Guns, Germs, and Vibranium
Also this past week, the first arc of the new Black Panther series wrapped up. Author Reginald Hudlin's take on the Panther's homeland of Wakanda is that it has long been both incredibly isolationist and scientifically advanced (as illustrated by Kirbytech in 19th century Wakanda). Here's how Hudlin explains it:
"The basic tenet of the character is that there is this African nation named Wakanda and they have this amazing super-science. So I said why do they have this amazing super-science? They have it because they were always more advanced then the rest of the world. Now that is not such a farfetched notion because its historically true that there are certain African tribes that had metal alloys while people in Britain were still living in caves. So let’s build off that historical truth that you have people that were scientifically far advanced then the rest of the world and that head start was never broken. They kept their lead and they kept moving faster then the rest of the world in terms of scientific growth."
It sounds reasonable enough on its face, but the more I've thought about it, the more I see the flaws in the explanation. This approach to history doesn't much resemble what I've been seeing. It all comes down to the conflict between advancement and isolationism.
In the real world, secluded cultures are never ahead of the outside world; rather, they tend to be rather primitive by comparison. They may have certain particular innovations, but for the most part their cultures haven't changed much for centuries or longer. Diamond, for instance, spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea, a largely isolated culture where life remained much the same for millenia.
As for advanced fictional countries, the greatest of those is undoubtedly Atlantis. But Atlantis was supposedly a center of commerce and culture, not at all isolated and exlusionary. The Hyperborea of the Conan tales was both well-off (though not particularly scientifically advanced) and largely isolated, but it also owed its success to magic. Oh, and the continual use of slave labor.
Scientific innovation is like any other commodity: it depends upon trade to grow and develop. For instance, the ancient Greek empire was built by initially borrowing the ideas of other cultures, particularly the Phoenicians and the Egyptians. History is all about people improving on other people's ideas.
Isolationism, on the other hand, is the enemy of advancement. As Wakanda spent centuries fighting foreign influence, it was also resisting foreign innovations. One small country managed to continually outpace the entire rest of the world in every field for centuries on end? Not just unlikely; it's impossible. It's possible the Wakandans were surreptitiously importing ideas and technology over the years, but if that's the case, then they weren't truly isolationist. It also would mean they spent centuries taking only one side in the trade of scientific knowledge (importing but not exporting). And bringing in foreign discoveries sort of undermines Hudlin's history.
Plus, according to Diamond's theories, the sub-saharan Wakanda would be at a developmental disadvantage due to its geography. Being in the tropics, it couldn't as easily benefit from the farming advancements first made in the Middle East. Staples like wheat, corn, and rice wouldn't grow in central Africa, and the area doesn't have any large native animals that can be domesticated for food and labor. Without those advantages of the land, Wakanda would be hard-pressed to have started off in first place.
Now might be a good time to point out that Jared Diamond bears an uncanny resemblance to the old-school Ulysses Klaw:
Wakanda does have one factor in its favor, which would be vibranium. Could it be to T'Challa's homeland what magic was to Hyperborea? The fantastic factor that spurred a civilization ahead? It's certainly more plausible than Hudlin's 'one-step-ahead' theory, but it also rips out the heart of his historial approach. If Wakanda owes its age-old status to its one-of-a-kind (well, two-of-a-kind) miracle metal, then all the talk of conquest and whatnot is superfluous. Wakanda just got geographically lucky. Not that there's anything wrong with that, since as Diamond suggests, so much of human history has revolved around who was geographically lucky.
But the downside to either approach is that if you want the defining characteristics of a fictional nation to be isolationism and innovation, then the result won't be science fiction. It'll just be fantasy.