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Background: I am currently writing my first fantasy novel and the nation/continent on which my story takes place is an island roughly the size of New Zealand. It consists of two nations who split off from each other roughly 200 years before the start of the story due to significant ideological differences over the use of magic and the story revolves around a war between magic users and non-magic users. I haven't fleshed out the magic system extensively yet, but at the moment it is telekinetic in nature and is very limited in capability.

My question is: Is it possible for these two nations to have existed in isolation from the rest of the world and still have reached an early-modern/industrial revolution level of technological development without outside influence and trade?

Further details: I'd like the tech level to be equivalent to around the early 1700s in Europe. Just before the beginning of the industrial revolution. After much research about that time period and technological developments, however, I realize that that level of technology came with centuries of international trade between nations around the world. As a result, I'm getting bogged down with the story and world building because although my story centers around a war in these two island countries, I feel it's implausible to not have international trade and keep the technology level I'm going for. And if there is international trade then I feel it's logical to assume those other countries would have a stake in the war and the politics and alliances would come into major play in the outcome of the war. And now I'm trying to build this whole outside world and figure out the cultures of their main trading partners and the implications of the magic and how they interact with each other, when really the story centers on just these two nations and I'm spending so much time and energy into crafting the world instead of the story itself. Is it enough to casually say "there are imports and exports" and then ignore the implications for the sake of the story, or to say these two nations really are isolated out in their ocean and there is no trade or outside influence? Or will that be a stumbling block in the logic of the world because there is no way for that level of technological development to occur in isolation?

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    $\begingroup$ You are largely overestimating the importance of long-distance international trade before 1700. In reality, the importation of ideas and knowledge were by far more important than the importation of goods. And there were plenty strictly regional wars in Eurasia in the 1700s, were there was little involvement of powers other than the actual beligerents. As practical examples, consider the Russo-Turkish war of 1710–1711 or the Russo-Persian war of 1722–1723; the massive Great Northern War. They were very important for the peoples involved, but the rest of the world didn't care much. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 8 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ @slarty That's one of the things I am trying to figure out. If trade is a necessity, then they would be somewhat close. The options are endless. If trade isn't a necessity, then they would be oceans away. $\endgroup$
    – CemHill
    Jan 8 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ In our world, countries and regions that can't or don't trade or communicate with outsiders don't develop into technologically advanced societies, they tend to either stagnate or regress, see pre-colonial Tasmanian Aborigines (when compared to Aborigines on the Australian mainland) and modern North Koreans. $\endgroup$ Jan 8 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Bronze says hello. The Bronze Age Mediterranean and Middle East depended on bronze for a lot of its metallurgy, and whereas it could get copper from places like Cyprus it had to get tin from either the British Isles or Central Asia. Disruption of the global trade in materials necessary for bronze working has been suggested to be a factor in the Bronze Age collapse $\endgroup$ Jan 9 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Cemhill I don't think they need to trade. They just need to set up a colony of the required technology level and then the mother country to disappear (asteroid impact perhaps) $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jan 9 at 10:26
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I doubt very much that this isolated island would develop as you hope. Part of the reason being the likely lack of suitable domesticatable animals as beasts of burden and also the likely lack of plants that would breed true to allow the development of a reliable crop.

Islands are particularly vulnerable to these effect, but even whole continents can be affected. Case in point why did the Europeans discover Australia rather than the Australians discovering Europe? It has nothing to do with human genetics and everything to do with the available flora, fauna and geography.

These points are developed in Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel#Agriculture

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    $\begingroup$ Just a note: Mr. Diamond's entertaining book is entirely driven by ideology. It has nothing serious to say about historical determination. How come it was Europeans who became masters of India, and not Indians masters of Europe? How come the immense and populous Chinese empire lost two consecutive wars against a ridiculously small British expeditionary force? How come the Ottoman empire crumbled into dust, leaving behind a bevy of poor disfunctional countries? The Indians, the Chinese had the exact same plants, animals and natural resources as Europeans; and the Turks were in Europe. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 8 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ @slarty I have found Guns, Germs, and Steel very helpful. In theory, and correct me if I'm wrong, but due to fantastical magic and flora/fauna couldn't I get away with a bit of hand-wavium to compensate for domesticated animals and crops issue regarding islands as long as it logically makes sense within the world? $\endgroup$
    – CemHill
    Jan 8 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Yes, it doesn't have much to say about that. Failing to say everything doesn't mean it says nothing. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Jan 8 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Diamond's book explicitly asks why Eurasian cultures tend to predominate, not Europe, as highlighted by several answers here (history.stackexchange.com/questions/1095/…). Indeed, some arguments (latitudinal area) only make sense in the context of Eurasia, not Europe. Diamond makes it very clear he treats Eurasia as a unit rather than Europe, which is basically "Asia's weird appendix". GGS has problem but that argument and claiming its "driven by ideology" is just a mischaracterized strawman. $\endgroup$ Jan 9 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP what ideology do you think is driving Jard Diamond? $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jan 9 at 10:21
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Can they reach 1700s technology level independently? Likely yes. Can they stay isolated in the process? Highly unlikely.

The size of New Zealand is rather small to develop a civilization on the brink of industrial revolution, but as the other people suggested it is possible. The bigger problem is how to keep this civilization isolated throughout the process.

Here on Earth the age of caravels predates 1700s by centuries. Either this nation would find the other lands, or the rest of the planet would find them. How much this would affect your story I don't know, but it appears to be a no-no for your scenario.

Thus, you will need ways to impede sea travel.

  • Make your landmass very isolated (but how did humans colonize it in the first place, hmm);
  • Make sea weather rough on your planet, particularly in regions close to this landmass. Or, alternatively, make those regions perfectly calm;
  • Make navigation problematic (unreliable compass reading, near-permanent cloud cover etc.);
  • If magic is in play, use sea monsters, giant whirlpools, areas of permanent fog, or just make this landmass wander like Themyscira.
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for this comment. The struggle to keep it isolated has definitely been on my mind and your comment got a few brainstorms going. I'm thinking a magical cause of problematic navigation would fit into the world I've already created and it could reduce trade to the point I need it to be, but could also allow SOME ideas and knowledge to leak through to help with technology. $\endgroup$
    – CemHill
    Jan 8 at 20:18
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YES and also NO...

You've already stated the understanding and a study of European / Occidental history in particular demonstrates that technology relies on a pyramid of previous technological advancement, scientific advancement, cultural & religious advancement. And these advancements go all the way back into the Neolithic.

So there are a couple ways that the answer could be either Yes or No. If your proposed countries have the wherewithal to come up with proper science, the way it developed in the West, then I'd say the answer could be Yes indeed! They may or may not end up with every piece of technology the UK had in the early 1700s. You may have different technologies for example. (Proto airships? Megatherium drawn trains?). It could also be no: they could be lacking whole technologies we take for granted, like firearms.

One way this can happen is that the concepts of science & technological & cultural & religious advancement came to the islands say 400 or 500 years before your story starts and then for some reason contact was lost. Perhaps a cataclysm or war or plague or combination struck the Outlanders and they never came back. Thus the seeds would be planted and the natives would be left to their own devices to tend that outside endowment.

As for your underlying plaint: try not to become discouraged and bogged down! I usually recommend a writer to build as full a world as possible, which would include all your outside countries. But for the purposes of this story, I think you can probably get away without it for now. It's enough for us Readers to know that there are other countries out there and that they were once in contact and have not been for some time. You don't need to explain, you don't need to justify. Maybe for a sequal novel, you can work on those other countries and perhaps introduce them into the history of these isolated countries.

For historical comparison: consider the history of Japan. Until modern times, it had been very isolationist.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes it might work if there was contact that was then lost. I suggest the island was very remote and in the opposite hemisphere. Perhaps an asteroid impact would fit the bill if it landed on the originating civilization it might be wiped out or put back hundreds of years. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jan 8 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ This was very helpful! Thank you so much! The idea of having idea seed-planting trade previously, but then it was stopped or severely reduced would actually fit in really well to the history I have created before. I will do more research on Japanese isolationism. $\endgroup$
    – CemHill
    Jan 8 at 20:07
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Yes. Replace religion with first alchemy, and then science.

Quoting Daniel Jackson from Stargate Sg1:

We'd be colonizing space right now if it weren't for the Dark Ages. There was a period of over 780 years where science was heresy and anathema

I actually slightly disagree with the fictional doctor here - dark ages werent that boolean or uniformly applied over the planet and his statement is a massive simplification, but I think his point is otherwise the key to your situation.

Your people never got the "good news" about Jesus Christ, Mohammed, or any other major religion. Instead they turned away from all "Gods" after a disaster destroyed their temple and all the true believers in it, and became mostly non denominational, and their smarter people started with alchemy, experimenting with the physical world to try to understand it. This led to the early independant discovery of basic chemistry, and more importantly, scientific method.

Lacking world trade they have missed inspiration for certain technologies, but because they've been working at it for longer than Europe and skipped some of the darker periods of history where no advancements were made, they're able to advance at approximately the same level.

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    $\begingroup$ A big issue is population - a country the size of New Zealand might have something like 1/1000th of the world population. Even if they skip the dark ages, "per-capita scientific advancement" will have to occur at a rate far faster than the rest of the world to keep up. For this to work, ten isolated scientists would have to do the work of ten thousand scientists who can communicate freely. Even if they have 10 times as long to make the advancements, you're still talking about a 100:1 ratio. $\endgroup$ Jan 8 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ So we're just going to ignore the Islamic Golden Age and the the advancements in chemistry (alchemy), math (algebra), and medicine, among others made in an explicitly theocratic state? The Western European scientific tradition didn't just pick up from where Western Rome left off, they expanded on what the Byzantines and Arabs had discovered before them. And China was busy inventing gunpowder during the same interval. $\endgroup$ Jan 9 at 1:58
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The answer to your question is very long and complicated, but the long answer is probably not. There are a lot of reasons why, but some of the most prominent are...

TL;DR: Countries either get ahead through an abundance of resources and manpower, or profitable trade and cross-pollination of ideas when countries lack those resources. Your two isolated countries have none of these things. By definition due to its smaller size it's going to have less resources and population, and if it's isolated it's going to have no way to keep up with other countries by controlling trade routes or importing foreign advancements in technology.

  1. Resources. Smaller countries tend to have less resources. If they're on an isolated island those resources are going to be even less. If they're isolated they can't easily trade for resources they're missing. Missing some of those resources could be potentially crippling in terms of technological development.

For example the two main ingredients of bronze: copper and tin, are almost never found together, and bronze manufacture typically involves extensive cross-continental trade. You can make bronze using arsenic and copper, but the fumes are toxic and it's not as good. What happens if your island has no copper deposits? You're much less likely to ever realize the usefulness of bronze, and you'll be much less likely to develop iron working because iron working involves much hotter temperatures and is harder to smelt than copper. What happens if your country has no easily accessible deposits of coal or oil? We already see today how access to fossil fuels can make or break a country's economy. Gunpowder might be easy to manufacture from seabird guano, though.

As an example, it's been suggested that one reason why China never tried to become as much of an expansionistic empire as Rome or the later European colonial empires or never had much of an interest in exploration is because their location in east-central Asia gave them easy access to pretty much everything they could ever want. They had easy access to iron, copper, spices, silk, etc., in contrast to Europeans who had to go halfway around the world to get access to spices. They did make expeditions and territorial expansions to acquire better horses from Ferghana, control the Tarim Basin, and expand south to acquire bananas and more directly acquire spices, but they weren't dependent on trade.

  1. How isolated is "isolated"? Humans have a tendency to get everywhere. Our species had colonized every major landmass by about 700 CE, and did so with what amounts to Stone and Iron Age technology (the Inuit, Norse, and the numerous Polynesian cultures were not using modern technology to find these landmasses). Even really isolated landmasses often have a history of multiple waves of colonization (e.g., the native Malagasy seem to be descended from immigrants from both Africa and southeastern Asia).

The closest to what you want is the Sakoku period of Japan, where Japan closed its borders for 200 years. However, even during the Sakoku period Japan wasn't 100% isolated, it still maintained trading relationships with the Dutch for example, even if the Dutch were limited to two cities. Additionally, it wasn't like the rest of the world didn't know that Japan existed. On top of that, part of the reason sakoku ended was because Japan realized the rest of the world was advancing much faster than it, and it had the choice of either modernizing or falling behind in the technological arms race and get stomped on when someone did decide to invade them. Hermit kingdoms never do well. That said Japan does show it is possible for an island nation to remain isolated for 200 years and still have technology, but Japan had extensive contact with the rest of the world beforehand and definitely did not keep up with the rest of the world until sakoku ended.

A smaller country is also going to do more poorly if an enemy can circumvent its natural defenses of being isolated. Being island nations has helped a lot to reduce invasions for many countries, but a small island nation by definition is going to have a harder time levying a comparable army to a large island nation. What's going to decide any military campaign is if that larger nation can ship the army over and bring their greater military strength to bear.

  1. No large, domesticatable animals. Islands as a rule tend to have fewer large animal species than the mainland due to fewer chances for dispersal. The smaller land area means that fewer large herbivores can be supported, which means fewer carnivores. Additionally, when humans come to an island they tend to slaughter everything bigger than a cat on it, often by sheer accident. It's not hard because these large island animals tend to have small population size and aren't familiar with humans. Examples include the megafauna of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Madagascar, Cyprus, Sicily, the giant tortoises of the Bahamas, and so on. Even the British Isles show signs of extinction. There is no evidence that humans have ever domesticated island megafauna despite the fact that they should be highly amenable to domestication due to their passivity. The Balearic goat Myotragus has been suggested to have been tamed by the natives of that island, but this is disputed.

As a result, for the most part any domesticated animals your society has are going to be ones they brought with them. Dogs are highly likely, as are chickens and maybe rats (see: Polynesians). Large ungulates are going to be harder to bring across, especially cows and horses.

This is going to have impacts on your society. No domesticated megafauna means fewer easily available sources of meat and possibly milk or eggs. Large domesticated animals are helpful in many ways. They make the usefulness of wheels much more self-evident. They make it easier to transport goods and information. They make large-scale construction easier. They make for good food sources because you get a lot of food for little unit effort. In the American West bison and later cattle were considered an easy food source for workers because they had a lot of meat per animal.

There's also the issue that even if your society does have these things, it will also be harder to recover from fluctuations in natural resources. If the forests of your island are cut down you aren't getting any more wood. If the horses of your island die off from a plague they aren't going to be coming back from another area. You're stuck with the limited resources you have. Example: Rapa Nui. Once the forests of Rapa Nui were cut down, they didn't come back. This is very important is you have a 1700's level society, you're probably going to have rampant deforestation somewhere, whether it is for building cities, cleared for farmland, or cut down for fuel or boats.

  1. Reduced rates of scientific and technological advancement. Your island civilization is going to have slower rates of technological development. Full stop. No ifs, ands, or buts. There is a very simple reason for this: you have fewer brains at any one time thinking about solutions to problems, and you have no cross-pollination with other cultures.

Here's an example. Lets say you have an problem with poor farming tools. In a small country you have 50,000 people trying to solve this issue every day, and on the mainland you have 500,000 people dealing with this problem every day, plus by proxy the millions that country is connected to due to trade routes. The mainland is going to solve the problem faster because it has more people working on it.

This can be seen today. Part of the reason science is advancing at such a fast pace today is because 1) there have never been more humans alive than there are right now, and 2) those humans are highly connected and can easily share information. Isolated discoveries are much more likely to be lost or forgotten, and rapidly spread everywhere.

This is also why civilizations positioned at the center of trade routes tended to be so prosperous. Not only do they get fantastically wealthy due to all the trade routes coming through them, but they also get all sorts of new ideas coming through them. This is one reason why the Middle East, and in fact during the Islamic Golden Age the caliphates leveraged this to make cities like Bagdad a center of learning.

Additional Story-Telling Things

From a story-telling perspective, the issue you are going to be facing is literally every aspect of your society's culture is going to be different from the mainlanders. Their language and writing will be completely different. Their math system is liable to be different. Their calendar will likely be different. Other historical societies often have some differences, but here the differences will be exaggerated because every single advancement between your two island countries and the rest of the world will have been made independently, and different people will come up with different terms and ideas to explain the same things.

On top of that, the historical "lessons" that their societies have learned will be completely different. A lot of human history has been influenced by what a society has learned through previous events. Modern society has become fanatically anti-genocide and anti-eugenics after we saw where those ideas led after World War II, even though before that such behavior was condoned or even encourages (e.g., eugenics movements in the 20s). Historical Chinese dynasty's rampant misogyny was in part codified by the tyrannical reign of Dowager Empress Lü Zhi, and even centuries after her death she was used as an example by the reigning elite as to why women couldn't be trusted with power. Your societies are going to have very different ideas as to what is "right" or "wrong" based on their completely separated histories.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much for such a detailed answer. You gave me a lot of things to think about and I'm especially grateful that you pointed me towards sources of historical information I can delve into for further research. To the library! $\endgroup$
    – CemHill
    Jan 11 at 12:45
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I see no reason the Maoris could not have eventually reached 18th century technology (or beyond) if left alone. Presumably it would take longer, because the population of idea-generators is smaller, but you can make history be as deep as you want.

What I think you need to decide is what the rest of the world is like, and why aren't they busy exploring it. By 1700, people had sailed around the world. They knew how big it was and were starting to map it out. Being an island country, if there were people to trade with, they would be doing it.

I think this may be the difficulty you are having. You want a relatively small "world" that you can put on a flat map, but you want it at a level of technology where the denizens would be expected to have access to the whole larger world. Perhaps seamonsters could solve the problem?

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  • $\begingroup$ You hit the nail on the head! This is my first fantasy worldbuilding experience and I'm finding it very fun, but extremely overwhelming as a newbie. I started out doodling a map for the story to make sense in and quickly found out that I need to have a sense of an entire planet to make my small little story work, even though the rest of the world has nothing to do with the main conflict. Whoops! Happy to be here and learning though! Thank you for your kind words. $\endgroup$
    – CemHill
    Jan 11 at 12:40
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The seamonsters suggestion posed by others seems like a good one, but why not take it one step further? The reason nobody visits your remote islands in the back of nowhere is because nobody wants to. There are several reasons for this.

First, if your islands have only early 18th century tech, then so does the rest of the world. Travelling by ship is a well established technology, but still no picnic. Voyages could take months, or even years. This is exacerbated by...

Second, the island are physically isolated. In our world, New Zealand lies in the "Roaring Forties", strong winds that blow between latitudes -40 and -50 degrees. In your world - given a suitable configuration of continents and some suitable handwaving - this could be used to good effect. What if all the continents were clustered in the northern hemisphere except for your one isolated spot in the south? Getting there would involve crossing not one but two major areas of calm, plus one of dangerously high winds. And all for what? Because...

Third, not much is known about this place. The southern hem was explored by the various nations of the north, sure, but how easy is it to spot one tiny island in an entire hemisphere? A hemisphere that is widely believed - perhaps even "proven" by "science" - to be completely empty? Also...

Fourth, your islanders might not welcome visitors. They have magic, so their society is likely to be very different from anything we would recognise. And then these strangers - non magic equipped strangers, at that - come blundering in looking for lands to conquer, or loot, or whatever. Maybe your islanders would psychokinetically headsquish first and ask questions later. With the result that...

Marco de Vasco de Columbus-Vespucci might just decide that there are more profitable enterprises than some g*dforsaken island on the other side of the world that might not exist and, if it does, can't be reached and, if it can won't do you any good because nobody who went there - assuming anybody ever did - has ever come back.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your suggestions! They definitely got some ideas and solutions flowing. I appreciate you taking the time to answer. $\endgroup$
    – CemHill
    Jan 11 at 12:42

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