I notice that Verduria feels a bit European, which I like. What are some ways that I can replicate that Euro feel in my own stuff?


This was asked on Twitter, but it’s hard to answer in 140 characters.

282 72 Fiesole.jpg

For Westerners creating fantasy worlds, it’s hard not to make it European. The Standard Fantasy Kingdom is mostly European (from medieval to steampunk). The more of these elements you have the more European it’ll feel:

  • A large temperate agricultural zone, sometimes threatened by nomads
  • Kingdoms (with a smattering of republics)
  • Parliaments (especially as a counter-power to the king)
  • A division into multiple ethnic states
  • Powerful nobles who ride horses and live in rural castles
  • Towns, dense in population, without city planning, with a high degree of autonomy
  • At least some maritime nations, with a lot of ship-borne trade
  • Advanced in technology compared to other nations, or at least not dominated by larger civilizations
  • Large forests where you can hide the trolls or nymphs
  • Lots of pretty stone buildings
  • A single religion that crosses national boundaries
  • Monogamy
  • Clothing runs to shirt + pants for men, dresses for women

Visually, you would expect to see gothic cathedrals, big stone castles, Renaissance palaces, pleasant hobbitish villages. Buildings are rectilinear; roofs are either flat or A-framed. Animals, plants, and food are all recognizable to Westerners. Armies consist of horse cavalry, sailing ships, infantrymen wielding swords, bow and arrow, or pikes, with catapults as artillery; the upgrade path is to steamships, muskets, and cannons.

Linguistically, the languages could be directly influenced by Europe (as Verdurian is), and don’t stray too far from European languages.  Thus, mostly—

  • Standard Fantasy Phonology (English plus kh)
  • SVO
  • nominative-accusative
  • Verbs marked by tense, and possibly number + person
  • Articles
  • No gender, or masculine/feminine
  • Prepositions
  • Decimal number system
  • Adjectives may be like nouns, definitely aren’t like verbs

Perhaps more subtly, Europe is old. Everywhere has at least two thousand years of history, and things were probably very different 500 or 1000 years ago— different nations, different languages or religions. (By contrast, China is even more ancient, but as far back as you go, it’s still ethnic Chinese. With India,  whenever anyone invaded or started a new religion, the old peoples and religions are in general still there. And of course the US is by European standards young and low-density).

Now, in all of the above, I’ve not only downplayed differences between European nations (it makes a difference if you’re aiming at England, Italy, or Poland), but also I haven’t been too concerned with actual medieval history, which often differs from the tropes that we get from fantasy and even from medieval literature. If you really want a European flair to your conworld, my usual suggestion is to read less fantasy and more history. Reality is always far weirder than imagination.

Now, Verduria started as a Standard Fantasy Kingdom, and is certainly affected by my own affection for Europe and European languages. Plus I’ve more or less tried to make Almea stranger the farther you go from Verduria, which means Verduria itself is supposed to seem familiar to Western readers.  Still, it’s not designed as a mask of Europe— e.g. particular nations of Eretald are not simply caricatures of particular European nations. It does have some elements that aren’t European at all, and hopefully its history is coherent on its own level— things happen because of their internal logic.

It may be relevant that I aimed at something like 1750s Europe, and if anything pushed that toward 1800 in later work. So one thing you may be noticing is that Verduria is a little more like modern Europe than many fantasy kingdoms— it has steam power, colonies, cannons, universities, joint-stock companies, printing, religious conflicts, and parliamentary politics.

For Americans, Europe has a certain attractive quaintness, fading at the edges into eccentricity or annoyance. We see ourselves as straightforward, pragmatic, and business-oriented, Europeans as alternately charming, hidebound, and arrogant. We imagine that a duchess is somehow much more interesting than a billionaire. Harry Potter’s crumbly old castle of a school is as fantastic an element for us as his magic; Samwise’s forelock-tugging deference to Frodo as alien as the elves. These things would all read very differently to actual Europeans.

I hope that helps— I don’t know exactly what you’ve read about Verduria, and perhaps I haven’t captured what you notice about it at all!

(The picture, by the way, is of Fiesole, Italy, and was taken by my father in 1972.)


I’m doing research on China, and one of the many arduous research tasks is watching Chinese movies. Here’s a neat one: an animated version of the story of 孙悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, from Journey to the West. The director is Wàn Làimíng and the movie was made into parts, in 1961 and 1964.

The movie’s name is 大闹天宫 Dà Nào Tiāngōng ‘Big disturbance [in the] heavenly palace’, thus Uproar in Heaven. It’s a rather faithful adaptation of the first chapters of 西遊记 Xī Yóu Jì (Journey to the West), by the Míng writer Wú Chéng’ēn.

If you’ve never met Sūn Wùkōng, one of the best-loved epic heroes of China, the movie is a good introduction. He’s a superhero monkey, born in the Flower-Fruit Mountain on the Eastern Continent. The first chapters of the book are largely Dàoist— the monkey searches for the secret of immortality, learning that as well as the 72 Transformations and the 108,000-mile Cloud Somersault from the immortal Subhūti. He picks up his trademark weapon, a size-changing staff, from his neighbor the Dragon King.

The Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in Heaven (he didn’t think Monkey could actually pick up the staff). Amusingly, the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire is projected up into Heaven. One advisor demands war against the monkey, but another suggests a very Chinese-imperial solution: give him a minor post in Heaven, as stablemaster. Sūn Wùkōng happily accepts the position— he likes the horses— until he learns that it’s the lowest-ranking post in Heaven…

The movie is very well done— colorful, inventive, drawing deeply on Chinese opera and painting. What I like most about it is how non-Western it feels. The Japanese made their own version, Saiyūki (which is how you read 西遊记 in Japanese) in 1960, based on the manga version by Osamu Tezuka; it’s very nicely produced but highly Disneyfied— Monkey becomes too damn cute.

The animators also rose to the challenge of making supernatural fights into balletic visual spectacles— one highlight is Sūn Wùkōng’s fight against one of Heaven’s champions, where both shape-shift every few seconds. They remember what many modern animated movies forget: the medium is about drawing and movement, not dialog. (Though the voice acting is good… I like the like “Nnnnn” the Jade Emperor utters while contemplating how to address Monkey’s latest impertinence.)

It’s curious that the movie ends just after Sūn Wùkōng has defeated the Dàoist pantheon— and just before he’s defeated by the Buddha. After that, he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, which breaks down his rebelliousness. When a supernatural guardian is needed to escort the monk Xuánzàng to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he is happy to take the role. Every demon between China and India— and there are a lot of them— wants to eat Xuánzàng, so he has his furry little hands full.

(Xuánzàng was real— he made the actual trip to India in the 7th century, and did bring back hundreds of Sanskrit texts, which greatly enriched Buddhist literature in China.)

Animation is expensive, and it’s possible that that the studio planned to continue the story— the Cultural Revolution intervened instead, and the studio was shut down. Leaving out the Monkey King’s redemption makes the film an unusual celebration of pure anarchy. Sūn Wùkōng defies Heaven, eats the Celestial Empress’s peaches of immortality, trashes a banquet hall simply because he wasn’t invited to the feast, defeats every champion sent against him, and returns to the Flower-Fruit Mountain unvanquished.

If you play League of Legends, the champion Wukong is a (rather diminished) version of the Monkey King.

I discovered the movie on this list of less-known animated films, which contains plenty of other stuff to check out.

It’s been twenty years since I wrote the American culture test, so it’s time for an update.

(Mostly it’s new pop culture references, but attitudes about race and sexuality have changed significantly, and there’s more to say about the Internet.)

I’ve been reading Bruce Trigger’s Early Civilizations, which is a comparative study of Egypt, early Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inkas, and the Yoruba. It’s a huge book and rather dry, so unfortunately I can’t say I read it all. But for conworlding purposes I thought I’d list some of the stuff that was new to me.

It's got a great beat, and you can dance to it

Early dancers were half the size of the musicians

He finds a significant difference between city-states (Mesopotamia, Maya, Aztecs, Yoruba) and territorial states (Egypt, China, Inkas). Both were governed by kings, were hierarchical, were divided into an elite and a peasantry with little social mobility. But territorial states are likely to have fewer cities (with peasants living in villages rather than the cities), government road systems, and long-distance trade run largely by the government.

My favorite historical atlases, by Colin McEvedy, are apparently out of date on the subject of early trade. Or to be precise, McEvedy gave an accurate picture of the Egyptian state, which had a command economy; but Mesopotamia had a lively trade economy even if it didn’t have marketplaces or coinage. (The picture of early traders in my story “The multipliers” is more accurate than I thought!)

None of the civilizations really valued traders, and indeed often took steps (e.g. with sumptuary laws) to signal that they were not aristocrats. On the other hand, in some civilizations, lesser members of the aristocracy could supplement their income with trade.

The position of women in all the civilizations was lower than the men, and tended to deteriorate over time. E.g. in earlier Egypt and Shang China we see female bureaucrats (often relatives of the king), later replaced by men. Traders among the Yoruba, and innkeepers in Mesopotamia, were often women.

The idea of a straightforward practical manual on anything seems to have eluded the literate societies– what they wanted to write down was magic and rites. Even practical concerns, like metallurgy in Benin and navigation in China, were conducted with rituals and superstitions.

The Tea Party view of the world– a 1% who cannot be coddled enough, the poor who need to be treated ever more badly– is as old as dirt. The social contract was always a rotten bargain. E.g. in China, there was ‘punishment’ (xing) for the lower classes, ‘etiquette’ (li) for the gentry. It was viewed as just and natural for the elite to live off the labor of the masses– and make sure the masses had no real avenues of improvement. When ordinary coercion wasn’t enough, it was always possible to invent even more pretexts for oppressing the poor, e.g. with accusations of witchcraft. Things like the admirable road system of the Inkas were not built as social services– they were for military movements and for provisioning the elite. About the one service the poor could count on was security: times of anarchy and disunion were even worse.

At the same time, management was a very difficult problem for early states. No ruler could keep an eye on everything, and the elite was both a necessity and a threat. The elite had to be kept relatively happy, and it was the only source of people one could delegate authority to, but it also took all the independence it could get. In practice, totalitarian micromanagement was impossible– even conquered groups of people were generally left to rule themselves so long as they paid their taxes.

The book is organized by topic, so you can compare (e.g.) class organization or cosmology across all seven societies. It’s very thorough, but he doesn’t have a gift for making it vivid (as e.g. Marvin Harris or John Fairbank do).

The choice of civs is just a little odd– the Aztecs and Inka were hardly early; there were the culmination of a thousand years of development. He has some excuses for not including anything from India– I think he says we know too little about early civilization there– but if you’re going to include something as late as the Inka Empire, you could certainly include Asoka’s empire.

Charlie Stross recommended this article on myths of female sexuality (by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, reporting on a study by Terri Conley).  It’s quite interesting, and I’d really like to believe its conclusions, but as mythbusting it’s a bust.  Let’s go over the list.

1. “Women value men with powerful status, and men value women who are both youthful and attractive.”  Against this, Conley cites one speed dating scenario. One experiment.  Probably less than 30 participants; certainly less than a hundred.  Contrary evidence: pretty much all of human behavior.  Or if you want something more quantified, check out these awesome stats from OKCupid, based on a sample of 200,000 people.

2. “Women want and actually have fewer sexual partners. Conley and team reviewing relevant studies found that yes, some men do want a large number of sexual partners.”  That is, the first part of the ‘myth’ (about wanting) wasn’t busted, but confirmed.  The twist is that at least one study found that men exaggerate how many conquests they’ve had.  Surely this shouldn’t be a big surprise.  Mathematically, if men report n het encounters, women should report n as well.  But even this finding reinforces that men and women don’t think the same.

3. “Men think about sex more often than women do.” The busting consists of confirming the finding, but adding that men think about food and sleep more, too.

4. Women orgasm less.  The busting: “When in committed relationships, women and men experience orgasm with equal frequency.”  In other words, the ‘myth’ is true!  If you have a generalization that applies to a whole group, it’s not disproved by showing that the generalization doesn’t hold for a fraction of the group.

5. “Women don’t like casual sex as much as men do.”  The classic demonstration was a rather silly experiment where college students were approached with offers of sex— 70% of men were interested, 0% of women.  I call this silly because it’s a completely unnatural setup— this isn’t how people find partners!  Conley did a variation which found that the women were much more interested “if they believe that they can avoid being stigmatized”.  Again, that’s a pretty important nuance!

6. “Women are choosier than men.”  Conley apparently found that whichever sex initiates contact, the other will be choosier— that is, if men approach women, the women seem pickier; if women approach men, the men seem pickier.  This one is hard to evaluate without knowing the exact methodology; it seems like a no-brainer that any offer has a chance of being rejected, so I don’t see how this is a test of choosiness at all.

Whitbourne frames the story in the context of people showing surprise that women are interested in sex and male bodies.  Surely that hasn’t been hot news since about 1925?  (She mentions that e.g. Hollywood loves to show female but not male bodies, but I don’t think this is due to filmmakers calculating that women aren’t interested; it’s more that they think men will be turned off.)

The takeaway here, I think, is to be careful about evidence— especially for findings that confirm what you already believe.  When you read “Studies show…”, be at least as wary as when you read “with this weird old tip”.  Look at how the study was done, how many people it involved, and whether the methodology really tests the hypothesis.

(Also, yeah, I know, it’s Psychology Today.  That’s why I mention that Stross plugged the link— he’s a smart guy, so it seemed worth checking out.)

When was this written, and of what dance?

The music is sensuous, the embracing of partners– the female is only half dressed– is absolutely indecent; and the motions– they are such as may not be described, with any respect for propriety,  in a family newspaper.

(Answer: 1921; of the foxtrot.)

Very interesting article on the evolution of money from David Graeber, an anthropologist.  Apparently economists since Adam Smith have been telling a story that before money there was “barter”.  You’d have a cow and somebody else had arrowheads and, having failed to invent money, you’d work out a direct trade. 

Problem is, anthropologists have been looking for such a system for two hundred years and there just isn’t one.  Individual barters exist, of course, but no barter systems (with the exception of protocols that have emerged in societies where money was already invented but is temporarily unavailable, such as prison).

Instead there’s a plethora of exchange systems, all tied inextricably to the rest of society.  Often the basis is generalized reciprocity.  You want those arrowheads, you praise them, and the other guy gives them to you.  He loudly declaims any desire for recompense, but of course you both know that you owe him one.  At a later point you have a cow and he needs one and you give it to him.  It all works out because you are part of a tiny community, know each other, and any injustices will cause trouble.

Also see this post, where he describes some protocols for trade between different primitive communities, where a trade involves the whole communities, threats of war, and wife-swapping.  Homo oeconomus, the purely rational trade envisioned by Smith, need not apply.

Where did money come from?  In the Middle East, at least, Graeber suggests two major sources for the idea of a unit of value:

  • The accounting systems of large non-state enterprises– namely, temple complexes.  These were complex institutions which had land, farmers, workshops… they started reckoning things in silver and grain just to keep track of things.  Note that money existed as a means of valuation long before it existed as a unit of exchange.
  • Legal systems.  In particular, there was a desire to establish set valuations for things that were damaged: physical goods, lives, body parts, even one’s honor.  He notes that medieval Welsh law codes included precise valuations for all the things found in a home, from cooking utensils to floorboards, at a time when no markets existed where these things could be bought.  You wanted these valuations not to buy the things, but to get recompense if someone destroyed them.

Anyway, much food for thought for conworlders, especially if you have a stage of development before the invention of markets.

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