A lone river winding through the desert. A pair of wide plains. A fragmented land of islands and mountain valleys. When you’re building a world, the land matters. The land we live in shapes the way our societies work. To see what this means, let’s look at a few examples: ancient Egypt, ancient China, and classical Greece. We’ll be zooming way out and looking at these cultures on a very large scale.
Egypt is defined by the Nile river. The Nile flows north from central Africa, making one of the few habitable spaces in the midst of the Sahara Desert. The river floods every year, bringing fertile sediment downstream. In ancient times, these floods filled the Nile valley, rising gradually and predictably before subsiding to leave the fields renewed with water and fresh soil. The Nile flood made Egypt the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean.
The Nile was also a natural corridor of movement through Egypt. The river flows from south to north, while the prevailing winds blow off the Mediterranean Sea from north to south, making it easy to travel either direction on the river. The fertile land turns abruptly to desert at the edge of the flood zone, so people were clustered close to the river.
With everyone living so close to the river, it was easy for a centralized state to keep control of the valley. For the better part of three thousand years, Egypt was a stable state with a strong central government, a record few other places in the world can match. The bountiful harvest yielded a huge surplus which was managed by the kings and used to fund massive building projects like the pyramids, to maintain a standing army, and to trade overseas for both necessities and luxuries.
China encompasses not one but two major river systems, the Huang or Yellow river in the north and the Yangtze river in the south. These two regions also have different climates and produce different staple crops. The cool, dry north grows wheat and millet, two grains which do well in well-drained temperate plains, while the warm, wet south produces rice, which needs warm temperatures and flooded fields.
These two regions complemented each other. In a particularly warm, wet year, the wheat and millet crops would suffer, but the rice would do very well; in a cool dry year, the opposite. On the other hand, they were also very different. It is not just that they experienced different weather and ate different foods, their crops required different kinds of labor organized in different ways. The landscapes in which they lived created different patterns of settlement.
The result was two distinct cultures living in close proximity. When the two could be brought together to share resources, they made a resilient society able to withstand almost any crisis, but there were powerful forces pulling that society apart. It was hard to keep both the northern and southern regions together in a unified state. The two regions tended to disintegrate and focus on local problems and local centers of power at the expense of centralization.
The competition between these two forces, one towards centralization and one towards localism, produced a history of alternating unification and disintegration. Over and over again, China was unified by strong ruling families, only to break apart into separate regions ruled by local magnates. The rise and fall of dynasties became a cycle that defined Chinese history.
Greece is a land of rugged mountains, rocky valleys, and numerous islands. The rivers are small and many dry up in the summer heat. There is very little good farmland and staple crops like wheat and barley are hard to grow. Farming is precarious and harvests unpredictable. In this fragmented and unforgiving landscape, small communities competed fiercely for essential resources of water and farmland. Every valley or island became a society unto itself, defiantly independent and hostile towards outsiders.
As the population of Greece grew, it stressed the carrying capacity of the land. The only solutions were to acquire new sources of food outside Greece or export some of the excess population abroad. Both strategies were followed. The long coastline of Greece encouraged the development of sailing ships and Greek merchants spread throughout the Mediterranean. Greek colonies also spread, some seeking new farmland and others providing safe harbors for trade.
The Greek cities developed a wide variety of different forms of organization, but all were locally self-governed with some degree of citizen participation. Having a voice in politics also led people to form factions to advance their collective interests, and the conflict between factions frequently turned violent. Ancient Greek history was a turbulent one as many cities were subject to repeated bouts of unrest and civil war while at the same time fighting with their neighbors over scraps of farmland.
Egypt, China, and Greece illustrate the profound effects that the landscape can have on a society. These effects are both positive and negative. Egypt was blessed with stability and prosperity, but this also brought stagnation and isolation. Greek society was driven to be inventive and independent, but also violent and unstable. China was wrapped up in a cycle of unification and fragmentation that produced both dynamic innovation and destructive internal conflict.
Landscape is not destiny. None of these civilizations had to develop in the ways they did, but landscape is part of the reason why they developed as they did.
Thoughts for writers
The same ways of thinking that we apply to history can be applied to fiction to help us create the context of an imagined world. Here’s a few things to think about when you’re worldbuilding:
- Fertile areas like river valleys and well-watered plains and hills support large, settled societies. Less fertile ground, such as deserts, tundra, and rocky hills, favors small, more mobile societies.
- People cluster near fresh water sources, farmland, and natural routes of travel. Rivers offer all three. In societies that have developed naturally, rivers are almost never boundaries. Imperial or conquering states favor rivers as boundaries because they are easy to define on a map.
- The easier it is to travel around an area the more likely it is to form a unified society. Open plains, lowlands, and regions well connected by rivers tend to be unified early. Highly fragmented areas like mountain valleys and islands tend to remain divided and resist efforts at unification.
- Technology can change the way people relate to the land. Irrigation and drainage turn barren land and marsh into farms. Sailing ships turn rocky coves into valuable harbors. Roads make inaccessible forests and mountain valleys part of an interconnected trade network.
The land is always with us. As long as we live on the land, the land will shape where and how we live.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.