Worldbuilding: About Those Mermaids

Okay, I now need to research maritime trade in Northeast Asia and beyond in the Little Ice Age period, because our heroes are going to have a lot to do with the water. Yes, land adventures are a go, but they’re also going to have to deal with mermaids, water monsters, and inevitable sea trips to go rescue people. (Not what I expected from the original idea, but… yeah.)

Jason is going to hate that. Lee Cheong probably isn’t going to feel much better – his kind of vampire still needs to breathe, if not as much as regular humans. Their ex-bandit is going to have his own pithy words on mixing salt water and muskets. Hu Qingse is likely to be using magic to get away from the water as much as possible because of achy bones. (Let’s just say cultivation/magic fixes a lot, but if you know anything about girls in Ming-era China and environs, you may guess at some lingering problems.) Their healer may be the only one not bothered much. I think. I need to work out more of her backstory.

So let’s talk about those mermaids. And pirates.

In our history, the wokou wreaked havoc from Korea south through China and beyond from about the 1200s to the late 1500s. Then China, Japan, and Korea managed to flatten a lot of pirate land bases, and some trade got reopened in China especially, and things calmed down a bit.

In a world where actual mermaids probably existed post-1300, this… may have gone differently.

So I need to figure out how it’s different, given a lot of pirates may be able to breathe underwater. (The bunnies insist that not all pirates are merfolk, and not all merfolk are pirates, but there’s a lot of overlap.)

One thing to take into consideration is that now very small islands without freshwater sources or much food to eat can be viable pirate hideouts. If mer-pirates can drink the seawater or underwater springs, and fish freely as any nomadic hunter, they can just disappear into the waves when they feel like it and pop up later when a ship to target comes by. At which point, pirates now become a lot more like various nomadic peoples eyeing all the high-status shinies on fat, juicy trade caravans….

(China and Korea: Oh great, now we have seagoing Mongols. Augh.)

This implies that every merchant ship needs to carry not just marines, but ways to tell when someone’s cutting into your hull. Yikes.

I haven’t worked out all the kinks yet, but I can already tell you that this will make water travel – historically favored because it’s fast and at least not any more dangerous overall than any other option – a lot less attractive. Also, you wouldn’t have large merchant vessels. One big ship is a huge investment and an easy target. With a lot of smaller ships, at least some will get through.

Which would hit the historical Red Seal system hard. And the Manilla galleons.

…More research!

42 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: About Those Mermaids

      1. Hopefully with more consent involved then the Selkie stories! And fewer children with scarred hands and feet. *shiver* I always liked the stories that ended with her finding her skin, taking the kids and going best.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Huh. Actually, the Red Seal Ships maybe not so much. Have a few mer-persons with each ship, decked in bright neurotoxic red, and then you’d have an underwater warning that these are protected ships. If a few coastal villages were quietly encouraged to intermarry with the mer, and then received great honors for any children entered into the service of the shogun/emperor, it’s a whole new dimension to ‘marines’ and naval service towns.

    Now, having mer-persons as messengers that I can see happening, especially between naval fleets. Still prey to all of the dangers of regular messengers, but can carry more weight than a messenger pigeon. I can also see merchant fleets deciding that having a mer-guard would be worth the expense. It would be interesting to see what the mers would consider worth trading for, and you’d have the usual attendant risk of being sold out by your guards, but they’d have that overland as well.

    So, a little more three dimensional, but no worse than land travel actually. And mer-scouts could at least find the shoals before the ship did. Mer-smugglers would be an issue too.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. *Thumbs up* See, this is the kind of thing I need to work out!

      (Mer-pirates are still horrible.)

      Edit: Although that bit about coastal villages intermarrying with the merfolk… I know it may not be obvious, but given magic didn’t exist in this world prior to 1264, where did you think the merfolk came from?

      Liked by 4 people

      1. There are some really freaky posts on tumblr about mermaids, their ‘hair’ really being fronds like anemones, and other things. I wasn’t thinking too hard about the origins actually. Given Japan gave us such woodcuts as the Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, I didn’t dare speculate.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. hmm… So, obviously, the Mer are just one group of people with geologic/geographic based magical mutations. Was it sudden-onset for a random assortment of people of varying ages and skills, or was it a group of babies born that way? Either one can have disastrous consequences for those affected, given most semi-isolated groups back then really didn’t like that which was different from them trying to live among them. But if there were babies born that way, that opens up a whole other conversation about how it might affect all involved. The parents of such a child might become considered “tainted”, but it would be measurably worse for the mother than the father, given the social norms of the time.

        Have you done much thought on how other semi-isolated groups, such as those who live in deserts or mountain valleys, might be affected?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’m working on the details, but sudden onset is unfortunately possible even in the story’s present. Although that usually takes intentional action by the person inflicting it.

        And yes, there will be other “monsters”. Some of whom are considered civilized….

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So the first part is observation.
    How do the mermaids know a ship is there?
    How far can they see underwater?
    If they go up to the surface, how far can they see with their head barely above the waves?
    If they climb a tree as a lookout, how quickly can they communicate with the people in the water?

    There might be some convenient places that a ship has to pass by, but it’d be really easy to miss a few dozen ships at the wrong time, or wrong weather, or wrong location.

    The next step is interception.
    4 knots sounds slow until you’re trying to swim to catch a ship.
    Being ahead of it, and in it’s path requires better observation.
    Trying to sprint to intercept would require being relatively close, and runs the risk of only a few actually succeeding, and possibly being exhausted when you get there.

    The next step is taking the ship.
    Trying to crawl up the side of the ship is not a great situation.
    If the crew has spears, they can basically just stab you as you climb.
    If you have the power and speed to launch yourself over the rail, that implies a significant amount of physical ability, but it also runs the risk of being caught in rigging.

    The more ruthless method of sinking the ship would be tricky too.
    A ship hull isn’t actually that weak, and tridents aren’t meant for stabbing through it.
    What tools would they use?

    If they do have a method to pierce the hull, it’s all over.
    There’s no way for the crew to effectively fight through the hull, and they can keep adding holes until it goes under.

    A depth change might work, but I wouldn’t want to be in the wood-hulled boat right next to the depth charge either.

    Finally, if ships are sinking, then people would stop sailing.
    Pirates that seize a cargo might be hard on the bottom line, but a big company can compensate with numbers.
    Losing ships over and over would grind them down much faster.

    So here’s the most probable way I see it work.
    A handful of mermen are clinging to the ship, and they punch a few small holes.
    While the crew is distracted by that, one crawls on deck and says “give us X amount of cargo or we’ll keep punching holes.”

    Then it’s just a matter of getting the cargo out without a dockside crane.

    The only question is what the heroes could do about it?
    Sappers basically trump everything in this scenario unless you get into really exotic powers.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. (Noodling out loud)

      If the mer-pirates made a practice of sinking ships:

      What cargoes are being carried? How will those cargoes respond to being submerged in salt water? Perishables that are not in water-proof packaging will be a loss. Recovering sunken metal ingots might require the mer-people to operate salvage shops of their own (because just how much dead weight *can* an unaided mer-person bring up from, say, 300 feet deep)? OK, float bladders could well be very useful for raising sunken cargoes … but then there is getting the cargoes transferred to places where they can be sold (smuggling “centers,” I guess)?

      Can the mer-pirates make a profit from cargoes recovered from sunken ships? Or would the sinking threats be enough to get enough crews to surrender? (Looking at how regular piracy functioned as a social interaction would probably throw some light on this, shrug)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Regular piracy generally got people to surrender without a fight, because it was notorious that pirates would give no quarter if you fought.

        Some pirates wouldn’t even torture you to find out where you hid your valuables if you surrendered. Very, very, very important to ensure that as as norm, since after all, they would rather die less painfully and possibly taking some of you with them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You have to add magi-tech to this consideration. Control of water or rock gives you drills, weather magic gives you storms or be calmed seas. And if we’re borrowing on Eastern elements rather then western Wood and Metal are what a ship is. If you’re strong enough you can command a ship to you atleast tell the boards to part.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Its easy to find ships. You just lay in wait around the ports. Its like staking out water holes for deer. But it would be easier to collect protection money from the larger trading ships, and a shipmaster would find it easier to pay protection money to a Merfolk clan then it would be to have a fight. Also a merperson would make a fine pilot for tricky ports and narrow passages.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. But staking out ports puts you in a fixed(ish) location, which makes you vulnerable. Any decent port will aggressively patrol for merfolk — they don’t have to *find* them, just keep them from “wolfpacking” on ships in the nearby waters. By pushing even a modest “safe zone” radius out from the port proper, the patrols can expand the ships’ course options enough that the mer-pirates odds of success depend as much on luck as on skill.

      Which won’t make it *safe* for ships, any more than the Allies’ sub-hunting made merchantmen “safe” from U-Boats in 1942-1943. But they *did* make it so that the U-boats didn’t have everything their own way, which was enough to get *enough* convoys through, against the U-boats’ best efforts, until the war reached a point where the U-boats were definitely losing.

      It’s a constant cat&mouse game. But if cargoes are valuable enough to warrant the risk (and pay the insurance premiums), crews will sign on and take their chances. Ports will receive ratings (formal or informal) for how safe-ish they make their local waters, which will influence shipping costs and insurance rates.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Human brains take a lot of calories, and we know some stuff about surface calorie availability.

    I’m not sure how to calculate such for underwater.

    So, I’m not sure how to calculate carrying capacity for what population densities.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Re: nomads, I have been startled by just how many nomad dynasties there were in China. Liao is Khitan tribe. Jin is Jurchen. A bunch of others too.

    Every so often, you realize anew that the standard Chinese historical narrative is BS. Arghhh.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yeah, I almost started raving about the Qing.

        They, the Manchu, were foreign. Basically, IIRC, the Jurchen under a different same.

        Took over China, and impose the Queue (I think I used the wrong word) on the Han as a symbol of foreign control.

        Han considered hair cutting disrespectful of parents, and rebelled several times. The violetn suppression of those weakened the Qing, and imperial ability to project force, and that point Europeans were able to negotiate some things by force.

        Well, current internal narratives seem to be pretty purely painting things in terms of outrage at the later ‘foreign’ influence.

        Temporarily leave aside the fact that most European, and European cultural origin, nations are also pretty terrible in a lot of ways. Why shouldn’t modern China be ruled from the outside by a European power? (Okay, empires suck, and that is a recipe for a really sucky empire. But, what reason inside of Chinese histography, and political theory based on that histography?)

        The mainstream history of China, within China, is a continual justification of incompetent attempts at empire based in disastrous philosophy. They basically have to burn down the bureaucracy and reorganize, whenever the bureaucracy again figures out how to converge on completely impossible.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Re: magical marines, merpeople would also be handy in rivers, but they would need radar or something. Canals probably too shallow and crowded.

    Re: calories, pre-modern shellfish beds were ridiculously huge. Fisheries too. That is not even mentioning bird rookeries, sea cucumbers, seaweed, etc.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh, but colder water is unattractive to a lot of fish and shellfish, although Arctic and subarctic fish might have come south during the Little Ice Age.

        Re: the rebounding fisheries and coral reefs caused by the last few years being La Nina years.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. Not radar. Radar a) often sucks a lot in water b) I have never heard of a successful biological radar example c) the electric field sensing that some creatures use I don’t know enough about to understand if it could possibly be considered radar.

      Sonar is the same principles as radar, but the different type of wave, and the sorta different medium, makes biological implementation much more practical.

      But, I’m not sold on it for merpeople. For passive sonar, you would only need really good ears, or an alternative auditory sensor or set of sensors. For active sonar, you want a way to generate sounds or clicks. By preference, for really good use, you want directional ways to listen, and to generate sound, and you want to be able to ‘scan’ with one or both.

      The default option would seem to be to put the added/modified ‘hardware’ in the head of the merperson, and add or repurpose some brain mass for the signal processing. That makes me go “Nope. Will not fit without compromising effective intelligence levels.”

      But, the thing is, humans generate sound in very different ways from Dolphins, who I gather are making clicks inside their head.

      We use our lungs and vocal chords. Especially given Sirens, if merpeople breath underwater, unlike Dolphins and Whales, we can postulate underwater singing.

      My feeling on auditory sensors, give them a set in the tail that goes away when they transform to walk on land. You could then handwave any sensory processing with a specialized nervous cluster, below the level of a secondary brain, that does have nerves leading into lungs and into the tail ears. This might mean that merfolk have a deep visceral attachment to song.

      Would give you an excuse for a mermaid setting above the water, singing, transformed, with the tail in the water for hearing experience.

      Alternative, we probably are not worrying much about the neural budget for the sensory processing for the magic sense. So, magic sense could work.

      Some merfolk being song wizards would allow for sirens, and allow them to be working with pirates, which seems to make a fair amount of sense here.

      One case could be a background for the healer. Mermaid, magical powers, did not want to use them for the tribe’s piracy and murder, ran away. A more dickish to whoever it dealing with it varient, not appropriate for an protagonist, pretendign to be a such a runaway, but actually using it as a cover to collaborate with pirates.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is indeed an option for the healer, I’ll have to chew it. 🙂 ATM bunnies seem to be going with jiaoren (dragon flood people) and same-bito (shark people) variants. The jiaoren tend to be more riverine and estuaries, and associate more closely with civilized landfolk. The same-bito… not so much.

        (Jason hates sharks so much.)


      2. Sharks have an electric field sense.

        Dragons in Chinese mythology, as well as some of the other Dao animals (what that one essay on Japanese animal youkai calls, I think, witch animals or witch creatures), have a dragon pearl or (at least for foxes) an orb. This is maybe something that can be used for sensing somehow.

        But, I would definitely endorse auditory/singing mermaids somewhere in the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. “… same-bito (shark people) variants …”

        I wonder how susceptible your shark people would be to losing their higher brain functions when there’s blood in the water?

        And then questions about their culture? Because if they *were* susceptible to feeding frenzy, any of them that valued their rational faculties would probably not want to be pirates. Perhaps leading to conflict of subcultures? Shark cultists who decide that they *want* to be their big, bad, bloodthirsty “authentic” selves?

        Eh, in this scenario shark cultists wouldn’t be very successful pirates either (because too much with the killing and therefore too little with the stealing). So you probably don’t want to go that way. 😦 (I was getting kind of interested in the “shark people majority culture is actually either very deliberately peaceful or very deliberately far away from the water” idea, lol)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. So I need to figure out how it’s different, given a lot of pirates may be able to breathe underwater. (The bunnies insist that not all pirates are merfolk, and not all merfolk are pirates, but there’s a lot of overlap.)

    The tactical advantage is simply too much to have any other result– like how so many violent criminals are big guys. The ones that have a physical advantage are more likely to survive.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Regarding why shipping was popular: moving heavy and/or bulky cargo over *water* is *much* easier (and cheaper) than going overland. It’s why Europe had lots of canals before they had the capacity to build good roads, and why lumber from the west end of Lake Superior was reaching the East Coast decades before any roads or rail lines reached that part of North America (and why the Intercoastal Waterway and the Mississippi are still major parts of shipping inside the USA today).

    Water also doesn’t need maintenance, unlike roads. Canals need maintenance, but far less than roadways, or even rail, for the same carrying capacity. And you can move cargo without *requiring* well-developed port facilities at either end, so the barriers to entry are much lower than using roads (which you have to build first).

    I’m not up on Korean shipping circa 1600s, but I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t easier to ship heavy loads from the eastern coast to the western coast of the peninsula by water “the long way” as opposed to taking the direct route overland. And if you can make that trip, reaching some parts of Japan or China is actually *easier*, so….

    Hm… navigation was always the big hurdle for taking ships far from the coasts. Does anyone come up with navigation *magic*?

    If mer-pirates and other nasties are a Real Problem for shipping, well, we have magic now — surely that can be of *some* use in early warning? “This route scrys risky, try the alternate.” “Captain, I’m detecting something midships, halfway between the keel and waterline. Could be barnacles, could be Mers trying to knock a hole in us.”

    (suddenly, the Potterverse’s Bubblehead Charm and Gillyweed are looking a lot more attractive)

    More pirates that are harder to stamp out will raise the cost of shipping, and the taxes to support naval patrols, and insurance premiums, and hazard pay for crews. This will make economically viable some inland transport means that were marginal IRL. So there’d be more pressure to build roads and canals. Not to mention looking at what, if anything, can be done with magic.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Not finding a reply thread for this yet, so… what about other monsters from other cultures?
    Hippocampi from Greece (literal sea-horses), krakens from norse mythology, most of Polynesia myths and legends, giant sized sea creatures, kelpies from Celtic lore…
    Trade might see these be domesticated and traded from sea to sea. Now you can have real Sea-Mongols

    Liked by 1 person

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