*I want to point out this is a blast from the past post. I want to point this out because I don’t want you to think I’m sick again. I’m not. I started an exercise program and I’m feeling like someone put me through the ringer, but I’m not sick.
On another note I noticed below that I mention The Left Hand of Darkness. This amuses me because the usual twitter suspects are throwing fits that we don’t want to allow (!) non binary science fiction, because we’re such idiots who never heard of the Left Hand of Darkness. I thought we’d spent years yelling at them that their sad attempts were nothing new and that everyone and their parents had done it better, The left Hand of Darkness most definitely included. I’m starting to believe they’re not liars. They’re mentally deficient. Apparently they can’t process it’s not the subject we object to, it’s the execution. (Poor prose should not be suspended by the neck till dead.)*
When I’m sick – yeah, let’s just say that my respiratory system is a walking liability – I can’t read fiction. This is part of the reason I’ve fallen so far behind on my fiction reading. It doesn’t seem to be a rare affliction. When you’re sick you can’t handle emotion and, of course, all good fiction is emotion.
However, I can’t stop reading. Reading is what gets me through the stupid stuff that must happen in life, like washing dishes, cooking, cleaning. I have yet to figure out how to read in the shower. Someone must make a better, water-proof ereader.
So, instead of fiction I read non-fiction. The more tired/sick I am, the dryer my reading material. Years ago, when pneumonia put me in the hospital (ICU for eleven days) I read a collection of nineteenth century biology manuals. No, you probably don’t want to ask.
And I know I’m at least becoming somewhat more human because I either start having story ideas, or I start figuring out how what I’m reading applies to some aspect of writing.
This last month and a half, as I’ve been spiraling deeper and deeper into illness (And no, I don’t even know if it’s the same illness or a succession of respiratory bugs) I’ve been reading about the pursuit of the Indo-European language and culture.
Yes, this morning I finally decided enough was enough and this afternoon I dragged self to doctor and I’m now medicated. While I’m still not substantially better – except the fever must be down because my head is clearer – in the “up” points of this er… bug sequence I’ve been able to realize what I’m reading is both a wonderful seed for stories, possibly a setting for a series of novels which has deviled me (my last run at it was … fifteen years ago, when I was definitely not ready) and, more importantly, a world building tool.
What I’ve been reading, particularly, which attempts the reconstruction of an ancient culture that might have been homogenetic, but was almost certainly heterogenetic (same or different genetic heritage), might have been located over a region or another, and might have worked out one way or another, has made me realize how things are connected, things we don’t tend to think about.
No, I don’t know how much their guesses are true, but I do know that there are certain “rules” that tend to apply and that these archaeologists use them to reconstruct a culture just like a paleontologist reconstructs a dead animal from a loose tooth. Will they sometimes be wrong? Oh, yeah, heck, yeah. Remember the dinosaurs that have changed name or shape as more has been found out about them? But still, there are certain things that apply. If you find a certain shape of tooth, you know you’re dealing with an herbivore, for instance. And if you find human craniums with largely cavity-free teeth, you know you’re dealing with a culture whose diet was low on carbohydrates. Oh, there might be some genetic freak that keeps them from getting cavities, but, more than likely, you’re dealing with a diet based on protein.
The same goes for population replacement, for instance. One population disappears, another comes in. Was it war? Maybe. Sometimes you do find a population where the graves show women of the previous population and men of the new one. You could be dealing with a Rape of The Sabines situation. Alternately, you could be dealing with some elaborate treaty and bride price, and perhaps the men of the tribe moved elsewhere to marry women from the other tribe. Yeah, that wouldn’t be total replacement, but these graves never represent everyone, just the powerful families.
And then there’s that too – what was powerful at the time? What was “wealthy”. A man is buried in a grave that would require immense labor with only a few shards of pottery and a dagger. Was it because the culture was terribly poor, or were the gifts symbolic? You only know by comparing to smaller graves of the same culture.
I’m not going to go into details, but it is important, not just for historical fiction but for science fiction and even for fantasy to think through these details. “What does my culture use for transport?” for instance, limits how far your character can travel. That much is obvious. But it will also limit the ideas of the world; how far her parents’ married; how many languages there are in the immediate vicinity; what they eat and possibly how they pray. “What do they eat?” again limits or shapes what the culture is like. If they are mostly agriculturalists, their culture will be different from if they are herders. And if they are herders with frequent cattle raiding (which also correlates to weapons) the culture is yet different. (And if they eat mostly stew, you’re caught in The Tough Guide To Fantasyland.)
I confess that even with as much as I know about history and how cultures evolve, and how economics influences daily life, I’ve caught at least a couple of mistakes I’ve made in one of my cultures – where they could not possibly be settled agriculturalists with those habits.
We live in a time where the world is our backyard, where food of all seasons and all continents is available to us and transport is cheaper and easier than it’s ever been. This divorces source from event in our minds, so that we have trouble creating even complex, future cultures.
Of course, the classic work with everything integrated is Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. I’m not saying I don’t have problems with some of her extrapolations. I do. She and I come from widely different philosophical traditions and that always shows. Also, though I liked it originally, the presentation itself now seems incredibly dated to me. BUT at least she tried to show a culture integrated in all facets of myth and daily living and its natural environment. And managed to hint at a full fledged society, which of course never fits in a book.
What is your favorite such example? Do you have one? What would you like to see? How do you think archeology can help us learn world building?