gatherer towns -- you'll find some under ideal circumstances but it's rare). In a pre-industrial society, you NEED to have poor people (servants, slaves, subsistence farm workers, etc.) to support the middle classes -- including the agricultural middle class of the prosperous yeomanry. This is because you don't have machinery to do the grunt-work.

      The ancients and medievals were wrong in their assumption that technological progress could not obviate the NEED for poor laborers, but they were not wrong in their assumption that at their actual level of technology they couldn't avoid this need. What they missed was that signficant advance leading to vastly greater per capita productivity was possible. In other words, they didn't realize they could make an Industrial Revolution.

      Take a relatively enlightened pre-industrial society, such as 16th or 17th century England. Compare with a nastier one such as France of the same era. You will here complaints (or boasts) at the time that French culture was more brilliant than English, in terms of art, music, literature, fashion etc.

      And it was. The French were extracting a great agricultural surplus from their peasantry. They used this surplus to support a high culture around Paris and Versailles.

      What neither the French nor many of the English at the time realized was that in doing this the French were choking off their shot at rapid industrialization. That's why the English started to pull ahead of the French in the 18th century and did not relinquish their lead until the 20th, when the English were foolish enough to go for socialism (thus returning to attempts to extract large surpluses from their workers at exactly the moment when they could instead have tried to lead the Information Revolution (remember who built the Bletchley "Bombe?")

      Yes, there's definitely a military disadvantage to oppressing your peasantry too much. That's why England tended to kick ass against most Continental Powers -- especially starting in the 18th century when you got serious productivity multipliers helping their arms industry.

      The late Russian Empire existed in the context of a world in which the Industrial Revolution had already happened. By 1914 Russia was well on the way to mass industrialization and economic takeoff -- then World War One and Communism happened to blight its future.

    2. My point about static fantasy universes is that they lock their cultures into a situation where an aristocratic or bureaucratic boot, stamping on a peasant's face, forever, is actually a viable economic strategy. And tends to dominate most cultures, most of the time.

  4. Have you read the works of Max Gladstone or NK Jemisin? Both have written fantasy worlds in which magic is being used to fuel technological advances.