Why set a Fantasy Novel in the Bronze Age? – GUEST POST by Miles Cameron (STORMING HEAVEN)
Before iron helmets and steel swords, when dragons roamed the world, was an age of bronze and stone, when the Gods walked the earth, and people lived in terror.
A scribe, a warlord, a dancer, a mute insect and a child should have no chance against the might of the bickering gods and their cruel games. But the gods themselves are old, addicted to their own games of power, and now their fates may lie in the hands of mere mortals . . .
By divine plan a plague of cannibals has been unleashed across the world, forming an armada which preys on all who cross their path. Meanwhile the people who allied against the gods have been divided, each taking their own path to attack the heavens – if they can survive the tide of war which has been sent against them.
All they need is the right distraction, and the right opportunity, to deal a blow against the gods themselves . . .
An original, visceral epic weaving together the mythologies of a dozen pantheons of gods and heroes to create something new and magical, this tale of the revolt against the tyranny which began in Against All Gods is a must read from a master of the fantasy genre.
Why set a Fantasy Novel in the Bronze Age?
by Miles Cameron
The last time I was here I talked about my babysitter Sam and my writing process. You can see that here, but today I thought I’d answer the question ‘Why set a fantasy novel in the bronze age?’
There’s a number of reasons, so here goes.
First, a little about what a ‘bronze age’ is. Back in the nineteenth century, when Anthropology and Archaeology were male-dominated imperialistic non-sciences, they coined phrases like stone age and bronze age and copper age because they had societies who seemed to be technologically limited to implements made of these (supposedly) primitive materials. That made a kind of empirical sense; the stone age was when humankind was limited to stone implements.
The problem (among many problems, see Imperialism, see misogyny, etc) is that what they were looking for was technological progress, because they, (like us?) lived in a time of incredibly rapid technological progress (railroads, telegraph, telephone, etc). And they imagined progress as a linear thing; as time passed, people grew more adept at surviving and prospering in their environments, and creating governments, and all of that. And even more problematic, in the twenty-first century, is that many of these ideas of ‘technological progress’ are with us yet; we still think of things of the past as ‘primitive’ or sometimes we refer to something as ‘advanced.’ We assume that very early people didn’t understand things like economics and government, and they progressed through sacred kingship to more enlightened forms of government.
If you’ve survived my little history lesson, we’re finally to the part where I get to say why I wanted to deal with a Bronze Age. In our bronze age, from China to the Americas, humanity had great art, amazing artifacts, highly evolved religious and governmental institutions, bureaucracy, dance, martial arts, beer, wine, long distance trade, pilgrimage, incredible textiles, as well as war, slavery, standing armies, taxation, oppression, surveillance, and a host of other evils. We (that is, humanity) sported cultures that are gone now, but were both similar and utterly different from our cultures today.
So here’s three things that stuck out to me when I started to get engaged with the Bronze Age:
First, I learned from Archaeologist Colin Renfrew a single idea that hit me like a thunderbolt; that cultures in 1500 BCE were already standing atop thirty thousand years of unrecorded human prehistory. They weren’t ‘primitive’ and they weren’t ‘starting out.’ They already had a lot of time, experience, and learning ‘behind’ them in history, and we’re starting to see that come out in archaeology. To take one example (one that interests me particularly, in fact) martial arts like wrestling were, in fact, probably very advanced in fifteen hundred BCE; we have some evidence from Egypt to support this, but we also know now that other cultural techniques (like weaving and ceramics) were passed orally by practitioners since at least the seventh millennium BCE. If we use weaving as an allegory, it’s possible the martial artists of three thousand years ago were better than anything that has come since. Cool, right? So I invented a group, based on Minoan paintings, called ‘Bull-Leapers,’ (I even wrote a short story of that name, available free on my web site) combining sword fighting, wrestling, and something like parkour. Because it’s fantasy!
Second, everything about the Bronze Age, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iliad, echoes a belief that the Gods are real, and imminent; right there where you can touch them and they can wreck your life. I found this fascinating (I still do) whether it’s documents from Amarna in Egypt or legends from Syria, the gods are apparently ‘right there,’ and humans interact with them. Gods are represented in statues, jewelry, literature, tax records; there are gods everywhere, and there are hundreds if not thousands of gods, and in this case I include the Americas; the Mayans (yes, I have fallen in love with the Mayans) the Poche (a bronze-using pre-Inca culture in South America) and what we see of the various North American cultures (Hopewell etc) as well as the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Minoan, Mycenaean, and Harapan pantheons. Gods everywhere.
And finally, those gods are terrible. I mean, viewed through a modern lens, they’re worse than the most oppressive tyrant in our modern world. Even a casual read of the Iliad suggests that it’s hell for women and slaves; but with a little examination you can see it’s kind of hell for the heroes too. Agency? No one has agency; they can kill each other, but ultimately, a bunch of whimsically immortal gods with the maturity of High School bullies call all the shots, decide who lives, who dies… In a way, the Bronze Age, as represented in literature, looks like a caricature of all that’s worst in our modern world… and I thought, hey, there’s a good fantasy novel there. What if mortals revolted against the established order and tried to pull down the gods?
What if the gods were just a bunch of immortal bullies with their own problems?
There are two more reasons that I wanted to write these books in an ‘Age of Bronze.’ The first is simple: I wanted to break out of the mold of pseudo-Europe. When I wrote ‘Masters and Mages’ I placed Megara, the city at the center of my world building, in a sort of Byzantine/Turkish renaissance, and that was fun, and different, but I wanted to jump right out of my comfort zone and explore totally new cultures.
WARNING. RANT FOLLOWS
The thing is, that Amazon says these books are ‘Greek and Roman Mythology’ and that annoys me. Sure, there’s some Mycenaean/Minoan stuff; I love Mycenae, and I found it very inspiring when I went there, but that’s not Greek by a long shot. And anyway, all my Gods were inspired by Babylonian/Sumerian types; one of my major cultures, with whom the protagonists spend most of ‘Against All Gods’ are a bunch of pacifist proto-Jains loosely based on the Bronze Age Indus Valley Culture, and absolutely none of my deities reference Greek or Roman gods… Mediterranean? Yes. MesoAmerican? Yes, those gods too. India? Definitely.
Okay, rant mode off.
The last reason… well, I have to save that for when the final book of the trilogy comes out, called ‘Breaking Hel,’ next year at WorldCon in Glasgow. But let’s just say it involves dragons, and I think it will be fun.
I hope I see you there, and I hope that you enjoy my ‘Age of Bronze’.
Storming Heaven is available now. You can pick up your copy on Bookshop.org
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1962. I grew up in Rockport, Massachusetts, Iowa City, Iowa, and Rochester, New York, where I attended McQuaid Jesuit High School and later graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in history.
After the longest undergraduate degree on record (1980-87), I joined the United States Navy, where I served as an intelligence officer and as a backseater in S-3 Vikings in the First Gulf War, and then on the ground in Somalia, and elsewhere. After a dozen years of service, I became a full time writer in 2000. I live in Toronto (that’s Ontario, in Canada) with my wife Sarah and our daughter Beatrice, currently age fourteen. I’m a full time novelist, and it is the best job in the world.
I am also a dedicated reenactor; it is like a job, except that in addition to work, you must pay to participate. You can follow some of my recreated projects on the Agora. We are always recruiting, so if you’d like to try the ancient world or the medieval world, follow the link to contact us. Come on. You know you want to.