November 2020: History as a Source Pt 3

In the first part of this series, we talked about why it was important to have a good understanding of history when drawing from historical sources for the purposes of worldbuilding. In the second part, we discussed the types of historical source material, their advantages and disadvantages, as well as the ways to ensure that the end result of the historical research process isn’t distorted by misconception or bias. Now, in this final part, it’s time at last to talk about the culmination of all of that research: of how to integrate historical research into a fictional setting.

At first glance, it might be tempting for a creator who’s already spent so much time and effort doing the research to simply transplant the whole thing into their setting and leave it at that. After all, if they’ve done that research right, then they should know a great deal about how their chosen society functioned during their chosen time period. They would know how people talked, how they acted, their attitudes, their clothing and their politics. In short, they would know all that might be needed to set an authentic – or at least plausible – story in that time and place. Surely, that’s good enough to be made into a part of a fictional setting right?

Well, yes, and no.

Using historical research directly by transplanting it into the setting of a narrative is perfectly fine – for writing historical fiction. If a story is actually based in the historical time and place which has been researched then there’s no reason not to use that research directly, after all, the world in which the story is set in and the world which originated that research is theoretically one and the same. However, when it comes to science-fiction or fantasy, directly lifting a historical time and place and putting it in an original setting is usually a mistake. Unless a whole setting is so heavily based on history that the entire world of the setting is more or less a direct translation of the world during a historical moment in time (take, for example, the setting of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan), then a creator who transplants a historical society into a fictional world may risk creating exactly the kind of lapse in believability that we often draw upon historical sources specifically to avoid.

Let me explain:

As I’ve often mentioned before, societies are interconnected. They trade ideas, people, goods, and technologies with each other constantly. The idea of a “hard” border – patrolled by customs agents and maintained by passport systems and fences – is in fact, a very recent development. Historically, borders were porous, people moved across them constantly, and the borderlands of one given empire or kingdom might far more closely resemble the borderlands on the “other side: than the core or capital regions. What this means is that not would your meticulously researched historically-based society be affected by the conditions around it, but that the lands around that meticulously researched historically-based society would be similarly influenced by the new transplant, which means that the culture and workings of a transplanted society would be modified away from that basis of “historical accuracy” by the surrounding factors of the world it’s set in.

Let me use a common example.

Take the Western Roman Empire at its imperial height, say the late 1st century AD. Any reasonable amount of research on the Roman economy of that time would indicate that it was heavily reliant on slave labour, and that Roman foreign policy was also built around accommodating that aspect of Roman society: enslaved people were used as domestic servants in the houses of the wealthy, but more importantly as field labourers in the great latifundiae – or plantations – which made up much of the Empire’s agricultural production. This meant that, for example, the wealthy slave owning classes would often push for military campaigns so they could take more slaves. It meant that many free Roman citizens were unable to find paying work because it was all done by enslaved labour. It meant that the empire’s food supplies could be controlled by a small number of very rich families. This system was kept in place because enslaved labour was cheaper than any alternative, such as hiring free workers, or investing in labour-saving machinery. In fact, it was often speculated that the first known steam engine – Heron of Alexandria’s Aeropile – was never developed beyond a curiosity because everything it could be seen as doing could be done cheaper by slaves.

So that’s Rome in the time of the early Principate as we know it, and those dynamics caused by the widespread presence of enslaved labour shaped almost all of the other aspects of Roman society.

Now let’s transplant that society into say, a fantasy world, one where magic is common, and effective.

Now enslaved labour may not be the easiest way to maintain a latifundia. Now maybe it’s easier to rely on small teams of trained mages to maintain crops. That means vast numbers of slaves are no longer needed, it means the mages, not the wealthy plantation owners, now have true control of the Empire’s agriculture. It means the wealthy members of the senate no longer have a reason to push for military expeditions to secure fresh sources of slaves. It means slavery itself may not even be economically viable any more, the same way it is no longer economically viable in our own societies. It means that free citizens now have the ability to become powerful figures in their own right if magic can be learned or inherited by those not already of the ruling class.

And those wouldn’t be the only changes that magic could bring: if a mage can throw around fireballs which explode over an area, then there’s no point to the traditional tight formations of the Roman legions. If it can quickly sculpt terrain, then it changes how Roman armies would build camps and how Roman cities would lay themselves out. If magic capable of expediting travel is commonplace, then Rome would not necessarily need the vast road network it was so famous for. If this fantasy Rome’s neighbours also have magic powerful enough to offset the advantages which the Roman way of organising, training, and fielding armies allowed it, then this version of Rome may no longer be able to support regular campaigns of conquest – it may not even be a military power at all.

The end result is that this version of Rome is no longer the Roman Empire which history is familiar with. It is no longer historically accurate. Its aesthetic trappings might be similar, as might its language or its system of government, but other things might be different: its class structure, its gender politics, its religions and its armies. These things might have been changed by the new conditions which this fictional version of Rome might have found itself in, and that’s okay. This version of Rome may not be faithful to history, but it is authentic to the setting which it has been placed in, and since this fictional Rome is a product of this fictional setting, rather than a product of the historical processes which produced our Roman Empire, that authenticity to its home setting is more important than complete fidelity to its historical source.

Of course, the other thing about a fictional setting is that it is fictional, and the factors which might alter the historically-inspired cultures which may be present within it are directly under the creator’s control. That means there’s no invisible hand forcing a creator to change this or keep that. It is ultimately within the creator’s power, and thus, within their responsibility to pick and choose the conditions which apply to their historically inspired societies, which means it is also within their power to determine the changes those conditions ultimately apply to those historically inspired societies. If a creator doesn’t want their fantasy Rome to be affected by magic, then it’s within their power to remove magic from the setting, or make it too rare or too finicky to be used practically. However, always remember that these changes will also affect all the other societies in that same setting.

Likewise, a creator can also attempt the opposite effect. Say they want to do a society based on Imperial Rome during the height of the Principate but you don’t want to deal with the ugly, cruel nature of mass slavery. Then perhaps they could add practical magic, or advanced industrial technology from another part of the setting to provide a reason for why this particular iteration of fantasy Rome uses something other than slaves to run its latifundiae. There are those who might complain that this makes that version of fantasy Rome “unrealistic” or “inaccurate”, but that’s the point when you have to ask yourself if feedback from people willing to accept practical magic or steam-powered automata, but not a Rome without slavery is really worth taking seriously.

Needless to say, any changes a creator makes to a historically-sourced society like that will also have knock-on effects elsewhere, and taken as a whole, those effects may push a fictional society far from its historical source. This is fine. The important thing is not to create a historically authentic reproduction of a historical setting (unless, of course, you’re writing historical fiction, in which case, you definitely should aim for historical authenticity), but an authentic society within the context of a fictional setting.

This, paradoxically, is why it’s so important to do the research about a historical inspiration in the first place, because what a creator essentially does in this process is take apart a historically inspired society, and replace its moving parts, turning it into something which might be very much the same, or something entirely different. To do that, a creator has to understand how those parts fit together, or else they’re just as likely to end up with a jumbled mess which will quickly set off alarm bells in the heads of anyone with at least a cursory awareness of how the original society was put together.

Worldbuilding a historically-inspired society which remains true to both the historical source material and the fictional world it’s set in is neither a quick, nor easy task. A creator who decides to begin such a process in the search of shortcuts is going to get far more than what they bargained for. However, with patience and effort and a great deal of reading and thinking, it’s possible to build a setting which is not only grounded in aspects of our own history, but assembled in a way which turns it into a world both wonderfully fantastical, and viscerally familiar.

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