Sunday, January 11, 2015

Alternate Paths of Technological Advancement in Fantasy.

I came across an interesting idea, a suggestion that without stars human advancement would be nonexistent due to a lack of astral navigation, which for great swaths of history was our only means of navigation. Without astral navigation, there is no trade, and without trade there is no exchange of information, ideas and technology. And without this exchange, no advancement.

I fundamentally disagree with this. It's my reasoning that a lack of astral navigation would have stunted sea trade, particularly with regards to deep-water navigation in which ships were beyond the horizon from any land. It certainly would have greatly delayed the discovery of the Americas. But I also feel that it would have spurred alternate forms of navigation and transportation in established civilizations. The first magnetic compasses began to appear approximately 200 BC, but it wasn't until 1,200 years later that the Chinese began using them for overland navigation, and maritime navigation followed soon after. I am by no means a history buff, so I can't comment on why the Chinese had compasses for over a millennium before their use became widespread.

"But Scott, you're getting away from the point," you might say. To which I would posit the question: Would that gap still have existed if trade and navigation demanded an alternate form of advancement in order to further the goals of the early Chinese?

Let's pose another hypothetical. In a world without stars, all sea travel is eliminated. Gone. It doesn't exist. But all people are connected through borders, and traders will always find ways to cross those borders to make a profit. Without sea travel, over-land trade continues to be the dominant form of goods exchange throughout Europe, Africa, China, and India. The trade routes are hard, and incredibly dangerous, and it discourages trade. With no alternative on the horizon, leaders who desire these goods and ideas, and the tariffs that come with trade have only one option to increase traffic through their territory: Improve the conditions of overland merchants.

This begins a boom of creating and maintaining an infrastructure of roads, highways, canals, and perhaps even rail to support overland trade between the early seats of civilization. Traders naturally gravitate towards the safest, easiest routes, and so leaders strive to have the most well maintained and well-guarded roads in order to stimulate trade. Imagine if Baghdad and Beijing had been connected by a single, safe, well-maintained trade road. Or if the Roman road network had eventually extended all the way to India. Better still, what if necessity had produced the steam locomotive in 1500 instead of 1800 to replace the Age of Sail with the Age of Rail where a train could take you, as well as several tons of trade goods from Beijing to France, or Italy?

It's an interesting thread of ideas to follow when building a world for your fantasy novel. The level of technology, as well as the cause for its advent based on eccentricities of the world and the necessity of its service can go a long way in making a fictional universe believable.

Lastly, just for fun, I'll leave off with an example of an existing universe, in which (to my knowledge) no maritime navigation exists at all: The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

In Mistborn, the defining features of the world are a desolate, ash-swept badlands broken up into several Dominances, and Ash Mounts (semi-active volcanoes) that pump great clouds of debris into the air in order to dull the power of a too-hot sun that might otherwise scour the planet of all life.

The nobles in Mistborn are allowed to engage in trade with each other for textiles, building material, weapons, and metals. These goods are transported over land, often by road, but more likely by a highly developed system of canals that crosses the entire domain of the Lord Ruler. Without the aid of a coastline to ease the burden of carrying vast quantities of goods, and with travel by road made impractical by constant drifts of ash, the people of this world instead developed canal technology, and began to ferry goods and people up and down them on great barges. And presumably, they did all of this without the aid of astral navigation, because ash mounts to block the heat of the sun would almost certainly also block the comparatively diminutive light from any stars in the sky. A lack of astral navigation and sea travel instead drove the civilization to find alternative ways to transport goods over great distances.

As a final point, and a lesson in world building, Brandon Sanderson includes another method of transportation infrastructure that is only useful as a result of Allomancy, the Mistborn version of magic. Some Allomancers are able to push metal objects away from them, or if the metal is anchored, push themselves away from it. Between the major cities in Mistborn are a system of spikes driven into the ground at regular intervals, which allow these Allomancers the fastest travel possible within the context of the story. In this case, the system of magic within the story drove the development of the Spikeways, and offered the Allomancers a distinct advantage in the world of Mistborn.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully it gave you something to think about as you're reading your next Fantasy novel. Feel free to chime in with other examples of worldbuilding driving alternative technological advancement in fiction.