what if I press this button?"
©2003, Peggy Kurilla
to some of the books I've read, the Chinese fumigated houses for pest control by
591 BCE and the ancient Egyptians had effective contraceptives. Theodorus
the Samite invented a bubble level and locks with keys by 521 BCE. By 371
BCE, Plato is said to have invented a water clock with an alarm.
ancient Chinese had developed a double-acting piston bellows--it would not be
known in the West until the 16th century of the Common Era. They also not
only had cast iron, but a malleable form of it they used to construct many of
the pagodas that still stand today. Around the same time, the
Chinese also developed paper--though they apparently didn't think of using it
for writing for another 250 years or so, but rather used it for walls.
these dates and inventions demonstrate, humans are a curious and experimental
lot--we always want to know how things work and find ways to make the work
easier. Given that trait, and the abundance of knowledge about early
inventions, why do many fantasy writers seem to stick to a Medieval European
level of technology in their works? The only way to have a different
technological level in stories, it seems, is to write modern fantasy or science
fantasy. Any other fantasy, no matter how different the world from our
own, seems stuck in the Middle Ages of Europe, at least so far as tallow candles
and pewter mugs are concerned.
do so many fantasy writers opt for this technological setting? Some
possibilities are that it's (perceived as) easier to write about a time that
many people know something about; it's (perceived as) the expected setting for
fantasy novels; it's what <insert favorite author here> used.
look at each of these reasons in turn. First, is it really easier to write
about a time that many people are familiar with? Probably not. The
more people who know about your time period, the greater the likelihood that
people will catch you in a simple mistake. One classic example comes from
the movies: many times, no matter what the time period, people will use
stirrups when they ride horses, despite the fact that stirrups weren't developed
until about 300 CE in China; they didn't migrate westward until about 200 years
later. Nonetheless, in GLADIATOR, the mounted Romans had stirrups.
This is the kind of simple assumption that can trip up a writer who chooses a
setting with which many people are familiar.
for the second, that a medieval setting is somehow "expected" in
fantasy; that very expectation may provide the reason for a writer to choose
another time period--and with another time period comes another technological
the weakest reason to adopt a setting, or technological level, or whatever is
because it's what someone else did. Breaking new ground is never easy, but
frequently it leads to fresher stories.
how do we, as writers, decide what kind of technology to use in our stories if
the setting doesn't automatically give it to us? There are two factors to
consider. One is your own worldbuilding; the other is reference material
that's available about our own human history.
you begin worldbuilding, question everything that your characters come into
contact with on a daily basis. How do they cook? Are they still
cooking over open fires, or have crude ovens been developed? How about
wood-burning stoves? Will this technology affect the outcome of your story
in any way? What other effects on daily life would that have?
thing you can do to truly make your world different is to give a historical
invention a new twist. What else could molded cast iron be used for
besides building? What other shapes than a pagoda might be cast?
What if cast iron was reserved for specific buildings--temples, perhaps, or
to our own history for ideas is the other possibility for choosing your
technology. The one potential drawback to this approach is that, in order
to find out what technologies were used when, a fairly large library may be
needed. On the other hand, there are a few good general references for
technology in general that can be used as a springboard for your research.
Two that I consulted in writing this article are THE TIMETABLES OF SCIENCE, by
Alexander Hellemans and Bryan Bunch (ISBN 0-671-73328-1) and ANCIENT INVENTIONS,
by Peter James and Nick Thorpe (ISBN 0-345-40102-6). These works give an
overview of science and technology from ancient times to the present.
TIMETABLES is arranged chronologically and INVENTIONS by topic. Once
you've found things in these books that work in your world, Inter-Library Loan
might obtain more specialized works to answer more detailed questions.
is more easily readable, and provides fascinating tidbits such as the Greeks
developed automata of various designs and purposes (pp. 134-139). Hmmm.
What if your medieval society had automata (early robots) to do some of the
manual labor for them? Or what if your society developed its own version
of the "Baghdad Battery" (pp. 148-150)? What might they have
powered with the energy the battery stored? Surely either of these
questions can lead to stories that will lead to fresh settings and technological
levels…and isn't that freshness that editors say they want?
TIMETABLES OF SCIENCE, by Alexander Hellemans and Bryan Bunch (ISBN
INVENTIONS, by Peter James and Nick Thorpe (ISBN 0-345-40102-6)