A way with worlds: 04 – Intelligent life and culture by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

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 fellows.

It’s 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 correct.

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 – it’s a way to pass on information. The elements of a culture exist for a reason – at least at first. When designing a culture, ask:

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 malfunctioning.
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 – it’s 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.

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