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Thread: A question for the geologists/scientists amongst you

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    Question A question for the geologists/scientists amongst you

    A common feature of many fantasy world, both the "realistic" fantasy and the "fantasy" fantasy is that the time scale of "historical" events is way off as compared with our own.

    For the most famous example, in Tolkien's world more than 7000 years passed between the time men appeared, already possessing some basic form of civilization (and quickly provided with more by the elves), and the end of the Lord of the Rings. In this 7000 years the technology, politics, culture, religion, and whatnot, remained virtually the same (or actually degraded to a lower level over some periods), at a level that stands roughly somewhere between our World's antiquity and middle-ages (or early modern in some settings, such as the Shire). By comparison, in real history, it got only a little more than 5000 years to go from the onset of the Egyptians people (used by Tolkien as a comparison with Gondor, although most of the people of first, second and third era seems definetely to be more advanced than ancient Egypt) to space shuttles and supercomputers. More on this here (do not click unless you are prepared to yield control over your life for the next 6-12 hours).

    Since it is really too cool to say things like "ten thousand years ago... etc etc", I was thinking if there could be a simple way to rationalise this in low-fantasy settings, that is without immediately recurring to "it's magic".
    And here is the idea I would like to have commented by you: the technological explosion in our world depended on many factors, but one that stand out is the use of fossil fuels. True, we had the scientific revolution, or at least the begin of it, before that, but technology really started to change everyone life only after the abundant reserve of energy stored in fossil fuels became to be harnessed.

    So, if a world has no fossil fuel, or no fossil fuel in a significant quantity, it probably couldn't develop in the same way and would be stuck, at most, to an early-modern level, probably with a cycle of progress and regress as civilizations rise and fall.
    Now, the easiest way to explain the lack of fossil fuels, it seems to me, is the lack of time for it to form, that is to say that there are not the hundreds of millions of years between the emergence of plant life and the "current" historical moment in the fantasy world. It is perhaps possible, or at least imaginable (maybe here some little magic, or any supernatural thing, could help to explain), that evolution took a different route, and animal species evolved up to human (or whatever is the dominant species in said fantasy world) in the same time-frame it took for vegetable life to evolve at the same level we have now (which, after all, has been relatively stable for a helluva lot of time, hasn't it?), without enough time to produce fossil fuels in significant quantity.

    Therefore, a world with a long long historical time would be a world with a short short geological history. This would very neatly cohere with another trope typical of fantasy, that of the primevally rough landscape, "when the world was young", strange primitive beasts, etc etc. Plus, and this is truly the start of all my train of thoughts, would explain why my world appears geologically so young – which in reality is due to the fact that I have been unable to apply proper erosions patterns (that is, rivers are ok, but wind is nonexistent, so that true plains are scarce, and mountains are all very sharp) to the world I created starting with Fractal Terrains!

    What do you think?

    And yes, I know that I am crazy, in case you were asking yourself.
    Last edited by feanaaro; 06-01-2012 at 02:17 PM.

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    Community Leader Gidde's Avatar
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    Missing fossil fuels are one way to explain it; another is intentional technological stagnation/regression (see David Weber's Safehold series). Yet another is a metal-poor planet. Most of the inventions which have advanced us by leaps and bounds were invented using or because of metals.

    Edit: One more possible explanation is recent colonization/terraforming. You started the "clock" at egypt, but evidence suggests that we were around for thousands of years before that, stuck in a hunter/gatherer mode and not advancing at all.

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    True, but in most fantasy settings, they are not stuck at the hunter/gatherer level, they are somewhere between antiquity and early modernity, and they stay there for many millennia, possibly beyond count (see also Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire world for another prominent example).

    Colonization/terraforming does not work for me, I hate even the lightest mixing of technological space-faring with fantasy. Metals I don't want to renounce; though this raises another point for the scientists, is it likely that a younger planet would also have less metal, or less retrievable metal? Or at this time scale it likely does not make a difference?

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    Community Leader Gidde's Avatar
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    Not a scientist, but as I understand it, a young planet would have scarcer supply of retrievable metals, as the work of tectonics and volcanic activity brings them closer to the surface.

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    That seems a fair supposition. But it would depend on the comparison between the timescale for creating fossil fuel from dead trees and the timescale for moving metal around the crust – also, both could be so different from the timescale to create erosion from wind that all my premise would collapse, but that is why I would like a geologist's opinion.

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    Guild Adept moutarde's Avatar
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    It's a long read, but 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond takes a broad look at all human civilizations, and why some societies developed more advanced technologies than others. The biggest point of the book is (in the simplest possible terms), food supply determines a society's ability to develop technologically. As an example, there are many tribes in New Zealand that still live with only stone-age technology. It's not that they're stupid - any of them are just as smart as anyone you might meet on the street. It's that their environment dictates that the most effective method of food production is the hunter-gatherer method.
    A second key point, is that technology, crops and livestock spread much more easily along an east-west axis than a north-south axis. This is because climate tends to remain fairly similar all the way across an east-west axis, while climate varies drastically along a north-south axis. You pretty much just can't take a crop 30 degrees north and expect it to grow the same way that it did in its original location. Also, deserts and rain forests can be formidable obstacles when it comes to travelling.

    It's a fascinating read, if a little dry at times, but it would certainly give you a good idea of what a civilization that had gone 10,000 years without developing modern tech would need to look like.

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    Thanks moutarde, I've read the book some time ago (it is a nice book, though I never thought of linking it with fantasy world-building, that's new). But my hunch is that in most "normal" situations the energy availability supersede the food question at a certain point (the point in which technology explodes), because the most "efficient" ways of producing large quantities of food involve a lot of energy, both in the form of machinery and chemicals.
    I don't want to make all the world food-scarce to explain why they are not developing technology. Also, I am not specifically looking into how a non-developing civilization would look like, that is too complex a question, and one into which both casual events and supernatural forces would make a lot of a difference. I would just be content if I can give a semi-credible explanation of why a world cannot reach a technologically advanced state.
    If it has just a minimal degree (still fantasy after all) of plausibility, I would like to pursue the fossil fuel unavailability hypothesis.

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    Guild Artisan eViLe_eAgLe's Avatar
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    Another possible explanation are the heavy fueds over resources. Say your fantasy world had four major sentient races, each fighting for metal, and fuel, and the like. It would be scarce since everyone would want it, and imagine if there were green skinned humans with overly large eyes, they would probably become something similair to the blacks in the time of slavery. There are alot of things that can contribute to a stagnant development of technology, including some type of worm that would eat Fossil Fuels, thus giving the planet a large life span and stagnating development. My take, may not make sense to other people, but whatever.

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    An interesting side effect of a young world could actually be the possibility of finding more metals in their "native" forms, such as gold and silver on earth. Native iron can be found on Earth but is mostly (or entirely) from asteroids. A young planet where iron and other metals have not succumbed to oxidation and other effects might actually be considerably richer in many metals at a primitive stage before smelting of ores was commonplace. Not saying it is a certain thing, but it is possible. No scientist here! And really young isn't necessary, per se, just only recently habitable in geologic terms, or from a planet where there was never a truly vibrant period of life to die off and become fossil fuels. Would a smart dinosaur been able to drill for crude?

    The most plausible to my ear for holding back progress is a lack of fossil fuels, which is a piece of what holds back technology in my world. In addition all attempts to harness energy too tightly (even steam power) is extremely dangerous due to the Elemental (magical) nature of the world. Gun powder is much like packing highly volatile nitroglycerine through an obstacle course, LOL.
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    Another trope <he pointed us at tvtropes.org! gasp! infamy!> is the worn-out world. Instead of new and scantily-resourced, one could have an old landscape that had hosted many prior civilizations, each of which had done its level best to loot the soil, exhaust the mines, and use up the mana. This is a parallel trope to the "long-gone elder race" bit.

    So maybe the first dozen times folks got up to the world-spanning societal level, it DID just take them a couple of thousand years. Then maybe your world has a tendency to kill off the bulk of the people and stomp them back to the stone age. Plague? Orbital wobble? Variable sun? Warfare? Another 2 to twenty thousand years of savagery (and bad weather? ice? spreading jungles? typhoons? voracious stainless-steel-eating radioactive microbes?) between civ-fall and new civ-rise could suffice to erase most traces. A civilization properly disposed (properly scattered) might for example on average spread iron from mine-able deposits to diffuse streaks of rust. If for example cities were mostly built along large rivers, an eon of flooding could scatter many civ traces (refined metals?) out to sea. If the erasing mechanism was ice ages, definitely glaciers could grind faded remains to bits.

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