Five Historical Inspirations by Christopher Ruocchio

Write on: Mon, 09 Jul 2018 by  in Blog Read 11354




Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, they say. Well I say those not-ignorant about history are doomed to borrow from it. I have been an avid student of history all my life, thanks to my father’s good influence and my having the good fortune to grow up in an era when the History Channel still knew what its own name meant. (Not that I have anything against Ancient Aliens, but would it kill them to make one documentary about the Byzantines?) Though I sometimes struggle to remember what I discussed in the morning come the end of the day, I have an annoying habit of subjecting my friends and family to stories about how the Spanish city of Zaragoza derives from the Latin “Caesaraugusta” and dates back to the first century BC; or how it seems the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang may have been built with the help of Greek sculptors; or about how Charlemagne was penpals with the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (who once sent the Holy Roman Emperor an elephant). They’ve since learned to tolerate my ramblings, for which I’m grateful.

The world of Empire of Silence shows history repeating itself in small ways, though the overarching plot isn’t based on any historical event. The Sollan Empire is by its nature deliberately reactionary and traditionalist, with humanity having organized itself into a feudal hierarchy after an ancient war against artificial intelligence.



More accurately, the Chantry is part Qing legal system and part the English-speaking world’s impression of the Catholic Church. The Chantry functions as a religious institution, but also as the Sollan Empire’s judicial system, prosecuting civil cases in addition to investigating religious crimes (most typically the possession or use of illegal technologies). In carrying out this judicial function, the Chantry’s inquisitors carry out surgical mutilations according to a strict index of appropriate punishments inspired by the practice of judicial torture during China’s Qing Dynasty, where magistrates were given full authority to torture those convicted of a crime or even in the pursuit of that conviction. Similar practices were carried out throughout the Byzantine Empire, where it was common practice to mutilate beaten political rivals in order to permanently delegitimize them in the eyes of the public.

Of course, the most famous case of a religion using techniques of systematic torture on heretics is the Spanish Inquisition, though the truth of the events are badly exaggerated and distorted by centuries of both the British and American wars against the Catholic Spanish Empire. Many of the horrors commonly associated with the Inquisition—such as the iron maiden—were never used, and most of the horror attributed to that violent, anticolonialist chapter in Spain’s history instead has its roots in wartime propaganda from the Spanish-American War and the struggles between Spain and Britain. However exaggerated the accounts of the Spanish Inquisition were, they remain excellent fodder for stories.



Many people (not you, of course) still believe that Roman gladiators were all slaves and prisoners made to fight to the death and kill one another for the amusement of the Roman public. Certainly, many slaves and prisoners did fight to the death, or were killed by lions or tigers or bears, but the gladiators themselves were superstars. Training a proper gladiator was an investment of time and money, and while some gladiators were slaves, very many were freedmen or even citizens sponsored and paid to fight. And since gladiators were such a big investment, it would hardly do to go killing them left and right for the amusement of the commons. Rather, gladiators were superstars, and Romans would debate whether a secutor-style Gladiator could beat a retiarius, or vice versa—and with the same fervor of today’s baseball fans comparing stats. In the Sollan Empire, gladiators are similarly treated as celebrities, and only ever fight in smart armor that locks up as they take damage. But the Sollan peasants like a good death every now and then, and so the professional gladiators will often square off against the myrmidons—a combination of paid volunteer fighters and prisoners. The myrmidons don’t have the luxury of high tech armor, either. They might triumph by locking up their enemy’s armor, but make no mistake: for the myrmidon pit fighters, it’s do or die.



To say the English poet Lord Byron cuts a unique figure is to undervalue the term. Born with a club foot and a chip on his shoulder, he forced himself to ride horses and learned to box and swim. Something of a rebel without a cause, he fought for Greek Independence and died of fever at age 36 attempting to liberate that country from the Ottomans. Himself a nobleman, he resented rank. He was prone to sullen rages and thoughts of revenge, but was eminently likable and charismatic at the same time. He was also prone to racking up large debts and leaving behind jilted lovers and bastard children, and it’s often said that Ruthven, the main character of John Polidori’s The Vampyre, was based in no small part on Byron, who was Polidori’s friend. My hero, Hadrian, lacks Byron’s club foot and philandering habits (he’s also not a vampire, I’m sorry to say), but like Byron he’s someone not at home with himself. Like Byron, he puts little stock in the position he was born to—though he is happy to take advantage of the position when it’s useful. Like Byron, he despises authority: He’s a bit manic, and more than a bit melodramatic. He shares Byron’s love of ancient cultures and literature, and is an artist himself. Byron himself became the archetype of the so-called “Byronic Hero,” which features many of these traits, but when I started Empire of Silence it was that limping, half-mad poet I first thought of, not knowing that the man had already made himself a meme.



In order to secure alliances between houses, the genetically augmented noble class in the Sollan Empire has taken to arranging marriages once again. As in medieval Europe and elsewhere, both sons and daughters are married away where it is convenient for the families in question. But because the noble class tends to use gestation tanks to grow their children, these marriages are little more than contracts, and many noble couples—like their ancient and medieval counterparts—rarely even see one another. Moreover, these couples may be male/female, male/male, or female/female, regardless of the preferences of the two getting married—it all depends on what is convenient for the allied families. Because of this, most houses do not rest the criteria for inheritance on a child’s sex or birth order, but choose their heirs based on individual merit (as did the first four of the Five Good Emperors—including Hadrian—until Marcus Aurelius ruined everything for everyone).



My father grew up during the heyday of the Apollo program (sorry to age you, dad), and when I was little he would regale me with stories about the astronauts and the scientists who made it all possible. An engineer himself, he would tell me stories about Wernher von Braun, the Nazi-turned-NASA engineer who designed the Saturn V rocket that took us to the Moon. As a boy, the idea of this brilliant scientist changing sides after the war seemed very compelling. The scholiasts in Hadrian’s world are a set of monastic scientists who serve the Sollan Empire’s feudal lords. Like von Braun, their order began with technicians captured from the defeated Mericanii—the totalitarian system the Empire overthrew at its founding. Stripped of their reliance on machines, the scholiasts cultivated a series of mnemonics and learning techniques that help them serve as de facto replacements for computers in a world where artificial intelligence is banned. Science fiction fans will recognize echoes of Frank Herbert’s mentats in this, but this is where the early Christianity comes in. The scholiasts’ principle concern is the regulation of emotion and bias. The writings of early Christian fathers, like Origen and Evagrius, are similarly interested in banishing such passions. Evagrius in particular believed that such passions obstructed the faithful’s relationship with God. (His teachings, it should be noted, passed on through writers like Maximus the Confessor and Cassian before arriving with Pope St. Gregory the Great, who codified these passions as the Seven Deadly Sins). In a similar fashion, the scholiasts believe that their human senses and desires cloud their relationship to objective truth, and—like the early Christians and the Stoics who preceded them—they practice extreme self-restraint in order to strip away bias, desire, and subjectivity. Like Christian monks, they also preserve the literature and traditions of Earth’s Golden Age in massive libraries, such as the one on the planet Colchis where Hadrian is said to have left his diary (which begins with Empire of Silence), and like those early Christians preserved Latin well after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the scholiasts still use today’s English, even though the common language of the Sollan Empire is a pidgin of English, Hindi, and German (which I am not talented enough a linguist to have created much of).



Christopher Ruocchio is a debut novelist writing in the tradition of Dune and The Book of the New Sun. He is an editorial assistant working for a US publishing house, and lives in North Carolina, USA. You can learn more by following @TheRuocchio on twitter.


Last modified on Monday, 09 July 2018 19:10

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