I’ll admit I’m prone to complaining about how unpleasant travel has gotten these days. The combination of security theater at the airports and the loss of amenities on the planes themselves means that most flights are just something I have to endure, and cross my fingers that no sudden delays or misplaced pieces of luggage will interfere with the rest of my plans.
But when I get to complaining too much, I remind myself that we have it easy.
Travel in the past was not a thing people undertook lightly, and compared to what we have today, it was slow, dangerous, and miserably uncomfortable. Even for the rich: the limitations of technology meant the world’s swankest carriage wasn’t a tenth as comfortable as a cheap car.
The vehicles themselves are only part of the story, though. We’ll get to those in more detail over the rest of this month; first I want to talk about a few other things, starting with infrastructure.
There’s a reason so many empires, both real and fictional, are known for their good roads. Without the ability to travel quickly and reliably (for relative values of those words), you won’t have an empire, because your more distant provinces will be so much out of contact that they’ll see very little reason why they should keep paying attention to the capital. Whether it’s a revolt by the local people or the provincial governor deciding to give himself a promotion, they’ll soon break away.
In addition to roads, you need accommodations for travelers. Call them hotels, motels, inns, hostels, or caravanserais; regardless of the name, they provide safety and shelter compared to pitching your own tents or sleeping rough outside. The same is true for port cities and sea travelers — and although we often forget it, ports themselves are a form of infrastructure. Yes, there are natural harbors ships can dock in, but some are dug out to be deeper, or have breakwaters constructed for protection, and they benefit from piers, warehouses for goods, port authorities, and more things not found in nature.
Speaking of goods, that brings us to the question of why the journey is happening. Travel for leisure is a relatively new phenomenon; in the past only the elite had the time and money necessary to go to the countryside for the summer. And the distances they traveled were much, much smaller — often no more than a day’s journey, or maybe a few days, which given the speeds of the time meant less than a hundred miles. If you were an English gentleman, spending your winter in Bali would mean spending the entire autumn getting there, and the entire spring getting back.
When travel happened, it was usually for more load-bearing purposes. Literal loads: trade has always been a major concern, and has grown vastly more important in modern times, as improved travel facilitates the long-distance transport of even perishable goods. Archaeological analysis shows, however, that the general principle is an ancient one. You might not be able to ship exotic fruit across the world, but materials like seashells, obsidian, gems, and metals could and did travel hundreds or even thousands of miles. They likely weren’t taken that whole distance by a single person; instead they would be traded across shorter links, passing from hand to hand until something from Guatemala wound up in Minnesota. 100% self-sufficient communities have always been rare.
Some travelers were pilgrims, going to a distant holy site for spiritual benefit. Others were soldiers, going to defend their country’s borders or invade a neighboring land. Government officials might need to travel in order to take up a new post, inspect someone else’s doings, collect taxes, or conduct a survey of holdings. Messengers traveled constantly, bearing word from the center to the periphery and back again.
I mentioned above that this kind of thing is necessary for the maintenance of an empire. That was a brief gesture in the direction of the myriad of effects that come from travel being (relatively) quick and reliable. Some of these overlap with mass communication, but it’s only since the invention of the electric telegraph that we’ve had a widespread system for conveying information without someone having to carry it to its destination.
Having good travel unifies a society in countless ways. It means that people from different places will encounter each other more regularly, forging social and economic links. News will disseminate quicker and farther, increasing the feeling that what happens in another place is relevant to your own life. And not all of that news will be weighty matters of business or governance, either; gossip allows for the invention of celebrity, and people will begin looking to central locations like capitals for guidance on what to wear and what meals to cook for guests. Dialect differences begin to smooth out, until you get a standard form of the language used far beyond its original home. (“French” as we think of it today was born out of the dialect spoken in the Île-de-France region, supplanting the other langues d’oïl, Occitan, and so forth.)
The center gains far more ability to control what’s happening at the periphery. A corrupt government may not bother with overseeing local officials, but in a well-organized system the nigh-independent fiefdoms of cities, counties, or provinces are put on a tighter rein. Taxation may become a regular affair, rather than something done once a year; regulations for the weight of goods or the operation of various industries can be standardized across a broader area. Modern globalization shows the extreme effects of this, but smaller-scale versions existed in the past.
Some parts of it cut both ways. Easy travel means criminals can more easily flee the authorities . . . but pretty soon the authorities pick up on that trick and change their jurisdictional statutes to allow the long arm of the law to reach across boundaries. The Powers That Be can mobilize their armies more rapidly to respond to an uprising or an invasion, but dissidents can also coordinate, so that rebellions aren’t as localized as before.
This applies not only to fantasy novels that draw their inspiration from history, but science fiction novels that posit improvements in travel over global, interplanetary, or interstellar distances. You’re not going to have a unified galactic empire without some form of FTL, and depending on how you construct it, the entire notion of distance may lose a great deal of its significance. A system of wormholes will mean that certain places become hubs for geographical reasons while others languish on the fringes, but if ships can point themselves in any direction they want and hit the hyperdrive, arriving an eyeblink later, then the fringes will be defined not by accessibility, but by whether those places have widespread value. As soon as there’s reason to be interested in a planet, it’s just as nearby as anything else. (And the same is true of magical doorways, teleportation, etc.)
That gets into the methods of travel, though, which we’ll start delving into next week!