The Joys of Civilization

I am a creature of modernity.  No, seriously.  You wouldn’t think it, knowing that I learned to write with a quill pen, didn’t see a dishwasher till my teens, cook from scratch and have to be dragged, kicking and screaming to use newer technology.  (Except the kindle, because it’s awesome.)

But I was born severely premature, and without antibiotics I wouldn’t be here.  I mean, I didn’t go into an incubator (I was born at home so the hospital said they wouldn’t let me brought in) which might have been good as I understand the excess oxygen given to premies at the time often rendered them blind and worse.

But I caught everything that passed the village or even entered my region.  Thank heavens there was penicillin!  And then other antibiotics.

It is far too easy to forget how much modernity makes a difference.  It hit me in the nose – or the chest – this week, when I got floored by bronchitis combined with asthma.  Two nights ago, I literally felt like I was dying.  Then I got antibiotics.  And now I’m still sick as heck, but I know I’m going in the right direction.  A hundred years ago?  “Dead as a doornail” comes to mind.

We read Pride and Prejudice and about Jane recovering in bed for days from a “trifling little cold” and it’s easy to think they were pampering themselves.  But in an age when any infection could and often was fatal, isolation and rest were the only defenses.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and about the people who decry modernity, and who seem to think there’s something saintly in “living close to nature.”

Nature is red in teeth and claw.  Nature kills.

I’m particularly shocked when these are the same people who are for “women’s rights.”  In “nature” women, being smaller and less strong, need men to protect them.  The natural end of “natural women’s rights” is not a beautiful matriarchy but something that makes the Arab world seem like the capital of enlightened feminism.

Anyway, you’ll pardon me the short post – I’m much better, really, so much better it astounds me, but if you’d dumped me from being well into the state I’m in now I’d have said “Oh, no, I’m so ill” because I am.  I just don’t feel like I’m dying.

But I’ll say it really annoys me when we are suddenly in a fantasy world, tech circa early middle ages, and no child mortality (and magic not used for that.)  I mean, the introduction of soap into general use caused a massive population explosion because of how many kids survived infancy. And no deaths in childbirth.  And infections are no big issue.  It seems to be justified on the part of the writers as being a perfect ideological system – matriarchy, paganism, whatever – which keeps everyone safe and well.  It’s a twisted version of original sin, this idea that modernity is what causes our ills and the more primitive we go the better off we’ll be.

Of course some studies seem to support that, but they miss the Darwinian pressures that kill off people like me.  Being me, I’d rather not be an evolutionary casualty.

And yes, that’s all I got for today.  Sorry.  Mind not working right yet.  There’s a short story of my son’s over at According To Hoyt.  And I’m about to return to bed.

If you sound off in the comments about the most annoying worldbuilding, or the most interesting, or if you want to argue with me, that’s all fine.  I’ll be back to join the fun after I nap.


  1. Here’s one.
    My kids were 9 or 10 years old and reading a long series of dragon fantasy books by Tracy Hickman and company. I skimmed through one and decided perhaps we should chat.
    “Oh, no,” one of my sons assured me. “They’re just sleeping together. No one is having sex in these books because no one is getting pregnant. “

        1. *laughs* It’s a pre-lolcats way of expressing that the thing being responded to is is huggably cute, in an innocent way– probably derived from the little kid habit of saying “I wub oo, (possibly animate target).”

          1. Ah, hah. My brain can figure out most abbreviations and acronyms. Foreign words out of context, not so much. I had to look up one of your pictographs the other day, but I found that one. I will be keeping my eye on your idioms and -graphs.

  2. Reminds me of everyone in Sherlock Holmes stories having a fit of nerves and taking to bed or to the countryside. Who has the time, I thought. Then it happened to me, and I thought about how our modern economy doesn’t tolerate sickness and especially “nerves” (my autonomic nervous sys was flipping out sending me into fight or flight willy nilly).

    Also, I thought the mini series “Rome” was great but not realistic as to the plagues that swept through the poor districts.

    And one final note. Little House books start out young, healthy, and happy but are pretty depressing by the end, right?

    1. The main problem with someone taking enough time out to recover is that then someone ELSE has to take care of the sick person – and often do the sick person’s job, too.

      Women ended up doing a great deal of that – they didn’t have the time to work outside the home because keeping a home running took an enormous amount of work, and included taking care of the young, the sick, and the elderly.

      Maybe that’s why women have evolved to live longer than men – they have to.

  3. When I write “pre-industrial fantasy” I almost automatically include some form of healing magic and a (usually unstated) bit of “backstory” is the magical underpinnings of the world make “herbcraft” far more effective in that world than in reality.

    I do this because, “And the minor wound that Throg the Mighty suffered in his first battle turned septic. And Mighty Throg fell into a fever and died. The End.” Doesn’t make for very fun reading even though that’s how a lot of stories should probably begin . . . and end. 😉

    1. And, too much obvious filth and squalor in a story, and the reader starts to scratch.

      1. Well, I do tend to stay out of urban centers as much a possible or touch on them as lightly as I can, just enough so people realize that this is not 21st century America.

  4. The only “natural rights” thing I go for is much less “but the animals do it” and much more “can be reasoned to even if you’ve never heard of Abraham.”

  5. What people who have the benefits of centuries of other people’s intelligent labor so often fail to understand is that there are no such as “natural resources”.

    Every resource that human beings need to live has been altered–cultivated, harvested, dug up, smelted, refined, in some way transformed from the raw state into something usable–by human effort.

    The idea of humans living “in harmony with nature” is absurd. Nature wants to kill us and eat us, and it will unless at least some of us work constantly to prevent it. People who “get back to nature” are able to do so because other people have put the labor into making clothing, shelter, food, weapons, and so on the allow some to play at being savages in comfort.

    Without technology of some kind human beings in the wild die quickly. The standard of living of human beings is directly proportional to their level of technology. The idealized world of the neo-pagan imagination never existed, and is impossible.

    1. I was in a poetry workshop class at college, and one of the people wrote an anti-technology poem that was full of all the technology she loved. I pointed this out, and then I pointed out that poetry and language are also technologies. Unfortunately, I then learned that logic doesn’t act as a koan on someone determined to be stupid.

      Sigh. Class full of people who thought they were great poets, but could barely rub two words together. All the ones that were any good had adopted irritating delusionary mannerisms of grandeur. It was like that.

  6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, in which the United States gets taken over by a totalitarian regime, but somehow Canada is still a going concern, and providing asylum for refugees.

    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine how long Canada would actually survive as the enemy of a Hitler or Stalin-style U.S. government.

    Hint: not long.

    1. Yep. Just about the only reason they would possibly survive long is if no one wanted it.

  7. Note: please don’t take that as a slur against the bravery of Canadians or the quality of Canadian troops (pretty high, according to people who have served with them).

    It’s just that those things wouldn’t matter, given a totalitarian Gilead that cared nought for civilian casualties. The Canadian infrastructure (roads, bridges, waterways, railways, hydroelectric dams, pipelines, transmission lines, etc.) could be wiped out within a few days, likely without losing a single Gilead troop. Then General Winter would take care of the rest.

    1. I’m in no way taking it as a slur. Portugal, with Franco next door couldn’t join the allies in WWII and gets lumped in with the Axis by idiots. It had to do all its welcoming of refugees very underhandedly indeed, etc. I’ve never been able to read Atwood and my children DESPISED being forced to read her in school, so I missed that.

    2. Huge unsecured border; military not as built up as it could be due to long-time peace, high social spending and radiant protection from the neighbors being World Police; lots of first-level resources, decent food security even if you figure that transportation would be hurt, but if real fighting went on a lot of the land would either be taken or destroyed just to secure power generation from the dams in the Washington area, and probably others.

  8. Courtship Rite has an interesting world-building excuse for a lack of infectious diseases in a semi-fantasy setting. The unfortunate colonists didn’t bring any(?) bacteria with them. Presumably they did some generic tinkering on themselves before arrival to aid bacteria-free digestion, etc.

  9. I loved figuring out how to use magic to replace machinery in my fantasies. But the thing is, they were cross-dimensional refugees from an advanced culture. “The Goddess of Health” was a medical doctor with a PhD in genetic engineering. “The God of War” knows all about tanks and planes and nuclear weapons. They know what they want to achieve. They don’t have to develop a theory of germs, invent antibiotics and so forth. They just had to figure out how to manufacture known things in a whole new fashion.

    And, fertility being a part of good health, their contraceptives aren’t very good. The witches are regularly inconvenienced with pregnancies, birth, diapers . . . but then their society, while toxic in some ways, is welcoming of children.

  10. Computer Gods ate my first attempt to post, so here’s a second. In case you get it twice, I mean.
    To Mischa, and others: I’ve suggested that the closest we can come to actual freedom is to be dumped naked and unarmed into a wilderness. Live or die, survive or perish or thrive, in the end you can claim that “I made that.”
    A qualifier is that even in such an extreme, many humans would have the knowledge that earlier generations have earned, knowledge of what is edible and what’s unlikely to be, of how to set traps and snares and so on.
    I’m even currently writing a story based on that premise, with a couple of exceptions built in to keep the protagonists from foundering immediately as was described above. Up to chapter 11, so not a new attempt.
    But such a person wouldn’t build an assault rifle. First, he or she would begin with sticks and rocks. From there, you could progress to string and rope and an improved club and stone tools if you put in the effort and time. Pots? Even bows or spears? Not immediately. First you make the tools to make the tools to make the tools…
    In the meantime, you would climb a lot of trees and rocks and perhaps cliffs in order to keep from being eaten. And temperature or weather extremes are to be avoided because they weaken the immune system and make you susceptible to disease. As Sarah mentioned that she had done, I grew up with killer diseases, before polio vaccine and when pneumonia was a killer, and when people routinely got smallpox inoculations. With good reason, because many still died from that disease. When tuberculosis was common and debilitating and lethal over time.
    Thanks to Sarah and all the others who took the time to post here. I’m enjoying the reading.

  11. re: infections, I read a very interesting blog by a survivor of the Bosnian war. An eye-opening description of what a *real* collapse of civilization is like, and yep, infections got a lot of people who were otherwise fit and good survivors. One of the few times this guy left his “safe zone” (basically his street) and risked snipers was… to get antibiotics. Nothing else was worth the risk.

    1. “One Second After” by William Forstchen has a good description of surviving in the United States (specifically, Black Mountain, North Carolina) after a few EMP weapons are exploded above parts of the world. There are a variety of others in the post-apocalyptic genre as well (“Alas Babylon”, etc.)

      Such a world inside the town wouldn’t be as deadly as the Bosnian scenario, but imagine how life would be for the refugees from the Piedmont part of the state that are just briefly mentioned as they pass by the town. He didn’t touch on those much, probably because such a life would be “nasty, brutish and short” and wouldn’t make a story anyone would really want to read.

  12. Oh, and my generic worldbuilding gripe? Giant monsters with no ecosystem to survive on except adventurers. Even Star Wars had that giant asteroid monster. How did it evolve? What did it eat when there weren’t any handy spaceships? (most of which would be merely roughage, unless they’ve got a fission-based digestive system…) I worry about these things. Won’t someone think of the hungry monsters??

    1. I saw an “anatomy” of that asteroid monster, and whoever made it did a fairly good job explaining it. Supposedly, it was the result of experimentation by the Empire. It ate fissionables in the asteroid belt to feed a nuclear reactor near the tail. They also had it so that grew ruby crystals around its head, and its body was like an electric eel, so that when it stretched out, it would create a laser, which is used to bore its tunnel. Then it would hibernate until it got hungry again. Don’t remember how it moved through space. The reason it was trying to stop the Millennium Falcon was because it wanted the power plant. The rest would be dumped out into a waste area at the back of the tunnel.

    2. I have a problem with movies/tv shows which show a *whole* bunch of monsters coming out at once. I always wondered what they ate. (Sure, they ate each other, but that wouldn’t be efficient.)

      I’m specifically thinking of the mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings, and a similar scene from the tv show Andromeda, on the World Ship of Rev’s Bem’s species.

      On Sat, Jul 13, 2013 at 3:01 PM, madgeniusclub wrote:

      > ** > Sabrina Chase commented: “Oh, and my generic worldbuilding gripe? Giant > monsters with no ecosystem to survive on except adventurers. Even Star Wars > had that giant asteroid monster. How did it evolve? What did it eat when > there weren’t any handy spaceships? (most of which would be ” >

        1. IIRC, the things in the mines are more like a locust swarm than a stable ecosystem, and Rev’s species only needed other species to reproduce.

      1. In the old Dragon Magazine from TSR, there was a fairly popular series of articles on “The Ecosystem of the X.” Basically, a guy had thought up ecosystems for typical D&D dungeons, deserts, etc. However, it wasn’t super-useful for gamers, other than assuaging the feelings of those worried by lack of realism. D&D really isn’t a game for realism.

        Tolkien has a certain amount to say (in The Hobbit and in Fellowship of the Ring) about how goblins (small orcs) and orcs (large goblins) live in their own society, when not acting as mercs for Sauron or Saruman.

  13. There is something saintly about natural living, at least in the Catholic sense of the word. Canonization requires one to be dead, right?

  14. One of the things that winds me up (can’t think of a cite off hand though) is that in many fantasy worlds people drink the water straight. And don’t come down with the raging trotskys shortly thereafter. Yes you can drink from a mou ntain stream just fine, but a lake or river in the plains? go on, you first.

    Likewise people are always eating well. Some random adventurer comes up to a tavern in the middle of no where and there just happens to be meaty stew, misc pies etc. etc.

    And don’t get me started on the whole never runs out of fuel horse or the implausible heroine who is stronger and faster than everyone she meets including elite imperial guardsmen and gladiators.

    Having said all that, one author who did a really good job on the whole magical medieval world building was Elizabeth Moon with Paksenarrion & sequels. yes Paks is kind of a superwoman, and so to some extent is Dorrin, but they aren’t completely invincible and do frequently do better when they are with a group of trained soldiers and so on. Moreover they tend to pick their battles so that they don’t have to fight those who might beat them ono-on-one. Elizabeth Moon suffers from all kinds of woolly headed thinking and some (e.g. Sassinak & co) dumb plots but I read her because her world building is superb and realistic

    1. It’s tough having a story full of fighting, and female protagonist. I just can’t _realistically_ have my chubby eighteen year old girl beating up space pirates right and left.

      So I gave her enough karate and cunning to look helpless, kick the bad guy in the knee, and then run away. Or grab the gun he dropped as he clutches his badly damaged knee. But absolutely no prolonged fights, even with just one person. And then I got her a devoted follower of the large, muscular, masculine and trained variety to do the heavy lifting, while she continued with the cunning part. The trick was keeping her as the main character.

    2. Heh, that’s why I made it a point to have the MC of my current project fretting about sanitation and making a point of being seen filtering her water (cholera) and only drinking beer, wine, or tea unless there was absolutely no other option. Her people know that poor sanitation = disease, but they’re not sure why or how to stop it once people do get sick. (Lost technology problem). I also tried not to, ahem, rub the reader’s nose too much in the scents and sights of a roughly 17th-century army camp. I remembered to put the tanneries et al downstream of the towns, though. 🙂

      Good point about the infection rate. I didn’t allow for that, so I’ll go back and make a few corrections. I’d already planned to make the point that the MC would never, ever have been able to do what she does except for the fact that she can no longer have children.

        1. When you think about it, most Europeans must have been basically half drunk almost their entire life. Yes I know 3% or maybe 2% alcohol is enough (small beer or 1:2 wine:water) but even that has to have some effect. I think it clearly explains how/why Europeans appear to have bred genetically for toelrance to alcohol as most other parts of the world seem to have figured out teas/tisanes far earlier in their progress to civilization and cities

          1. Nah,at some point, you don’t get drunk the same way, even though your blood alcohol level says you should.

            I doubt that much research has gone into this, though, since before it was dishonorable to be a functional alcoholic and now it would throw question on the whole “your BAC is absolute.”

            1. Well *I’m* a functional alcoholic – at least by some definitions of alcoholic. In fact based on those bansturbators in the UK and their ridiculous “units” just about everyone who lives on the Riviera is an alcoholic as are pretty much all of my friends everywhere in the world.

              1. Some definitions of alcoholic are ridiculous, I once had someone who was a ‘substance abuse councelor’ explain to me that anyone who had ever had a blackout from drinking alcohol was considered an alcoholic. In other words if you ever as a teenager drank enough at a party not to remember the rest of the night, your an alcoholic.

                1. I’ve been told by a substance abuse councilor type that anyone who drinks to get drunk is an alcoholic…

                  1. Which means that something like 80% (more?) of people under 25 are alcoholics along with virtually the whole of Scandinavia, Russia, the UK…..

                2. I think the proper term for this is “marketing”. Substance abuse counselors are quite likely to think you need a substance abuse counselor.

                  1. Unfortunately the government regulators listen to them. Oh, wait. They also want there to be a market for them. Some days I’d trade the whole for a litter of kittens.

                    1. I thought you believed in the free market. Do you think there’s anybody crazy enough to take them off our hands, let alone provide kittens in return?

                    2. Can I have puppies instead? I’m allergic to cats.

                      On Mon, Jul 15, 2013 at 7:47 AM, madgeniusclub wrote:

                      > ** > Ori Pomerantz commented: “I thought you believed in the free market. Do > you think there’s anybody crazy enough to take them off our hands, let > alone provide kittens in return?” >

              2. Heck, Francis, I can’t afford to drink as I would in Portugal — and I don’t tell doctors what I drink, or they’d think I was an alcoholic. A drink with dinner three times a week? Yep.

              3. Sounds like the Navy’s definition….
                “Do you ever schedule your weekend around drinking?”
                “No, I really want to come in hung-over and with a drunk driving ticket… of COURSE I schedule around drinking! I was ordered to in the LAST training!”

                1. Hence why you see so many drunks in town centers at midnight on Friday. Real alcoholics are those who come in on Tuesday morning hung-over and with a DUI

    3. One thing about drinking water straight, many of those diseases that lay civilized people low (as one friend who had giardia explained to me, “it doesn’t kill you, it just makes you wish it would.”) can have an immunity built up to them. This is why you don’t drink the water in Mexico, but the locals do with few ill effects.

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