Recently I saw a discussion about whether it was possible to have industrialization without the discovery of gunpowder. This idea got me thinking, and it is impossible not to say that gunpowder changed much of the modern world as we know it. We owe much to its development. Not just in terms of warfare, but in the changes that wrought in government, social mobility, economics, and technology.
The question is though, what might a world without gunpowder look like?
Many stories have explored faucets of such an idea. You have S.M. Stirling's Conquistador, exploring a world where gunpowder was never discovered, but where it is suddenly and dramatically introduced. Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale where the Roman Empire never fell. Many authors and other thinkers have tried to imagine a world without gunpowder, especially in fantasy, but for my purposes I am only questioning how our world would look absent the mighty power the gunpowder brought in to play.
Now gunpowder has been around in human history for approximately 1000 years or so, since it was first discovered in ancient China. Since its inception, understanding of it and its development has gone through significant advances. From early fire arrows, to hand cannons, it was at first a poor replacement for bows and arrows and swords due to its unreliable qualities and difficulty to manufacture in great quantities.
Over time, this of course changed. The creation of gunpowder became more efficient and as a weapon it became much more reliable. This allowed for the end of the heady days of armored opponents having decisive advantage over those without, cavalry was definitively defeated as the great force on the battlefield, and private fortresses were no longer able to hold off the wrath of a vengeful central government.
But what if gunpowder never existed?
Certainly much of the world as we know it would be different. There would be no way of easily capturing destructive power in order to battle the earth itself (think of how important blasting can be in engineering) individuals with wealth could easily make their own fortresses and challenge a central government. and the man with the strongest arm might win the fight.
It would be an interesting world, one perhaps reminiscent of the 17th century. I think that Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series portrayed a world without gunpowder well. Advanced in many ways, like with good farming, printing presses, and even marvelous feats of human powered engineering (excepting the magical ones of course). However, the bow still rules the field in a long range contest, pike blocs and armored horsemen rule the battlefield, and society is distinctly feudal. Commoners owe allegiance to their lords and lords owe allegiance to their monarch, most of the time.
A harsher world, one in which a person like me would surely be at the bottom of the pecking order. Though would the arts be very different, would philosophy question the meaning of existence and the assumed ordered world without industrial genocide and the nuclear bomb? All questions which are hard to answer.
I for one think we could still have nation states which answered, largely, to a monarch. One in which the "monopoly of force" would remain under a central government. This could reign in the power of feudal lords, even give rise to republicanism, or at least parliamentary values. Science could go on, and places of higher learning would surely be established.
However, we would be missing a great spark for innovation and advancement, and most assuredly for rapid change in the social order! Most labor would be done by hordes of men in backbreaking conditions sometimes, cars would not rule the roads perhaps, and horses might be the staple of our transportation system until the steam engine is devised, and we might never know the pollution of oil burning vehicles.
We wouldn't know the horrors of modern warfare, but would deal with many other horrors as blades and mail shod hooves crashed down, and great horrible sieges would cause cities to wither and die. We might all wish we lived close to some state sponsored castle, or at least a lord allowed to maintain a holdfast to shelter us from the depredations of the more desperately inclined, or even nomads who feel no need to settle, and might not be compelled by force of arms to submit.
There are many scenarios, and it is an idea I think writers and authors should look at more often. Trying to imagine how we could get on without gunpowder is an interesting mental exercise at the very least!