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Are unexplained or inconsistent worldbuilding elements considered plot holes?

Let's say that coal and railroads are used in a medieval fantasy world, but people are still serfs and poor. If you don't explain why people are poor although money, coins, and railroads were invented, is it still considered a plot hole, and do you have to explain them?

I was watching this video and it got me thinking about how to have serfs in a medieval setting with modern technologies and magic, and how much exposition I have to do and if I can leave any hole in the worldbuilding and what might be considered plot holes.

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Plot holes are anything that breaks the internal logic of the story you've set up beforehand.

If you explicitly say all poverty was eradicated, and then immediately follow it up by saying 99% percent of the population are serfs living in disgusting slums, then that's a contradiction and a plot hole.

However, it's not a contradiction to say there's poverty in a world with technology. It's the main premise of many cyberpunk dystopias. Take the Hunger Games. The Capitol has a seemingly endless supply of food. Enough to gorge themselves every single day. But they don't share so the people of the districts rarely see a scrap. Because wealth isn't just about how many resources a society has, but how the society chooses to distribute them.

The Capitol could feed all the starving Districts, but they don't want to fix it because they're greedy and don't care about the Districts. Is it unfair? Yes, but unfairness is not a plothole. It's part of the world you're building.

So why, realistically, would there be Serfs in a technologically advanced setting? I offer three possibilities.

Greed/High Prices

Greed is unlimited, so it's not as if people or corporations are just going to give stuff away for free, no matter how much technology changes.

What if your world has super high prices for even basic commodities? Only those already super-rich would be able to keep afloat.

Dog-Eat-Dog World

Climbing the ranks of the social ladder is hard enough, but what if the people at the top are actively pushing you down? Wealth can only get you so far, and those who are already wealthy don't want competition, so they'll drag you down. Sabotage. Blacklistings. Blackmail. Etc. If you get a little too close to the top, the people at the top might just decide to crush you.

In this world, social mobility exists, but it's mostly a facade.

Strict Social Classes

In this type of world, they don't even pretend there's social mobility. You're born into it.

There's a Noble class, who gets everything they want, and there's a Serf class, who gets has to do whatever the Nobles ask. Question the system, and you'll probably be ostracized at best and executed at worst.

Changing technology wouldn't fix a thing because it's a strict social structure. You'd always legally and societally be considered a Serf. A societal change would be your only way forward.

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The earliest use of currency dates to 10 century BC. The Railroad depends on your definition (the introduction of steam engines was in 1784, the first railroads using metal rails were introduce in the late 1760s, the oldest operating non-funicular railroad opened in 1758, the first funicular rail road was described in a 1515 publication, and by strictest definition of a railroad as "a road with rails" the oldest known is the Diolkos road which was used to move boats overland between the Agean and Ionian sees through the Isthmus of Corinth began operation in roughly 600 BC and ceased operation in 1 A.D. and gave rise to the popular at the time Greek phrase "As fast as a Corinthian".

Poverty, slavery, and serfdom existed throughout this time and still exist at the time of writing the world over (well, depending on how we define serfdom. In the sense of a feudal system, Serfdom wasn't abolished in Europe until Russia ended it in 1861, but feudal institutions in Russia didn't truly die out until the Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917.

It's not a plot hole... it's history of the real world.

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  • The formal abolishment of serfdom in Russia and the first railroad in Russia are just a few years apart though, so it's still a fair question of how plausible it is they occur in the same location at the same time. (On the other hand early capitalism created abject poverty and exploitation akin to serfdom, so it doesn't really matter that much).
    – user54131
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:42
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It is not a plot hole, it is just something that if the reader notices, it may break their immersion in your story. Your story has to make sense, things have to follow.

You can indeed have things that are unexplained in the story, readers are not going to think too hard.

In your example, we have all kinds of technology in the real world today, but most of the world is still quite poor. Most of the USA is still quite poor, living paycheck to paycheck. We still have homeless people wandering our streets. My local Food Bank feeds literally hundreds of thousands, and would feed more if they had more resources.

This all depends on the power structure and wealth structure in your society. Coal and money and railroads don't change those dynamics, they may be for the upper 10%, not for the masses. In the middle ages, kings and their extended family could be quite rich, living opulently, while many peasants literally never saw any money at all. They were all "work for food and shelter" citizens, farming for Lords, servants of Lords, etc.

Nobody will question why you have coal and railroads, but the majority of people are poor.

The one thing I'd be careful of is a dynamic that is still playing out today: Machines take jobs.

Some people used to dig for a living, but the steam shovel killed most of those jobs. Some people cut and threshed wheat for a living, but a steam machine can replace those jobs too.

If you have trains, you have steam engines, and steam engines can take all kinds of jobs that depend on muscle.

Just like today, robots and AI (machines) are taking manufacturing, shipping, and all sorts of jobs, all the time. Not humanoid robots, but robots:

At one time, Frito Lay's #1 kind of job was cookery, actual people preparing farm ingredients and making chips and snacks with them. No longer. Frito Lay's #1 kind of job is engineering. Virtually nobody is doing any element of the cookery in a modern Frito Lay factory. Robotic machines receive the raw farm goods, dirt, leaves, bugs and all, and do all the cleaning and sorting. Robots peel and slice the chips, shuck corn and strip the kernels from the cob, cook, grind, inspect and reject, bag, box and put products on the trucks. Everything. And if the robots detect anything wrong, they can automatically shut down the line and alert an engineering team to come check it out. The human workers are often just the ones driving the trucks with a farm harvest to the plant, and the products away from it -- And Tesla is working to hard to replace them with robots too; self-driving 18 wheelers.

Early in the history of trains, it was humans hammering in the spikes to nail rails to cross timbers and make the railroad. But the steam hammer soon replaced those beefy fellas. If your society has had railroads for more than 50 years or so, I would need an explanation as to why the steam engine was not ubiquitous for doing all sorts of heavy muscle work. Otherwise, common sense and realism would be broken, along with my reading immersion.

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