Monday, September 24, 2007

Worldbuilding as an On-Going Process

Fantastical worldbuilding seems to be the topic of the day, with WrittenWyrdd and Charles Gramlich both talking about it. They both made some good points and it got me thinking about something I've noticed here and there, especially in science fiction stories.

WW made the point that things are changing pretty quickly, and that someone who was born ninety years ago has seen a huge amount of change in his lifetime. That's very true and the rate of change has been increasing. And yet how often do SF books set in the far future, whether the setting is a future Earth or a planet colonized long ago, where the culture changed only so far and then stopped? It's as though the writer needed Setting X for the story, so they explained how it came to be that things changed from what we have now to what they've got then, and then it all froze and has remained static ever since.

A ship full of religious zealots who believe it's sinful to read on Wednesdays and that long pants are an abomination unto their god leave Earth to build the perfectly moral society. They find a nice planet, build their colony and ban reading on Wednesdays and all pants longer than the knee. A thousand years later when the story takes place, they're still religious zealots, they still don't read on Wednesdays and they still toss the protagonist in prison for wearing long pants.

Seriously? What's the likelihood that any culture stays that static for that long? Even assuming a static environment, which in itself is pretty far-fetched, this would be unbelievable. But on a newly colonized planet, where the people have to deal with alien plants and animals and geology and weather and who knows what other conditions, where any food stock they brought with them has to be adapted, where completely unforeseen dangers and problems and challenges will force them to adapt their habits and values and priorities in order to survive in this strange and possibly deadly place -- a thousand years later they're still rabidly anti-long-pants? Ummm, right. Sure.

The guy WW knows who just turned ninety has seen not only great technological changes, but also huge changes in attitudes and morals and values and priorities. The expectation of what's "normal" has changed several times since 1917, and society has adapted each time. Your average American in 2007 has a much different world view from that of your average American in 1917, or even 1957.

And if there's anything we know about large groups, it's that they're going to disagree. More than two people can't agree on where to go for lunch, much less on what government policy should be. Heinlein once said that a committee is a creature with six or more legs and no brain, and snark aside, I think he was pretty much on it.

So how is it that our entire religious society is still monolithically anti-long-pants after a thousand years? We're supposed to believe that every single generation grew up in absolute accord with the beliefs of their elders? They somehow completely eliminated teenage rebellion, and the desire of the young to be new and different just because? They eliminated the tendency toward factional divisions, and the really useful technique for an opposition party of proposing something different from what the party in power espouses, just to be different? They completely forbade all scientific and technological innovation, and are still using the technology their ancestors brought to the planet, since significant technological change always brings social change with it? (And yeah, in too many stories they still are using the same exact technology their ancestors were. [sigh])

Things just don't change once and then stop. Or if they did, then that's a major issue and big enough to dominate a book all by itself, explaining why and how. Realistically, though, human societies continue to evolve. Sometimes it's slower and sometimes it's faster but they always do change, and they keep changing, and then they change again. Writers who are developing new worlds for science fiction need to keep this in mind.

How did your society begin? What was the baseline? How and why did it change after that? What was the new baseline? Then what changed, and how and why? Then what changed? And then what changed? The farther in the future (or at least, the farther from your baseline) your story is set, the more change you need to work out, a whole series of changes which are all logical or at least believable. The readers might never see a lot of this info (but we're used to that, right? readers rarely see more than ten or twenty percent of our research and development no matter what genre we're writing in) but the writer needs to know it so that everything hangs together. And if the writer doesn't know how a civilization (or a character or an institution or whatever) got from point A to point Q, it'll show.

Charles talked about wanting to see the exotic in fiction, and the exotic is what makes SF -- and fantasy, and horror -- especially creative and memorable. But just as too many books don't show enough change, it's also too common to see what are presented as differences, as exotic and strange and weird, being just rehashes of our mainstream culture. If all a writer's familiar with is American culture, or Western Civilization, that's not a very large pool from which to draw, especially when you're looking for really basic characteristics of a society.

Take the economy. It's always just a given that there'll be some sort of even-exchange economy. Whether what's exchanged is money -- some sort of symbology representing work or production -- or whether the exchange is a direct bartering of goods and services for other services and goods, it's rare to find a future society, or even an alien society, which works any other way. And yet there are other ways of organizing things.

Families, for example, tend to run on true communism -- from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. If Mom is a programmer and makes $65K a year, then that's what she does and that's what she contributes to the family. If Dad is a wood carver and travels to craft fairs on weekends selling his nature carvings, and takes care of the house and looks after the kids during the week around time spent at his carving, then that's what he does. If Sam is fifteen and can cook dinner every night and do all the yard work and laundry for the family, then that's what he does. If Chrissy is five and puts away her toys and cleans the bathroom (sorta) once a week, then that's her contribution. No one expects Chrissy to eat less food or go without shoes just because she doesn't contribute much of anything to the upkeep of the family. No one expects Sam to grow up with crooked teeth just because braces are horribly expensive and his cooking and chores don't add up to "enough" to "repay" the family for that expenditure. This system works for just about all of us and yet hardly any future or alien societies use it.

But okay, that's communism and there's a knee-jerk negative response toward it in the US. There are other systems, though. The potlatch system awards status to people or families who give away a lot of stuff to others in the community. In that kind of society, the status and admiration is worth more than wealth, so people accumulate stuff just so they can give it away in exchange for status. And reciprocity is like barter but not so direct -- more a system where people do favors for each other, give things to people who need them and get things from other people. There's a general awareness of who's given you things or done favors but not the strict record keeping that a money economy has, or the right-now exchange of value for value that a barter system uses.

Most of these alternative systems work best for small groups, but SF writers are supposed to be imaginative and good at extrapolating. If a society got to, say, the classical period on a communistic or potlatch or reciprocal system of exchange (and the Roman Empire did have a bit of the potlatch about it, with the Senators spending a lot of their personal income on public works and facilities and celebrations, because it was expected of their class and they'd lose status and influence if they didn't) how could that be tinkered with to last through the Middle Ages? The Industrial Revolution? The Information Age?

What new systems -- economic, political, social -- might settlers on a new planet come up with? After all, they're starting fresh. They can do whatever they want. What new and different systems might they invent and try out? And then how might those systems change in a generation or three? A century or three? A millenium or three?

There are more options than are immediately obvious in the industrialized world. An anthropology class (or even a good text or two) is a great source for ideas and will give a writer some notion of just how many different ways people all over the planet have organized themselves. When writing aliens, or even human societies far enough away from ours, it pays to give them customs and institutions and social organizations different enough from ours that they actually feel alien, different, exotic. And once you've got that, keep in mind that the society will change over time. A society with a dynamic history behind it will always feel more realistic than one which has apparently been stuck in the same rut for the last fifty generations.

The exotic is all about change, though. Whether your society starts with "us" and then evolves away, or starts somewhere strange and different and then evolves to be even more strange and different, it's not an alien (or elven or nether plane) society if it sounds like it was lifted right out of Iowa.



Bernita said...

A few anthropology classes ( or standard texts) should be a basic requirement for serious world builders.

Angie said...

Bernita -- Definitely. [nod] I remember how much bigger the world became when I took my first anthro class. I think it could help any fiction writer, but definitely people who create new worlds and societies.


Charles Gramlich said...

This is a very good point. Especially that a society with strict beliefs colonizing an alien planet would almost certainly have to adapt those rules to survive. One point, though, although change is a rule, the rate of change can vary dramatically. The pace of change has been astronomical in our last fifty years, but it was a slower rate of change during the 1500s. Or earlier.

Angie said...

Charles -- sure, true. [nod] But even during the Middle Ages, things changed. Just looking at England, say, the year 600 is very different from the year 1000. Heck, the difference between 1065 and 1067 is huge. :) From then to 1250 is another huge change. Compared with what we've seen in the last fifty years or so they're pretty subtle, but if you're living in or writing about the society, with all the everyday life and common knowledge and other worldbuilding details, the changes are very obvious. Even the tech -- I have a book somewhere about medieval technological change and there's a surprising lot of it. And that was thought to be one of the "dead" zones of history. [wry smile]


~Nancy said...


I hadn't really thought about any of this (as I don't read much SF), but of the fantasies I read that do cover a lot of time...I do have to scratch my head at the very slow changes in technology; I mean, people have progressed from mud huts, to crude wooden structures to castles of stone, but it still seems as if everyone's stuck in a technological rut.

But, then, maybe it's like you said, that the tech changes the last 50 years or so has happened in a very short period time, and that's what I'm used to.

I like the idea of anthropology classes or books. I recently "took a class" using audio CDs from The Teaching Company. It was on ancient Egypt, how it developed, etc. Fascinating stuff.

Most of the stuff I write is more in a contemporary vein (although my current WIP takes place mostly in 1942, moving forward to 1973/4), I like the idea of reading up on anthropology to get an idea of how world building works. I love that kind of stuff, but then I love to do detailed research - which can get out of hand sometimes! :-)


Angie said...

Nancy -- in a medievalish setting, one wouldn't usually expect to see a lot of change in one person's lifetime, much less the amount of time your average fantasy story takes to play out. There'd be something here and there, though, and even if it's just a matter of how things were different in the protag's grandmother's youth, or some architectural differences in buildings from a couple of centuries past, or how things have changed since before the previous war, can give a land and culture a feeling of moving through time rather than just being stuck . I remember when I read the Little House books, in one of them Caroline (the mother) mentioned that when she was a girl they didn't have these "new-fangled" kerosene lamps. :D Little things.

Or even larger things. I read this one fantasy book where this warlike people had come from over the sea and conquered the land and enslaved the people who'd lived there before. The rulers were always talking about "the compact" or something like that, and insisting that the ancestors of the current slaves had agreed to serve them however many centuries past, and that any who objected now were breaking their word. The conquered people were all, "Like hell we did!" only very quietly because they didn't want to be, like, beaten to death or whatever. At one point in the book you find out that it was all a misunderstanding. When the conquerers showed up, the natives met them on the beach and offered food. To the conquerers, those who offer food are serving and acknowledging the superiority of those they serve. To the natives, those who offer food are the providers and are showing that they're in charge for reasons of competence over the other's dependence. It was a complete cultural miscommunication.

When I read this I was all, whoa! O_O It was great -- significant cultural differences, an understandable misunderstanding, a sense of history and change and consequences, and it all tied into the main plotline. I love it when writers do that. :D


writtenwyrdd said...

You mention building forward from a baseline society, but what I do is have a few touchpoints that relate to and are derivative of an ancient past. I build forensically, more or less, by filling in the details as needed to develop explanations for what my subconscious comes up with.

Does that make sense to you?

But the tendency to find a static picture and just use it in an SF novel is very true. I hadn't thought of it in exactly those terms, but you make an excellent point.

The other things that can create major changes and shifts are not just human nature, but environmental or systemic. There are myriad systems that are prone to disruptions in society based upon slight shifts, such as genetic baselines being disrupted by disease or a natural disaster.

But it's the additional factors that we DON'T have that intrigue me: Things such as aliens, alien technology, and bizarre environments and abilities.

Regardless, a static environment tends to implode with humanity is involved. Look at the Salem witch trials.

Angie said...

WW -- what I do is have a few touchpoints that relate to and are derivative of an ancient past. I build forensically, more or less, by filling in the details as needed to develop explanations for what my subconscious comes up with.

Sure, that makes sense too. [nod] Or it does if I'm understanding you properly. So long as everything you fill in makes sense and hangs together, it's like you're building your baseline backwards, kind of, in bits as you need it. In a shorter story, or one where the setting wasn't a huge factor in the main plot or whatever, the reader might not ever get anything close to a full picture of the place's history. (Which is fine, if that's what the story requires.)

The point, though, is to have some sense of history, and to have the "historical" bits which are inserted into the story hang together and make sense. However you achieve that is cool; process is secondary so long as the product is solid.

And you're right about the outside forces, absolutely. [nod] Bujold did that wonderfully with her Barrayar books -- the whole society was shaped by having been cut off from the higher-tech civilization which originally colonized the world centuries past, and having to struggle along on its own, the survival imperative and lower tech spawning social institutions outsiders considered barbaric once contact was made again. Also a high level of background radiation, especially in certain places, because of nuclear bombardment during an old war drove an intense fear of wild mutations (not the comic book kind, but the kind that cause dead and deformed babies) and a resultingly high (as in pretty much total) rate of infanticide of abnormal babies. There you go -- a natural occurrence and (the closing and later reopening of a wormhole) and the large-scale side effect of human activity (the radiation and genetic defects) driving social development.

Bujold rocks truckloads of socks, of course, and her worldbuilding in particular is first rate. :)


writtenwyrdd said...

I thought of an example where environment shapes a people: The Graysons in David Weber's Honor Harrington books. The Graysons were religious zealots who colonized a pair of planets and eschewed their high tech. Then, whoops! Turns out their new homes are full of toxic heavy metals and they need to use tech to stay alive. We don't get the entire story, but we see their roots and the changes and see how one branch became more zealous (read: nutso) and they Graysons became welcoming of needed change in a manner that doesn't lose their own culture.

I found these peopel to be really fascinating to read about.

Angie said...

WW -- [nodnod] I love how he developed the Graysons WRT their beliefs versus the realities of their new home planet, and I particularly like that they didn't stay the two-dimensional religious assholes they started out as. Granted, the Masadans have filled that roll nicely [wry smile] but still, I ended up liking the Graysons, or at least most of them, a lot more than I thought I would. And he does a good job of showing differences in attitude and opinion among them. I also liked how they've changed since faced with the reality of Honor as a woman who can do things only men are "supposed" to be able to do, and do them heroically well. Their culture is still very different from that of the Manticorans, but they are moving in response to changing conditions.


Sam said...

Well, I'll play devil's advocate.
It depends how 'zealot-y' these zealots are. Look at some of the countries in this world - after centuries they still believe that mutilating women is important, that women can't drive cars, can't vote, can't...well, you get my drift. If there is one part of the population that is being repressed, they will stay repressed especially if the punishment is, say, death. Death to anyone who reads on Wednesday! It would be hard for any rebel spirit to break through that, and therefor a society can become incredibly stagnant, especially if they are alone on a planet without any sort of outside influence. I shudder to think of a shipload of religious fanatics that say, think women should stay at home and tend the house, while men have many wives - take over a planet. What do you want to bet that that community will stagnate and stay basically the same? The environment would only shape certain things: dwellings, clothes, protection - but it wouldn't get rid of the fantaticsm within the society especially if the leaders educate future generations. It would take an amazingly strong splinter group to break through 'Tradition'.
Can you see us getting rid of certain useless traditions any time soon?

alex keto said...

It's a good idea to look at anthropology studies of other societies. Trying to come up with a new way of ordering a society in your spare time seems like a project so big you wouldn't have much time to write. Last guy who did this was Karl Marx and then he spent the rest of his life explaining it.

Angie said...

Sam -- sure, one can make an argument for things staying pretty static, in a given fictional culture and under certain constructed circumstances. [nod] Although as I said above, I think the reasons behind that would be unusual enough that they'd stand out. It's not impossible but it's nowhere near as likely as one might think, reading the last fifty years' worth of SF stories. [wry smile]

But even in the conservative areas of the here and now, things are changing. Women are running for office in Saudi Arabia, for example, a country which only recently started holding elections for anything at all for the first time since the sixties. And contrary to popular belief, the Amish do use electricity and telephones; they just do it differently, considering how to integrate new things into their lives without disrupting the community-oriented nature of their lifestyle. And heck, even mainland China, the last major holdout of communism, has relaxed recently and one can find quite a lot of capitalist enterprise going on in that country.

What's really interesting is seeing just how the changes come about, though. Rather than moving toward being more like "us," societies which start out very different are more likely to take a bit of this and a bit of that and incorporate it into their own world view and come up with something very different, like an Amish farmer using a gasoline-powered thresher-thingy (technical term ;) ) but putting it onto a flatbed wagon and drawing it around his fields using horses. Or Saudi women in headscarves going into a public fast food restaurant to eat, but going to a separate women's register where she's waited on by a woman and separated from the men's side by a barrier, and sits to eat at a women-only table. Neither of these examples shows how we (mainstream Western culture) would do things, but they're different from and arguably progressive in comparison with how those particular groups were doing things fifty years ago.

And even if some things stay the same, others are going to change. I can't think of an example of a completely static society, over an extended period. Even a century, much less several. No matter where you are, something is going to change eventually, probably within a few generations at most, and that change will help drive others. The ban on reading on Wednesday might stick for quite a long time, despite being silly, but if nothing else about that society were changing either, the writer would have to work pretty hard to convince me that that society was realistic.

On a colony planet, the necessity of adapting and adapting to the environment to build a settlement and raise food and become self-sustaining would in itself drive social changes. In the US, the first states to offer women the vote were frontier states, both to attract more women and to acknowledge the contributions of the woman pioneers who worked alongside the men to build the territory and then the state. A group of people who thought women should stay home and just cook, clean and mind children would have a hard time establishing a colony on a new planet. There'd be so much work to be done, survival-level work, that leaving half the potential workforce largely idle (and when you're about to starve or freeze, having people who could be farming or fixing the roof dusting tables or making lasagna is as much of a waste as if they were watching TV) is a mistake likely to get everyone killed. Again, one could justify a set-up where the colony's women could stay home and vacuum all day -- I can think of one way to do it myself -- but it'd take some work. And that's just considering the hard realities of dealing with the environment and surviving to raise the next generation, ignoring the likelihood that said next generation will have at least a few of its own ideas of how things should be done.

About us and our useless traditions, sure. We already have. When my mom was young, for instance, a respectable woman Simply Didn't go shopping in San Francisco without her gloves. No matter the weather (and even SF gets warm occasionally [grin]) she had to wear gloves. It was just the done thing. Now no one does unless it's very cold or they're work gloves or something. Silly tradition --> now vanished. I'm not going to try to guess which silly things we do now will change in the next thirty to fifty years, but yes, I'm very sure that at least some of them will.


Angie said...

Alex -- see, to me, making things up is half the fun of writing SF or fantasy. :) I agree that anthropology is a great source, though, because if you study other cultures and different ways of doing things, you have more building blocks to play with. I wouldn't necessarily want to go into as much detail as Marx did, but then a society I create for a story doesn't have to hold up in practice -- it just has to sound good and stand up to a bit of intellectual prodding, you know?


Kate Thornton said...

A basic understanding of how human societies have evolved on earth is a good thing for a world builder, but I think you put your finger on it when you said that making things up is half the fun. Yes, it is! Having the long leash of fiction lets you run around the whole park, sniffing and marking and shaping the worlds the way *you* the author need them in order to tell your story. (Didn't really mean to make you sound like a dog - gotta watch my similies)

Economics is always going to be important in every world, the idea of trade. It's almost always the most fun part of any really interesting fictional society, too.

Anthropology classes can show you so much about us. And the more you know about Us, the better you get at creating Them. Great post, Angie!

Angie said...

Kate -- no prob, I like dogs. :D

But yeah, it's all about collecting material, the bits and pieces and facts and trivia and legends and fables and mythology and attitudes and organizations and customs and beliefs and systems and hierarchies and values and world views -- collecting enough raw materials that when you reach into the bin you can pull out a fresh set each time you need to create a society or culture. If all you have is, say, bits and pieces you've cannibalized from American culture, it's going to get repetitive pretty quickly, even with as rich and diverse as the US is. Especially in SF, I really admire writers who can come up with alien aliens. It's a difficult skill to learn and not everyone can do it.


Mychael Black said...

Wow. Love this post!

Since cutting my fantasy teeth on Tolkien at the age of nine, I've become utterly addicted to world building. Most of my creations tend to be fantasy (usually with a medieval basis), though some are a weird amalgamation of medieval and modern. Sort of a bizarre fantasy steampunk thing.

I've been working on a sci-fi world off and on for a while. Never quite sure if anything will come of it, but Lord, it's fun. :)

Angie said...

Mychael -- thanks. :) I really like steampunk, although I haven't tried writing any yet. Do you read Phil Foglio's Girl Genius?

I like classic medieval fantasy too, although it's getting harder and harder to do anything really fresh with it.

And yeah, worldbuilding is fun even if you don't have an immediate use for the product. [rueful smile] Although I find that if I tinker long enough, stories will eventually start popping out. Handy, that. :D


Mychael Black said...

I've not tried writing anything inherently steampunk, though cyberpunk is something I'd love to try.

Nope, haven't read that one. LOL

Angie said...

Michael -- Girl Genius started out as a comic book, but now it's available online, one page at a time, M/W/F. Check it out:

That's the beginning. It starts out in black and white, but switches to color somewhere along the way. Phil does great humorous artwork, he's a good writer, and I love the world he's created. :)