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Thread: Trying too hard to avoid cliche?

  1. #11
      artearth is offline
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    I love the idea of a far north civilization who uses the sea - as in, whole guilds of seafarers, from the seaweed harvesters (whole complex ecologies of sea plants and small shellfish, creating all the nutrition they woud need) to the whalers (or whatever large, blubbery creature could provide a host of other uses when triumphantly killed) to the hunters of slippery seal creatures that provide the skins for clothing, drums, waterskins, etc, to specialists mining the ocean floor for minerals and other goodies that serve the civilization. On land there are "ranchers" who grow millions of mouse sized furry creatures in bins, use their body heat for warming greenhouses, and then eat them in mass quantities. They disdain the poor teeth and flabby musculature of those grain eaters to the south, and regularly send maori style raiding parties to scatter the weak tribes living nearby. Generally speaking in biology, there is a tendency for animals in the northern range of the species to be larger than those in the south, so maybe these folks are huge, and flabby from mass consumption of fat. Smooth white skin, tattooed with squid ink, carrying obsidian spears and with bright blue eyes. I like the idea that underwater volcanos cough up minerals, and probably their theology is based on the gods that live deep under the sea. Volcanic rock signifies power, and heat=status, so the richest and most powerful folks flamboyantly waste heat, and are skinnier, since fat=survival here. They have priests of the light (summer solstice) and of the dark (winter solstice) and the whole culture revolves around the sun, essentially becoming more vicious and warlike as the sun fades, to essentially vampiric in the long months of whole dark, but then undergoing extensive rituals of fast and redemption throughout the spring to enjoy a few months of great wisdom and compassion in the summer. This is when their books are written and children are born, and then trusted monks hide the trappings of the "light" civilization away when the descent begins in the fall.
    TheHoarseWhisperer likes this.

  2. #12
      jbgibson is offline
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    Before totally accepting your premise, of avoidance of cliches, I'll note that use of parallels is only partly laziness. It's also shorthand, abbreviations, symbology. If your story (game, whatever - you're telling a story one way or another!) is focused on, say, politics, or interpersonal relationships, or anything other than the revealing of an imaginative setting, well, the setting becomes just support material. Put another way, if you make the reader think too much to piece together all the unique elements you're stringing together into a plausible whole, he won't have energy left to follow the plot.

    The best alternate worlds and unique settings I have read have been *background* for a good tale. Maybe over the course of multiple stories or an arc of books there will be enough explanation to fully show the inventive genius of a setting, but maybe not.

    Now, it's a decent idea for the AUTHOR to have a good picture of how his world hangs together -- that drives all manner of detail, of interesting twists, of things happening that maybe wouldn't happen on Earth. That's delight; long drawn-out explanation of the myriad uniqueness of even a welll-thought-out world can be instead drudgery.

    Now, if you want a polar civilization that's not merely predatory, but can at least stand on their own better than Earth's Norse raiders could, then you just tweak the basic necessities. Everybody's got to have food... maybe there are some fairly *easy* ways to get food in the frozen north on your planet. Millenia ago some since-fallen civilization stored its surplus food for later in hermetically sealed containers in the natural icebox of high latitudes. Your northerners could literally mine food, as they dig up the ancient c-rations and MRE's. Maybe as they dig for food, they stumble across valuable minerals that fuel their industrial development. Maybe the planet has scads of necessities fairly easily mined in the northlands and the tropics and temperate zones are geologically poor... instead of mule teams pulling borax out of a desert where otherwise people would choose not to live, you have musk-oxen teams pulling wagonloads of anthracite. Or copper. Or asbestos... Maybe your mid and low-latitude folks are beset by hyperactive lightning storms or active volanoes, and fireproof cloth is worth its weight in... wheat?

    One need not be totally self-sufficient to not be parasitical; way too many fantasy nationbuilders want their people to have every advantage - kind of a misplaced parental prosperity wish for one's offspring. Rather, storytellers and worldbuilders should impose limitations, should create deficits, and should plan shortages - the better to force trade, conflict, smuggling, inventiveness, and all manner of goodness in the repertoire of a storyteller. So maybe your northerners (or polar southerners! Don't leave off the south pole!) do have the logical lack of agriculture -- they could be wealthy in other ways, and able to trade with myriad warmer peoples for necessities.

    Agriculture need not be fields of waving grain. Tunnels of fungi could provide either human food, or a base link in a food chain that gets your people some animal protein. Think "what would bring food toward poles?" Well, how about polar waters being spawning grounds? Pick your species from herring to whales - seafood could well swim right up to your kitchen doors. Birds... penguins maybe? All the animal based diets you think of DO have plants at the base somewhere; in the Arctic it just might be algae and plankton in the depths, instead of tree leaves and grass like in my neighborhood. How about a religion that has shrines in the frozen wastes - make travel easy enough, and hordes of pilgrims bringing offerings could supply a fair bit of food.

    Slip a little further from human-based systems, and you could postulate races literally mining food in the Arctic. A petroleum-eating race would have cut short any discussion of an Alaskan pipeline from Prudhoe Bay... coal definitely has stored energy; maybe the evolutionary stage of your cyberfolk is a steampunk-ish level of coal-fired automatons with difference-engine brains?

    Maybe ALL your planet's middle latitudes lack trace elements essential to your people's well being; by bitter experience they've found out that those comfy warm regions are *death* in a few short years (decades, centuries, whatever). Maybe your planet has virulent diseases or insane amounts of insects, which the cold of the poles is the only defense against. Maybe all the mid- or low-latitude land is low coral atolls, and typhoons regularly wipe mankind from those delightful vacation spots. Or maybe the only slightly sub-arctic lands are the ONLY places things like mosquitoes and gnats thrive, and those are part of your peoples' reproductive cycle; journey equatorward for harvesting some grain (maybe on land tended by slaves and convicts?) but always returning home to the ice where one can raise a good family and where the hearth warmth is more... Personal than that enervating general heat of the sun of the equator.

    UV. Maybe your people NEED a lot of ultraviolet and your planet has long-term polar ozone holes that let more in. Low-UV latitudes allow some dread skin parasite to flourish, or permit some nasty predator species to flourish, so only near the poles does one find relative safety. Or your people are adapted best for the long nights and days of extreme latitudes' summer and winter, if you have a decent axial tilt. Malaria may be 100% fatal for your folks.... there's a reason to stick to icebound territory. Or switcheroo - the whole planet is icebound or ocean and only the ozone holes, ground radiation, coal deposits, and some volcanoes make the poles even remotely habitable.

    In any of those situations, say ALL of your worlds' cultures live near the poles and raid the temperate zones for (naturally occurring) resources and food - that way there's no easier life to generate a "higher civilization" to compare with.
    Otviss likes this.

  3. #13
      Triplicate is offline
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    Maybe the polar civilization is doable, so let's focus on one of my other goals. (This isn't for the same world.)

    Anti-imperialism. The reason this is so hard for me is that my ideology (moral absolutist, pro-technological, believer in radical reform = anti-cultural-preservation) is basically imperialist. But let's get past that and address the practical aspects.

    The Roman Empire increased trade in Europe to a level not seen again until after the Renaissance. Empires can promote economic growth.

    No, I can't get away from the ideological and emotional aspects, since the whole point of this exercise is to make the empire unsympathetic. Not on a character level, though, but on a level of "makes conditions worse for its citizens".

    And that's what's so hard for me to imagine. I don't think I could write this in a way that wouldn't be all Noble Savage (one of my most hated concepts) or Good Old Days (another peeve). That is, the only ways I can see to make it work are to use real-world wishful thinking and make it right. "You're growing out of touch with nature, and are becoming unable to use its magic."
    Last edited by Triplicate; 03-29-2013 at 11:51 AM.

  4. #14
      Smithy is offline
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    (my 1st post here) I think to have a realistic/possible polar culture you must have an abundant food source that produces large surplus to allow warriors aswell as farmers. This is how civilisations began in Middle East with wheat grain and in Mezo-America with corn. Some kind of cold loving lichen or fungus could grow incredibly quickly that would produce sustenance to feed large numbers of people when harvested. (Think this is how the Drow Underdark cities are explained in D&D?) The other things that could help this civilisation are huge sea fish stocks, geo-thermal heating (sort of mentioned earlier) which could help the lichen/fungus to grow? and discovery of the only large mass of metals on the planet in the polar region - iron ore/gold etc.
    Food is the No.1 thing to hold a people back in "barbarism" - the Innuit and Lapps never had empires because they were too busy making enough food and surviving.
    I quite like the idea of a Polar civilisation and may add this to my D&D campaign based on the above. I already have groups like Norsemen and Balt/Soumi types, but this is the next step north!

    By the way the idea that the Romans created trade across Europe and it died when their Empire fell is wide of the mark. There is large amounts of evidence of pre-historic trade across Europe - amber from the Baltic in ancient British burials, gold from the Middle East etc, and the 'Dark Ages' are a total myth. Roman Empire's fall reduced trade but it didn't go down as much as people think.

    Cheers and good luck with the Ice people,

  5. #15
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    Triplicate, I think you're right that our world - and, more probably, our Darwinian concept of survival - favours empire building. The fundamental goal of all peoples is to survive, and, after that, to prosper. This will often result in exploiting others who are weaker, and hence an empire is born. This is a logical approach, and it is very difficult to step away from this particular paradigm. That doesn't mean it is impossible to find some way to create a plausible anti-colonial/imperial world.

    One of the biggest factors is terrain. I know that geographic determinism has gone out of fashion, now, but I think it nonetheless has some merit. Look, for instance, at Papua New Guinea. The high mountains of Papua meant that many peoples were isolated from one another. You mentioned 'negative economies of scale' - my recollection of economics is a bit rusty, but I would presume that this means it costs more to maintain an empire than the benefits it offers. In Papua, it would be necessary for an empire to have soldiers posted in every valley to maintain control, and so the cost of maintaining the empire is high. Unless you have some trade good that makes it worthwhile, it isn't likely such an Empire would exist (not to mention the simple difficulty of acquiring that empire in the first place). Other examples can be found elsewhere - the Pacific Ocean (there were empires in the Pacific - from memory it was Tonga that built an empire but it may have been a different archipelago - but you can see why it would be difficult to build and maintain such an empire); the Sahara Desert; the Amazon Jungle; Australia. Another aspect of the cost-effectiveness of Empires can be seen in the decolonisation of the 20th century - this proposition may be controversial, but my understanding is that much of the British Empire was given independence because it was financially prudent to do so. Perhaps in France, where the vestiges of Empire were fought for, it remained worthwhile keeping it.

    It doesn't even need to be a resource-poor terrain. I am not particularly familiar with American history, but I am not aware of any pre-colonial empires in North America (US and Canada). The Sioux may have roamed across a huge expanse of territory, but they were empire-builders; the Iroquois, from what I've heard, created a confederacy that was presumably voluntary and gave each member advantages and disadvantages. Examples exist that demonstrate that imperialism is not automatically present in any world populated by humans.

    So, my original point in this thread is that you have to be inventive, but you also have to be plausible. Based on what I have said above, I would say you have the framework for worldbuilding without empires.
    - Darwinism means that survival is the goal of a society; what if survival is better served by being cooperative rather than competitive (i.e. Iroquois, Swiss cantons, European Union)? what if survival is more likely in a non-
    confrontational way (i.e. the casualties of conflict are increased through having no effective medicine, evenly matched sides)?
    - economics: what if it is not economically viable to occupy/exploit someone else's people? What if it was easier/safer to rely on mutually beneficial trade rather than raiding and conquering (I think the Phoenicians might be
    an example of this - they had an empire, but it was not one of conquest but trade; no-one was coerced into trading with them; people traded because they wanted what the Phoenicians offered)?

    You can see that those two paradigms are very interconnected - the best decision economically is also the one that is best for a people's survival. Hope these comments help

    Oh, and Smithy, you are right that there was lots of trade in pre- and post-Roman Europe, but the Roman Empire also facilitated trade. The appearance of a single currency, a single language, good infrastructure (roads, ships etc.), political unity and stability (the advantage for a trader of not having to go through a dozen kingdoms to reach his destination, getting extorted in each one of them), all make for increases in trade, and can be seen in many empires (even the Mongols). After Rome, the networks that had been created still existed, but many of the above advantages disappeared. The Dark Ages may have been a myth, but, as they say, there's a kernel of truth in every myth, and I think it is true, here, also. Stability declined, to different extents in different places, but a general decline was nonetheless present. But otherwise you're right - the effects were not as drastic as past historians believed.

  6. #16
      Otviss is offline
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    Hey there. I just want to add something which has not been discussed yet. The core problem of creating an uninteresting fictional world is just what you other guys have been mentioning. Darwinism. Clichés like different biological races, for example. But what about human nature? When building a society we are used to humans settling for resources or because of some "Evil" in what ever direction or thanks to the great terrain. But think of this. Imagine a group of travelers, nomads which are planning to stay in one area just over night, but end up staying there alot longer and thanks to speculations regarding food and substitutes for metal and such, surviving wouldnt be a problem. and by surviving i mean building a society.(Oops, darwinism) Perhaps a certain folk drink and eat air.

    Now, to "human nature". I'm talking about behavior. maybe things like though you would "love" a person, because of a life changing happening, you could betray those you love. You all know this, personal success and so forth. what if human nature was not about development of collective society. What if it was about something else. I think that by changing human nature as well you open many doors. Which is good. Because avoiding clichés is ALWAYS a good thing and sticking to them gives you unecessary cliché bits.

    It's also important to decide where the focus of the storytelling lies.
    Quote Originally Posted by jbgibson View Post
    If you make the reader think too much to piece together all the unique elements you're stringing together into a plausible whole, he won't have energy left to follow the plot.
    Last edited by Otviss; 06-17-2013 at 09:21 AM.

  7. #17
      krasimir is offline
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    I think even if something STARTS as a cliche (northern seafarers, aka Vikings), that doesn't mean it will stay that way.

    When I'm working on lore or backstory, I like to start with a strong recognizable theme. Then I start going through existing connections and I usually discover I have to change the Vikings a bit. And another bit there. Before long they still have a strong theme but the parallel isn't obvious.

    Putting details and adding unusual interactions helps.
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