Considering the economic woes and political discord that plague our society these days, some people have begun to reflect on the decline and fall of great nations throughout history, from the Roman Empire to the British Empire.
I am one of these people.
I grew up in a stable country. It had history, pride, and a bright future. I was taught to love it. I pledged my life to defend it.
My country was an over-achiever. It differed from all others; so much so that some called it a separate civilization. It had its bad times. Some of those times were very bad, but that didn’t matter to me, because it was the only place I knew. I loved it.
I remember a story from my middle teens. It marked the beginning of my fascination with societies going through periods of massive change.
I was sitting in a classroom with about thirty other pupils. It was a warm spring day and sunlight was pouring in through the large windows. Our teacher, a small woman with kind, patient eyes behind heavy spectacles, asked us to write an essay on what our country would look like in thirty years.
I raised my hand. “I love science fiction,” I said. “Can it be a science fiction story?”
“Certainly.” She studied me with a smile, as if readying a humorous comment, then switched her attention to others.
As she answered questions from the rest of the class, I continued to ponder the question. An idea came to me. It seemed so bold, so unusual, that I had to share it immediately. I raised my hand again.
“About that essay…” I felt my cheeks warm up because all eyes in the class were on me. “So, science fiction is permitted?”
She smiled again. “Science fiction is good. The best writers in that genre are true visionaries.”
I felt a renewed rush of blood. “How about just fiction? Without the science?” I asked.
Behind me, someone snorted.
The teacher continued to smile. “Please tell us more.”
“Fiction. Well, I don’t know yet, but … I could say that Americans have won the Cold War. Our country is falling apart. We’re no longer perceived as powerful by the rest of the world. All this…” I made a sweeping gesture with my hand, “is probably gone.”
The silence was so complete that I could hear the classroom clock ticking above the door a good ten meters away. The teacher was studying me without a smile. The sun was reflecting from her eyepiece, and I could no longer see the expression of her eyes.
As the silence continued, my excitement slowly started to turn into embarrassment. No one seemed to know how to react, but I sure wasn’t getting the response I had envisioned. I felt like I had just made a fool of myself. Although I didn’t yet feel humiliated, I was getting close.
Finally, the teacher spoke. “Don’t write it that way,” she said. “Our country will exist forever.”
I lowered my eyes among the giggles and whispers from all around me and sulked for a good fifteen minutes. Then my embarrassment gave way to anger. How could I have been so stupid, I thought. Of course my country would be there forever.
It fell apart a few years later.
At the time, I was a young cadet in an elite military school, training to defend our borders. I remember the moment when our empire ceased to exist. As a group of us were returning from field training, tired and dusty, we passed a cafeteria window from which a TV was blasting at full volume. “Welcome…” a TV reporter’s excited voice said, “…to the last Sunday of the Soviet Union.”
You know what was even worse for me than the loss of my country? It’s that it went down without a fight. Poof. Just like that. Here on Sunday, gone on Monday.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the rise and fall of empires, especially those that did put up a fight.
I want to know how people thought and behaved in those situations; how they stood up for what was dear to them.
The Aztec empire was a brilliant example of this.
Pouring over the native pictorial codices, the long accounts by the first Spanish priests recording the native Aztec voices, and the letters and memoirs of the Conquistadors, I had to admire the strength of spirit the Aztecs showed as their world was crumbling around them.
I feel sorrow for the loss of that great empire. I still long to see its buildings and statues; to touch its priceless books; to cheer at their sport competitions and festivals.
The collapse of my own nation didn’t produce heroes worthy of respect. There was nothing left to fight for. Perhaps that’s why I accepted Cuahtemoc, Cacamatzin, Xiconetcatl and others as my own heroes. They inspired their people to mobilize. They rebelled against their own governments to fight for what they believed was right. So, with much care, I made them key characters in my books.
There is much we can learn from studying the decline and fall of powerful empires. But the most important lesson for me isn’t about the colors of the walls of their temples, or who succeeded whom as emperor.
The most important lesson is about the strength of the human spirit, about having the courage to recognize and confront our own decline, and about making the right choices when our moment comes.
That’s why I’m writing my series of Aztec novels. To explore this idea.