This Is Not the Food

When characters in fantasy fiction sit down to a meal, we have a pretty god idea of what to expect. If the setting is Europe-ish, you can count on hearty bowls of stew, roasted meats dripping with savory juices, ripe wheels of cheese, and maybe a little bread to dab up the sauce with. If the setting is Asia-ish, expect sizzling pans of vegetables and fish, skewers of meat steaming with spices both hot and sweet, and maybe a little rice rice to dab up the sauce with. (And I’m sure some of you out there who have read books I haven’t can tell us what food to expect in Africa-ish, Americas-ish, or other-ish settings.) The trouble with this picture of food is, historically speaking, it’s backwards. The sizzling meats, steaming vegetables, and spicy sauces are not the food. The bread, rice, and other grains are the food.

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Land Tenure

160613MarchLand tenure. The very words sound boring. Perhaps they conjure images of gray-haired men in tweed jackets with elbow patches picnicking beside a barley field. But stick with me for a minute here, because land tenure is an important thing to know about in understanding historical cultures and for building your own fictional worlds.

Land tenure is one of several terms historians use to describe the legal structures surrounding the control of land. (Technically, the term land tenure is only used in British common law. Other legal systems use different terms, but this is one you’ll see a lot of in English-language history texts.) The question of who controls a piece of land is always important, but it is especially vital in agrarian societies in which land, specifically farmland, is the basis of wealth. Land tenure is about figuring out who gets to use a piece of land and under what conditions.

In some cultures this isn’t an issue. Some legal systems allow only an either-or choice, you either own a piece of land or you don’t. Under other traditions, no one owns land at all. But in certain kinds of societies, the question of who controls a plot of land and under what conditions they hold it is at the heart of many conflicts.

It’s the same basic principle that applies today when you rent an apartment. As a tenant, you have certain rights in the use and enjoyment of the apartment, but the landlord also has rights they can enforce such as demanding rent and keeping the apartment in a usable condition. Landlords have good reason to want to keep as much control over their property as they can. They don’t want tenants messing things up and making it harder to rent the apartment profitably in the future, plus they want to be able to easily get rid of tenants who make trouble or don’t pay their rent. At the same time, renters also have good reason to want as much control as possible over their apartments. They want the security of knowing they won’t suddenly be thrown out and have to look for a new place and they want to know that no one’s going to be coming in and messing with their stuff. There is a tug-of-war between different interests and the balance of legal rights between landlords and tenants reflects the balance of power in larger society.

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Travel: Large Groups on Foot

160118legionSometimes writing fiction means not just moving a few characters around the map but planning entire campaigns for massive armies. In previous entries in the travel series we looked at some basic issues and how small groups travel on foot. For large groups on foot, much of what we discussed in those entries is relevant, but large groups of people, like armies or mass migrations, bring with them their own set of problems. Today we’ll look at some basic questions in the movement of large groups: How large is “large?” What did it take to make the journey successfully? How far could they travel? And how fast?

This post is written with a particular focus on armies, since they are the best-studied large groups that traveled in the pre-industrial world, but any sufficiently large group of people traveling by foot would face the same basic problems.

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Headcanon: Underground Hydroponics in The Hunger Games World

From time to time, I get sucked into thinking about the pragmatics of fictional worlds. By that I mean all the mundane details of how people lead their everyday lives, starting from the very basic human (or creature) needs like food, clothing, waste management, and social interaction. Not just who takes care of, say, the laundry and when, but where do they go to do it, how do they get there, what kinds of implements are they expected to bring in themselves and what is shared, how long does it take, what physical motions do they go through, is it a solo activity or a joint effort, and the like.

For me as a visual person, often thinking about everyday activities and movement through spaces tumbles into thinking about what exactly do these various spaces look like. It’s a way to add depth and realism into a story – we are physical beings who love tactile experiences and accumulate all sorts of personal possessions, and if a fictional world ignores that, it makes that world fall flat for me. (Hello, Star Trek!)

The Hunger Games is one of the current ones in my mind because of the approaching Mockingjay – Part 2 premiere and because of an article on Colossal I saw about a World War II era bomb shelter in London that has been turned into an underground farm.

Growing Underground Forgotten Heritage Photo Shoot
Growing Underground on Instagram.

The company running the operation, Growing Underground, produces leafy greens like watercress, basil, coriander, and radish in hydroponic beds lit by LED lamps.

Growing Underground Beds Homepage
Growing Underground.

In the The Hunger Games world, the population of District 13 lives in underground bunkers; the above-ground structures were destroyed by the Capitol. In the Mockingjay novel, Collins mentions various spaces like the armory, the laundry, labs, testing ranges, and farms in passing. She describes these spaces mostly just in very generic terms; e.g., the color of the living compartments is white, and we hear of furniture like dressers and conference tables with individual screens, but that’s about the extent of the detail.

Scenes in the movie Mockingjay – Part 1 show the special weapons lab with a shooting range, the hangar, the bunker, and some hospital and apartment rooms, among others, but I don’t think we’ve seen any underground farms of any kind, nor the poultry farm, for example, that was destroyed in the book version of the bombing of 13 by the Capitol.

Mockingjay1 D13 Collage
Clockwise from top: living quarters, cafeteria, and infirmary at District 13. Images via

The Growing Underground photos of their growing beds fit quite well with Collins’s carefully frugal description and the established Hunger Games visual style. So, in my headcanon, even if we haven’t seen them on screen, District 13’s underground hydroponics now look very much like those of Growing Underground.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Judean Date Palm Lives Again

The only living Judean date palm, at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. Photograph by Benjitheijneb
The only living Judean date palm, at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel, photograph by Benjitheijneb via Wikimedia

The Judean date palm was a plant of great economic and cultural importance in the ancient Mediterranean. It grew extensively in Judea where it provided shade for people and livestock and its fruit was used for food and medicine. By the modern period, devastation in war and a changing climate had wiped out the trees. Then in the 1960s a two-thousand-year-old seed cache turned up in excavations at the palace of Herod the Great. The seeds sat in storage for another forty years until an attempt was made to cultivate some of them. Amazingly, one of the seeds germinated and grew. In a few more years, we get to find out what ancient Judean dates tasted like. If further efforts to breed the Judean palm with some of its nearest living relatives are successful, modern Judean date palms could return to the Mediterranean.

This story is a few years old, but I only stumbled across it recently. It’s wonderful that some things we once thought lost can come back.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!


150810oxcartThe majority of the stuff that needs to get done in an agrarian society is basic manual labor: primarily farm work, but also things like construction, building and road maintenance, mining, carrying, housework, etc. Any functioning pre-industrial society needs lots of workers to do all that work, but there are many different kinds of workers, some of which are not so familiar to us today. Some of these kinds of workers had it much better than others.

Here’s a list of possibilities, by no means exhaustive, arranged roughly in order from worst to best conditions.

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Some Notes on Gender and Power (Part 1)

150629BoudiccaGender and power are two very big and complicated topics. Put them together and you get something even bigger and complicateder. (Yes, I said “complicateder.” Deal with it.) They are also two topics that have become very important in a lot of contemporary speculative fiction. I’m not going to try to take on the whole subject here, but I would like to offer a few points that can be useful for thinking about gender, power, and how they fit both into the world we live in and into the worlds we write about.

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Food Production: The Original 99%

150615FarmingWe have some berry bushes and a few fruit trees in our back yard. Every spring I plant a few vegetables in a couple of small patches (some years they produce; other years they just wither under the care of my brown thumb). It’s nice to be able to go out back and pick a cucumber or a handful of raspberries, but it doesn’t sustain us. If we had to feed ourselves on what we can produce, we’d be dead in a matter of weeks.

The same is true for most of us in the industrialized world. In the modern west, only about 3% of the population is engaged in primary food production, which is to say: actually producing edible things from nature. Farmers, ranchers, and fishermen (along with some more niche specialists like bee-keepers and salt miners) are in a very small minority today. That 3% manages to feed all the rest of us, but only because of a host of modern technologies: mechanized farming, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotics, refrigeration and canning, cheap long-distance transport, and so on. Pre-modern societies had to feed themselves with none of these advantages, which means that food production required a huge amount of labor.

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Living on the Land

A lone river winding through the desert. A pair of wide plains. A fragmented land of islands and mountain valleys. When you’re building a world, the land matters. The land we live in shapes the way our societies work. To see what this means, let’s look at a few examples: ancient Egypt, ancient China, and classical Greece. We’ll be zooming way out and looking at these cultures on a very large scale.

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