Fantastic History #24: Galactic Conquistadors by Abby Goldsmith

In today’s world, few uncontacted tribes continue to survive in remote rainforests. To their members, the developed world is an ominous mystery. Likewise, even in the Information Age, many people across the world speculate on what mysterious wisdom or ancient rituals those reclusive tribes might be hiding.

Multiply those questions by a factor of millions, and you can begin to imagine the scale of the collision between Old World and New. The Age of Discovery was a period of invasive exploration unlike any other in human history, in terms of magnitude. It was a time when entire civilizations were labeled as savage and alien. While Leonardo Da Vinci painted for royal patrons, and while Protestants challenged the Pope in Rome, across an ocean, illiterate sailors and mercenaries battled illiterate farmers and shepherds by the millions. The Spaniards and the Portuguese, versus the Aztecs and the Incas. They were arguably the most populous and powerful civilizations on Earth at the time. Each considered the other to be horrifically alien.

I write science fiction fantasy.Some might call it galactic empire fiction, one of the branches of space opera. My series has nothing to do with our real world, or with real world history … but it is about alien conquerors bent on enslavement on a massive scale. The Torth wield weapons superior to anything which humans or other alien civilizations can fend off. They outclass everyone with their instantaneous communication; their ability to cooperate and think collectively. And although the Torth resemble humans, and share a
common ancestry with humans, their fundamental values are vastly alien to any culture which has ever existed on Earth. They seem mysterious. And they are terrifyingly good at conquest.

The parallels are undeniable. When I read about conquistadors and the uncontacted lands they explored, as well as the mysteries they presented—I see shades of what I’m writing about. A frenzy of reckless enslavement. Translators forced to tread carefully. Shameful, or shameless, curiosity about outlandish prisoners of war. Dangerous quests spurred by half-baked myths and legends. God-emperors who demand sacrificial victims. Pirate strongholds in hidden caves. Swift changes in technology that necessitate new, never-before-seen battle tactics. Insane risks undertaken for the sake of glory. Kindness as a rare commodity.

From the perspective of history, recorded by the conquerors, the Age of Discovery is rife with descriptions of indigenous people as being primitive, savage, or barbarous. Some of this can be attributed to customs which many Europeans found shocking, such as human sacrifice and skull reshaping. But it is also, in part, because the conquistadors operated under a strict theocracy, promulgated by the Spanish Inquisition. Anyone who refused to convert to Catholicism was, by definition, unworthy of owning property or anything else.

More to the point, the conquistadors needed a legal excuse in order to pillage. The faraway Pope and monarchs would not condone invading and destroying faithful Christians. So when a conquistador invaded an indigenous village, his men did not translate the call to convert. They simply read it in Spanish, as their legal duty warranted. Then they would proceed to conquer the unrepentant pagans, gaining new land, treasures, and slaves. When the conquistador—often of peasant origins—sent a percentage of this newfound wealth across the ocean as a gift to the Crown, he gained a noble title, plus the right to own an estate; riches he could never obtain in Spain.

In other words, the conquistadors had strong incentives to enslave and exploit natives, rather than to trade peacefully. To learn anything nuanced about their enemies, such as indigenous languages, would only take time away from their goals. Many conquistadors were illiterate and uninterested in anthropology. They also needed to retain the loyalty of their soldiers, who were burdened by cumbersome armor, harquebuses, and warhorses. If they dared show any interest in pagan cultures, that would gain them the wrong sort of attention. The conquistadors were legally obligated to bring along Catholic priests, who had to be outwardly sympathetic to the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes a conquistador would find it necessary to question a hostage, but in almost all instances, he relied on an indigenous translator who had been enslaved long enough to learn Spanish.

Like the 16th century conquistadors, the alien Torth of my series are under intense pressure to disassociate from their targets of conquest. The Torth don’t speak out loud, since their minds are permanently networked together in a souped-up internet. They don’t speak to slaves or “savages.” They never communicate with slaves, except to give commands. And as far as they’re concerned, humans are their primitive cousins, like chimpanzees.

On the other side of the clash…the Torth seem frighteningly mysterious to people who cannot plug into the galaxy-spanning mental
network. Slaves cannot easily hide secrets from their telepathic masters, which makes escape nearly impossible. The Torth are capable
of anticipating, and punishing, physical attacks, and they send slaves to die in battle for them. On the rare occasion when a slave succeeds in killing a Torth, the dying Torth will broadcast what happened to the whole Torth network, replaying a visualization of who attacked them, and ensuring that the rebel will be hunted and killed. And the Torth have soaked up knowledge from everyone they’ve ever conquered, which ensures that their technology is always cutting edge.

Technology, of course, was one of the key factors that allowed a few hundred Spaniards to conquer the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire, both of which had armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Smallpox and other plagues could be considered a form of unintentional biowarfare, exported from a population with built-up immunities to a population without those immunities. And there was gunpowder. Horses. Armor. Sailing ships. Written language, conveyed on paper.

The most successful rebellions against the Spaniards, such as the rebel kingdom led by Manco Inca, involved treachery and intellectual theft. Manco Inca was a god-emperor, raised among Spaniards, educated in fencing and other Spanish pursuits, and pampered as a teenage puppet ruler. When he escaped and set up an indigenous kingdom-in-exile, his retreat included Spanish roof tiles. His army learned about gunpowder from Spanish prisoners who were pumped for information, and his kingdom remained free and independent for more than thirty years, even after his death.

My series is about rebellion against the galaxy-spanning Torth Empire, and one of the main drivers of this rebellion is a figure like Manco Inca. Thomas is the unwanted hybrid child of a human slave and a failed conqueror. Since he is neither fully human nor fully Torth, everyone underestimates him, uncaring that he straddles both sides of the galactic conflict. Not only can Thomas decipher Torth glyphs and operate Torth data tablets, but he spent time as a pampered Torth, absorbing their life experiences. So he knows why Torth don’t laugh or cry. He understands that the average Torth suffers immense pressure to please their peers, to avoid rousing a deadly mob. Armed with intimate knowledge of Torth values and intelligence, Thomas commits himself to aiding his enslaved friends in overthrowing their ever-greedy conquerors.

On Earth, the Age of Discovery was characterized by fatal misunderstandings and miscommunications. Indigenous populations in
the Americas did not understand Europeans. They had no frame of reference for contracts and land deeds, for instance. Gold, to the
Incas and to the Aztecs, was for ornaments. Gold lost its significance when boiled down to seemingly useless little bricks. It
looked like pure madness, to work miners to death in order to gain gold ore or gold dust. And gunpowder? Horses? These were instruments out of legends. Even before the conquistadors showed up in large numbers, plagues of smallpox and influenza decimated teeming cities, like portents of an apocalypse. The gods must be angry. And so the indigenous populations focused on appeasing their gods with human sacrifice victims, and with new chiefs, chosen out of brutal combat—unaware that these measures further weakened them for their enemy invaders.

Likewise, Europeans were horrified by deformed skulls; heads flattened or elongated by binding methods in infancy. Rituals involving mass human sacrifice shocked even the callous conquistadors. If any Spaniards harbored secret thoughts of befriending the natives, they backed off at rumors of jungle priests who ripped still-beating hearts from the chests of virgin warriors. Anyhow, nuanced intercultural congress took a very low priority, by necessity, next to plunder. Tithes needed to be sent to the Church and the Crown.

I’m fascinated by the depths of misunderstanding between each of these proud civilizations. Despite the shared commonality of being human, their value systems were pitted against each other in direct conflict. Science fiction allows me to kick it up a few notches. In my series, the slaves are familiar to us as being human, no matter what sapient alien species they happen to be. The slaves and conquered peoples are a mix of humans, ummins, nussians, govki, and more, but they are all capable of telling jokes, and mourning deceased loved ones. They have children and parents. They can make art and music, and they can tell stories.

In contrast, the Torth make no art. They steal it. Torth have no families. They mass-reproduce using biotechnology. The Torth have
outlawed sex as something disgusting and bestial. Torth never laugh or cry, since they consider intense emotions to be savage; something only fit for primitives such as humans. They wear brainwave-altering headbands in order to suppress their emotions. As far as they’re concerned, logic is vital, but love is a bestial weakness. Any Torth who makes the most persuasive rational arguments will rise in status and gain influence over other Torth.

So the humanoid Torth act alien, just as the Spaniards seemed to the Aztecs, and vice versa. The Torth resemble humans, but they’re more alien than the ummins, who look like mummified birds, or the nussians, who are as heavy as tanks, with tough hides like rhinoceroses.

An odd Torth here or there might show kindness. A few Torth harbor secret sympathies for their disposable slaves. But if their sympathy grows too strong—especially if they dare help slaves—then there are countless ambitious Torth who will report their misconduct to the rest of the Torth Majority. Their peers will shoot them dead with blaster gloves, in order to claim the glory of destroying a nuisance or a criminal.

The only way to rise in the Torth society is to curry favor with the luxury-loving, gluttonous, socially-savvy celebrities at the top. Defy them, or displease them, and you are courting death. And unlike the 16th century conquistadors, Torth cannot accidentally get lost, or shipwrecked, stranded among enemies. The Torth are always tracked by their mental network. The only way for a Torth to “go native” is to voluntarily sever their mental connection to the galactic network; an illegal act from which there is no return. Needless to say, renegade Torth are exceedingly rare. They generally only survive for a few days. A renegade Torth will be hunted by their nearly omniscient brethren—and if caught, they face death by torture.

The conquistadors had it only slightly easier. If they integrated with a native society well enough to gain tattoos or ear piercings,
they could expect mistrust and suspicion from Spanish priests. Few European women dared to live in the machismo frontier towns of the New World, but if a conquistador married a non-royal indigenous woman and had children with her, his family would be rejected by his peers, unable to inherit wealth or property.

Nevertheless, the conquistadors had such a spirit of adventure, a few rarities did join the indigenous Americans. A shipwrecked conquistador named Gonzalo Guerrero, for instance, became a Mayan warlord and raised Mayan children, leading attacks against his Spanish brethren. And some of the indigenous population, by dint of royal blood and political maneuvering, avoided enslavement—such as Doña Isabel Moctezuma, the Aztec princess who secured a European dukedom for her descendants.

That sort of audacity informs my larger-than-life characters.Throughout my series, the character of Thomas is, by turns, a helpless human, an authoritative Torth, a much-feared renegade hunted by the most powerful people in the galaxy, a prisoner of pirates, a top
advisor to the rebel warlord, and ultimately, the instrument of change, as he empowers former slaves to enslave their former Torth
masters. Thomas becomes the most widely feared and despised person in the known universe, as well as a symbol of hope.

Like the most memorable characters of the Age of Discovery, Thomas is surrounded by a colorful cast from every quadrant of the Torth-ruled galaxy. Ariock, the rebel warlord of mixed heritage, could be Moctezuma II or Atahualpa, if either of those god-emperors had gained enough foreign intelligence to drive the conquistadors back across the Atlantic Ocean. Kessa, the pragmatic runaway slave, has elements of the pragmatic Malintzin; the translator who gained power as Hernán Cortés grew reliant upon her. There are shades of the backstabbing Pizarro brothers, and entitled Almagristas, amongst the upper echelons of Torth society, where ambition and winning popular support are all that matter. And the Upward Governess, a canny Torth tactician with illegal secrets, has elements of Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler who recorded insights into Magellan’s violent encounters with indigenous islanders.

I began writing my series before I’d read much about the Age of Discovery. However, I find myself drawn to that period of history
more than any other, because it includes multiple well-chronicled accounts of alien encounters—or foreign encounters which seemed very alien at the time. It’s about the exploration of new cultures, values, ideas, and lands; exploration on a scale which is no longer possible in the contemporary era. It’s a shame that so few films and TV series are willing to tackle the brutal warfare and clashing values of this period, outside of light-hearted romps such as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and DreamWorks’s “The Road to El Dorado”.

My taste in non-fiction runs towards dynamic narratives with fiction-style flair, rather than textbook chronologies. Some of the
books I’ve most enjoyed about this era include Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages, by Laurence Bergreen, The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, by Buddy Levy, and Night of Sorrows, a fictionalized account of the conquest of the Aztec Empire, by Frances Sherwood. I’ll welcome more non-fiction book recommendations.


Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Magazine, and several anthologies. A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she works full-time as video editor, and co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast. You can subscribe
to her newsletter here.

Abby’s novels, serialized online at Wattpad

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