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:
- The fifth volume in my Maxwell Saga, a science fiction series set about eight centuries in the future;
- The third and final volume in the Laredo War trilogy, set on different planets in the Maxwell universe, with different characters and focus;
- A fantasy novel set in a world reminiscent of the late Middle Ages in Europe;
- 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;
- 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?