Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A different value: water

One really great way to make a created society (whether science fiction or fantasy) stand out is to take something very common or vital and give it a drastically different value. A society that doesn't use money might be one example. Or one in which technology is seen as a bizarre replacement for the usual solution to problems - which is the case in the wizarding world of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. A few of my recent experiences have got me thinking about water, so I thought I'd share some musings on the value of water.

California is in a drought right now, and so we're receiving messages about how important it is to conserve water. Since I lived through a portion of the '70's in which there was a serious drought, I find that I have a gut reaction to certain types of water-wasting behavior, such as when I see sprinklers running in midday and dumping drinkable water into the gutters.

As a result of this, when I first went to Japan I had a similar gut reaction to one very common water-related behavior I saw: that of dumping a bucket of water over the sidewalk in front of a place of business. This is generally done in the early morning, and I guess is intended to clean the sidewalk, or at least to give an enhanced feeling of purity to the entrance of the business in question. Sometimes it's just a bucketful, and sometimes it extends to rinsing the entire section of street in front of a famous restaurant. In Japan, where there are two separate rainy seasons, there seems to have been less worry about the quantity of water used in this kind of activity.

Australia right now is having a serious drought - a much more serious one than we are. Visiting Australia is in many ways like going through the looking glass for me: lots of things are similar, as a result of our shared English colonial heritage, yet all are slightly different. One thing I do notice is that concerns for public issues are much more dramatic there, and advertising reflects this. I noticed a poster ad in the train stations in which a very dirty-looking plumber holding tools and pipes declared, "If I can get clean in four minutes, so can you."

I took a brief trip to Mexico some years ago, and had to follow the advice, "don't drink the water." This meant drinking bottled water, or sodas, or other purified forms of beverages, to protect my sissy American immune system from some of the things that Mexican drinkers take for granted. A friend of mine, traveling with me, let down his guard without thinking and had a glass of water in the airport before we traveled back to the US - perhaps unconsciously thinking that being in the airport meant we'd already left Mexico in some sense - and he was a very sick man by that evening.

When I traveled to France, one thing I learned is that while the tap water is drinkable, you can't assume all water is drinkable when it comes out of a pipe. You have to watch for signs saying "eau non potable," or non-drinkable water. One of my friends told me that Paris has two entirely separate water delivery systems: one for drinking water, and the other for fountains. This certainly suggests a different value placed on fountains! Imagine all the work that went into building two entirely separate systems of water-delivery infrastructure. Boy, would I be curious to see a map of that.

In the science fiction arena, the most dramatically different value I've ever seen placed on water was that portrayed by Frank Herbert in his Dune novels. Every drop is so precious that a person's wealth is measured in water - and the horrible oppressive government engages in overt demonstrations of water wastage just to prove to people a. that its people are rich beyond measure and b. that they don't care at all about the natives. In this scenario, where plants are planted with their own individual dew-gathering cups, the planting of a thirsty palm tree or the splashing of water onto towels become offensive activities, tapping into that very same gut reaction I had when I saw the buckets of water being poured onto the sidewalks in Japan.

So for those of you out there working on worldbuilding, think about taking something like water - something extremely common that we see every single day - and giving it a different value. That different value can be shown in many different ways. In the examples above, the different messages about water were conveyed by: traditional daily behaviors, advertising, public signs, and common verbal expressions. There are other opportunities as well, such as laws, urban myths, gossip or wives' tales. The change in value doesn't need to be as extreme as Dune's in order to stand out. But by placing it in your story world and making it visible by one or more of these means, you can make great strides toward achieving a sense of difference through "show don't tell."

It's something to think about.


  1. Glenda Larke just wrote a world like that in her Watergivers trilogy she's working on. The first book is "The Last Stormlord."

    Now as a point on everything I've read so far of your blog and posts on SFWA livejournal community, I feel like I've finally come home to somebody that is interested in the things I LOVE to talk about, read about, and get lost in. I'm sitting here with this huge grin on my face preparing to dive further into the archives. Your piece on writing systems was invaluable.

  2. Thanks so much, Ms. Payne. I started this blog because these are topics I love and can talk about endlessly anyway :) . If you find anything that you'd like to suggest as a topic to pursue further here, do say so.