Posts Tagged ‘worldbuilding’

Future fashion

I’ve written here before about the frequent neglect of textiles in fantasy and science fiction, and the use of clothing as a way to understand the ecology and economy of a world a bit better.

Something in the news this week has prompted me to revisit it, from a more science-fictional angle: Japanese researchers have genetically modified silkworms to produce red and green fluorescent silk. It looks white under ordinary light, and colored under UV light.

Wired has pictures and details, and there are more photographs of fancier garments here. (The embroidery! I need some of this to weave with so badly.) Anyway, go look. I’ll be here when you get back to talk about science fiction.

The potential applications of this fascinate me: it’s a combination of advanced science (genetic modification, UV light availability) and very old technology (raising silkworms for textile production and processing their output, even though processing methods had to be modified for the less robust fluorescent silk).

Melding technologies like this is nothing new, but something we take utterly for granted. Most of what we eat is raised in ways not that different from the past centuries or millenia, but the way we process it is the product of advanced technology. (Your great-grandmother and mine would have been shocked and ecstatic with a modern stove and refrigerator, even if the meat and vegetables would have been largely familiar).

What parts of modern/medieval/earlier life and technology are we likely to keep in the future, and what parts would be utterly unrecognizable to someone from our time and place? Mixing together the familiar and the foreign in science fiction both grounds the reader (the familiar) and forces them to recognize that this isn’t quite like what they know (the foreign). That juxtaposition can lead to some of the best and most realistic worldbuilding.

Like a perfectly normal wedding dress that fluoresces in multiple colors during the reception.

What other juxtapositions can you think of? What about examples of SF that do a good job with this technique?

Everybody Knows That The Dice Are Loaded, Everybody Rolls With Their Fingers Crossed

Every parent I know – particularly those with daughters – laments the near-impossibility of finding gender-neutral toys, clothing, and even toiletries for their young children. From bibs to booties, children’s items from birth onward are awash in a sea of pink and blue. Lucky the baby shower attendee, uncertain of the gender of an impending infant, who can find a green or yellow set of onesies as a present!

At the same time, I can’t count the number of times someone has told me, quite earnestly, how they discovered that boys “naturally” prefer blue and girls pink. Everyone knows this is true. No matter how hard parents try to keep their children clothed and entertained with carefully-selected gender-neutral colors and toys, girls just gravitate to princesslike frills, while boys invent the idea of guns ex nihilo and make them with their fingers or with sticks if they’re not provided with toy firearms by their long-suffering progenitors. There must be some genetic component to gunpowder/frill preferences1.

This is nonsense, of course, and obviously so; but there’s a pernicious strain of thought that insists that all of human behavior must have some underlying evolutionary explanation, and it’s trotted out with particular regularity to explain supposed gender (and other) differences or stereotypes as biologically “hard-wired”. These just-so stories about gender and human evolution pop up with depressing regularity, ignoring cultural and temporal counterexamples in their rush to explain matters as minor as current fashion trends as evolutionarily deterministic.

A phrenology chart from 1883, showing the areas of the brain and corresponding mental faculties as believed to exist by phrenologists of the time.

In the 19th century, everybodyknew that your intellectual and personal predispositions could be read using the measurements of your head.Image obtained via Wikimedia Commons

For example, a 2007 study purported to offer proof of, and an evolutionary explanation for, gender-based preferences in color – to wit, that boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink. Despite the fact that the major finding of the study was that both genders tend to prefer blue, the researchers explained that women evolved to prefer reds and pinks because they needed to find ripe berries and fruits, or maybe because they needed to be able to tell when their children had fevers2.

One problem with this idea is that currently-existing subsistence, foraging, or hunter-gatherer societies don’t all seem to operate on this sort of division of labor. The Aka in central Africa and the Agta in the Philippines are just two examples of such societies: men and women both participate in hunting, foraging, and caring for children. If these sorts of divisions of labor were so common and long-standing as to have become literally established in our genes, one would expect those differences to be universal, particularly among people living at subsistence levels, who can’t afford to allow egalitarian preferences to get in the way of their survival.

Of course, a much more glaring objection to the idea that “pink for boys, blue for girls” is the biological way of things is the fact that, less than a hundred years ago, right here in the United States from which I am writing, it was the other way around. In 1918,  Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, a trade publication, says that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Pink was considered a shade of red at the time, fashion-wise, making it an appropriately manly color for male babies. Were parents in the interwar period traumatizing their children by dressing them in clothes that contradicted their evolved genetic preferences? Or do fashions simply change, and with them our ideas of what’s appropriate for boys and girls?

A photograph of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, age 2. He is wearing a frilled dress, Mary Jane sandals, and holding a feather-trimmed hat - an outfit considered gender-neutral for young children at the time.

This is FDR at age 2. No one has noted the Roosevelts to be a family of multigenerational cross-dressers, so take me at my word when I say this was normal clothing for young boys at the time.
Image obtained via Smithsonian Magazine

More recently, researchers at the University of Portmouth published a paper reporting that wearing high heels makes women appear more feminine and increases their attractiveness – a result they established by asking participants to view and rate videos of women walking in either high heels or flat shoes. The researchers don’t appear to have considered it necessary to test their hypothesis using videos of men in a variety of shoes3.

Naturally, articles about the study include plenty of quotes about the evolutionary and biological mechanisms behind this result4. But as with pink-and-blue, these ideas just aren’t borne out by history.  In the West, heels were originally a fashion for men. (In many non-Western societies heels have gone in and out of fashion for at least a few thousand years as an accoutrement of the upper classes of both genders.) They were a sign of status – a way to show that you were wealthy enough that you didn’t have to work for your living –  and a way of projecting power by making the wearer taller. In fact, women in Europe began wearing heels in the 17th century as a way of masculinizing their outfits, not feminizing them.

Studies like these, and the way that they reinforce stereotypes and cultural beliefs about the groups of people studied, have broader implications for society and its attitudes, but it’s also useful to think about them from a fictional and worldbuilding standpoint: the things we choose to study, and the assumptions we bring with us, often say more about us than about the reality of what we’re studying — particularly when the topic we’re studying is ourselves. Our self-knowledge is neither perfect nor complete. What are your hypothetical future-or-alien society’s blind spots? What assumptions do they bring with them when approaching a problem, and who inside or outside of that society is challenging them? What would they say about themselves that “everybody knows” that might not be true?

1. Our ancestors, hunting and gathering on the savannah, evolved that way because the men were always off on big game safaris while the women stayed closer to home, searching out Disney princesses in the bushes and shrubs to complete their tribe’s collection. Frilly dresses helped them to disguise themselves as dangerous-yet-lacy wild beasts to scare off predators while the men weren’t there to protect them.
2. Primitive humans either lacked hands or had not yet developed advanced hand-on-forehead fever detection technology.
3. Presumably because everyone knows that heels are for girls and that our reactions to people wearing them are never influenced by our expectations about what a person with a “high-heel-wearing” gait might be like.
4. On the savannah, women often wore stiletto heels to help them avoid or stab poisonous snakes while the men were out Morris dancing.

A Question of Culture

I’ve been in quite a few museums in the last few weeks, and of all types: art, science, history, natural history.


Looking at the exhibits and watching the way that people respond to them got me thinking about science fiction, of course. How do people choose what to preserve and display, whether it be paintings, fossils, historic objects, or military technologies?



How do others react to those exhibits, and what does it say about them as individuals and as members of the exhibiting or a different culture?


On an alien planet, would the fossils follow similar stages? How does the evolutionary history of an entirely different world shape the way humans respond to it, and how is that response reflected in what we choose to present?


Not every science fiction novel needs an explicit museum, but I think it’s a good world-building exercise for the writer. Character-building too, potentially.


If you had an alien museum, in a world of your own creation or one you enjoy, what would be in it? Why? Would people come on their vacations? For school trips? Happily or not?

(Photos, from top to bottom: Smithsonian Institute; Sackler Gallery, Washington DC; Chicago Institute of Art; Korean War Memorial; Field Museum, Chicago; Natural History Museum, Washington DC.)

What’s Slick, Dry and Smart All Over? Science In My Fiction

As an editor, I read a lot of sci-fi that leans too heavily on worldbuilding tropes of the past. Every starship and space station I read about has the same old rigid hulls, single-use environments, and clunky, intrusive computing elements that seem designed to abandon users when their need is greatest. Science fiction is lately wanting in the ‘imaginative applications of materials science’ department.

Fortunately, there has recently been no shortage of interesting advances in that field. To make inspiration convenient for writers too busy to seek out new science and boldly go where no fiction has gone before, I have gathered together a few examples of research into novel materials that could rock your worldbuilding.

In space, everyone’s a janitor. Scum grows everywhere, all the time, catastrophically unmitigated by ‘normal’ gravity and the sort of biological processes that we take for granted on Earth. So writers had better equip all their characters with impressive arrays of scrub brushes, or start coating surfaces in biofilm-resistant technology.

Nothing’s perfect, especially not plumbing. In the far future, people will still struggle with sweating, dripping, seeping, oozing, bursting pipes of one kind or another. Scarcity is bad enough on Earth, especially when it comes to potable water, but resource management in space is even more urgently a matter of life and death. Depending on the location and the gas or liquid involved in a leak, people could find themselves facing a fire or flood or drought that could wipe out all life in their fragile tin-can biome. The future needs plumbers with advanced leak detection capabilities.

Just like the vacuum in your house, the vacuum of space is crowded with dust and the universe’s other castoffs. But in space, all the never-ending clouds of specks and chunks are traveling at incredible speeds. They’re hot, cold, radioactive, magnetized, and our pathetic little ships are on collision courses with every mote and rock between their origins and their destinations. Even if sensors and navigation are sophisticated enough to let us detect and dodge the worst encounters, our hulls will eventually erode and fail. Unless we think to cover them in snakeskin

I could go on like this for volumes, there’s such an abundance of clever ideas out there for how to transform the most inefficient and woefully humdrum materials we use on Earth into believable support for above average science fiction.

That Great Big Wave Pool In The Sky

When we imagine the distant future, we tend to envision some combination of industrial-strength social order on starships and preindustrial-strength chaos in exoplanetary exploration. Star Trek, Star Wars, City Mouse and Country Mouse, etc. There’s a lot of technologies-versus-organics still going on out there in the big wide multiverse of fiction.

What’s more interesting is the fact that humans will probably never survive very long away from the tiny wet marble we evolved on if we’re unable to forge a successful marriage between those two influences upon our bodies and minds.

No, there is no living system on Earth evolving in such a way that we can simply encapsulate it and use it to fly ourselves to other stars. Tardigrades seem to do alright for themselves in space in spite of the radiation, cold, and total lack of food, water and air. But humans aren’t that hardy. Or that cute.

Cuter than a tardigrade? ('Wild Thing' by Kay Holt)

Yes, it’ll take unprecedented degrees of human cooperation and organization and invention to make-real the technologies and infrastructure we’ll need to support ourselves off-Earth. We’re very good at gadgets; maybe someday there’ll even be an app for that. But all our best engineers working together for generations will never be able to fix what’s wrong on a starship devoid of wildlife and wide open spaces.

If we don’t want to self-destruct on our way to the stars, we’re going to need a bigger ‘boat.’ One big enough to carry an ocean inside. And a bit of forest. Some lovely crags. An icy brook here and there…

Bearing in mind that we essentially need to build small inside-out planets to sustain us on our [hopefully] inevitable deep space treks, the question I have for the writers among us is this: What’s in your interstellar terrarium?

Low-tech Antiseptics, part 2

The importance of keeping wounds clean is something we take for granted now, and we have all the benefits of science and industrial production to provide us with cheap and effective antiseptics. These posts examine some reasonable options for the doctors and healers of a realistic fantasy world to have at hand.

Part 1 discussed salt and sodium bicarbonate.


Your brave character uncorks that vodka bottle with his teeth and pours it over his wound. Problem solved? Check the label first.

Surgical-grade ethanol runs from 60-90% alcohol by volume. In drinking terms, that’s 120-180 proof. Most of the stuff in the liquor cabinet tops out at 100 proof — though you can get brandies that are 120 proof and the infamous Everclear is available in 151 and 190 proof.

Simple distillation dates from the first century AD, in Europe, and methods gradually improved during the Renaissance and really took off in the 19th century. So the good news is that it’s not unreasonable for a fantasy world to know how to distill alcohol from fermented mash.

The bad news is that simple distillation (from the most primitive forms up to more complex but still low-tech moonshine stills) will not get you pure enough alcohol to be really effective as an antiseptic. For that, you need a reflux column. (For further information, Google reflex column stills and their use by backyard fuel-alcohol producers.)

Whether this is feasible in your fantasy world (the metallurgy skills, the safety issues) is for you to determine. But once you have that worked out and your healers have access to high-proof alcohol, they can be sterilizing wounds and mixing cocktails at the same time, right? Hopefully the producers didn’t opt for fermenting cheaper stuff like sawdust instead of grain (wood alcohol = methanol = blindness) and hopefully they didn’t build their still out of soft, easy-to-work lead

What about rubbing alcohol? That would be isopropyl alcohol, and it’s a good antiseptic but I haven’t been able to find a way to produce it without industrial chemistry. If you find something, I’d be curious to know.


All of the above — salt, natron, and alcohol — are by no means as effective as modern antibiotics or even the stronger antiseptics like iodine or phenol-based compounds. How you use them in a story is your call, but they are not magic bullets that will realistically bring a character back from death’s door.

If you’re looking for a semi-plausible magic bullet, though: terpenes.

Terpenes are a major component of resin and turpentine (distilled resin) — both important compounds with long, pre-industrial histories. Turpentine itself was used medicinally (and still is, actually) for jobs which included wound-cleansing. (Also de-worming, though I can’t imagine drinking the stuff.) Another natural, low-tech antiseptic containing terpenes is tea tree oil.

Terpenes are compounds synthesized by trees, mostly (some bugs too), particularly conifers (cedar, firs, junipers, etc.). If one wanted a “magic bullet” healing compound in one’s fantasy world, an exotic local tree producing a terpene-packed resin could fit the bill. It can be as scarce and hard to find as the story requires, or common and widely used. Maybe it requires processing — distilling, fermenting, mixing with something else.


So: four ways to help your characters survive their adventures without invoking magic, deities, or doing something as nonsensical as boiling wine. (I wrote a little rant that started all this. It seems to have attracted some eyeballs.)

Low-tech Antiseptics, part 1

These posts brought to you by the recurrence of the search term “boiling wine” bringing people to my little rant on the use of same on wounds in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Magical healing aside, basic sanitation is the one thing that will most increase your characters’ chances of survival when they’re injured. Stitches are helpful. So are herbs. Splints are important for broken bones. But if that cut gets infected, abscesses, and gangrene sets in, all the willow bark tea in the world isn’t going to save you.

In real-world history, the importance of keeping wounds clean was not fully realized until only a few hundred years ago. Why your fantasy world’s physicians know they need to do this is up to you. I’m going to look at how to do it in a world without industrialized chemical analysis and synthesis.


Gargling saltwater for a sore throat and old recipes for toothpaste made of salt and baking soda (more on that later) work because salt does kill microbes when it’s concentrated enough. This is why pickling and salting work as food preservatives.

Pickled characters

Brine recipes call for anywhere from a half cup to a cup of salt per gallon of water, which would be 3 – 6% salt by volume. Seawater tends to be more like 3 – 4%.

Depending on where your characters are, seawater could be easy to get and a reasonable thing to wash a wound with — if the seawater has been filtered and hopefully boiled as well. It does contain microbes that are acclimated to salty water, after all.

Brine prepared from salt and boiled water is a viable option if your characters have access to economically priced salt. Or maybe it’s a rare and expensive way to treat wounds, reserved only for those who can afford it. Either way, I recommend Mark Kurlansky’s Salt as an excellent overview of salt production over the course of history.

Character jerky

Given a supply of fairly pure salt, why not just pack the wound with salt? Yes, that’s been done in the past. Especially with abscesses, it seems. The packing needs to be changed a few times a day, and after the salt’s done its job the wound will need to be closed by whatever method and given a chance to heal. You don’t actually want to make jerky out of your character.

Sodium bicarbonate

You know it better as baking soda. Combined with salt and a little water, baking soda makes for a nasty-tasting toothpaste but it’ll kill those germs and even bleach your teeth a little.

Naturally occurring bicarbonate is one of several compounds found in natron, which the Egyptians used for cleaning, an antiseptic, and to preserve mummies. Natron is mined from natural deposits, which can be found in a variety of places — not just deserts. Perhaps this would be a viable industry for your fantasy kingdom on top of its medical uses.

Baking soda mouthwash recipes range up to 25% concentration but tend to fall more around a teaspoon per half pint of water which would be… 4%? As with salt above, your healers could use either a brine to wash wounds or pack the wound directly with natron — bearing in mind that we don’t want to mummify the characters just yet. Natron is a drying agent, which means it draws out moisture from the tissues. This makes the tissues less hospitable to bacteria… and life in general.

Stay tuned for the more accurate use of alcohol (not by boiling wine, for crying out loud) and an antiseptic wild card.

Our Epic Prehistory

Neanderthal reconstruction by Kennis & Kennis/Photograph by Joe McNally

I love me some Tolkien. But for everything that The Lord of the Rings has done for the fantasy genre, it has also been so overwhelmingly influential and compelling that it is has spawned entire franchises set in worlds imitating Middle Earth, and has stifled the genre’s creativity. Unless otherwise specified, fantasy is assumed to be set in a medieval European setting and populated by humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings. Dwarves are always assumed to be great craftsmen and miners who live underground in halls of stone and favor geometric patterns in their art and writing. Elves always inhabit verdant forests, are skilled in magic and craft fine weapons and armor with leaf shapes and magical properties. Orcs are brutish and primitive and wear spiky black armor and wield spiky black weapons. I am hardly the first person to make these observations, and in recent years there has finally been some real progress in emerging from the shadow of Tolkien, but we have a long way to go. I would like to propose just one alternative that not only bucks some of the trends that Tolkien started, but also has some science at its heart.

In most fantasy settings, there are several intelligent species coexisting in the same world, each with a distinctive culture and appearance. In our modern world of course, there are humans of cultures and appearances that vary beyond anything seen in most fantasy, but there are no other similarly advanced intelligent species for us to interact with. This was not always the case. In the course of human evolution, we coexisted with several other species of human, including Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, and the recently discovered Denisova hominin.

Hominid evolution is a complicated and rapidly changing field, and my summary here will likely make archaeologists and anthropologists cringe, but I hope it will also kindle some ideas for speculative fiction writers looking for something a bit different.

I will start with homo erectus, a species that originated in Africa around 1.8 million years ago and spread across much of Asia into India, China, and Indonesia. Homo erectus was clearly quite successful, and there is evidence that they used stone hand axes and fire, and were probably one of the first hunter-gatherer societies. They stood about as high as modern humans, but their skeletons are more robust and they were more heavily muscled. It is not clear when homo erectus went extinct, but they may have lasted in isolated pockets until relatively recently, and may have interacted or even interbred with early homo sapiens. In fact, Homo floresiensis, which lived in Indonesia as recently as 12,000 years ago, shows some similarities to homo erectus, although homo floresiensis is smaller.

Model of Homo erectus from Museum of Archaeology, Herne, Germany

The most famous hominid that coexisted with humans is the Neanderthal. Neanderthal remains have been discovered throughout Europe and as far east as the Altai mountains. They lived from 600,000 years ago until about 25,000 years ago. Despite the stereotype of Neanderthals as dumb brutes, evidence suggests that they may have been just as intelligent as humans. (In fact their brains were larger than ours!) They made wood, bone, and stone tools, and the discovery of healed fractures in some skeletons suggests that they cared for their sick and wounded. They buried their dead and may have used body paint, and they constructed large shelters out of animal bones. (They also may have practiced cannibalism, but then, so do some modern humans so you can’t hold that against them.) Neanderthals have long been thought of as pure carnivores, surviving by hunting mammoths and other big game, but recent discoveries show that they ate plants too.  Evidence in a cave in Gibraltar, the most recent Neanderthal site, shows that they even foraged from the sea, much like the humans who used the cave thousands of years later.

There is good evidence that Neanderthals used language, and there are even some speculations that their language pre-dated the separation between speaking and music – that it was a hybrid of the two – something that just screams (sings?) to be used in fiction.

So why did the Neanderthals go extinct if they were as smart as we are, significantly stronger, and geographically widespread? There are several theories. One, put forward in the book “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” by Clive Finlayson, is that they were simply unlucky. It appears that Neanderthals hunted primarily in wooded areas, ambushing their prey using short spears and relying on their strength to bring the animal down. As the climate changed, the forests receded and gave way to wide steppes. Ambush hunting is less effective out in the grassland: it favors a hominid species specialized for long-distance walking or running, who use projectile weapons. That’s us.

Simulation of the spread of modern humans into neanderthal territory, beginning 1600 generations ago. Neanderthal territory is light gray, homo sapiens territory is dark gray, and the black band indicates areas of coexistence.

Another theory says that Neanderthals competed – perhaps violently – with homo sapiens and that we eventually won. This scenario is appealing from a fictional point of view because it goes against preconceptions and lends itself easily to the tale of a noble species of intelligent (perhaps even musical) Neanderthals being wiped out by a smaller, more devious species of humans: homo sapiens.

Of course, you can go completely in the other direction too. Another theory is that Neanderthals and humans interbred to the point where we stopped being different species. Some Neanderthal remains are sufficiently well-preserved to extract DNA, and the DNA of non-African humans include some portions that match pieces of the Neanderthal genome. Recently, DNA recovered from a 41,000 year old finger bone found in Denisova cave, Russia, shows that it came from a species that is distinct from both Neanderthals and humans, but which shows some degree of interbreeding with both.

My suspicion is that all of these theories are at least partially correct. It is conceivable that even as Neanderthals were dying out as their forests receded, humans could have accelerated their demise. And, knowing human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if some interbreeding occurred even as our species was killing off the Neanderthals.

All of this evidence for coexistence between humans and other hominids is a ripe setting for fiction much like modern fantasy but with the added benefit of being somewhat realistic. Add in the various exotic mammals that still roamed the world and the changes in climate that drove the migration or extinction of entire ecosystems, and the stories practically write themselves.

The wide geographic range of earlier species like homo erectus, and the persistence of pockets of similar species until quite recently, also spark the imagination. Almost every culture in the world has tales of human-like creatures that live in remote locations on the fringes of civilization. Could these stories be rooted in our distant past when they were not fiction at all? Could the revulsion triggered by the “uncanny valley” be a deep-seated instinct based on a time when there were other humanoids out there, competing with us?

There’s no reason that fantasy has to be confined to a pseudo-medieval Europe populated by the same old fantasy races. Long ago, our planet really was home to multiple species of human, and they fought and loved and explored and invented and sang songs into the night. Let’s hear their stories.



That’s not what I meant

This is a true story, and it’s based on the research of Dr. Scott Nixon at the University of Rhode Island. I spent last week at a conference in Newport, and was entirely fascinated by his plenary talk. Besides being a neat juxtaposition of history and technology, it has some interesting implications for worldbuilding in science fiction.

Narragansett Bay within Rhode Island

First, let me orient you. This is Rhode Island, and Narragansett Bay is outlined in red. Providence, the largest city in Rhode Island, is at the north end of the bay, about where it touches the red box. Rhode Island itself is 48 miles (77 km) long and 37 miles (60 km) wide.

The Narragansetts and the Wampanoag tribes lived along the bay when Giovanni da Verrazzano found it in 1524, and the first European settlement was established in the 1630s. It’s really the Europeans we’re concerned with here.

Providence was founded in 1636 by religious dissenters. After the American Revolution it had 7,614 people. The economy depended mostly on the bay for fishing, with a bit of agriculture.

The Industrial Revolution made it to the new United States when textile machinery was built in Rhode Island in 1787, following English plans. Industrialization took off, and by 1831 the population of Providence had reached 17,000.

The city is right on the water, at the head of Narragansett Bay, so anything it does affects the water quality of the entire bay. But even as Providence became a thriving industrial city, its impact on water quality was surprisingly low. as its population increased enormously In 1865, when the population of Providence was 54,595, eelgrass beds were mapped all along the Providence River.

eelgrass - Zostera

So what? Well, eelgrass (Zostera marina) is very sensitive to nitrogen levels in the water. All those people in Providence weren’t affecting the water quality much at all, or the eelgrass would be gone.

That’s a lot of people; how were they having such a small impact on the bay? Well, this is the age of outhouses. Most human waste was solid, or only small quantities of liquid. When you have to haul water from the town well, you don’t use very much of it. Most waste stayed where it was put, only leaching out slowly over time.

I’m certainly not claiming that outhouses are a good way to manage a city’s worth of human waste: Providence had at least two major cholera epidemics in the mid-nineteenth century. But that pollution wasn’t making it into the bay. Much of the human and animal solid waste was being hauled into the country and used as fertilizer.

The prospect of a public water supply was an exciting one, and after a couple decades of planning, the water was turned on in 1871. Public health and fire safety, not to mention simple convenience, were strong motivations.

People started using water at much, much higher rates: flush toilets! no more hauling buckets! (From 7-11 liters per person per day to 190-380.) The city planners expected that the existing street gutter system would be adequate to deal with the increased volume. They were wrong.

It didn’t take long at all for the cesspools and privy vaults to overflow and seep into the streets. Planning for a sewer system began almost immediately, but it didn’t begin service until 1878.

Providence wasn’t alone in this: many cities installed public waterworks in the nineteenth century, and none began planning for sewers until after the water was running.

The sewer system carried waste directly into the rivers. Where before the nutrients were being taken to inland farms, now they were swept right into the bay. The first Providence sewage treatment plant didn’t begin operation until 1901, and by then there were 175,597 people in Providence.

The eelgrass was long gone.

And it wasn’t just the people. Providence relied on horses for transport and hauling. The number of horses in the city peaked around 1900, and then fell off sharply when the automobile was introduced. During that peak, though, an estimated 90 g of horse manure per square meter coated the city streets.

Providence has gotten much better at managing its wastes over the past century, of course, although there’s still room for improvement.

I came away from this lecture with two thoughts about worldbuilding for fantasy and science fiction.

First, even though we often set stories in horse-dependent worlds and with primitive technologies, we don’t usually think about what comes in and what goes out. Scientists call this mass balance. Horses need to eat a lot, and they excrete a lot. So do people. How is this handled in fiction? (Usually by ignoring it!) Where do things come from, and where do they go? Thinking about this some can help to create a world that feels real. Energy too: where does it come from?

And then there’s the impact of new technologies. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but nobody considered how water use would increase when it became easy to use it. The city had to struggle to catch up, and the bay will never be the same. That kind of threshold event can make for a great story.

What are the human and environmental consequences of the next great thing?

Illness and Medicine: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

Note: This article is a report on a live discussion I had with Janet Harriet, Harry Markov, and Glenda Pfeiffer on Google+. Our topic was Illness and medicine.

One of the fundamental underpinnings of any culture of illness and medicine is the idea of cause and effect. The way that we treat people, and the types of medicine we pursue, are based on our understanding of the causes of illness. Thus, when a people believes that illness is caused by evil spirits, the medical approach will typically address this problem directly by providing exorcisms and other spiritual approaches. When a people possesses the idea of germ theory, that fundamentally changes the approach to one of finding medicines to deal with the germs in question. There is also the possibility that medicine may be an empirical/experimental practice, which is to say that a people may have found out through fortuitous circumstance that eating a certain plant will cure headaches, or stop a certain kind of illness. In this case the cause of illness may not be considered particularly relevant. Janet felt that (at least historically) midwives have had an expertise that grows out of this kind of learn-by-experience approach. And Harry mentioned that if you have a magical healing system, the sense of cause might not even be necessary.

On the other hand, a logic of magical healing is necessary. This logic can grow out of the general logic of a magic system, or out of some kind of medically based model, but it needs to feel grounded. I mentioned how I’d worked with Janice Hardy when she was setting up some of the cultural underpinnings of the magical healing system she used in The Healing Wars. In this system, healers are able magically to perceive injury and hurt, and to heal it, but must take the pain of it into their own bodies. Then they have to push the pain out into a magical metal which stores it (and is in short supply). This metal is in turn forged into pain-shooting weapons, creating a pain-based economy. Believe me, this is a fascinating trilogy – but at the start we were looking for answers to questions like these:

Who are physicians?
Why are they chosen as doctors?
What is the role of doctors in the culture?
What are the limitations on doctors?
Is there any alternative to the magical healing system?

In fact, people who use plants and other substances to heal are considered dirty in Janice’s world, and dangerously unreliable…but the system would have seemed incomplete without them.

I believe it was Harry who mentioned that in the Anime series “Bleach” there is a character who can do what looks like healing, but is actually a localized reversal of time that reverts the damage to its previous condition. Harry shared a logistical issue he’s been dealing with in his work in progress, where magic can be used to heal, but at the same time, using magic is a drain on life force. So what happens if you try to heal yourself? It could be complex…

Glenda asked, “How do the magical healers conceptualize healing and illness?” This is an excellent question. Very often we use metaphors to describe illness; this can influence our treatment of it in addition to our general concept of its cause. Magical healers who are aware of physiology will treat people very differently from those who are not. Harry’s system has complex rituals – like recipes – for tissue repair. Thus the healer need not know too much about physiology, only how to follow the rituals, and of course he/she must have the magic ability to activate the process.

It is worth doing research when you’re dealing with illness and medicine in your writing. Don’t just gesture at what is possible. I’ve gone and looked up how to treat bruises, and I’ve looked up the different types of recognized mental illnesses, and a lot of other things as well. It’s also worth considering the scope of what doctors are called on to treat. As Harry noted, homosexuality has sometimes been considered a mental condition that requires “treatment.”

What can you alter in your world? There are lots of underlying parameters that are open to change. For example, who is more important, the doctor or the patient? Who has the power, and why? Can you ask questions about the recommended treatments, such as why and how they are to be delivered? Can you refuse treatment?

It’s important to keep in mind also that doctors are knowledge elites, much like priests. They undergo special training, and have knowledge that must be protected and treated with respect. Often they can engage the services of gatekeepers to help them accomplish this. In the case of a system based on evil spirit possession, the roles of doctor and priest can overlap. Even today, Harry told us, people worry about the “evil eye” in Bulgaria: if people look at you and think you’re pretty they will jinx you and make you feel ill; grandmothers will recommend washing your eyes three times at the door and washing the door handle and then you should be fine. Exorcisms still happen, and mental illness can sometimes be labeled as possession.

The metaphors we use to describe our bodies and our health are very resistant to change over time, and they can deeply affect our behavior. If you’re worldbuilding, this is a wonderful area to spend time developing because tiny phrases will speak volumes about the way your people think. Here are some expressions that the discussion participants shared:

“The hamster that runs my brain fell off.”
“One of your boards is loose.”
“Losing your marbles”
“Not playing with a full deck”
“You’ve let go like liver” (in Bulgaria describes lounging around lazily)
“A seagull has eaten your brain”

I wrote a post some time ago called Body Models and Metaphors, which was about how one decides when to seek medical treatment. Some people base their decision on the amount of time one has been sick, while others base their decision on specific types of changes in the health condition.

Some final things we mentioned were terminal illness and palliative care, medical insurance, and issues of public health and vaccination.

In Japan, very often the person who has a terminal illness will not be told, because it is believed that the knowledge would trouble them unnecessarily. Instead, the family will be told, and the patient simply expected to follow doctor’s orders without any knowledge of the reason. I linked to the article called “How Doctors Die” which is also relevant here, about the cultural conditions that lead us to expend so much money on torturous last-ditch treatments when people are near death. The question of medical insurance comes along with the role of government in public health in the society you’re designing. Does this society have a concept of spreading the risk across the population? How might a government respond to issues of public health when it is responsible for safeguarding public health and sponsoring treatment? In Australia, the government puts out pretty stiff advertising against unhealthful behavior that brings significant expense upon the public health system. One would expect vaccinations to be heavily supported in an environment like that, whereas in the US a lot of people have been convinced by fraudulent argumentation that vaccinations cause autism or other disorders… leading directly to public health problems such as the resurgence of diseases like measles and whooping cough. There can also be questions of whether one group in society is disproportionately affected by one health condition or another – such as Tay-Sachs disease affecting Jewish people, or royal families having a tendency to carry hemophilia. In my Varin world the noble caste is heavily inbred and so everybody has some kind of health difficulties (or if they don’t have them currently, they still might have had difficulties at birth).

Obviously there’s far more than can be covered in one hour, but I hope these thoughts have given you some inspiration.