Fantasy Quickstarts: The Fall of the Empire

I am still enjoying Dynasty Warriors 8 while I prepare to write my next book and a short story, Ostensibly the game is about crazy awesome heroes and villains vying for control of ancient China, drawing on the book Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which I really should read, now that I think of it) and historical elements. It is set during and after the fall of the Han Dynasty,

You can’t go back to normal after this…

I love the Fall of Empires in fiction. I often wish that post apocalyptic fiction would start during the event itself. There is something about that chaotic era during and just after a great civilization reaches the tipping point that deeply intrigues me. I do get tired of media analysts and pundits bringing up the fall of Rome in a modern context, but other than that I love the idea as a backdrop for games, literature, and historical discussions. Here are a few of my favorite fictional falling empire stories:

1) Atlantis: The Atlantis Legend is perhaps the most concentrated idea of the Fall of an Empire, a pinnacle civilization brought low. Unlike other accounts of falling civilizations the Atlantis myth often concentrates on the reason(s) behind the fall of the great civilization as a sort of cautionary tale.

2) Arthur as the Last Roman: The idea of King Arthur trying to hold out against the chaos after the Fall of the Roman Empire is a splendid take on Arthurian mythology. This is a relatively new idea (I think), an attempt to bring to bring Camelot into a more historical context.   In Mallory Arthur the Roman Empire only shows up as a villain (with war giants). There is even some interesting historical analysis that tries to link the idea of Camelot to the events in Britain after the fall of the Empire. History aside, the idea of Camelot being the last bastion of Rome (civilization) in a world about to plunge into the dark ages is very exciting.

3) Troy: The aftermath of the Trojan war spawns not only the Odyssey, but also the Aeneid. After this great event Troy is destroyed and cast down. The echoes and influences of this are if anything, more interesting than the actual tale of the end of the great city-state. In the Odyssey the Gods get a little bit of retribution against poor Odysseus, while in the Aeneid, the refugees from Troy go on to become the ancestors of Rome (which late conquers Greece, coming full circle I guess).

4) Echoes of the Great Song: David Gemmell writes up a nice portrait of a falling civilization in this often overlooked novel. In this case the civilization in question decides to go out in style, using the last of their power to face down a terrible nemesis and go out with a bang instead of hoarding their resources and descending into decadence. Pure.

5) Elric/Melnibone: The apathetic Melniboneans present an interesting picture of a great power in decline, uninterested in the world around them for the most part and unaware of any changes and challengers scheming to take their place.

What is it about the Fall of Empires that makes for a great story?

1) Epic Scale: The bigger they are the harder they fall. A tale of an Empire crashing to the ground or slowly descending into decadence before abruptly collapsing is always epic almost be definition. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a cast of hundreds. The Fall of the Roman Republic has Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and so on. This kind of collapse is tremendous by definition, and thus good fodder for Epic Fantasy.

2) Unavoidable Tragedy: When an Empire Falls it is rarely without consequence. The borders become lawless, perhaps even succumbing to invasion. The core of the Empire fall into decadence, perhaps succumbing to perverse rites and evil practices in order to ward off the impending tragedy. But once a certain point is reached the fall is inevitable and the story becomes about surviving the consequences. Without tragedy, even a little grimdark, the fall seems bloodless and is wasted as a device.

3) Chaos and Opportunity: As social order breaks down it creates opportunity. Various factions will try to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the old order. Some of these might be invaders and marauders, while others will certainly be factions that once worked under the banner of the empire and now find themselves as rivals.  The dominant group will see itself as the heir to Empire. Often this process begins long before the old order is actually stripped away. History is full of captive Emperors and cruel regents.

4) Moralization: I swear if I read another bad economic analysis of the fall of the Roman Empire I may choke a Friedmanite. However, that said, the Fall of the Empire is an excellent plot to showcase how human failings can lead to the downfall of great things. Unfortunately most authors are too heavy handed when moralizing, especially in the modern era with our fixation on fairly petty ideologies. Atlas Shrugged is a raging example of this. The best Moralizations about the fall treat the subject with sensitivity and complexity. The end of Camelot in T.H. White is an example of the later.

5) Hubris Rewarded: A truly satisfying story of the fall always contains a few powerful, arrogant people meeting their doom. It is remarkably satisfying to see a well-written chapter or two of the elite fumbling and failing to deal with change. You can’t manage your way out of a crisis…

The Fall of Empire makes for an interesting background for any epic Fantasy. Surviving the collapse and then rebuilding in the aftermath makes for a great set of stories,