Visual Inspiration: Small Aqua-Blue-Brown Lizards

Now that summer is properly on the way here in the northern hemisphere, it’s time for summer critters. This aqua-blue-brown lizard, Anolis grahami, would make a lovely detail in speculative—or, indeed, in any kind of—story-telling.

Wikimedia jpokele Grahams anole Jamaica

In the real world, they’re endemic in Jamaica and an introduction to Bermuda. According to Wikipedia, occasionally you can see a pure turquoise blue lizard.

iNaturalist waynewg Grahams anole

Goodness, they’re incredible!

Found via Jon Suh on Twitter.

Images: Graham’s anole on Jamaica by jpockele via Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0). Graham’s anole on a piece of wood by Wayne Godbehere on iNaturalist (CC BY-NC).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

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Fantasy Religions: Novel Religions

The religions that exist in our world can be broadly divided into two categories: traditional religions, which developed gradually in their own native societies and have no clear beginning point, and novel religions, which began at a fixed point in time. Many of the great world religions of the modern day, like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, are novel religions, while some traditional religions, like Shinto, still thrive. Some religions, like Hinduism and Judaism, have features of both. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed what sort of things you may want to keep in mind in your worldbuilding for stories or games to make your imaginary religions feel more authentically traditional. Today we’ll take a look at what makes a novel religion feel alive.

There have been many novel religions in world history. A few have gathered large followings and become major forces in the world. Many have faded away after a few generations. Some have done well for a long time, even for centuries, before finally disappearing. There is no single thing that every novel religion has in common, but looking at history, we can see definite patterns as to what makes a new religious movement thrive, even if only for a time. It takes more than a charismatic leader with a new idea, although that is where most of them start.

Connection to the past

New ways of life can be hard to adopt, but they are easier if they connect to things people already know. Christianity and Islam both drew on Jewish traditions, as Buddhism did with the same ancient Indian traditions that informed Hinduism. The ancient Mediterranean cult of Isis based itself on ancient Egyptian religion. Similarly, Zoroastrianism drew on ancient Iranian religious ideas. New movements within existing religions that do not split off on their own also often share the features of novel religions, like the Protestant denominations within Christianity or the Shia branch of Islam. The degree to which new religious movements identify themselves as new or as reforms to or revivals of older traditions can vary widely.

Texts and beliefs

Not every religion, novel or traditional, has sacred texts, but many novel religions do. Such texts help to define how the new movement differs from what has come before and what its followers are expected to do or believe in order to be counted as part of the group. Depending on the religion, these texts may be openly available to anyone who wants to read them, or access to them may be limited only to those who have joined the movement. Novel religions are also more likely to focus on belief, unlike traditional religions which tend to focus on practices and rituals.

Hope in times of trouble

The success of any new religion depends largely on its ability to attract new followers in sufficient numbers to keep the movement going. Most people most of the time aren’t really “in the market” for a new religion, but there are certain times in history when large numbers of people are ready to embrace something new. It tends to happen in times of suffering and uncertainty, among people who have been displaced from their homes and familiar ways of life. The Bacchanal cult of the second century BCE appealed to Italian peasants who had been driven from the countryside into the cities by economic desperation. Haitian Vodou and related religions came out of the traumas of enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas. Christianity and Islam both, in different periods and different ways, emerged among the victims of Roman imperialism. Novel religions often offer purpose, identity, and community to people who have lost the things that gave them those comforts before.

Difficult (but not too difficult)

A novel religion often thrives when it demands practices of its followers that are difficult, but not excessively difficult, to carry out. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. Buddhists engage in meditation of many different kinds. Followers of Isis were expected to furnish a feast for their fellow worshipers upon joining. These kinds of practices, which require time, focus, and effort, but are not overly demanding, help foster a sense of community by creating shared experiences. At the same time, religions which demand overly difficult practices tend to see their followings dwindle. Converts to Mithraism went through initiations involving withstanding heat, cold, and pain (although probably not bathing in bull’s blood, as sometimes alleged). The rigors of these initiations, as well as the fact that it seems to have been open only to men, may have limited the cult’s appeal and kept it from gaining a critical mass of followers.

Outward from the middle

Novel religions tend to begin neither at the top nor at the bottom of the social scale but somewhere in the middle. Simply put, the rich and powerful have little to gain from upending the order of things, while the poor and powerless don’t have the time to ponder on the mysteries of the universe. New religious movements tend to begin among people who, if not always “middle class” by a modern definition, are somewhere on the middling ranks of the social and economic hierarchy. How they spread from there differs. Some religions grow by promising the hope of a better life to the poor, as Christianity did, while others, such as Confucianism, grow by appealing to a discontented elite.

Food

Food, for many of us, is a vital part of our sense of identity and community—think of your favorite family recipes or the special holiday dishes that remind you of heritage and home. Many novel religions present new ways of eating as part of the creation of a new communal identity. One of the central rituals of Christianity involves consuming (literally or metaphorically, depending on one’s theology) the body and blood of the founding figure. Muslims are enjoined to fast during daylight hours during Ramadan and to avoid certain food and drink, including pork and alcohol, altogether. Manichaeism taught that adherents had a duty to spread light in the world and combat darkness by eating certain foods and avoiding others. Eating together, or eating in similar ways to other followers elsewhere, helps to maintain the bonds that hold the adherents of a new religion together.

Thoughts for writers

As an example of how these features of novel religions can inform worldbuilding, here is a short description of an imaginary movement in an imaginary world.

The borderlands of Jash have been ravaged by decades of war between the Jashite cities and the invading armies of the Akluni Empire. As refugees from the rugged hills and scrublands of northern Jash stream into the cities of the lush Jash River valley, they find misery, poverty, and violence. Many of the refugees, looking for the solace of the familiar, have filled the neglected temples of Uzuli, the moon goddess favored by borderland shepherds but little regarded by the city folk.

Among the merchants and farmers of the Jash cities, tensions have been growing as no city seems capable of leading a coordinated response to the Akluni threat. Factions have formed within the cities, some arguing for peace with Aklun, others for resistance to the death; some for throwing the refugees out to fend for themselves, others for redistributing farmland to provide for the hungry. Encounters between members of these factions in the streets and market often lead to harangues, arguments, even fistfights.

Lately, a woman calling herself the Moon Daughter has been gathering crowds in the side streets of the city of Busa, giving stirring speeches promising a return of peace and prosperity. She comes from one of the lesser merchant families of Busa, but no longer speaks to them after beginning her work in the streets. She reports visions from Uzuli that call for all the people of Jash to be as one, to return to the simpler ways of the country, and to withstand the assault of Aklun not by arms but with the patience of Uzuli, who does not fear the waning because she knows that the full moon will come again.

The Moon Daughter’s early followers came from among other merchants families, whose fortunes have fallen under the pressure of war, but she increasingly draws crowds of hinterland refugees. Some of her followers have begun writing down her speeches and publishing them as pamphlets. “Eat of the bitter terebinth and the prickly pear” she says, “in memory of our home that is lost. Then drink of the honeyed wine that promises peace and harmony forever in the turning of the moon.” Her followers gather for common meals, eating and drinking as she commands, but also sharing what food they have with those who have none.

Building in some of the common features of novel religions helps the Moon Daughter’s movement feel fuller and more grounded in the world. It also offers interesting storytelling hooks. What happens if Busa is conquered by Aklun and the Moon Daughter and her followers have to flee elsewhere? What if the priestesses of Uzuli challenge the Moon Daughter for false prophecy? What if the Moon Daughter’s movement becomes so popular its followers take control of Busa, and then have to negotiate with the other Jashite cities who haven’t joined the movement? What if the Akluni Empire collapses and the refugees return home bringing the Moon Daughter’s words and ideas with them, but leaving the life of the city far behind? There are lots of directions you could take a story or a game from this beginning.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

Image: Manichaean diagram of the universe via Wikimedia (China; 1279-1368 CE; paint and gold on silk)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Mountains and Valleys

Landscape and geography shape the ways people live and the kinds of societies they build. While we cannot lay it down as a rule that a particular kind of landscape always produces a corresponding type of society, there are definite patterns that can be found in many parts of the world. One important set of such patterns revolves around the interaction between mountain societies and river valley societies.

River valleys have long been centers of population and growth. Rivers provide crucial resources including drinking water, irrigation water, and fish, which allow for a large population to grow in a small area. Rivers also provide easy transport for people and goods, encouraging travel and trade. As a result, river valleys support the development of large-scale, densely populated settlements. It is no surprise that most of the world’s earliest urbanized societies emerged in river valleys, including the Nile River in Egypt, the Tirgis and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Indus River in India, and the Yellow River in China.

Because of the ways that river valleys encourage dense, concentrated populations, the people who live along rivers have to develop ways of managing social conflicts that aren’t necessary in more widely scattered settlements. Early valley cultures were faced with the problem of working out competing claims to resources like irrigation water and access to navigable streams. They also confronted situations in which one person’s actions, such as discharging waste into a common waterway, could affect many other people. Different cultures found different ways of dealing with these problems. Some arrived at relatively peaceful and stable solutions while others frequently fell into conflicts over rights and resources. In the end, though, many river valley cultures ended up with complex, socially-stratified societies ruled over by centralized, bureaucratic governments.

Mountain societies, by contrast, tend to be small-scale, economically simple, and egalitarian. In the mountains, crucial resources such as fertile land and fresh water tend to be scattered in small pockets rather than concentrated in large quantities. Travel is difficult and time-consuming. These facts of geography lead to people living in very small communities, individual farmsteads, or movable camps. Self-sufficiency is at a premium when you can’t easily reach out to a larger community to help solve your problems. Mountain cultures therefore tend to remain small and highly local, and to rely more on personal relationships than organized institutions. Large-scale, organized mountain empires do exist in history, such as the Inca Empire in the Andes, but they are rare.

In some mountain cultures, the very sparseness of the population helps to maintain peace—you don’t fight your neighbors if you never see your neighbors—but the same factors that shape mountain cultures also often encourage violent conflict. When resources are limited, population growth can lead to spikes of competition, sometimes escalating into violence. Without well-developed institutions for managing interpersonal or inter-family conflict, fights over land and other vital resources can spiral out of control or drag on for generations. Many mountain societies have historically been subject to frequent violent conflicts, and those who live in them develop fighting skills as a matter of course.

These basic patterns have tended to shape how mountain cultures and river valley cultures have developed in history, but neither valleys nor mountains exist on their own. When valley societies and mountain societies interacted with one another, a whole new set of dynamics came into play.

Valley societies and mountain societies have often found themselves in conflict, but it is has historically been difficult for one to decisively overcome the other. River valley societies have the resources and surplus population to field large, well-organized armies and to provide those armies with a reliable source of supplies for long campaigns. Valley armies, however, have often struggled to assert control over mountainous regions. The fragmented nature of mountains makes it difficult to move large numbers of troops and supplies around. At the same time, mountains provide plenty of hiding places for local fighters who know the terrain well. Mountainous terrain favors the kind of small, mobile, skirmishing bands and guerrilla tactics that small, feuding, fragmented mountain cultures develop. Sometimes in history, valley empires have been able to assert control over the mountains at their edges, but it requires a concerted effort. The Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia, for instance, kept up steady pressure against the mountain tribes to the north and east, but never had much direct control over them. The Roman Empire had secure control of the lowlands on both sides of the Alps generations before it could claim success in the mountains themselves.

On the other hand, mountain people rarely have much success at invading well-developed valley cultures. While mountain warriors tend to be good at hit-and-run raiding and harassing tactics that can effectively limit a valley culture’s reach, conquering a valley takes a more coordinated effort and larger numbers of troops than most mountain societies can muster. Without a well-established centralized government, mountain armies are more dependent on ties of family loyalty and negotiated compromises that are hard to maintain far from home under the rigors of a campaign. While there are often hostilities in the hinterlands where organized, expansive river valley powers run up against the scattered but tenacious resistance of mountain-dwellers, it is rare that one side manages to decisively defeat the other.

Decisive defeats can happen, however. Sometimes, as with the Roman conquest of the Alps, Spain, Illyria, and other mountainous parts of the greater Mediterranean, river valley cultures can gather the resources and effort for a concerted push that overwhelms the locals’ ability to resist. Other times, moments of weakness in the valley can create an opening for aggressive mountain neighbors to sweep down and take control. The Zhou Dynasty in China was founded when a people from the mountainous uplands of the west seized power from the Shang Dynasty that had ruled the lowlands of the Yellow River valley. The Persians came from the mountains of the Iranian Plateau to build an empire that took in two of the great ancient river valley civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The legends of the Mexica, whom we often refer to as Aztecs, say that they came from a mountainous home called Aztlán before migrating into the Valley of Mexico and dominating it with their warriors. There may well be some historical truth behind this myth.

Not all mountain-valley interactions are hostile, however. Sometimes mountain and valley societies can coexist peacefully and profitably. River valleys produce agricultural surplus, which is often in demand in the mountains where farming is harder and less predictable. Mountains can produce useful commodities such as metals, timber, and stone that are harder to come by in the lowlands. Mountains can also be good recruiting grounds for mercenaries to build up valley armies. The rugged mountains of Greece provided trade goods and experienced warriors to Egypt and Egypt in return furnished surplus food to Greece in a relationship that was stable and mutually beneficial.

There are no hard rules in history. The study of the past is as much the study of exceptions and unexpected results as it is of familiar patterns. Still, the patterns are there. History is full of mountain people and river valley people, and the problems and opportunities that arise when they come into contact with one another.

Thoughts for writers

As always, my advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land. The ways that societies shape themselves, cope with problems, and interact with one another are always influenced by the landscape in which they were created.

The dynamics of mountain and valley societies are also applicable to other landscapes. Wherever large numbers of people settle around a shared resource—a mystical Elven city on a nexus of magic-bearing ley lines, say, or a space station guarding a hyperspace portal—similar conflicts are likely to arise, leading to a similar range of possible solutions. Wherever people live in small, scattered communities with limited resources—whether it’s desert nomads traveling from oasis to oasis or hardscrabble asteroid miners—their cultures will likely reflect many of the same influences as mountain societies. When these disparate groups of people interact, they will show the effects of many of the same forces at work between mountain and valley peoples.

The interactions of mountain people and valley people have shaped history. They can shape imagined worlds as well.

Image: Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, photograph by Imrankhakwami via Wikimedia

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Bread and Cheese

A sturdy adventurer in a fantasy novel pauses to take a break from their journey to the Land of Quest Completion. They open their knapsack looking for something to eat and what do they find? Bread and cheese.

Always bread and cheese.

It’s a well enough known trope to make an easy, low-hanging joke. It’s the sort of thing you expect in fantasy media whose worldbuilding can be charitably described as “medieval Europe but with magic and dragons and also I’ve never actually read a book on medieval Europe.”

But bread and cheese is not a joke. It is, in fact, a very good and sensible choice for an adventurer to pack for a long and difficult journey.

The human body needs nourishment. For long term health, there are a lot of things you need: a proper balance of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and so on. Doing without any of these essentials for prolonged periods means risking malnutrition, disease, and other serious health problems. For getting through several days or weeks of hard physical work, like traveling in rough terrain or fighting monsters, though, three things are crucial: water, calories, and protein.

An average adult human requires a minimum of about 2 liters of water, 3,000 calories, and 70 grams of protein each day in order to remain fit for physically demanding labor. More is better, but these will get you through if you don’t keep it up for too long. These are the requirements a meal must meet to be suitable for basic adventuring rations.

Water can be found in most parts of the world where people live. It may not be available in large quantities and it may not be safe or pleasant to drink straight from the source, but chances are your standard adventurer can find enough to survive on in most terrains. That leaves calories and protein.

There are lots of different ways of getting both. Your adventurer might eat meat, fish, eggs, milk, beans, vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, insects, or plenty of other things. When a variety of food options is available, people like to indulge themselves (as we moderns and our waistlines know all too well). But not all these food items travel well. Fresh vegetables and fruit will wilt and rot. Meat and fish go bad and may attract dangerous animals. Eggs won’t hold up well to being jostled around in a traveler’s knapsack. Some of these products can be dried, salted, pickled, or otherwise preserved to last longer, but processing adds to cost. Depending on growing seasons and local farming practices, these foods may not be available when your adventurer needs them.

Hence the advantages of bread and cheese. In agricultural regions, staple crops like grain are almost always available. Unprocessed grain, if kept dry and safe from vermin, can be kept for a long time. Bread kept similarly dry and safe may become unappealing and tough to chew, but will preserve its nutritional value even after many days of jostling around in a hero’s handy haversack. Cheese can be made wherever there are milk-giving animals (often reared on marginal or fallow land in agrarian communities), and will last a long time without deterioration if well taken care of. In farming societies throughout large parts of the world, bread and cheese are both readily available, inexpensive, and easy to make portable.

Bread provides a good dose of calories and protein; cheese even more. Combined, they provide the complete set of amino acids that the body needs. (It turns out that combining different protein sources is nowhere near as complicated as conventional wisdom says it is. As long as you have a variety of different foods in your diet and you’re not trying to subsist on on a single non-animal source of calories, you’re pretty much covered. Still, for an adventurer braving the wilderness without a lot of variety easily available, it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve got everything your body needs in one meal.)

Bread and cheese. Don’t leave on an adventure without it.

Thoughts for writers

Bread and cheese make good sense for adventurers’ traveling rations in a lot of settings, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re writing an adventure you should just fall back on bread and cheese for all your heroes’ dietary needs.

Food is a fundamental part of life. As such, it is an indispensable element in worldbuilding. People eat the things they eat for good reasons, and societies are often structured, in very basic ways, around the production and distribution of foodstuffs. The availability of a single plant can have far-reaching effects on the culture that grows it. The consequences for worldbuilding don’t end with the food itself but carry on into how it is produced and consumed. Descriptions of food in fantasy literature often feature just as local color, but food can in fact inform major parts of your worldbuilding.

Bread and cheese may seem like an overused cliché, but it has been used so much for a reason. It is an entirely sensible and realistic choice of provisions for travelers in the hinterlands of any fantasy world that broadly resembles the living conditions across most of the premodern world. Don’t be afraid to fall back on bread and cheese if it is the right choice for your story, as long as you are choosing it for a reason and not just because it’s what fantasy adventurers always eat.

Image: Bread and cheese wheel, photograph by Andrew Malone via Flickr

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Visual Inspiration: Photovoltaic Facades

Solar power technologies are advanced enough that they are increasingly being integrated into buildings during construction, not just added onto existing ones. For example, there’s a way to make thin enough, light-weight enough, and transparent enough solar cells to embed them into windows. Some cells even have color, which makes inventive facades a definite possibility!

Below are some colorful glass facades and/or windows, some actually photovoltaic, others made from regular glass or other sun control materials, to illustrate just a few possibilities SFF creators might want to consider.

 

SwissTech Convention Center in Ecublens, Switzerland

Using dye-sensitized solar cells or DSSC (also known as Grätzel cells), the world’s first multicolored solar facade was built at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. Although the technology is 30 years old already, the building is only from 2014.

EPLF Chris Blaser Facade External

EPLF Chris Blaser Facade Internal

 

Biochemistry building at The University of Oxford in Oxford, UK

The facade is made up of glass fins that emulate the colors of the historic buildings surrounding it.

Flickr Andy Matthews UOxford Biochemistry

 

Clapham Manor Primary School in London, UK

A new wing added to an existing Victorian school. No solar glass as far as I can tell, but the combinations of solid and fritted, on one hand, and clear and colored glass, on the other, allow for some environmental control.

de Rijke Marsh Morgan Clapham-Manor-Primary_04

 

Environmental education center El Captivador in Alicante, Spain

Designed by CrystalZoo, the roof tiles of the sustainably built environmental education center flow from bright reds via oranges to yellows.

Twitter CrystalZoo El Captivador

 

Xicui entertainment complex in Beijing, China

GreenPix, a photovoltaic Zero Energy Media Wall, built for the Xicui entertainment center before the 2008 Beijing olympics, was the largest color LED display in the world at the time.

GreenPix 00_08(c)SimoneGiostra-ARUP-Ruogu

 

Gare de Perpignan in Perpignan, France

An atrium with semi-translucent photovoltaic ceiling panels plus regular colorful glass (as far as I can tell).

Wikipedia Projet_BIPV_-_Gare_TGV_de_Perpignan

 

Kuggen building, Chalmers tekniska högskola in Gothenburg, Sweden

Designed by Winngårdh Arkitektkontor for the Chalmers University of Technology, Kuggen has a movable sunscreen and six floors, each shielding the floor below.

Flickr magro_kr Chalmers Kuggen

 

At the moment, it seems that next to cost, fairly low efficiency is the biggest problem with building-integrated photovoltaics. (Although, the efficiency problem might soon be solved.) Fortunately, both are something that SFF writers can easily deal with. 🙂

Images: External EPLF facade by Chris Blaser via Flickr, internal EPLF facade by RDR_FernandoGuerra via Flickr. Biochemistry building at U of Oxford by Andy Matthews on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Clapham Manor school by Jonas Lencer / Philip Marsh Alex de Rijke via de Rijke Marsh Morgan. El Captivador by CrystalZoo on Twitter. GreenPix by Simone Giostra & Partners. Gare de Perpignan by Laurent Lacombe / Issolsa via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). Kuggen by magro_kr on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Hoplites

The hoplite was the definitive soldier of ancient Greece. Hoplites are interesting not just for how they fought but for the social conditions that created them and the consequences that the hoplite style of warfare had for ancient Greek society.

A hoplite was a heavily-armored infantry soldier equipped with a large, round shield and a thrusting spear a little over two meters in length. While the shield and spear were the two crucial pieces of equipment, most hoplites also wore heavy armor including a helmet, breastplate, and greaves (armor for the shins). Altogether this armor weighed as much as 30 kilograms. Weighed down by so much equipment, hoplites were slow-moving and not adept at maneuvering. A lone hoplite was easy prey for a more mobile skirmisher or cavalry soldier. Hoplites were only effective when fighting as a group.

Hoplites fought in a tightly-packed formation called a phalanx. Their equipment was designed to be most effective in this formation: the center of the large round shield rested at the elbow, meaning that only half of a hoplite’s shield was protecting their body. The other half of the shield protected the soldier standing to their left, while they were sheltered by the shield of the soldier to their right.

The phalanx formation was designed first and foremost to offer as much protection as possible to the soldiers fighting in it. As long as the phalanx kept its order, casualties were low. When phalanges fought, they clashed head-on in a massive shoving match that was usually quickly resolved when one side lost its nerve, broke formation, and fled. Fleeing hoplites typically dropped their heavy shields to get away faster, but once one phalanx started to flee, the soldiers of the opposing phalanx were ill-equipped to give chase. The goal of a hoplite battle was to drive the enemy from the field, not kill them.

In order to fight effectively, hoplites needed several things in addition to their equipment. First of all, they needed lots of training. Maintaining the phalanx formation while advancing into the fray and clashing with opposing forces was difficult. Even more important, it required cohesion among the individual hoplites. A formation that depended on every individual in it standing firm and protecting those around them could only work when those in it felt they could trust and rely on their fellow soldiers. That kind of unit cohesion could be created in several ways. Spartans created it through a brutal indoctrination into a culture of conformity. Companies of mercenary hoplites created it through shared experience in the field. But in most Greek cities, the solidarity of hoplite warfare was intertwined with democracy.

Hoplites appear quite suddenly in Greek history around 650 BCE, so suddenly that they seem to have been a deliberate innovation rather than a gradual development out of earlier traditions. There were other dramatic changes happening in Greek society at the time. For centuries, Greek society had been dominated by aristocratic families who monopolized both control of farmland and political power, but the growth of overseas trade undermined their authority. Some ordinary people began to get rich off of trade with the larger Mediterranean world and to demand more of a say in how things were run.

In many places, aristocrats who were on the outs took advantage of popular discontent to put themselves forward as sole leaders who could keep the other aristocrats in check and represent the interests of the common people. The Greeks called these rulers tyrants, a word that did not originally have the negative connotations it carries today. These tyrants organized the people into a political force that could overwhelm the old aristocracies, and it seems likely they were also responsible for organizing them into a military force for the same purpose. The old aristocrats had relied on followings of professional warriors to compete with one another and protect their power. The hoplite phalanx was made up not of professional soldiers but farmers, crafters, merchants, and other ordinary folks who paid for their own armor and took time away from their livelihoods to train together. Their cohesion and solidarity overwhelmed the aristocrats’ paid fighters.

The tyrants, backed by their hoplite forces, enjoyed a brief ascendancy, but most soon revealed themselves as little more than ambitious opportunists who had little real commitment to making life better for their supporters. The ordinary people turned against them. The experience of solidarity in common cause that had been instilled by the hoplite style of fighting became the core of a new way of organizing society, and after ousting their tyrants most Greek cities embraced forms of government that allowed for broad citizen participation. It is significant though that Greek democracy was always centered on the hoplite phalanx. People who did not have a role in the phalanx—women, the poor, slaves, resident foreigners—rarely had any role to play in Greek democracy.

Thoughts for writers

Human societies are complex systems. Their various parts interlock and affect one another. The ways in which people fight are shaped by the societies they live in, and shape them in turn. If your story has characters fighting in a particular way, you should construct your world to reflect the origins of that fighting style and its consequences. It is possible to have a hoplite phalanx without democracy (Sparta), and it is possible to have a democracy without a hoplite phalanx (medieval Iceland), but understanding how each one supported the rise of the other in ancient Greece will help you construct fuller and more believable alternatives.

Image: Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Quotes: Finland Is Weird. Finland Is Different

I first became aware of Adrian Tchaikovsky when he won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016. I’ve been meaning to check out his writing since then. Ironclads, a limited-edition hardcover novella, finally made it to the top of my TBR pile last month.

The novella was great in several respects, but I was especially tickled by the American POV character’s descriptions of Finland and Finns. For example:

“All the middle of Nordland is the bit we’ve got problems with, basically: Sweden and Finland, say the maps. Sweden is where the fighting is, and the other place… Finland is weird. Finland is different.“

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads

The version of U.S. in the story is fighting in Scandinavia, and, due to having laxer laws on genetic modification, Finland apparently has become home to very interesting types of special forces.

But the best, the absolutely best detail is mentioned in this section:

Quotes Tchaikovsky Ironclads

“[F]or a long time I couldn’t even work out what was on her screens. Then it started animating, frame by stilted frame, and I worked out that some parts of what I was seeing were a satellite view. The vast majority of what should have been contested Swedish soil was smeared with roiling dark clouds that obscured any sight we might have had of what the enemy was doing.

“’Seriously,’ Sturgeon hissed, ‘what is that?’

“’Is that the flies?’ Lawes asked gloomily.

“’Yeah.’ Cormoran gave us a bright look. “Gentlemen, this is a gift from the Finns. They breed these little bugs, midges, they chip ’em and ship ’em, and every so often the Nords release a batch. There are millions of the little critters each time, and they basically just block the view of our satellites – and we can’t see a thing – no one can. So every time our forces advance, we’re going in blind. Makes for all kinds of fun.’

“’They bite?’ Franken asked uneasily. We were all thinking it: mosquitoes, disease, some kind of Finnish labgrown plague that zeroed in on the stars and stripes.

“’Not yet,’ Lawes told us. ‘Jolly thought though, ain’t it?’”

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads [original emphasis]

The militarization of mosquitoes! We already joke—as a way of dealing with an irritant that’s just a part and parcel of life—that mosquitoes are the Finnish air force. Finally, someone did it! 😀

It makes perfect sense in a world with aggressive biological research to turn a ubiquitous pest into an asset. Come to think of it, it sounds very much like the strategies that Finns used in the Winter War of 1939-1940 against Soviet forces—making native conditions work for you and against the enemy.

Of course, no one person can disapprove or approve of any characterization on behalf of their whole group. However, in My Official Opininon As a Finn, Tchaikovsky managed to balance well the view of Finland as part of Scandinavia with Finns being distinctly different from their Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish cousins. Also, he got so many little details right, like the way the Finnish language sounds, or our deep appreciation of nature.

I practically tore through the book. Kudos!

Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Ironclads. Oxford: Solaris, 2017, p. 22 and p. 29.

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Visual Inspiration: Two Birds, a Snail, and a Mushroom

A few more possibilities for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold, this time from among the Earth’s birds, snails, and mushrooms.

The male pink robin (Petroica rodinogaster) has a bright fuchsia chest and belly; the female looks drabber, with merely pinkish-tinged underparts. These small birds live in the cool temperate forests of southeastern Australia.

Flickr Dave Curtis Pink Robin

The many-colored fruit doves (Ptilinopus perousii) live on islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean (Fiji, the Samoan Islands, and Tonga). The male is yellow on the wings and back, red on the head and neck; the female is greener, darker on the back and greyer on the head and breast.

Flickr Tom Tarrant Many-colored Fruit Dove

The violet snail (Janthina janthina) is a small purple mollusk found floating on the surface in tropical and temperate seas worldwide.

Flickr Ian Jacobs Janthina janthina Cropped

Indigo milk cap (Lactarius indigo) is a species of generally blue or blueish mushrooms found in eastern North America, East Asia, and Central America. The milk that oozes out of a cut or broken mushroom is also indigo blue, but slowly turns green upon exposure to air. According to Wikipedia, it’s edible and sold in rural markets in China, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Wikipedia Dan Molter Lactarius indigo
Flickr Arthur T LaBar Indigo Milk Cap

Aren’t they all incredible?

Images: Pink robin by Dave Curtis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Many-colored fruit dove by Tom Tarrant on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Violet snail cropped from photo by Ian Jacobs on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Indigo milk cap by Arthur T. LaBar on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and by Dan Molter via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Quotes: Humans as the Only Generators of Value and Purpose in the World

Author Kelly Robson describes the core conceit of her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach in an interview with Ilana C. Myer:

“The habs, hives, and hells [i.e., city state -like population centers] compete for economic power, and economic power ultimately comes from populations. A free market requires free movement of population, so everyone is free to basically vote with their feet. If they don’t like the quality of life in the hab, hive, or hell they live in, they are free to move to a different one. A hab, hive, or hell with a shrinking population knows that it better change its quality of life offerings if it wants to stop hemorrhaging people.

“It’s a dynamic world that ultimately respects humans as the only generators of value and purpose in the world. I like it.”

– Kelly Robson describing her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Aah, I like it too. 🙂 Plus, voting with your feet is a natural extension of voting with your wallet.

Myer, Ilana C. “Kelly Robson on the Economics of Time Travel in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.” Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, April 02, 2018.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Option for Breaking out of Eurocentric Worldbuilding Mold: Yareta Plants

Yareta or llareta (Azorella compacta) is a low evergreen that grows in the Andes mountains in Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and Argentina.

Flickr Miguel Vieira Yareta Ollague Volcano Lookout

Looking at the landscape where it’s found, it seems that the yareta latches onto ground or rock and grows up and out into the rounded shape over the years.

Flickr Knut-Erik Helle Yareta Bolivian Altiplano

The rounded, cotton-ball-like shape reminds me of how some mosses grow. Unlike them, though, the yareta can grow in dry conditions and nutrient-poor soil, if slowly. (According to Wikipedia, their growth rate is approximately 1.5 cm / 0.6 inches per year; however, an article in Pharmacognosy Magazine cites 1 cm in 20 years.)

Apparently the Andean people used yareta since Pre-Columbian times for the treatment of colds, pains, diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, womb complaints, gastric disorders, backache, wounds, and altitude sickness (Pharmacognosy Magazine Aug 2014).

Yareta looks like a great option for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold.

Images: Yareta at Ollague Volcano lookout by Miguel Vieira via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Yareta – Bolivian Altiplano by Knut-Erik Helle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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