I do a fair amount of editing and consulting for other authors in the areas of world building and science editing. (I have never charged anyone to this point, so feel free to contact me.) I’ve ranted on a few science subjects here, so I was inspired to talk about a subject relating to world building.
If you want to have a believable science fiction, fantasy, cyber punk, horror, etc world, you really need to read up on your history. NO, REAL HISTORY! Not politically correct history. Read things written in that time period, not modern overviews. You will be surprised, amazed, shocked and finally underwhelmed by actual history. Yes I said underwhelmed. The people in history are just exactly like people today. This is why modern overviews are, for the most part, not worth reading. Almost all of them try to make their narrative more exciting by making the people of history more heroic, villainous, stupid, dirty, etc than people are today. Guess what, its always baloney. People are people, every time someone tries to change them into something else, they always end up looking silly in the long run.
Conservatives: The founding fathers were just as dumb as people are today. They didn’t have as good a vision as the average political think tank does today because they didn’t have the time to devote to it that someone who has it as a full time job does. They did a awesome job, but they made some errors that we are still paying for 250 years later.
Liberals: If it hasn’t worked before, the chances that your wonderful plan will work better that the traditional way it has been done are almost ZERO. People do not change. There is usually a reason for how things are done, and the reason is NEVER that you are smarter than they are.
Socialists: Centralization of power and central planning always lead to waste, poverty and genocide. In the 20th century alone, socialist governments executed FIFTY MILLION CIVILIANS! This is beside the 20 million soldiers lost in wars they prosecuted. Point two; Nazis were socialists. The actual name of the Nazi party was the National German SOCIALIST Workers Party (NDSWP which was transliterated Nazi.) WWII pitted the two largest socialists movements (fascists and communists) against each other in a battle to the death. Despite politically correct revisionist history, the two governments were two peas in a pod and worked together seamlessly while in a race to see who could stab the other in the back first.
History in general: What kills a civilization? War and apocalypse are the usual stand bys in stories. War is not the most devastating thing that can happen to a people or country. It actually comes in fourth. The biggest killers and civilization destroyers are:
#1 Pestilence or plague: The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 killed more people than WWI and WWII combined, yet receives almost no mention in the history books. The gulf wars may be the first wars in all of human history where there were more casualties caused by enemy action than from disease. You heard that right: If you are a soldier on the front line of a war without access to modern medical care, you are more likely to die from illness than the enemy shooting at you. Of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence feeds his brother death the most people.
The Black Death of Europe and Asia may have killed as many as one quarter of all human life on earth. The Plagues of the 16th century in North and South America may have killed as much as 80% of the population and destroyed entire civilizations such as the Mississippi Mound builders most of which never so much as saw a European.
#2 Famine or starvation: For most of known history, the human population on Earth was about 300 million. It would go a little above or a little below but stayed around there for more than 3000 years. Why was it so stable when it is now growing so explosively? The short answer is starvation. Famines used to hit any given area about once a generation and it would kill anywhere from 10 to 90% of the population depending on the severity of the famine. Even if it skipped a generation the effects were even worse. This is where those really high percentages came in. Devastating famines almost always caused regime changes and in prolonged cases could cause the entire civilization to collapse. (e.g. the Mayans, pre-Incan river valley civilizations, Pre-desert Saharan civilizations, etc)
#3 Corrupt Rulers or Leadership: This one is a biggie that most people overlook. Although this one can destroy a civilization by itself, it usually acts as force multiplier for another type of disaster. A corrupt government is always looking for the personal benefits of the rulers. This leads to when the going gets tough they either a) steal everything they can get their hands on and flee or b) pretend there is nothing wrong and refuse to do anything even as everything collapses around them. The examples are legion and cover every governmental type throughout history. Just read about any collapse of a government or civilization and corruption almost always plays a part. (For a good study of this, compare the rise and expansion of the Roman Republic as compared to decay and collapse of the Roman Empire.)
#4 War: War is always tragic, but has been over vilified by political correctness in recent years. Everyone in this generation knows about the horrors of war and this has been emphasized to the point that the common wisdom is that “War is never the answer.” Unfortunately, life and people are not that nice. There are and always have been people who will do whatever they want and kill anyone who tries to stop them and will not be stopped by anything short of death. There are a lot of sheltered people who believe that this is not true and nothing will change their mind until they meet a true psychopath. The problem here is that sheltered people tend not to survive meeting real psychopaths. The problem comes when psychopaths gain power, especially political power. They then will not only kill anyone who gets in their way, but they will sacrifice every person under their authority to keep that power. When faced with such a person in power, you must either accept that they have the right to murder YOU PERSONALLY, or support going to war with them.
War is also the only way to remove a truly corrupt government. You say wait, I know of bunch of corrupt governments or politicians who have been removed without war like Richard Nixon or Apartheid in South Africa. A closer look at either situation reveals that in such cases that they both removed themselves which meant that they still accepted that the law still applied to them and valued their country over their personal power. Saddam Hussein is an example of the opposite. The laws of Iraq, international treaties, the laws if Islam all meant nothing to him. He believed himself above all laws and made it Iraqi law that he was. Therefore there was no way under the legal system to remove him. If any government makes it law that the leader is above laws and prosecution, there is no way short of war to bring them to justice.
The last reason for war is a little something known as acts of war. The acts of war have been defined by treaty and tradition as things that automatically start a war. This is why a country (say the Belgian Congo) can’t just sail a force of men into an undefended city (for example Miami) just because they can. This has not always been true and there are plenty of examples in history of countries doing just that (e.g. this is how New Amsterdam became New York). These treaties are what keeps the aggressive countries in line. If you do not go to war, then countries start taking parts of other countries whenever they feel like it (e.g. see Turkey in Cypress or pretty much anything that North Korea does. [Did you know that North Korea openly counterfeits US dollars and Euros, driving up inflation and helping to make your paychecks worth less?]) When a country blatantly and repeatedly commits acts of war, that is a pretty good indication that it is either ruled by a psychopath, completely corrupt or both.
After war and conquest, things usually calm down and you end up with a state where things are safer inside the conquered territory than they are outside of it. In history this is known as a Pax. (Latin for peace) In history there have been a number of peaceful areas and times such as the Pax Romana, Pax Mongolia, Pax Britiannia, and Pax Americana (which we are currently in). These Pax historically encourage trade, invention, science, and everything else that is considered civilized.
#5 Natural disasters: This one is a catch all category. Pestilence and famine are already considered natural disasters, but there are plenty of others. Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanoes, Droughts, Tsunamis can all weaken a civilization, but rarely destroy one. They can cause a government to fall, especially a corrupt one.
#0 Apocalypse The world ends: Although people have been predicting the end of the world throughout human history, The only recorded examples point to some time in pre-History. This means that it has never happened in recorded history. Every culture that has a myth for the creation of the world also seems to have a story where the world was destroyed as well. Sci-fi especially seems to think that either planets are easy to destroy or that the power to destroy a planet is easy to come by. Hint: planets are really big and life is really tenacious. Destroying a planet or making it unlivable is really, really, REALLY hard. If they weren’t, some psychopath would have destroyed it by now. Despite all the voices of doom, the population is still climbing like crazy. We are growing more food and building more stuff than ever before, and there is no limit that has been predicted that we haven’t surpassed. Sure, we have plenty of serious problems, but the leisure to worry about problems that might happen is a pretty big indication we are actually not in that much trouble right now.
If natural disasters that destroy worlds happened as often as say they do in Star Trek(TM), there would be no inhabited or inhabitable planets period. It’s simply a matter of odds. It makes easy drama and tension, but is bad story telling in the end. If such things are easy to make, then all it takes is one psychopath with power to destroy everything. Once you let that particular genie out of the bottle, it’s only a matter of time before everyone dies.
Dystopia and Utopia: People love to write stories about these. The problem with both of these is that they have never happened. For either of these to happen on a large scale requires people to stop acting like people. (See above rant about people never changing.) Both of these are inherently unstable. Utopias come apart because there are jerks and psychopaths who won’t follow the rules and eventually one of these will get in power and bring down the whole thing. Dystopias are unstable because people want to live. If civilization collapses, people become either hunter gathers or farmers and begin forming villages and towns and start trading. (e.g. Despite the Mayan Civilization collapsing, the Mayan people are still alive and well and get irritated when people say that they disappeared.)
Social relevance: This one is a trap that a lot of people fall into. Using the latest cause de jour is a very common way to go and can actually help get you noticed and published. The problem is that it tends to backfire on you in the long run. It tends to date your story so that it becomes unreadable in the long run. (I am old enough to remember when the book “1984” actually scared people. It just doesn’t have the impact it used to these days.) Things like this might be good for a short story, but a whole novel will simply make people yawn and lose interest when the media has moved on to a new reason that the sky is falling.
Well, I really spent a lot of time telling people what not to do. I will probably do another rant in the future about what you should do.
All comments and corrections are greatly appreciated. Feel free to introduce yourself in the comments. I love finding out about and connecting with my readers.