Six impossible things

Changing infrastructure

Infrastructure is all that everyday stuff we take for granted, from roads and bridges to garbage collection and cell phones. It’s one of the things that allows societies to function smoothly, if they want to. It’s vitally important…and it’s also vastly boring. Consequently, writers tend not to pay a lot of attention to it.

If one is writing in the modern world, this isn’t so much of a problem. One can presume one’s readers will be familiar with the real-life infrastructure that exists, so one can pretty much ignore it unless or until one needs a convenient pothole to blow out a tire during a chase scene, or a critical call to be dropped in the middle.

If one is writing historical fiction – even fairly near-past, like twenty years ago – one needs to pay a lot more attention. A lot more, because infrastructure is something we almost all take for granted…and that makes it a prime place where authorial blind spots come back to bite them.

I was reminded of this recently when reading a student manuscript set in the late 80s, in which the student cheerfully assumed the existence of pocket cell phones and text messaging because he’d never, ever lived in a world without them.

One can, occasionally get away with this sort of thing by establishing that one’s characters are early adopters and very happy with the changes all this cool new technology has brought to their lives, but this, too, requires that the author notice that certain things simply weren’t available at certain points in the past. It also requires that the author think about (or research) how fast new technologies and infrastructure spread. The real world doesn’t work like the old John W. Campbell SF stories, where the heroes would invent a cool new gadget, and within two weeks they’d have produced and distributed enough of them for everyone in the world to have one.

But that’s all near-term stuff. What I wanted to talk about is the infrastructure of your average medieval fantasy novel. Which tends to be skeletal, if it’s there at all.

For example, consider the healing professions in the modern world. We have doctors, pharmacists, dentists, nurses, LPNs, chiropractors, acupuncturists, nurses’ aides, surgeons, med techs…and that’s even before you start in on specializations like cardiologists, pediatricians, anesthesiologists, radiologists…the list goes on and on. In most medieval fantasy novels, there are Healers and maybe midwives, and that’s it. Granted, real life medieval Europe didn’t have as wide a variety of medical practitioners as we do today, but they had more than “doctor” and “midwife.”

Physical infrastructure, such as transportation, is likewise frequently taken for granted in fantasy. When the rare wine that only the king drinks is poisoned, the author will likely spend a lot of time researching the poison, but often very little thinking about just why the wine is rare, and exactly how it got from the vineyard several countries over to the king’s table. Is there water transport, or really good roads, or are dragons common enough (and tamed enough) to haul freight like barrels of wine from city to city? Where did those roads or ships or dragons come from? How long have they been around?

Lots of medieval European cities have walls; lots of medieval fantasy novels therefore give their cities walls without thinking much about why the walls are there. Walled cities imply war, and not just one, but enough battles and seiges and attacks to make it worthwile putting up a wall. Also, if it’s been there for a while and the city is a living one, the city is likely to expand beyond the wall. If the wars and so on are still going on, that means the town will need, first, somewhere for all those folks outside the wall to stay during an attack, and, eventually, a second wall. And of course there’s the question of maintenance – somebody has to repair the wall after every attack, and check for various sorts of weather damage. It’s a lot of work, and expensive and time-consuming, and the town is likely to keep it up only if it really needs the protection.

A lot of the time, it won’t be necessary for the story to say much about the roads or ships or walls, or to go into the whole chain of people (grape pickers, vintners, coopers, carters, glass-blowers, bottlers, etc.) who have to exist behind the scenes in order for the king to have a bottle of wine on his table. Every once in a while, though, paying a little attention to this stuff can keep a writer from accidentally creating a tremendous plot hole. Alternatively, thinking about ways the wine can cover the thousand miles from vineyard to king’s table can lead to the invention of the dragon freight haulers, which could go a long way toward making a run-of-the-mill medieval fantasy into something with an interesting and unique feel.

11 Comments
  1. If I decide to write the second book in the series I’m currently writing, then it will take place on an island that totally depends on ships for its commerce and I know absolutely nothing about that type of infrastructure. Sigh. As a writer, I’m always learning so much!

  2. My initial foray into my current work in progress featured characters wielding swords. However, theirs is a planetary culture that is nomadic, consequently there is nothing remotely like a major city anywhere to be found; such settlements as exist would be stopping-over places between seasonal migrations.

    So how did a steel-making industry come into being? That would require iron mining, smelting, and forging, as well as coal mining (or at least a dedicated society of charcoal-burners). None of these are likely to have arisen in a population that roves the landscape.

    And that’s just one example of a single item that requires an enormous infrastructure to support its existence. It is far too easy to gloss over and take for granted elements that need a sophisticated level of organization to come to into being.

  3. Working out how magic would affect the infrastructure is also crucial. You could have the equivalent of a much more recent society — but that would have ripple effects.

  4. These are very good things to think about. My current WIP is mostly set in a city that has a wall, but I hadn’t given any thought to why it does, or why, since the city is described as large and thriving, it hasn’t outgrown the wall yet. I’d better do some pondering on how to make this work.

  5. Thus far, the settings for my stories always occupy a different place on the technology tree than the one in which I live. 😀 So, research is necessary. Plus invention based on my research. I *like* the researching and inventing, but I hate being pulled away from a writing session because I need to know yet one more thing in order to write it. Nature of writing speculative fiction.

    One trick I use: consider a modern-day tool or profession. Ask myself: does anything or anyone in my story setting accomplish this task? If not, what are the repercussions? If so, then who does it and what are they called? Is the task lumped in with others, or is it a specialty? (Or what sort of tool could a steam age technology – for example – come up with to accomplish what, in our world, is accomplished with an electronic device?)

  6. In 2002, I was in China for ten weeks on a co-op job.

    What is a developing country? I had never really given it much thought. I found out. Such a country is developing infrastructure. The things that were missing!

    I am amused at the infrastructure that people can think is absolutely necessary, and that I did not grow up with.

  7. Wolf: Think dwarves under mountains.

  8. I just got _Dealing with Dragons_, _Searching for Dragons_, and _Calling for Dragons_ today. I am looking forward to getting started on them.

  9. Gene: What sort of things were missing in China? And what infrastructure did you not grow up with?

    Also, don’t forget _Talking to Dragons_. It was written first and is chronologically last.

  10. A point to remember, with regard to Wolf Lahti’s note, or in general, is not to underestimate your non-urban people’s ingenuity. In the early days of republican Rome, the Gaulish invasions were a big deal. The Gauls were using iron swords against the urban peoples’ bronze. Ore pits could be worked seasonally. Smelters needed be no bigger than an oven. . . On the other hand, the Gauls’ wrought iron swords often needed straightening at inconvenient moments, when the bronze ones stayed straight and sharp.

  11. I’ve been working for ages on a story in society which is basically medieval with a prevalence of golems. I really need to go back and think about what it does to a culture to have all its peasants and all its horses replaced by implacable, untiring stone robots…

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