Fantasy World Building: These Ancient Governments Are Bullshit

I’ve got a beef with a common urban fantasy trope. (Okay, I’ve got beefs with a lot of Urban Fantasy tropes.) But there’s one that destroys my suspension of disbelief every time. Every fucking time. One thing I’ve never seen anyone talk about or call out.

Ancient governments.

Specifically, ancient, worldwide governments with no bonus to communication or travel.

Why? Ancient empires that have lasted for hundreds or thousands of years unchanged are hard enough to believe. Oh, there are some mitigating factors — change tends to be generational and vampires and fae can have some fucking long ‘generations’, for instance. Still, it’s been (sort of) done. Both Ancient Egypt and Shogunate Japan fought change tooth and nail. They managed to hold it off (or at least seriously slow it down) until outside forces fucked them over. Ancient Egypt managed it for long enough that it could be its own ‘ancient empire’ by the end.
But it was only ‘mostly’ unchanged. The introduction of chariots, the merging of upper and lower Egypt, etc, etc. Never mind cultural changes.

So… ancient governments that have lasted for hundreds or thousands of years unchanged fit my ‘suspension of disbelief’ criteria. Barely.

But ancient, /worldwide/ governments? Fuck off with that shit.

How the hell did you manage your governments across multiple oceans without /boats./

Oh, you used magic? /Where’s the magic?/

This is urban fantasy. The magic is supposed to have reasonable rules and shit. If you can’t talk to people on the other side of the ocean, your ’empire’ or ‘council’ or ‘high king’ or whatever the fuck sure as hell can’t rule them.

The Limits of Empire

Historically, the size of empires has been limited by travel times. It’s no coincidence that many of the largest empires in history specialized in transportation. The horse-born Mongol Empire is, in fact, /still/ the second largest (historical) Empire ever, exceeded only by the British Empire. (Which was obsessed with its navy.)

The Mongol Empire, of course, was based on the history and traditions of nomadic cavalry. As long as the land was flat enough for horses and had sufficient graze, they could be anywhere, faster than anyone else. (They stopped winning battles right around where the grasslands of Eurasia end, and the forests of central Europe begin.)

Rome had its roads. Roads etched into the face of the earth so deeply that some are still used 2,000 years later. US students are taught about the Colosseum as one of the great engineering marvels of Rome. It pales in comparison to the continent-wide network of roads Rome built and left as its legacy. (Rome wasn’t the largest empire, even for its time. But it was the only one based on /infantry/. That it makes so high on the list without relying on cavalry is a feat to rival the roads.)

The Achaemaneids, who both preceded and exceeded Rome, both had Rome’s obsession with roads and an empire boarded on all sides by seas. They also had the right territory for an impressive cavalry and used it.

The Chinese Empires have always had one of the world’s most impressive river systems to travel on. And many of them used it very well.

Speaking of rivers — it’s no surprise that until the invention of the telegraph and railroads, US expansion pretty much stopped past the Mississippi.

Even the Aztecs, relatively small on the world scale, grew huge for the terrain they lived in — and had a specialized system of runners to carry messages had high speed through their mountainous territory.

The point is — empires need good travel times. I read somewhere that the limit of empire is two weeks’ travel time. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it captures the main idea.

M&M — Messages and Material

For most of these historic empires, travel applied to both messages and material. A few Empires (Byzantine Rome and parts of China) used a version of a semaphore system — beloved by writers of SFF black-powder milfic. But like Rome’s roads, they required an engineering effort spread across hundreds of miles. Even Byzantines and China restricted their semaphore use to routes in consistent danger of military invasion. (the Great Wall of China and from the border of the Abbasid Caliphate to Constantinople for the Byzantines.)

So how far can your messages reach using boot leather and horseshoes? If your orders can’t reach their destination in time, if word of disaster or military invasion can’t get back to relevant authority in time, you don’t have a functional government. You have (at best) a federation that’s about to collapse.

And it isn’t enough to just send messages long distance. You also need military reinforcement, supplies for the said military reinforcements, support for territory hit by natural disasters… I could go on.

(You also need a high level of organization, but Urban Fantasy that has the Unrealistic Ancient World-wide Government usually credits those governments with an organization at least equal to Rome and China. Sometimes the organization rivals modern empires.)

But modern fantasy… *sigh*

So when I read a book (naming no names) that has a worldwide shifter government dating back at least a thousand years, with written, maintained, and updated archives stretching back through to at least the early days of that government and possibly earlier, but no significant /magic/ beyond shifting…

Look, someone didn’t think this through. At all.

(And I’m not even getting into ‘North American Councils’ that have controlled the entire continent for ‘several hundred years’ and are full of Europeans and based in European notions of government. No mention or comment on the indigenous systems that were (presumably?) in place before and what happened to them.)

(Or how these ‘worldwide’ governments are almost always based in Europe or the US. I could fucking go on about the problems with this trope. European geo-political dominance is less than half a millennia old. A worldwide government two or three times that old would probably have originated… elsewhere.)

Unbelievably Believable

Ironically, it’s the most ‘unbelievable’ urban fantasy settings that tend to get the travel thing right. Settings where the leaders of supernatural society have more illicit money Bezos (but never deal with the IRS), dragons are flying around New York City, and powerful supernaturals can create gates between Arkansas and Rome.

Or where humans are ignorant of angelic beings decimating entire towns, and werewolves are tearing through metropolitan areas on killing sprees… And the werewolf king is 10,000 years old, can speak telepathically with any werewolf, and could (at the height of his powers) teleport anywhere, instantly.

‘Over the top’ powers like teleportation and mega-distance mind speech /make sense/ in those worlds. It is harder and takes more work for them to fit in more ‘grounded’ urban fantasy settings. But the ‘realistic’ governments of those worlds couldn’t exist without the over-the-top magic the setting disallows.

As has been pointed out in other discussions (*cough* diversity *cough*) ‘realism’ doesn’t always mean what we think it does.

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Are You Creating a Bigoted Story?