A way with worlds: 04 - Intelligent life and culture
by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum
Page 1 of 1
Last time we took a look at
getting down the basics of your universe and your settings. Now,
we'll put some people or something close within them and give
them a way of life.
First of all, I'm assuming your setting with have
intelligent life. If not, feel free to skip ahead if you need to.
I define intelligent life as
follows - a life form that is able to process enough information,
adapt by this learning, and pass the information on another
member of its species. In short, intelligent life is that which
has a large quantity of its behavior determined by acquired
information that it is able to communicate to others. An
intelligent creature can, merely by acquiring information, create
new behaviors and ways of functioning as well as learn them from
Its not the best
definition, perhaps, but I find it useful for writing. At least
its the best definition I have so far - if you have one that
works for you and/or works better than this, please let me know!
Now if you're making your
intelligent species humans, then you don't have much more work in
this department. A few books on biology and history may help.
However if your world has
non-human species, you have a few things to think about:
- What can the species do
exactly, and why? In short, how did they fit into the
ecology. Remember that intelligent life is very
adaptable, and that alone allows intelligent life to fit
into a variety of niches.
- Before the species
became intelligent (if there was a before), what did they
evolve from and why? What traits and abilities do they
retain, and are there any disadvantages?
- How did the species
become intelligent anyway? Was it gradual (perhaps
meaning certain skills and ways of learning developed
over time), engineered, a mutation, etc.
- What impact is your
species having on the environment - and vice versa? This
can influence many things about your species such as
population, attitude, and culture (see below).
Also, how many intelligent
species are there in your setting(s)? Do they recognize each
other as intelligent? Can they crossbreed (which both blurs the
lines and opens up interesting avenues exploring morality and
traditions)? Are they able to coexist or are they at each others
throats (and will the setting they are in make that easy to end
or threatening to both)?
At this point, you're
getting into some very fine details, so ask yourself not what you
need to know, but what you might need to know just in case. You
may have to deal with questions of evolution, genetic
engineering, etc. Its worth taking some time to learn a bit about
these subjects, as people have many assumptions that aren't
As you may guess, I consider culture a vital part of
intelligent life. Culture is what intelligent life creates and
passes on - rules, ideas, language, ways of thought.
Culture, in a way, can be
thought of as "improved genetics." Genes may be
complicated, but they're passed on usually through limited ways.
Culture can be acquired over time, improved, and even devise ways
to pass itself on - language, publishing, etc. Humanity is seen
everywhere on the planet, under any condition, in every
environment - able to adapt and pass on ways to survive.
Culture exists for a reason
its a way to pass on information. The elements of a
culture exist for a reason - at least at first. When designing a
- What traditions are
necessary for and improve on survival?
- How are they passed on?
- What traditions and
ideas are corrupt over time, altered, misunderstood, or
ritualized without meaning and why?
- What controls does the
culture have to keep things within it from
Following last week, you'll
notice a culture is a series of connected things - an ecology! It
adapts and changes dynamically, just like a forest, a population
of animals, etc.
However, cuture is extremely
dynamic and mutable - a cultural ecology can integrate parts of
the regular ecology rather quickly (pack animals like dogs
domesticated, etc.). Culture is kind of like a giant symbiote
that integrates things together - you can even think of it as a
life form that those practicing the culture compose.
This is getting a bit far
out I'm sure, but conceiving of things this way can be very
helpful. Culture is not dull, static, or pointless
its a living thing that enhances living, intelligent
creatures. Like a person or like a population it has personality,
ways of working, and it adapts and grows.
If you're going to design a
believable culture, keep this "living perspective" -
and think. Read on other cultures and ask how and why they
survived (and why they didn't). Remember that cultures aren't
perfect, but they are always changing, perhaps reaching for more
- and in that lies stories.
When you deal with culture, you deal with religion. I
have one simple thing to say:
Go for it.
When you get down to it,
Religion is about how people think the universe works, how they
interact with it, and what lessons they think they learn to apply
to their lives. It's part of cultures, even if it may not look
like religion initially. In fact, embrace it, study it, theorize
about it, and learn about it. It makes your cultures more real.
Will you offend people?
Probably. But as long as you are realistic about it, research it,
then that's their problem. Don't preach or put down, but explore
and think. A good sign of any writing is when you surprise
yourself with a new idea.
The best way to portray
religion in fiction is to do what a friend once told me - connect
religion to the human experience (or elven, or alien, or
whatever). Like any part of culture it means something.
In some cases of course,
such as a fantasy setting, religion may be virtually unavoidable.
In that case, dive on in.
Take a trip to my own alternate world, the Crossworld of Xai, at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/xai/
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.