Assumptions: Culture and Technology
Along the same lines as my previous post about assumptions, but of a different kind:
Why is it that fantasy fiction is, with overwhelming frequency, set in a thinly-disguised version of Dark Ages, or possibly Renaissance, Western Europe? There are exceptions, of course, but this has become a kind of industry standard.
Even if there’s no sign of Christianity as such, basic Christian values as understood in the modern mainstream Western world (not the same values as understood in actual medieval Europe) are prevalent. Men have careers and literally wear the trousers; women stay home to mind the fourteen kids and cook the meals in long skirts, although they may have access to limited career options. Charity may be present, but shaming of single mothers or same-sex relationships or non-monogamy may also be present if acknowledged as possible at all. If you’re creating a world, rather than using a historical time period per se as your setting, then why swallow this whole instead of experimenting? I’m not suggesting anything as heavy-handed as having the men stay home with the kids and the women all have careers; it’s not a feasible idea, anyway, biologically. Why not make at least small changes in the social structure? It makes it genuinely your own world, instead of a generic medieval setting. Whatever aspects you want or need for your particular story, great, by all means keep them – but do it as a deliberate and conscious choice, not by default, and take a good look at the other aspects of the society that you might be able to play around with.
Literacy is low and questioning anything is discouraged. The technology level is generally primitive, too, even though that was actually a decline from that of the previous Roman world and was lower than that of the Islamic world in the same era; Minoan Crete, much earlier, had a form of indoor plumbing, and other ancient cultures had some surprisingly advanced knowledge of engineering and other subjects. It isn’t all that much of a stretch to have an agrarian-based culture that nonetheless has rather advanced systems for irrigation, for wind and water power, for construction and architecture. Europe experienced the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire, during which the Catholic Church discouraged the general population from learning to read or asking questions (and if you seriously believe this statement is wrong, then you need to go do some research not provided by the church itself), and most of the advanced learning was lost. Earlier, the burning of the Library of Alexandria removed from the world countless writings on math, science, philosophy, and other subjects, which almost certainly included knowledge that we would now consider highly advanced. Time in itself destroys books and scrolls, and we have only a tenuous link with the past, but enough to suggest that they knew more than we think.
For that matter, if you’re creating a world, why should you have to look backwards? Look ahead, or at least sideways. Maybe the world you’re writing about developed differently, but that doesn’t mean they have only basic technology. Ours has evolved along a particular line, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the only possible one. There’s inspiration to be found for this in some of the recent novel technology approaches: organic computers, for example.
One of the most fundamental reasons for writing speculative fiction is to speculate – question why things are the way they are and consider what they could be instead. Challenge the assumption that if you’re going to write fantasy set in another world, that world has to be historical Western European. It can be, of course, but if you’re going to create a world, then make it uniquely yours rather than a clone from a role-playing game!