History · Writing

A Writer’s Guide to Conquest and Assimilation, Part 2

In part 1, I talked about the basic options open to a group of conquerors looking to control a population: Force, charm, and the non-conquest conquest. In part 2, I’m elaborating on some specific areas to think about within those overall strategies: Intermarriage, religion, infrastructure, and education.


Intermarriage is Assimilation 101. You really don’t have to do anything, and after a bit, you’ll have most of the locals firmly invested in your presence and your culture. Of course, conquerors may be vehemently opposed to the idea of intermarriage and children. If the opposition is extreme enough, it’ll have a powerful effect on social arrangements. You may have ghettos and punishment for interacting with the other race at all.

Galaxy Quest Laliari
I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but whether or not they can reproduce has no bearing on whether or not they’ll be gettin’ busy. Galaxy Quest

In an SF/F world, things may be more interesting… Maybe the two races can’t reproduce, so there’s no need for laws to prevent that, but sexual/romantic contact is socially reprehensible, resulting in a new set of social norms or complex etiquette to prevent the appearance of fraternization while working together. Of course, sci-fi or not, you might have a situation where the conquerors are fine with it but the conquerees are definitively against it, and that’ll bring about different cultural circumstances.

Still, in most instances, there WILL be people engaging in sex and romance with the other tribe. Obviously your story doesn’t have to be a forbidden romance, but even if it’s not, your character should have an opinion about intermarriage, and probably knows some people who are trying it out.


Ah, religion. You can just about guarantee that your conquerees will care very deeply about religion, right? Well, yes, for the most part. Maybe not, maybe they’re confirmed atheists or deeply committed to agnosticism. Maybe, like the rebel tribes of southern Chile, they suddenly adopt ritual cannibalism just because they know it freaks you out, even though they’d never done it previously. (Not even kidding, y’all).

Church of the Papal Mainframe
The Church of the Papal Mainframe. Seriously, Moffat, nothing you wrote here made any sense. Doctor Who

That said, most cultures identify with a religion of some kind, and for some reason most SF/F authors ignore religion entirely, or underestimate its power in a culture, or just don’t seem to care how religions actually work. For the purposes of this article, understanding both cultures’ religious beliefs will help you understand how the cultures will relate to each other, AND religion can be a wedge to change anything else you want to change — a mechanism to manipulate marriages, infrastructure, or anything else.

If you’re wildly advanced in comparison to your conquerees, you may be able to convince them you’re gods or god’s agents. (Contrary to popular belief, this probably didn’t happen in the Spanish conquest of the Americas, but if you’re writing sci-fi, it’s entirely practicable). You can appeal to their own legends, even if you don’t go as far as claiming your own divinity. Appeal to any pacifist strains to help keep people calm — or if you want an excuse to terminate rebellions, surreptitiously encourage militant strains of the religion. Point out how their gods encourage whatever it is you’re trying to convince them to do. You’ll find that most people are variable in their religious beliefs, and if you’re playing a long game, many (if not most) religious beliefs are negotiable.

There will be holdouts, and religious extremists will become even more extreme if they feel they’re persecuted. They may convince themselves they’re persecuted either way, but this is an area where force will probably be counterproductive. Use charm or go the non-conquest conquest route with religion and just let the people keep their own. Muslim countries did this in the golden age of Islam by recognizing Judaism and Christianity as sister religions. They had an extra tax for people who weren’t Muslim, so a lot of people converted anyway. Of course, if it’s part of your religion to convert your subjects then all bets are off, and as a writer you may have any number of motivations for NOT writing a peaceful conquest! But you still have the option of force versus economic and social pressure, and you don’t have to write a heavy-handed allegory to the Crusades either way.


For starters, your conquest will be much more successful if your own structure is already clear and reliable. (Spain’s established royal bureaucracy and urban structures meant people had experience with those things in the New World, for instance.) Likewise, it’s helpful if there’s an existing structure in the place you want to conquer. The Spaniards wanted to conquer cities with existing tax bases, not the nomadic subsistence tribes in the American midwest. This brings up a very important point — you must know why your conquerees are being conquered. There should be an economic benefit to the conquerors, and there should NEVER be an economic detriment. Existing infrastructure is attractive because you can just step into the top position.

Gaius Baltar
Use existing leaders, or install new ones. This is a great opportunity to promote locals and indebt them to you! Battlestar Galactica

In this kind of attractive community — sedentary, surplus-producing, tax-paying — there will be existing leaders to manage. You may want to follow the Versailles or Edo Japanese method, and insist leaders travel to your court on a regular basis and look fabulous doing it. This will suck up time and money, so they won’t be able to revolt, and you can keep an eye on them. Beware, bringing them all together at the court may allow them to talk to each other, and that could be dangerous. A related concept is to turn “lords” into “governors,” either by paying them, by moving them to new areas to manage, or by killing them and installing new governors who answer to you. For writing purposes, just think about who was in power beforehand, and how the conquerors would deal with those people. This is great plot fodder, because these transitions can go on for decades and can be greatly affected by the individuals involved.

One particularly creative use of infrastructure is to move people around. The Incas moved entire communities to different locations where they would be off guard. Rebellious communities lost their allies and became surrounded with loyalists. They actually combined this with charm — they moved groups to familiar climates so they wouldn’t be disadvantaged, they gave holidays and sick days to their tribute workers, and they had a complex system of land allotment that provided sufficient land and food to everyone. (How the locals actually felt about this generosity, I don’t know.)


Education is part of infrastructure, certainly. How you use it will depend on how it’s been used before. Do the people expect mass education? Are they literate already? Is most education provided by the parents or by the state? Will there be segregated schools for the two cultures? And which is more important to you, a well-educated populace or simply a well-indoctrinated one? Maybe educating the conquerees isn’t important to the rulers at all, but as with religion, if you’re playing a long game, it should be important.

Language is a foundational element. If you want to eliminate the traditional languages, you’ve gotta have public education. (By the by, If your character’s ethnicity is significant, their relationship to the traditional language can be a great way to demonstrate that.) Beyond language, this is another area where you’ve got to consider your dominant culture and what’s important to them. Do they care about science? The humanities? What are the hot-button issues? There’s a temptation to forbid all discussion of alternate methods of government, but this is dangerous if you already have a literate society on your hands, so take the conquerees’ starting point into account as well.

Think of the next generation, whether you’re providing organized education or not. The Aztecs used to go around asking kids who the rightful king was, and kill them if they gave the wrong answer. Parents had no choice but to teach their children that the conqueror was the rightful king. (The Aztecs were not nice people.)


Santa Clara in Cuzco. Wikimedia Commons
Santa Clara in Cuzco. Wikimedia Commons

I’d like to close with one example that illustrates all four of these approaches: The Convent of Santa Clara in Cuzco, Peru. Spanish conquistadors were male, obviously. They habitually took native princesses as wives, and had children with them. Who was most responsible for teaching the kids? The mothers. But the mothers were all pagan natives. So, the church built the convent to cloister the young girls. The native princesses no longer had control of the daughters’ education, and the daughters were indoctrinated into the new religion, thus also brought into the new infrastructure. Plus, they were kept virginal to be married off later on, continuing the cycle of intermarriage. In practice, ventures that combine many different elements are likely to be the most effective, and may actually fly furthest under the radar. The convent was something the conquerors wanted for many different reasons, and it had the effect of fostering assimilation, probably without many people realizing it was happening. That’s why it was so effective.

Conquest really isn’t pretty for anyone involved, but it is a common occurrence in fantasy and science fiction. I hope I’ve given you some inspiration for ways to make it interesting and realistic, whether your story is about a clash of cultures or just uses a conquest as worldbuilding in the background. The comments are open to questions, comments, further suggestions, and ideas!


6 thoughts on “A Writer’s Guide to Conquest and Assimilation, Part 2

  1. What about literal mind-melding? Does that count or that just too much of an assimilation cheap shot?

    Mind reeling about those cloisters in Cuzco!! So interesting. Hannah, this series was so well-done. I’ve shared it on fb and twitter. I absolutely loved it. What an awesome idea, wonderfully-executed. As always 🙂


    1. Thank you! Much appreciated. I’m thinking of doing a follow up Writer’s Guide to Insurgency, but it all depends on having free time. 🙂

      I’d certainly count literal mind-melding. It all just depends on what effects you’re trying to create!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very thoughtful piece. The best Science Fiction and Fantasy worlds delve deep into at least one of these, and in rare but welcome cases it finds room for all four.

    One example that comes to mind (maybe because the Korra Season 3 finale happened today) is how in the original Last Airbender show, the Fire Nation is occupying much of the earth nation and while most people in the Earth Kingdom don’t like it, some of the fire nation’s philosophies are carrying through, along with fire nation buildings dominating the regions that had been occupied for decades. In the sequel comics and Korra show, they’ve explored how there is intermarriage between Earth Kingdom residents and Fire Nation colonists who resist the fire nation returning to their homeland after the war ends. Mako and Bolin (2 major supporting characters in the Korra show) are themselves children of a mixed marriage. And of course, the Fire Nation’s education system is rigged to forge their citizens with militaristic pro-national mindsets. Because it’s a kids show, you could argue that the philosophical angle covers the religious angle.

    Even though the world I’m working on in my fiction is very similar to ours and the infrastructure is pretty much identical, it’s something I try to keep in mind.


    1. I’ve never seen The Last Airbender or the associated media, but everything I hear about it makes it sound even better. 🙂 It can certainly work to just focus on one aspect of a conquest, since space and attention are limited in any book, but I’d love to see more attempts to show the whole package of things like this.


  3. Very interesting and thoughtful piece. Reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s advice that a fantasy world should always have an internal logic, even if that logic governs impossible or implausible scenarios!



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