Thursday, July 21, 2011

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Links between physical and social in worldbuilding

I promised I would make a report on how my very first Google+ worldbuilding hangout had gone, for those who might have missed it, and here I am!

The hangout went very well. My "guests" were Kyle Aisteach, Dale Emery, and Luna Lindsey, all of whom contributed to the discussion. I was interested to see that not everyone had to have the same level of technological access in order to participate - Luna participated in spite of having no working microphone or webcam, by listening to the discussion and then contributing via the typed chat window as she felt appropriate. This worked remarkably well, so if any of you have been reluctant to participate in Google+ hangouts because of technical restrictions, I would encourage you to take the same approach.

The topic we picked was the links between the physical and social aspects of a world. It was clear that all the participants had ideas that these links existed and were ready to cite examples. The environment has resources which get distributed, generally unevenly, creating haves and have-nots. Early on, we talked about Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in which there are two major physical factors influencing the social: first, the icy climate, and second, the ambigendered physiology of the inhabitants. LeGuin manages of course to create two very distinct societies given these same conditions (Karhide and Orgoreyn), so physical factors can be considered to restrict your social options, but they don't make them ultra-specific. When you're writing, you can often pick a single aspect of the environment as your entry into a sociocultural model. If you take that single aspect and push as far and as deeply as you can with it, you can often create the basis for a really different way of thinking, and find many opportunities for making your world unique.

We also talked about seasons. Japan has four seasons, and they have huge social influence. People begin letters by mentioning the season; poetry always mentions the season, particular words like "moon" or "blossom" or "mist" are evocative of different seasons, etc. The climate of origin of a people can also be carried along in its culture and remain despite drastic changes, as when they play "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" at Christmas in Australia, or as Kyle mentioned, when they talk about the four seasons of the year in Fresno, CA, which he says has "hot season and wet season."

This brought us to the topic of cultural metaphors. For writers, metaphors can be really important as a way of expressing the connection between physical and social. Aspects of environment can be directly linked to social behavior, revealing cultural ways of thinking. Cultural metaphors tend to stick around for hundreds of years, while the original physical activity out of which the metaphor grew may not. This leads to expressions which are opaque to their users, but evocative of the past of the society.

This grew into a discussion of mythos surrounding important individuals, starting first with George Washington and the cherry tree (a story that provides us with quite a number of useful metaphors). Some of these stories about famous people are deliberately created, like those about Washington, while others, like those of Paul Bunyan, grow up naturally.

Dale Emery in his recap of our session mentioned that I'd said, "Humans like to differentiate themselves as much as they like to affiliate themselves." He saw this as an opportunity to create tension in a story, about questions of fitting in and belonging vs. maintaining one's own individuality (and indeed, my most recent story is all about this question, so you hit the nail on the head, Dale!).

Kyle mentioned how in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World the government deliberately implanted attitudes about social structure in its population by physical (chemical) means. Each group believes that it is superior to all the others, thus causing group members to help maintain the group separations. We talked generally about who bears an interest in maintaining restrictive social structures (of which caste systems like that of Brave New World, or my own Varin system, are only a subtype).

We then turned to the question of how to get from the physical to the social. Nature has its requirements, like day length, year length, climate, etc... The social overlies that. It grows out of that, and construes meaning out of it. Kyle mentioned the way that the flooding of the Nile in Egypt provided physical reasons why planting had to happen very quickly at a very particular time of year; the Pharaoh had a vested interest then in making sure this happened, and was able to use this as a justification for the social order he maintained. That social order wasn't necessary given the physical conditions, but it was compatible. The physical could then be used as a justification for maintaining the social order.

Dale asked how one might go about creating social ideas from physical requirements, and the process of thought that went into that, so I described a couple of my own thought processes, most specifically a recent one where I'd been thinking about cheetah aliens - because my daughter has asked me to do cheetah aliens (she loves cheetahs). I mulled it over for quite a long time before I found something that excited me, when I watched a show that informed me that cheetahs have to hurry and eat their kill or lions will push them off it. Dale particularly picked up on the fact that this was a detail that intrigued and inspired me (all very true). It got me asking whether one could translate that kind of relationship into a social one in a more advanced society. What would such a society look like? And how would the two groups perceive each other/talk about each other? It could be a master/slave race relationship, but wouldn't necessarily have to be. It could be executed in a number of different possible ways depending on what kind of human social models one might like to evoke. The language used by the people in the relationship would probably grow out of that (e.g. there would be a term for 'one of those guys who steals your food' etc.)

We talked about the fact that a species can dramatically influence its environment (like our own). Some societies in human cultures have taken an approach of adapting to the environment more, and others have major cultural models/stories which encourage them to change the environment drastically. This tied back to the question of how metaphors and mythos endure even when the environment changes. What would be retained, and what would be overlaid on top of those old things?

Luna asked us a really interesting question about whether a species which was not particularly geared to alter its environment would ever be motivated to achieve travel into space. That turned into our last discussion! Our society tends to see technology as a means to alter the environment, but that wouldn't necessarily be true. A society might develop technologies for other equally compelling reasons, but perhaps not use them for the same things we do. There are a lot of different possible reasons behind the same kind of behavior (creating technology).

At the end of the session I asked the participants to tell me the kind of stories they were working on. This was very interesting - intriguing stuff being worked on all around, and the question of physical and social was relevant to all of it. Dale had a situation where magic was being initially discovered, and was looking for ways to differentiate the social circumstances surrounding this from similar models in Earth history. Kyle was working with a lot of things, but mentioned his stories about terraforming on Venus, which he says are very "man versus nature." Luna said she was working on something which involved (among other things) future archaeology.

Thanks to Dale, Kyle, and Luna for coming to chat with me! I enjoyed it so much that I'm going to be doing another worldbuilding chat next week at the same time: Wednesday, July 27 at 10am PDT. I'd love to take suggestions for a topic, so suggest away in comments below. I apologize to all the people who are at the day job at that hour, but my current summer schedule is very restrictive (I can't do Google+ hangouts unless my kids are at their morning camp.) I'm looking forward to it!


  1. All interesting points! Circumstances got in the way of me attending, but I'll try to drop by the next Hangout.