New Worlds Theory Post: The Pace of Change

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Because of my involvement as both a writer and a fan for the game Legend of the Five Rings, I’ve spent a fair bit of time hanging out on their forums (or Discord or whatever the current venue happens to be). As is inevitable with any such group and sufficient time, certain discussions crop up again and again, as a newcomer asks a familiar question or a chance comment sets someone off on a well-worn rant.

One of the old standbys is the history of Rokugan, the setting for L5R. Specifically, the pace of change — or lack thereof — in that history.

Now, some of this has to do with the real-world history of the game. It was originally designed to tell the story of a climactic moment of crisis, so anything that happened beforehand was really just flavor text to prop up that story. But the game was successful enough that it kept going past the climactic moment, and it filled in its own history along the way. Since L5R is both a card game and a tabletop role-playing game, books for the latter supplied a lot of information previous centuries of Rokugan, the thousand or so years between the founding of the empire and the “present day” of the aforementioned crisis.

A thousand years is a long time, to be sure. And there are definitely things of significance that happened in that time. But what didn’t happen was any revolutionary change in the setting — any progress of the sort we tend to think of when we use the word, i.e. noteworthy technological development.

We take technological progress for granted, because we’ve seen such a huge amount of it in our own lifetimes. Twenty years ago, I still went to a store that had physical DVDs (or even VHS tapes) to rent a movie, instead of it streaming on demand into my TV from a hundred different services. I didn’t have a cell phone, much less a smart phone. Cars all ran on gas. Look further back, but still within my own lifetime, and there’s no internet as we know it now. My parents were alive for the first moon walk, the first satellite in space. As of me writing this essay, there is still one woman in Japan who was alive when the Wright Brothers made their first controlled airplane flight at Kitty Hawk.

Step beyond living memory, and you continue to find some incredibly dramatic shifts. The Industrial Revolution threw the pace of change into high gear, not just in obvious ways (steam power makes trains possible) but less obvious ones (mechanized cloth production makes cloth cheaper, which in turn makes it more feasible for fashion to change rapidly). The last few centuries of history have been dynamic enough that going even fifty years further back can mean highly visible differences in society.

. . . depending on which corner of society you’re looking at, of course. The common masses have always been slower to adopt changes, if only because they can’t afford whatever new fashion or new gadget has the elites so excited. But even if we take the society as a whole, the last few centuries have given us a warped impression of how rapidly things change.

That’s not to say there weren’t any changes between the years 500 and 1500, of course. There definitely were! Not just the thing everybody’s thoughts usually go to (gunpowder) but increased urbanization, the printing press and and increased literacy, developments in ship-building and sailing, changes in the ideology around kingship and government, and more. Take an English, Chinese, or Egyptian person from 1500 and put them in 500, or vice versa, and they will find the world very different. Still, the degree of difference is nothing compared to what we’ve seen more recently — and the differences between 500 C.E. and 500 B.C. may well have been smaller, depending on what region you look at.

The extent to which the same is true in L5R varies depending on what source you ask. Earlier versions of the game handwaved the relative lack of change by saying that Rokugani people are so tradition-bound, they never really felt the need or the desire to change what worked perfectly well for their ancestors. In reality, it owes more to the fact that there’s not a lot of gain from worldbuilding significant cultural differences throughout that sweep of Rokugani history, when probably all the players want is the ability to play the game they know in the context of different historical events. The more recent version of the game hasn’t poured much effort into describing the changes over time, but they at least acknowledge that things have changed; for example, the ancestral swords of the clans aren’t katana, because that ubiquitous weapon was developed later.

Where people really stick, though, is on things like the aforementioned gunpowder. It exists in the setting, but it’s largely used for things like fireworks. In the old version of the game, foreigners also used it in one battle against the empire, before they were driven off and not seen again. And this is a thing a certain type of player finds really annoying, because to their way of thinking, if gunpowder has been developed, then by now there ought to be firearms.

The great difficulty in addressing this kind of question is that our data set sucks. We know how our history went . . . but we don’t know what would happen if you ran multiple simulations with the same starting conditions. I recently read Pre-Industrial Societies by Patricia Crone, which in its last chapter addresses the question of the Industrial Revolution and why it happened where it did: was Europe simply the first to undergo those changes, and other regions would have done the same eventually, or was it on a different path entirely from the rest of the world? We can speculate, but we can’t know. Just as we can speculate, but not know for certain (yet), whether life is possible with different conditions than the ones that produced it on this planet.

It may seem inevitable to us that X technology will lead to Y development and therefore Z change within a certain span of time, because that’s how it happened in reality. But much of that thinking is rooted in another assumption, which is that progress always goes forward. And we have plenty of evidence to show us that isn’t necessarily the case.

We have lost technologies over time. The Antikythera Mechanism is an incredibly complex piece of gearing whose like didn’t appear again for about fifteen hundred years; the method for creating the pigment known as Egyptian blue was likewise lost for centuries. We have developed technologies and not applied them to other uses: the wheel existed in Aztec society, but was only used on toys, and the earliest steam engine was described by Hero of Alexandria in the first century C.E. Sewer systems are an ancient concept, as I mentioned back in Year Three, but despite their benefits to society, they weren’t adopted everywhere, and places that had them stopped using them.

I’m not going to say that L5R’s history necessarily makes sense, and that it’s plausible for them to go centuries without developing firearms when they have gunpowder and have seen it used in war. It isn’t a given, though, that people will always move forward with technology, and that culture will be radically different every century. People with firearms will not necessarily have an industrial revolution within the next four hundred years. Learning from history is useful, but we also have to keep in mind that how it played out this time isn’t necessarily how it would play out every time.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds Theory Post: The Pace of Change — 14 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: The Pace of Change - Swan Tower

  2. This is a great theory post; thank you for making it.

    >foreigners also used it in one battle against the empire, before they were driven off and not seen again.
    To me, not using gunpowder makes sense with that context: it was seen to be used by the losing side and it didn’t help them win, so theres no advantage to it; also, it was used exactly once, so probably not many people saw how it works – reverse engineering by taking it apart can be a good start, but theres only so much it can do (I wouldn’t be able to build my own gun or trombone, even if I found them both on the ground & took them apart)

    I’ve seen some people suggest that the Song Chinese were about to launch an industrial revolution – only to be distracted by the Mongol armies – so some some stories and artwork (steampunk and otherwise) use the premise that the Song were successful in launching the industrial revolution.

    • re: L5R, the context isn’t really that forgiving; the battle involved an extremely small number of foreigners, and they managed to kill the Empress, so I don’t think they wound up looking all that ineffective. Plus there are definitely groups within the Empire who would totally experiment to try and improve it, e.g. in their never-ending war against the demonic monsters outside one of their borders. The reboot of canon has muddied the waters in a different way, because gunpowder does get used somewhat in war . . . but only as an exceptional thing, which is hard to buy for different reasons.

      I’ve seen some people suggest that the Song Chinese were about to launch an industrial revolution

      And that is one of those “we’ll never know!” topics. Crone would argue that no, they weren’t, because her thesis is that Europe’s revolution was actually a result of it having failed to solve some of the core problems of a pre-industrial society, in ways the rest of the world had been more successful at. (Is she right about that? Again, we’ll never know!)

      • I wouldn’t be surprised if there were groups in the Empire who would have given eyeteeth to experiment & improve on the guns – which, to my unknowing eye, begs the question of if there were any captured guns in decent condition, or combatants’ descriptions are all the Imperial researchers had to go on.

        >only as an exceptional thing
        *shrugs* shrinking cannons down to handheld size isn’t easy, nor is changing materials….(that said, the _Mythbusters_ had fun making a cannon out of a tree trunk, so it is possible, for at least one firing)

        >it having failed to solve some of the core problems of a pre-industrial society
        I’d wager that every pre-industrial society fails at something – core or not-so-much-core – and as Kipling says, “and every one is different.” 🙂

  3. Oh man, I’ve seen so many ideas on this over the years. Paraphrase quotes:

    * “The question isn’t why place X didn’t have an Industrial Revolution, it’s why Britain *did*. It was a complex creative process with many ways to not happen.”

    * “Steam development depended on pre-existing good metallurgy, a stable market society to foster innovation, relatively high wages to make labor-saving machinery attractive, *and* a large supply of literally dirt-cheap coal.” With a note that 1700s English wages were high compared to French or Chinese ones.

    * AIUI, early steam engines were utter shit, like <1% efficiency, but they were developed to pump water out of coal mines, so locally cheap fuel, coal already being used for home heating and maybe steelmaking. If you had to develop a steam engine fueled by biomass, you would probably conclude it was way more efficient to just feed the biomass to an animal.

    * OTOH there's the first part of the IndRev, all about water-powered textile machinery. If you have that and not steam you get cheap clothing and maybe horse-drawn harvesters (as you get better at fiddly machinery), but not an energy rich society, unless you find electricity and thus hydropower. Which is still different from being able to run a steam engine wherever you want.

    * But we also used coal to get more iron and steel, so if a society lacks fossil fuels, it will have less metal to build fiddly machinery with.

    * All else being equal, the rate of new ideas is proportional to population. Smaller populations will innovate slower, unless they're more educated or stimulated or something. There's also whether people tend to hoard trade secrets or have a system of rapidly propagating discoveries, like scientific letters.

    …so if you have a small-ish isolated island population without fossil fuels — like Japan, say — then missing most of the IndRev is plausible. Woodblock printing press yes, steam engines no.

    AIUI China had gunpowder and hand cannons but for some reason guns were advanced more in Europe. So you can have gunpowder for centuries and *not* develop the musket.

    • Round and round the points go, yeah! A lot depends on which factors a given person considers more important, vs. which ones they believe are incidental to the result we got.

    • I’m reminded of how often the Papacy tried to outlaw the use of things like crossbows and arbaqests(sp), because of the damage the weapons did, but people basically said “that’s a lovely sentiment, Your Holiness, and I’d love to comply, but its just so danged useful.” 🙂

      > it was way more efficient to just feed the biomass to an animal.
      sometimes, yeah – depends what the biomass is. Some things, even the cows won’t eat. 🙂

      On the other hand, did the Roman Empire use coal to keep their houses warm? (genuinely asking – i’ve no idea)

      >and thus hydropower. Which is still different from being able to run a steam engine wherever you want.
      For steam, if you lack coal, all you have to do is shovel wood and charcoal into the furnace.

      • But if your steam engine is <1% efficient, probably best to just keep burning it for heat. Unless you have a large surplus of wood, which has typically not been the case, at last for long. Between wooden ship navies and general population growth, deforestation was early and widespread. And charcoal takes even *more* wood to make, and labor, and you're competing with steelmaking for it.

        • Steelmaking? I think I missed something – we’re still talking pre-industrial border with the industrial revolution, right? So what was steel used for back then?
          (apologies for my not keeping up)

          • Weapons, armor, tools.

            “Compared to the other materials available for tools and weapons, high carbon ‘spring steel’ was essentially the super-material of the pre-modern world. High carbon steel is dramatically harder than iron, such that a good steel blade will bite – often surprisingly deeply – into an iron blade without much damage to itself. Moreover, good steel can take fairly high energy impacts and simply bend to absorb the energy before springing back into its original shape (rather than, as with iron, having plastic deformation, where it bends, but doesn’t bend back – which is still better than breaking, but not much). And for armor, you may recall from our previous look at arrow penetration, a steel plate’s ability to resist puncture is much higher than the same plate made of iron (bronze, by the by, performs about as well as iron, assuming both are work hardened).”

            But you also need a shitload of charcoal just to make wrought iron in bloomeries.

            Historical yields were like 4-12 kg of wood -> 1 kg charcoal, and maybe 5-16 kg of charcoal to 1 kg iron.

  4. One other factor that is seldom discussed regarding production revolutions is that there’s a lot of logistics and infrastructure that goes into turning a demonstration project into a revolution. A hand-built steam engine using the finest metals available is a great and impressive one-of-a-kind thing. Now try replicating it so that there are enough to be more than a lord’s plaything. Which implies:

    Availability of materials
    Availability of sufficiently skilled labor
    Economic or other motivation to turn it from a plaything to a revolution
    Stable food supplies for all of the workers who will be pulled off of existing (often critical to that food supply!) tasks for the nonproductive-at-present building of infrastructure for the revolution
    Replaceability of all those finest metals

    And that’s just the easy to describe stuff.

    • Why do you need replaceability of all the fine metals? Isn’t that where the higher costs come in?

      (on the other hand, one doesn’t need to *mine* for the metals – just take it from objects that aren’t used anymore, like how Roman walls were mined for bricks by later kingdoms…..or steal it, or buy it from elsewhere)

      >Availability of sufficiently skilled labor
      For the detail work and harder parts, sure. But most of the work (mining for metals, chopping trees for charcoal and parts, etc) doesn’t need an an abundance of skill beyond what was already in use.

      >stable food supplies for all of the workers
      As generous as that is, I fear you’d lose ground to your rivals who lived before the child labor laws.

      • These are all valid questions, and make clear that I didn’t communicate well enough:

        The “finest metals” are not available from antiquities… except, perhaps. Damascus steel, which is still not in a form usable for scale productions (and will be ruined by reuse). Bronze, for example, is not suitable for boilers, or for most other power-transfer uses that involve significant temperature changes. Not to mention that uniformity of metal quality generally comes only from fresh smelting and alloying with known quantity and quality of ingredients. Most important: There’s a huge difference between the hundredweight of finest steel necessary for a single Fulton steam engine… and the six or seven orders of magnitude greater quantity necessary for widescale adoption to support a “revolution”. And that’s just one example; slip back one step in the process to “making the coke necessary to turn iron into steel, predictably and reliably.” (Hint: Not just any tree will do!) In short, it’s not just the mining.

        “Sufficiently skilled” labor means “capable of solving most problems encountered in a particular craft or skill, and not just as a substitution for carrying.” Laying railroad tracks, for example, is much more than just carrying rock/ties/rails! The ability to compensate for seemingly minor cross-track variations; sensitivity to varying part qualities (and railroad ties, having a natural origin, are anything but uniform… and only got as uniform as they are through prior application of “sufficiently skilled labor”); and so on. But the key point is that poor nutrition leads to carelessness — and when one is dealing with large groups of laborers, that’s deadly in both the short and long run.

        Remember, all of these sufficiently skilled laborers are being withdrawn from present agriculture, aquaculture, and other food-provision activities. It’s not just about “child labor laws,” either, because the children are already essential food-supply-chain workers (from the fields to the shops).

        The tl;dr version: Quantity has a quality all its own, which is sort of a corollary of deities fighting on the side of the biggest legions/battalions (and I say that last because the aphorism ascribed to Wellington has its origins in classical times…).