Some technologies have become so ubiquitous that we hardly think about them and their implications, and yet they have fundamentally altered the ways in which we interact with the world and our perceptions of it. The velocity at which people, goods, and information can now travel is a prime example of this, and an awareness of just how profoundly the ability to move people, goods, and information around the world easily and rapidly has transformed our ways of thinking not only helps to contextualize and better understand ourselves, but also should have a profound impact on how we design cultures and civilizations in our stories.
We all grew up hearing how it’s a small world, and in some ways that’s true. In a universe with a cosmic light horizon forty seven billion light years away, our orb hardly registers as a speck of dust in a mind-numbingly vast and ancient cosmos. I can get in my car and drive straight across the country in just a couple of days, and I will get to my destination quickly, with readily available food, shelter, fuel, and other resources readily available in familiar forms all along the way. I can get in an airplane and fly anywhere in the world with a minimum of effort and time expended. Even more remarkably, I can take out my phone and conduct a live video conference with people in a dozen different countries, and we’ll hardly notice a delay.
Go back just two hundred years, though, and the world appears a much, much larger place. To get to the nearest town, I might have to walk thirty miles, or ride my horse if I’m lucky – it wouldn’t save me much time, but I could carry more and go more easily. Maybe there’s a railroad I could take, but there weren’t many of those in 1821, and they would have been a local phenomenon – the transcontinental railroad wasn’t finished until 1869. To get across the Atlantic would have taken weeks, maybe months, aboard a frail ship on a treacherous oceanic passage subject to the whims of storms, tides, currents, and inconsistent maps. If I wanted to have that conference with people in different countries, we would either all have to meet in person, or conduct the exchange via letters that take months to get from place to place, when they get there at all.
Even further back, and the world becomes even larger. Archeological, paleontological, and genetic evidence suggests that many people in human history grew up, lived, and died within a few hours walking of where their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents did the same. Rome was remarkable in its time for something that we can hardly imagine being otherwise today: having roads that you could travel without worrying about being set upon by bandits, thieves, and cutthroats along your journey, finding that the road just didn’t exist anymore, or was of so poor quality that you couldn’t traverse it, or finding that no road existed at all. Genghis Khan’s empire, in the brief span that it lasted before fragmenting, was similarly famous, because no ruffian cared to play with Mongolian justice. Messengers could ride across the length of the largest empire the world has ever known without fear and with great haste, but it barely lasted more than a generation.
This is interesting context for our modern world, and can help us appreciate just how remarkable things that we take for granted really are, but it is also an important consideration when thinking about world-building and plotting stories. Whether it’s a preindustrial civilization that would take months to send a letter from one city to another, or a nascent interstellar civilization still bound by lightspeed, the speed at which people, goods, and information can move from place to place will have a major impact on the cultures in your story, and even on the types of stories you want to tell. Making your world too small, especially for fantasy-type worlds, is an easy anachronism to fall into, because of how we think of our world today. Even doing the math for how long it would take a horse to travel from one place to another, or for a letter to be sent, doesn’t let you fully internalize the differences, the dangers, involved.
I made this mistake in both Blood Magic and Fo’Fonas. Since the latter is still in its draft stage, I have the opportunity to fix it, but I’m stuck knowing that the Blood Magic world must be some kind of tiny planet for the storytelling to make real, practical sense. Yes, at reasonable Earth sizes events could take place as I’ve written, but it’s terribly unlikely. A government like Merolate’s would almost certainly be too spread out to function smoothly, given the level of technology that I’ve established in the story. Some hand-waving and fudging on travel times and distances is inevitable, but avoiding this anachronism is about much more than the mathematics of distances.
It’s about an entire cultural attitude towards travel. Although possessed of a technology more or less consistent with the European Middle Ages, Merolate’s attitudes about distances and travel are more akin to a mid-nineteenth century American perspective. From the way people interact, exchange information, and move from place to place, you’d think there were railroads and telegraphs running in the background, despite the fact that the society has been clearly established as preindustrial. Although I realize that most readers won’t be bothered, and probably won’t even notice, it does bother me, and it’s something that I would change if I were starting it over from the beginning.
Yet, there is an argument to be made for leaning at least a little into this particular anachronism. As we talked about in our post on that subject, going too far into making your world, characters, and plots consistent with their relative time periods will make them almost impossible for your readers to relate to, even when they manage to understand them. This becomes an interesting dilemma between realism and relatability, which is something that every author must decide how to balance in so many more areas that just period appropriateness. It relates to plotting, to decision-making, to timing, to everything in the story, and it’s why there is a difference between fiction and nonfiction.
Next time you take a cross-country road trip, or catch a flight to a new city, or even just send a text message to your friend in another town (people do still send text messages, right? Or have I made myself into an anachronism?), I hope you remember: maybe in some ways it’s a not-so-small world, after all.