How to assess a civilization

As authors, we build fictional universes, star systems, planets, nations, polities and communities.  We flesh out the details in many ways;  race, creed, culture, standards of civilization and education, and so on.  There are a number of books out there where this is done very well, drawing us into the fictional universe created by the author and making us feel right at home there.  Others – rather more – are less well done, with jarring inconsistencies and discordant elements that hinder us in the suspension of disbelief.

I was thinking about this recently as I surveyed the body of work that I have in progress.  In no particular order, I’m plotting out, or researching, or actually working on, no less than five manuscripts:

  1. The fifth volume in my Maxwell Saga, a science fiction series set about eight centuries in the future;
  2. The third and final volume in the Laredo War trilogy, set on different planets in the Maxwell universe, with different characters and focus;
  3. A fantasy novel set in a world reminiscent of the late Middle Ages in Europe;
  4. Another fantasy novel set in a more traditionally ‘fantastic’ universe, a cross between that described in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series and the Norse Sagas and the Holy Roman Empire;
  5. A second novel in my Western series, set in Colorado in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In each case, I have to build a world that will be interesting to my readers, consistent with the events and incidents and tools and attitudes I describe.  Furthermore, I have to keep them separated from each other, so that attitudes, mannerisms, expressions, etc. don’t make the leap from (say) the Wild West in America to the court of Charlemagne (or its fictional analog).

As part of doing this, as well as looking for more information about world-building in general, I stumbled across an article titled ‘The decline and fall of toilet paper, or How to assess a civilization‘ by Dr. David C. Stolinsky MD.  He has an interesting perspective on the matter.  Here’s an excerpt.

There are many ways to assess a civilization. It all depends on your point of view. Some people believe we are advancing. These people point to a woman’s “freedom to choose,” more “rights” for those accused of crimes, and greater “tolerance.” Other people believe we are declining. These people point to nearly a million babies killed every year, up to the time of birth and sometimes even after. They point to increasing reluctance of the law-abiding to rely on the legal system. They point to widespread cheating in schools, in business, in government, and in relationships.

Those who believe we are declining point to the same events as those who believe we are advancing — they just see these events from a different perspective. But are there some ways to assess our civilization that most people might agree on? In an effort to find such methods, I adjourned to the bathroom, where I often do my best thinking, and came upon a possibility.

He argues that the ‘toilet paper index’ – the size and quality of toilet paper rolls – and the ‘lawyer-doctor index’ – the number of each in comparison to the other – are key markers of the state of our present civilization.  You can read more about them in the article.

Dr. Stolinsky is, of course, assessing our present Western civilization;  but perhaps we, as writers, should adopt his approach, and look for more intrinsic comparisons within our fictional universes (if, that is, they actually use toilet-paper, and not corn cobs – which would fit most fantasy universes I’ve encountered – or ‘three shells‘, as in one popular dystopian/science fiction setting) to suggest ways in which our readers can assess them for themselves, and perhaps be more drawn into them as they read.  What say you?


34 thoughts on “How to assess a civilization

  1. Barbara Hambly once said that her fantasy worlds were deliberately based on given periods of history.

    Thus she had good models for what “technologies”, etc to give those worlds.

    Thus in one of her worlds, the well-to-do had glass windows but it was less expensive for them to move the glass from one house to another than it was to have glass in all of their houses.

  2. I think a quick and dirty approximation that works in the real world is to see how well various needs are provided.

    What percentage of the population is engaged in agriculture / food production? Societies at 1% / 10% / 50% / 90% are going to look very different. Along those lines, what percentage of the population doesn’t have enough food? What percentage of the average person’s budget (or time, for those that get their own food) is spent on getting food?

    Once you’ve looked at food, look at manufacturing and other jobs. What’s the next most common profession, and what are their lives like? What’s the most prestigious job that the common people think they can obtain? If they really want to be a Master Guild Artisan, a member of the Royal Guard, or a Professional Cyber-football Player, you’ve learned something.

    How many people die of ‘old age’? What are the leading causes of death? If you’re seeing ‘death in childbirth’, ‘died of plague’, ‘died in war’, or ‘eaten by monsters or aliens’ on the list of leading causes of death, there’s something you’ve learned about that society.

    What are the average person’s most important possessions or potential purchases? Knowing that people are saving for a dowry, a horse, a sword, passage offworld, or longevity treatment tells you something.

    1. I’ll have to dig up a link, but when I went to make a map of that fictional kingdom in the kids’ books, I ended up looking at an online site for creating realistic medieval/fantasy games and making a spreadsheet. I already had a size for the kingdom in mind and some other parameters, and once I plugged in population figures, it gave me a breakdown of population by duchy. I already had a set number of duchies,roughly sketched them off on a grid broken down into a quarter average day’s journey, and used the grid to estimate area of each. This gave me number of settlements per duchy and populations, and percentage arable land and forest. Some areas I fudged because the rocky soil made sheep herding the primary agriculture, so it had more cleared areas.

      Then there were the larger towns on trade routes, which meant they were usually on rivers or on the coast. And in some places raising sheep was easier than removing the rocks from the fields, though there was some of that, too. In other places there were mines, and so forth and so on.

      It turned into quite a time sink, so much so I realized I didn’t have to flesh out the entire kingdom and adjacent nations, The grid made it handy to figure out how to make travel fit with the events.

          1. Hmm. I note that the inn may not depend on the size of the village but on the route traveled. Heavily traveled routes will have inns at the end of a typical day’s travel — even if there is no village. Villages may grow up around them.

            1. Bingo. I did the same in two books. In the first, it was at a crossroad near the road leading from a portage and road from the capitol to a major trading town, and another road leading from another major town at the junction of two rivers. That inn saw a lot of merchant traffic since they’d stay there before and after market day to cut down on the fees. Later, with the mayor raised the fees, an impromptu trading town set up across from the inn.

              That caused the innkeeper’s wife to fret because it was not authorized by the local duke. The innkeeper prepared a letter explaining the situation and assuring him he was collecting the standard duchy merchant fees in his name until he could resolve the matter. But that letter soon proved to be a mote point.

              In another book, I had an inn that catered to pilgrims at a shrine in the kingdom. It, too, was at a crossroad, one situated between four major trade towns. But that was the long way around, so to speak, and it didn’t get as much traffic. At least, not then. In centuries past it did, but changing fortunes shrank the community.

              Here I drew on the idea of a community roughly half a day’s journey apart, even if it could barely be called a village. I also assumed that trade towns would have higher than normal populations, and adjusted all other populations downward to account for it.

  3. I haven’t read it myself, but from the summaries and commentaries on Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” I think his perspective has merit. When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge. As new problems occur new layers of complexity are add on usually without removing or replacing the older layers. Eventually the layers become so complex a burden on the society that there are diminishing or negative returns on the effort to maintain the society.

    Thus the example of there being more lawyers then doctors is suggestive that our society is becoming too complex. The number of laws and regulations currently existing and increasing exponentially is also suggestive.

    As another example. In the list of the items Trump would enact in the first 100 days is a little noticed item that I find interesting. A requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated;

    1. I don’t know how old that idea is, but I remember it being part of Reagan’s election platform.

      The Federal Register is a maze of twisty little passages, all alike…

  4. I have a hazy recollection of a CIA Agent talking about how the Red Army introduced woolen wraps for their soldiers feet, claiming the superiority of the wraps as they felted together to fit perfectly. The CIA person said something along the lines of “We ought to have known there was a problem when they couldn’t even get enough socks for their soldiers.”

    Here? This “just in time” delivery thing? Stores run out of some brands or sizes of cans of food regularly. It worries me a bit. But surely it’s just a delivery glitch, not an actual shortage . . .

    Fictionally you can have someone fussing over “have to be lucky to find my favorite whatever.” or the flip side, “When I was your age, we’d take what the store had in stock and be glad of it! Three brands of vegetables, three sizes of cans? You’re spoiled and don’t even realize it.”

    Social behaviors . . . does a change signal modernity or decadence? A writer can tilt it either direction, and then throw in a twist.

    1. Pam, one of my little projects is to get ‘Footcloth’ meaning 4 (sock substitute) into the OED.

      It’s in _One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch_ and other translations from Russian, Polish and German from the 19th century onwards

      While looking into this I discovered that the US army once issued them (like 1904) and thought them superior to then available socks for foot warmth and health.

      Perhaps Elizabeth Moon (who knits socks) ?

      It all reminds me of the historical anachronism problem that works both ways – yes the Romans had cement.

      1. Speaking of Roman cement, I suspect they treated it like rammed earth. There was a structure poured in the northern US that was a stiffer mixture than normal due to the cold and had to be rammed/vibrated into place to make sure there were no voids. The result was similar to Roman concrete.

    2. ere? This “just in time” delivery thing? Stores run out of some brands or sizes of cans of food regularly. It worries me a bit. But surely it’s just a delivery glitch, not an actual shortage . . .

      It’s just bait-and-switch. You may have noticed that when the store runs out of Brand X, the shelves still contain the higher-priced Brand Y. (Unless there’s a natural disaster in progress: in which case they may run out of Brand Everything, because some Yahoo decided to become a survivalist at the last minute, and cleaned out the stock.)

    3. The problem with Just In Time is that some people take it too literally. In a store it mostly isn’t the end of the world because there are alternate products. (Last shopping trip they were out of Diet Mountain Dew in the 2-liter bottles so I got cans.) But in manufacturing, if you only get the stuff you need to make your widget that morning then if the delivery truck has a flat tire or is in a six-hour backup due to a sudden blizzard then you lose hours or even a whole day of production. If the widget maker was pressured into adopting JIT by his largest customer because they joined the flavor of Total Quality Management cult that espouses JIT then they only have a small supply of your widgets on hand, and their production suffers. The customer who is using their product to complete their project suffers and a whole cascade of failures happen.

      JIT works best when everyone involved remembers that they live in an imperfect world and leave themselves a little slack. If, for instance, you keep a small stock on hand and work out of that stock, getting a delivery just in time to replace the stock that is used the same day then the delivery truck being a little late doesn’t unhinge everything. Otherwise, you find yourself in the “Horseshoe Nail” situation.

      For Want of a Nail

      For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
      For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
      For want of a horse the rider was lost.
      For want of a rider the message was lost.
      For want of a message the battle was lost.
      For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
      And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

      1. I’ll add one other cause of JIT. Part of the valuation includes stock on hand and it is seen as a liability and possibly a tax hit if having a stockpile means you have become more profitable when cash flow is no different.

      2. I used to get semi-emergency flights from Really Flat State to Half-Western State and back if the production line in R.F.S. ran short of something from H-W. S. Sometimes it was maybe three small cardboard boxes of whatever, but it was cheaper for them to hire a charter flight to get the parts than stop everything until the next truck arrived (ground time between the plants was about four hours or so, longer in winter.)

        1. I knew of a situation where large suv axles were be air freighted fairly routinely to meet JIT requirements. Can you imagine how much it costs to air freight a 1000 suv axles?

  5. I often use real life cultures from history as a basis for my fantasy and SF worlds. Of course modifications must be made to account for tech and magic, but on the whole I find it useful to see what has worked (and hasn’t) in the real world.

  6. I’m dealing with something like that right now. The issue is magic. If it takes a human sacrifice to summon and bind a demon, and one guy has the market cornered, what happens? Pre-firearm, post-steel weapons, feudal-ish society. (Mostly a backdrop of colateral damage, if I’m honest. Villages to burn, that sort of thing.

    I decided Mr. Bad Guy would concentrate on the peasants first, because most numerous and the gentry would be easily swayed by goodies. No peasant revolt because Demon Army!!1! Following the building of a small army, a few hundred, the obvious source is wars of conquest. Gentry is again won over by goodies, pillage in this case, lots of foreign victims for the sacrifice pool.

    The sorcerer would be a fairly popular guy in upper class circles. I’m thinking Saddam Hussein here. He had a lot of support.

    In this way I figure it is reasonable that the economic collapse and the famine falls on the conquered kingdoms, leaving the home kingdom all happy with their dread overlord.

    As our view opens, the guy has been going for nearly 300 years, he’s well established, but he’s conquered everything for a couple weeks ride in all directions. Demon armies need the sorcerer along to keep them focused, otherwise they disperse and denude the continent. If he leaves home for more than a month, there’s trouble keeping the peasants down. A day’s ride is ~20 miles, two weeks is nearly 300 miles, he pretty much owns France, for easy counting.

    His local area has lots of food, good farms, not so many farmers. On the outskirts of the original kingdom are abandoned farms, with plenty of encroaching woods. Remaining villages generally cluster around a castle, farmers are noble because all the peasants are long gone.

    Life is nasty, brutish and short, as are the people.

    What problems will a short, scrawny 16 year old male encounter exfiltrating the sorcerer’s keep, across that landscape?

    1. It depends on how he was raised, actually. In Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, the young scrawny male has tons of difficulty going across country because he’d been raised as a castle servant, where food just came in before they dealt with it. He’d never had to grow or catch his own food before, and almost starved before someone more knowledgeable took him in hand. If he’d grown up as a peasant farmer, he’d have known how to glean at least a basic diet.

        1. This kid gets yanked out of his village at ~11 or so and “apprenticed” to the Bad Guy. He has time to learn things a village kid wouldn’t know, so I never really bothered with his family. His big gift is he’s small, scrawny and forgettable. That way he can kind of skulk his way out of the castle.

      1. Food and horses would be in short supply, agreed. A kid fleeing an army would not have time or equipment to hunt, he’d be good for about two days max before he ran out of steam. He’d need help. A kid fleeing a demon army would need serious help.

        I always wanted to see somebody wade into a mob of evil supernatural creatures with a completely unfair advantage. Like playing Doom on God mode unfair. Why should Evil always get an even shake? NUKE ’em!

          1. The snowcutter thing in MHI Alpha was genius. I loved it.

            My kid gets help from somebody wearing Mobile Infantry jump armor. No need to reinvent awesome when the Grand Masters left us so much.

            Next problem, while the undead burn easy, demons can be tough and do come in bigger sizes. I’m going to nuke them. From orbit. You know why.

      1. He’s a Victor Von Doom kind of bad guy. He’s the sort of guy who hates people and loves to see them suffer. His motivation is, if he gets enough demons they’ll tear the Veil and let a really big one in. He’s a nihilist, the idea of killing EVERYTHING appeals to him.

        The big ones create the voids we see in the large scale galaxy survey, like the Ophiuchus Void. The “Cold Spot” in the middle of that is a still-open rift to the lower dimensions. I settled on 28, that’s a number I’ve seen bandied about in multi-dimensional theory. It’s a handy place to put hell when you don’t want to deal with Real Hell in a story.

        A problem that big is what I needed to challenge my crazy characters. They’re a bit buff.

        I dealt with the Podesta et al issue in Book 3. Spoiler, they don’t come out ahead. In my universe, being a d1ck is unsafe. That’s how you can tell its fiction. |:(

      1. Shortly, I hope. It’s a sort of stand-alone, using characters I’ve been working on for three books now. This one goes to Amazon, the first three I’m going to try the “Real Author” bit for a while first.

    2. Consider the Aztecs. Very similar real world. Notice that Cortez had many many indian assistants in his conquest – the Aztecs built their own enemies by their human sacrifices.

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