Worldbuilding: Trips Through History’s Blind Alleys

Sometimes there’s a little too much “story” in history. At least the way it’s usually taught; event A leading to war B leading to nations with borders C, forever and ever, amen.

As with anything else related to humans, this is way too simple. Yes, to a certain extent a general history book has to simplify things, so we can hopefully all draw on a common knowledge of historical events. (Supposedly. These past few decades, schools have been falling down on that.) But writing history as if this was the inevitable course of events puts our past at an artificial remove. It obscures a crucial truth: our ancestors were making choices, as we do today, based on the best information they had available – as we do today. Hence the Battle of New Orleans, fought and won by Andrew Jackson after a peace treaty had already been signed. Word just hadn’t gotten there yet.

On top of concealing the fact that things could have gone differently, telling history as a straight line of events leaves out some of the most oddly interesting bits, because they didn’t make an obvious difference to Major Historical Events. Those odd bits, events, and people off the beaten track, are prime fodder for worldbuilding. I’ll pull out three examples: the Incan wheel, the Spanish hunt for Lewis and Clark, and the lost samurai mercenaries of Southeast Asia.

The Incas had the concept of the wheel, as seen in children’s toys, centuries before the conquistadors showed up. Yet so far as we know it was never used for anything but toys. Why, no one’s sure. Mountainous terrain? No proper harness for llamas and alpacas to pull with their full strength? Or just the horribly oppressive Incan bureaucracy? When you consider their bureaucratic oversight included mummified bodies on the councils… well, deadweight has a whole new meaning. Sobering proof that you don’t need the invention of paper to have the government wreck your life.

So what if you had a culture like the Incas, but had burned all the bureaucrats? (Or at least the mummies.) What would that look like?

Then there’s the hostile meeting that didn’t happen between the Mexican Army and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Bear in mind that at the turn of the 19th century, nobody Western knew where the Missouri River went. The government of New Spain was worried our intrepid American explorers would find it drained areas rich with gold and silver mines in their territory, which would have been a financial disaster. So starting in 1804 the governor of New Mexico was ordered to seek out, find, and imprison or turn away the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They made four attempts over the next two years, only to be stymied by geography and their own cultural assumptions. First, the headwaters of the Missouri don’t go anywhere near New Mexico, and they ended up searching hundreds of miles south of where Lewis and Clark actually were. Second… those leading New Spain assumed this was an expedition in the Spanish style. As in huge, hundreds if not thousands of people, traveling slow and easy to find. The reality that the expedition was moving light and fast with only about 40 people never occurred to them. Leading to all too many RL scenarios along these lines.

New Mexican Army: Where are the Lewis and Clark Expedition?!?
Local Indians: Who?

This has plenty of worldbuilding and setting potential as-is – imagine being one of those soldiers! But you also have to wonder what happened, or didn’t happen, because those troops were out beating the bushes instead of available for deployment.

Then there’s the Japanese mercenaries of Southeast Asia. China employed Japanese pirates as mercenaries from at least 1300 AD on, and no few daimyo in the Sengoku Era claimed these wakō as their ancestors. China, Korea, the Philippines, Siam – even Manila (and from there Mexico City!) saw Japanese mercenaries up through the late 1600s. Note that after 1635 anyone of Japanese descent outside the county couldn’t go back without being executed by the shogun’s order. Warriors exiled from their homeland, only their skill with a sword to fall back on – any adventure story could use this.

When you build a world, look for the complicated bits of history. It’s worth it!


36 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Trips Through History’s Blind Alleys

  1. Interesting what-if; The Viking settlements in Newfoundland managed to survive, either by accommodation with the natives, and/or more colonists. When you consider how difficult life could be in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland, if there had been (more?) communication/realization of the opportunities in North America, I wonder if there wouldn’t have been a impetus to find a new frontier.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, if the Norse had gone south, they would have run into more powerful and belligerent tribes, for the most part. They might have been able to get into the trading network, though, and we might have found out what the Hopewell folks were worshipping.

      But then all the Mississippian/Mexican culture shows up. Corn good, genocidal warfare and human sacrifice bad.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Eh, oral history lasts at best 150 years, and that’s with specially trained professionals. After that, it’s time immemorial.


      1. Actually, from what we know in history, they were a lot safer to be around – being iced in part of the winter and their long ocean voyages tended to make it so epidemics ran their course before they could get across the ocean. Same phenomenon is visible in the area today – once the ports freeze, there’s an inevitable bout of colds going around a couple weeks, then everyone’s virus-free until spring again.


  2. Note that after 1635 anyone of Japanese descent outside the county couldn’t go back without being executed by the shogun’s order.

    Oooh, something to research for my evil space empire….. (They functionally do this, but if I can find some stuff to echo it’ll be richer.)

    Liked by 3 people

      1. This is when I look at a lot of “historical setting” anime/manga… and decide it’s a good thing no one looks/thinks too closely about the Fridge Horror involved with having a good number of characters have non-Japanese features/coloring in the eras it often takes place it.

        It goes double if those characters are of supernatural origin who could reasonably still be around a few centuries later and could easily be holding a grudge about the time they got kicked out of their country of origin…

        Liked by 4 people

      2. I’ve heard that, just as we Westerners tend to think anime characters look ‘white’, the Japanese tend to think anime characters look ‘asian’.

        Essentially, cheap drawing techniques skimp on the details and the brain fills it in.


        Liked by 2 people

  3. Something that would have had a seismic shift in world history, is if the cultural/societal dynamics/imperatives that caused ancient Chinese kingdoms/empires to give up on exploration and expansion by sea. I’ve heard that Chinese junks were more seaworthy than some of the ships the great European explorers and traders used… Since there was actually such a diverse number of Chinese people, and a lot of conflict between them, it’s surprising in a way, that there wasn’t any significant movement to find a new place to settle…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem was, so far as I can tell from reading about those sea voyages, was that imperial bureaucracy. Without serious nations competing against each other, the bureaucrats decided overseas adventures roused up too much trouble at home and promised people a means of escape.

      They didn’t want people to have a new place to settle.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Also the voyages they did go on were less “exploration” and more “Emperor’s Ego Trip.”

      They actually went out to smaller nations, paid them to send envoys back to China to compliment the Emperor and declare fealty… then went out again to send them back.

      They had no real intent to trade/colonize at all.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. IIRC, female descendants would speak for the mummified emperors. Dunno if that meant using a divination method or just making stuff up and calling it the psychic voice of the dead, though.

      However it worked, by the time the conquistadors showed up, there were enough mummy rulers around that replacing the undead tyrants was starting to seem pretty attractive.

      Story idea: Somewhat like the Brenden Fraiser movies, the families were keeping the mummies trapped, tapping into their divine emperorship for power . . . then when the foreign invaders overthrew the system, the mummies were abandoned, and after a few generations they reclaimed enough of their stolen power that they’re able to act again.

      And they’re more than a little mad at the living.


      Liked by 3 people

      1. I ran across a brief ficbit once where Johnathan had decided he’d head for the Andes next – couldn’t possibly get mixed up in more supernatural shenanigans there!

        About fell on the floor laughing at the writer’s archaeological in-joke….

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I rather enjoyed the book on the history of textiles you reviewed, and was sad when I reached the end. It really solidified the fact that I found history class boring. History itself is really interesting.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think I’m one of the very lucky few who actually had a good history teacher. While the typical small school thing of the gym teacher being tapped to teach history as well happened, the gym teacher happened to be a history geek and a collector. He could emphasize the bits that made it interesting and occasionally had something to pass around. We had the chance to handle real musket balls, and (extremely dull) bayonet blade, see the casing on a modern-ish tank bullet…

      The only thing he brought in that we weren’t allowed to handle, or at least handle the bag it was stored in, was the live airplane bullet.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I you’re interested in weirdo history bits, I have been listening to a podcast, Behind the Bastards.

    It covers the life of some really horrible people, then goes into where they came from and how their ideas and actions progressed over time.

    It’s kind of grim, but it can be funny to hear about all the cons and lies that didn’t work out for them before they got to the one that works.

    Liked by 1 person

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