Friday, April 9, 2010

Writing About Ancient Urban Environments


One interesting thing about writing historical fiction is the challenges you face in describing urban areas.

In the course of working on The Last Days of Jericho, I have discovered that those challenges are magnified when trying to describe an urban area with a pre-monetary economic system.

When writing a scene set in, say, Rome during the Republican era, you can entertain the reader by focusing on the things about Republican Rome that are familiar. You can stress the similarity to modern experience. John Maddox Roberts has a neat little trick he employs a couple of times in his SPQR series: the narrator will walk down the street and stop at a sidewalk vendor to buy a sausage on a roll. The reader reads this and thinks, "A hot dog cart! He just stopped at a hot dog cart!" It's a neat little point of reference that stresses the ways in which some prosaic activities in that urban environment are very similar to the reader's own experience.

The problem I encountered while working on The Last Days of Jericho is that the economy of Bronze Age Canaan was pre-monetary. Money had not yet been invented as a medium of exchange. How do you describe an urban area where no one is using money? When your narrator walks through it, what does he see? It doesn't sound that tough until you sit down and actually try to do it.

The preliminary research I did revealed that the scholarly consensus is that the Canaanite cities had what are known as Redistributive Economies on a model similar to that of Ancient Egypt. All products effectively belonged to the king or the city and would be collected and stored centrally, and then distributed by the primitive state apparatus to the population. Readers familiar with the Old Testament story of Joseph and his sojourn in Egypt can see traces of this economic system in the tale of Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams. Joseph sees the years of famine coming, and the Pharaoh increases the amount held back in storage as a result; he is then able to distribute the stored-up produce when the famine arrives.

In terms of coming up with a way to work this economic system into a novel, the first obvious modern equivalent would be the Soviet system. The obvious imagery would be to depict the Canaanites as the Bronze Age equivalent of Russian shoppers standing in long queues to receive their ration of borscht. But the problem is that Canaanite society was class-based - their Redistributive Economy was not a communist economy, despite its centralization. There was a professional warrior class, a merchant class, a class of craftsmen, etc. - all of whom appear from the archaeological and limited literary evidence to have been on different economic levels. So I needed a way to combine the diversity of Canaanite society with its economic centralization. I think I found a good way to do that - and I hope that readers will like my solution.

What did I do? You'll have to read the book when it comes out to see the answer to that question.


1 comment:

  1. My urban fiction is set 20 years in the future in an area I am familiar with. Have noticed over the years that locations seem to keep the same types of businesses in place for decades. Food locations remain food locations, office space remains as office space, etc. Sort of helpful, especially where price per square foot is high.