A pet peeve of mine is the whole “adventurers must eat stew” stereotype illustrated so beautifully in Diane Duane’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland. What’s worse is the inevitable “bread and cheese” that all adventurers eat, and if they get any fruit, you know it’s apples. I understand why high fantasy tends to skew medieval Europe—Tolkien was so influential that even now novels are getting sucked into the gravitational well of Middle Earth–but we can do better.
When you do find a high fantasy novel that doesn’t feel like a shadow of Tolkien, it’s usually fake Asian. Nine times out of ten, it will be Japanese, and the tenth time it will be Chinese. There are two ways authors do this. One, they take the cool bits (curved swords, unyielding armor, paper walls) and stick them into an otherwise McFantasyland setting. Sometimes readers will forgive the incongruities (like in Narnia) and sometimes it’s like sticking wings on a dog and calling it a bird.
Another way that authors make fake Asian is they heavily research 11th century China, or 14th century Japan (or what have you) and they remain true to the culture while altering it just enough that it’s something slightly new. There are people out there who like to do gobs and gobs of research, people for whom thirty hours in the graduate research library holed up with microfiche is a good time. Since neither of us are those kind of…wait, you are? If you are, just go back to your clean house and your well-behaved children or whatever people like you have and skip the rest of this essay.
If you’re like me, and you don’t like research, I’ll tell you how to grow your own unique culture.
It starts with food. Everyone eats, right? Well, what do they eat?
First consider your latitude, your rainfall, and your soil. Pick the main crop staples: maize, potatoes, rice, wheat/rye, manioc. Maize requires some tending and weeding, but not much, and it feeds a lot. With beans, squash, and a pinch of ash to stave off niacin deficiency, you can feed an army with maize. You can harvest maize without draught animals, because they’re planted in hillocks.
Potatoes have a huge variety, and can be grown at altitude, in poor soils, etc. With a little milk or meat, you can survive off potatoes. If you’re the Incans, you can have a dozen or more different potatoes, all adapted for different growing conditions. Or you can just pick one, and starve when the blight comes. Potatoes are great because when the rampaging armies come through, they can’t steal and/or burn your food, because you leave it in the ground. Handy, that.
Wheat and rye, as the medieval Europeans did it for centuries, was basically grown like people grow wildflower gardens: toss some seeds out there and hope for the best. If you grow wheat, you can choose between bread and pasta. (Remember pasta? Made from wheat, keeps really well? Why didn’t they have it in the middle ages in Europe? Oh yeah, too busy starving to invent stuff) For much of human history, wheat (and rice, actually) were like cigarettes in prison—too valuable for common consumption. Your poor farmboy ain’t gonna get white wheat bread. He’s going to have a coarse dense crust of rye with some icky mealy chestnuts to fill it out.
But let’s say your people eat rice. Rice requires intensive agriculture. You can have several crops in a calendar year, but you have to plant one crop while the other is still in the field, so you need a lot of manpower. Rice paddies take a lot more cultivation than wheat fields. (Wheat is easy. I have 0.00023 acres in my back yard right now. It pretty much grows on its own.) According to Malcolm Gladwell’s charming theory, rice farmers are going to believe more in the power of their own efforts, and wheat farmers are going to believe more in luck. Rice farmers control the flooding through irrigation. Wheat farmers wait for rain.
But when you have to control when your fields are flooded, your society needs a fairly tight societal organization, because someone has to figure out who gets the water when. But there’s a trade off, because you can support a lot more people per acre, you can have non-farmers, which means inventors, and bureaucrats, and artisans, and philosophers, so you can invent clocks and fireworks and the middle class. You can also have soldiers, which means you can conquer other people.
But what if you started out like China, only instead of inventing fireworks and the abacus and noodles and paper, you invented something else? Like the steam engine? Or necromancy? Or teleportation? What if you started out like Japan, but somewhere in the tenth century you took a detour, and things started to change?
What if you had a hierarchical, rice-paddy and warlord culture that wouldn’t know a folding fan if it hit them in the face?
What if instead of sticking wings on a dog and calling it a bird, you started with a bird and let it mutate until it became something else?