The Epidemic of Worlds That Don’t Move Forward

An idyllic fashioned village.

We all know these stories: “We don’t know how to destroy the ancient evil that arrived to our land! Thankfully, once upon a time there was a great nation with more powerful and efficient technomagic. They had flying cities and huge laser weapons, but somehow they vanished. We should go to their perfectly preserved ruins and find the powerful artifacts that can save us!”

Some storytellers use these tropes well. In the Numenera roleplaying game, the succession of civilizations provides unique adventures that highlight the everlasting futility of human efforts. The trope can also be used to cycle between magic and technology. Once magic arises in the world or disappears from it, ancient solutions become obsolete and are replaced by new waves of discoveries. We see this in tabletop RPGs such as the Shadowrun / Earthdawn family, video games like Arcanum and The Longest Journey, and even in popular literature such as Game of Thrones. However, more often than not, these clichés head in lazier directions.

We Love to Glorify the Old Days

As our own world teaches us, our species loves dreaming about the never-existing better times. Even the ancient Greeks spun tales of the Golden Age, when humankind used to live in peace and prosperity. Nature itself was said to be fertile and generous, allowing people to spend their time any way they desired.

If we need a great person or culture to look up to, many of us can only find them in the past. After all, no prophet is accepted in their own time. If there’s no appropriate example, we love to create them in the most ridiculous ways. A simple feudal lord wearing rags and an aketon may one day be remembered as the powerful King Arthur. Even imaginary ancestors find followers.

Many people seek comfort in these nostalgic legends about long-gone greatness.  That can be a healthy psychological process. However, it causes cognitive errors.

You can see this in many forms in everyday life. For instance, you might hear “back in my day there were no weird medicines or vaccines and people were much healthier!” Then there’s this classic: “people are so evil now, like never before, I saw it on television!” Of course, the reality is different. People now live longer than they ever did before, they don’t die in massive plagues all the time, and childhood mortality is at an all-time low. Whereas humankind used to practice mass human sacrifice and attend gladiator arenas, today violence is also less common. Fewer people die from war, acts of terror, murder, or enslavement than ever before.

Our Nostalgia Colors Our Stories

It’s difficult to understand how privileged we are today, and exploring that privilege in fiction is awkward. When our heroes enter a tavern, we don’t want to hear them chat about better hospitals, the new kind of plow farmers are using, or how great the new coopers are. We want to hear about the goblins, armies of darkness, and killer robots from space.

We also don’t find much pleasure in making stories about hungry children, beaten women, dissenters burned at the stake, and the suffering of people with disabilities. It’s more uplifting to write about a bizarre old witch with a lot of witty repartee than a person with a disease in a world without modern medicine.

So when our heroes feast at an old lady’s house, they obviously will eat the most delicious bread, cookies, and roasted meat they’ve tasted in a long time. Because there’s no “artificial” components or GMOs, and old ladies are always traditional cooks. As storytellers, we ignore the fact that in the past, people in the villages were eating groats, sour fruit, and weak, disgusting beers.

This is basic escapism. We cut out the boring things and embrace the past in a way that is difficult to justify, because doing so is comfortable and soothing. After all, digging into these complex topics may put off some of our customers, players, or readers.

In Stories, Nostalgia Is Presented as Reality

Unfortunately, many fantasy and science-fiction storytellers build this reversed progression into their worlds as though it’s plausible or even likely. This distorts our view of the world further. For example, take the word artifact. It technically means “an old item that archaeologists find interesting,” like a spoon or comb. In our fictional worlds, almost every artifact is preceded with the word “magical.” And if not, it’s because it’s an old, weird computer that’s intelligent enough to instantly understand English and give us a convenient doom-protecting exposition. When we hear the word “artifact,” we now assume it’s an item that’s not only ancient but also somehow powerful as well.

Many of us think that a mythical golden age needs to appear in our fictional worlds – not as a deconstruction of a psychological concept, but rather as an invariable property of human civilization. However, the only world we know* doesn’t support this perspective.

Let’s assume that a civilization achieves some greatness, even though this sort of evaluation is completely subjective. It’s true that some great civilizations have fallen, and their disappearance forced surrounding lands to take a technological step back. The most famous examples are the Bronze Age collapse and the fall of Western Roman Empire. With the fall of civilizations, some cool technologies like Damascus steel have disappeared.

However, we need to remember that in reality everything lost was also surpassed by new inventions. Humans are innovators. Our ability to collect resources, spend our time with pursuits other than survival, be supported by other members of our communities, and engage in cultural progress is something extraordinary.

Ancient Artifacts Have Become a Plot Shortcut

Since the beginning of history, we’ve made and borrowed writing formulas. These patterns help the public follow our plots and understand our worlds with less explanation. Because stories of lost civilizations are so common, plot solutions just need to be old to feel justified. Putting staffs of power, enchanted swords of slaying, or plasmatic nuclear engines in ancient ruins lets our protagonists experience some sort of adventure before they unlock their deus ex machina.

This is especially common in roleplaying games. There are so many fantasy RPGs, and very few of them focus on investigation and research. Going to an isolated place where we can fight people and get treasure is usually more exciting than actual problem solving – creating scientific experiments, gathering and analyzing the data, waiting for results, and so on. In adventure tales, it’s more convenient to just find things than it is to push the story into the future and figure out the consequences of such a jump.

Sometimes these mostly static fantasy settings will include small drivers of change such as academies of magic or “magical research” that lead to new inventions. But there is something terrifying about these incoming transformations, about unrolling the unlimited power of imagination. “The world is changing” is one of those phrases that movie trailers keep abusing, because change is scary for some, even if it is exciting for others.

While it’s important that we understand these writing patterns, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the ideas developed by other creators. To avoid becoming cliché, we need to evolve and innovate.

We Can Do Better

Strong, innovative worldbuilding requires historical sensitivity – a basic understanding of historical, cultural, and sociological processes that shape our reality. When storytellers don’t master it, they often create fictional worlds that don’t change socially, culturally, or technologically for thousands of years. Many of these settings copy real-world social structures for no reason at all. For instance, the extremely complex and specific feudal systems from Europe are just thrown into the fictional realms because these systems have knights, peasants, and kings.

In your next work, avoid ancient, yet for some reason superior, civilizations, and show how much easier life has become over time, even in fantasy realms. Sure, people in Westeros may be sad that magic is not as powerful as it used to be, but at least there are no freaking dragons flying over their heads or zombie armies right in front of them (wink wink).

Analyzing real cultures puts our stories into new, interesting perspectives. It allows us to show how much our characters and societies can achieve with a more realistic, even scientific, approach. It allows us to show how the world moves forward, or rather, how we move forward.

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  1. Ferd

    Some great points. This always irritates me in stories. I would love to read a fantasy story about progress and new technology. (Or write one myself)

    • Xandar The Zenon

      You could always try the Wax and Wayne book series (era 2 of mistborn) by Brandon Sanderson. The Stormlight Archive also by him does this to a much lesser extent.

  2. Bronze Dog

    So tempted to do a subversion in a roleplaying game. Ancient hero’s sword? Go through all the trouble, and it’s just a rusty bit of metal that falls apart once the players disturb it.

    Would need some alternate payoff for all the trouble if I don’t want my players to kill me, though.

    • JGrey

      Obviously a collector is going to pay top dollar for the sword. Or having the ancient sword/its pieces will allow an allied blacksmith/artificer/wizard to create an Infinity +1 Sword.

  3. Julia

    Terry Brooks’ Shannara series changes over time: there was the old world that suffered a cataclysm (our modern world,) people get knocked back to medieval-type lives, and over the course of the series new technology is invented (ie flying ships and gun like weapons,) and monarchies fade out. I stopped reading them after a while because the series had other issues, but at least his world moved forward.

  4. American Charioteer

    Technologies that are lost, such as Damascus steel or Greek fire, were usually closely guarded secrets in the first place. It is a little harder to imagine the secrets of electric motors or analog radio communication being lost since every high school student learns how they work.

    • Sneaky_Commenter

      If the civilization is still around, and the lost technology wasn’t a closely guarded secret. It could be caused by a required resource running out.

      A theory for the Bronze Age Collapse was that the accessible sources of bronze ran dry.

      If you want ancient tech to be better than current tech, you might want it to be made from a resource that is not around anymore. Or, at least not found in accessible places anymore.

      Maybe the artifacts are made from dragon bones or some other magic monster hunted into extinction. – you might think of the whaling industry hunting whales into near extinction, only stopping because they turned to cheaper sources of oil. Or, the silphium plants for a less heartbreaking example.

      If the advanced civilization collapsed, you can just take a page from the end of Bronze Age or Roman Empire.

      • Sneaky_Commenter

        If the super advanced civilization is gone, you could also use it as foreshadowing or as an allegorical warning.

        Mutual insured destruction failing as a deterrent, eaten by grey goo, overthrown by their own creations, or as the previous victims of the ancient evil… the possibilities are endless.

        Adventurers would be raiding ancient fallout shelters/military bonkers for their “magical artifacts.”

        • American Charioteer

          I like your fallout shelter idea. Lost technology does make sense in that context.

  5. SunlessNick

    Juliet McKenna’s Einnarin setting has a good example of the fallen empire with unique magic, in that what’s lost is analogous to a resource base – that style of magic simply became much weaker outside of certain very tight communities.
    Meanwhile, the nations that sprang up after the fall of this empire have moved on and are now entering their equivalent of the Renaissance.

    (She also includes things like different countries speaking different languages)

  6. Ennis Skalski

    Aw, I thought this was going to include scifi from the title. I’m actually more accepting of this trope in fantasy, but in scifi it makes me want to scream. It’s 2000 years in the future and even though there’s all this whizz-bang technology socially it’s indistinguishable from today? Humanity’s on seven different planets and they all have the same financial system? You have sentient or near-sentient AI and there’s no explanation of whether or not they should have rights? (“Should” because they rarely do.)

    At least fantasy set in the past or present that looks back to a “golden age” can be seen as people being blinded by nostalgia. Futuristic settings that want All Of The Cool Technology but barely consider how they would change society are more difficult to justify.

    • JGrey

      Warhammer 40K does somewhat avoid this: The Imperium is only loosely held together at the best of times, between the FTL being reliant on crossing through a Lovecraftian hell-dimension full of demons and the legions of hostile species, you can have one planet in an early medieval period and another that puts Coruscant to shame, and potentially have them right next to each other.

  7. Tony

    And this is why I like how The Legend of Korra incorporated the setting’s elemental magic (called “bending”) as the basis for an industrial revolution.

    • SunlessNick

      I wasn’t a great fan of the Korra series, but that was one thing it did very well. It wouldhave ben interesting to see the next Avatar along, as it would have been a (probably, if the cycle kept going the way it had) earthbender in a cyberpunk-level tech setting, or even a space age (assuming space as we understand it exists there).

    • Keiran

      Not only does technology progress due to bending but bending itself changes over time. In The Last Air Bender, we see the invention of metal and blood bending and hear about how Iroh adapted water bending techniques to redirect lightning. Lightning bending also goes from a rare technique in Last Air Bender to common enough to generate electricity in Legend of Korra. Nothing in the world is stagnant, which is why I love the worldbuilding.

  8. Tyson Adams

    This isn’t just a problem with spec-fic. One of the sub-genres of thrillers uses this “ancient wisdom/tech” trope all of the time. Authors such as Steve Berry, James Rollins, Matthew Reilly, Andy McDermott, all utilise this trope. Reilly is on record as saying that one of his series is actually fantasy given a contemporary setting and sensibility.

    I refer to this style of novel as Artefact McGuffin Adventures. They can be good fun, but they also tend to be anti-science and anti-modernity.

  9. Yora

    I am doing the opposite and write a world with prehistoric societies where there is indeed no noticable change at any time scale that people can perceive. There are plenty of ruined settlements, but they don’t seem to be very different from contemporary ones. Though it helps that knowledge of the past only goes back a few centuries.

    Until antiquity, cultural and technological progress has been extremely slow with only minor changes happening over periods of a thousand years or less. That everyone keeps repeating that fantasy worlds need to have constant change over time is somewhat annoying. If your world is medieval and stretches over 10,000 years, then there should be some change. But it’s not a universal truth. If it’s 500 years through the Bronze Age stage, then you don’t need to have any change (in culture) at all to keep things plausible. Rulers come and go and borders change, but the way people live, work, and fight can be very consistent for long periods of time.

    • Squares

      That last paragraph is very true, there were time periods without a lot of change – but I think the harping over fantasy worlds needing it is mostly about the fact that most fantasy stories aren’t set in a bronze age civilisation, and it’s more that “most fantasy worlds need more technological change at this given level of technology” and – what you also mentioned – that language and borders sometimes remain the same for centuries or millenia; I can somewhat understand handwaving languages to make things easier, but a lot of times, you see borders that haven’t changed for centuries, either.
      You’ve got to have change in at least some areas would be a better refrain, I guess?

      • Cay Reet

        During the real European middle ages, though, which serve as basis for a lot of fantasy stories, borders were changing a lot. Not the big borders, but those between small kingdoms and other small areas ruled by one noble or other. There’s a reason why most small wars during that time have no specific name, because if they did, history students today would probably go on strike for having to learn them all.

        And there was constant change in languages, too. Every living language changes constantly, that is a fact. New words come up, old words die, words change their meanings subtly.

        In addition, technical development didn’t come all in a sudden. People were always improving technologies, trying to work in new materials, trying to optimize tools.

        • Squares

          That… was the point? That you see a lot of unchanging borders in fantasy when such a thing didn’t exist IRL, even in prehistoric areas with veeeeery slow technological development?

          • Cay Reet

            I misread your comment somewhat. Sorry about that.

  10. Greg

    Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series is an great example of how to do stagnation right.

  11. Dvärghundspossen

    I think that if things never change, you’ll also have a more serious problem motivating why your hero thought of a way to solve a problem that no one’s ever thought about before (I’m pretty sure there’s a post somewhere on this site discussing this very issue). If people, for instance, learn more about magic and develop it more and more all the time, then it’s not that weird if your MC comes up with a new magic method or spell that no one has used before, because it might build on previous techniques and previous knowledge in such a way that it simply couldn’t be done a hundred or even fifty years ago. It might still be a bit of a coincidence, or just boil down to your MC having extra good thinking-outside-of-the-box-skills, that it’s your MC rather than one of their contemporary magicians who comes up with the new idea, but the reader don’t have to wonder “people had thousands of years to come up with this idea, and yet no one thought about it until the MC did?”. It might not have been possible until the time period when the story takes place.

    It’s like with tech in our own world. No one goes “why was Karl Benz the first person to invent a car? Why did no one come up with that idea a thousand years ago?”. Because a thousand years ago, it just wasn’t possible.

    • Cay Reet

      All too true.

      There’s always a change, even during the middle ages, which were often understood as a time of stagnation by latter eras, there were developments and changes. People realize that there’s a more efficient way to do something. They realize that plant a brings better results when used on a wound than plant b. They realize that there’s a better way to make a tool or that a tool will be better, if you change the shape here and here. The changes might not always be huge and the changes might not always be documented a lot (especially with everyday changes which people just make – and in a time where most people couldn’t write), but they happen. The first beer came from someone accidentally leaving their bread dough out too long. Such things happen continuously.

      If new research in an area of magic makes a MC realize that there is another way to use it (be it through a spell, a ritual, or something else), it’s only logical that mages two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years earlier couldn’t have done it – the research wasn’t done then. Just as, indeed, Karl Benz was in the right place at the right time to put things researched and invented by others together in his own invention and come out with the first car (which was driven on the road for the first time by his wife, btw.). Had he lived fifty years earlier, he would have invented something else and someone else would have come up with the car.

      • AK

        Very insightful — thank you. I always enjoy reading your comments, and can only dream of attaining this kind of in-depth knowledge of sociological structures!

        • Cay Reet

          Thank you.

          I’m in my mid-forties and I’ve studied history at some point … knowledge happens over time

  12. AK

    I’m guilty of using the ancient powerful artefact thingy and a lost but more powerful civilisation. But, society is on the precipice of change, and the Hierarchy (central ruling oligarchy) cannot keep up its levels of censorship and repression of magic-use for much longer.

    in this world, magic is insanely powerful and present in everyone — but in order to access it you have to wear a fragment of a fallen moon that once granted everyone their magic. And you have to understand atomic physics so as not to blow yourself uo within the first five seconds of accessing your power. To keep control, the Hierarchy has a monopoly over education. It also hoards the moon fragments and maintains a monopoly over magic — and they ban a specific type of magic that can manipulates physical matter in order to maintain their power. (Mers with affinity for this physical manipulation are considered moon-cursed and are either a) killed b) put into indenture for ‘their own good’ or c) they have certain organs which enable magic use removed — but as that’s expensive only higher class Mers can afford this so called blessing.

    Given that the ‘oppressed mages’ are ruled over by two other classes of magic user and that magic use is a matter of knowledge instead of naturally fluctuating levels of innate power, does this society sort of make sense?

    Sorry for typos; I’m using an I-Pad without autocorrect. And if you’ve read this far I applaud you

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