What does it take to ensure a society survives and grows? What makes one region successful, while another struggles? Why do societies fall? Big questions – can they be included in a novel?

Jared Diamond in his massive and erudite book “Collapse”  notes several conditions that must be met for a culture to develop.

Food

The region must firstly contain arable food crops. Grains such as wheat and corn, legumes like beans, lentils and peas. Without these types of food plants, an area is doomed to remain subsistence level. With them, and agriculture and the beginnings of cities is possible.

Domestic beasts

There are only a limited number of animals that can be domesticated, and they share the characteristics of being able to cope with humans, being easily bred, produce either meat, wool, milk etc. Without beasts such as cows, pigs, horses, chickens and sheep, a society struggles. I would add in animals that have been human companions – dogs for hunting and cats for vermin control.

Climate

Having the plants and animals handy is the first need. The soil and climate must also cooperate, and be predictable enough for humans to develop agriculture. If they need to build massive stone circles as well, then that is a good sign there is enough leisure time to do so, and the society is thriving to be able to have the leisure time to think deep thoughts. The first step towards space travel.

So, a society can grow with the right plants, animal and climate. But that may not be enough. Wars happen, but also people unwittingly destroy or are destroyed by gradual change. Climate can also change gradually over generations. In the 6th century (around 536AD) two volcanic eruptions caused a global cooling. Some of the likely results of this were widespread famine and plague. In Dartmoor, UK during a period of good climate in the Bronze age, tens of thousands of acres were divided up into farmland, only to be abandoned as the climate changed and as the soil degraded.

The first city Catal Huyuk (7,500BC) in Turkey was successful, but was eventually abandoned. Recent studies have pointed to a combination of over exploitation of the environment, over population and signs of violence against individuals perhaps due to overcrowding. Likewise, Easter island once had trees, but society fell with the environment as the last tree was chopped down. 

RE Howard uses abandoned cities quite often – dead as a result of war, inbreeding, etc. Often the cities are peopled by the ghosts of the dead, or debased remnants of the original godlike inhabitants, or even taken over by a new race of sentient apes or lizards. Edgar Rice Burroughs also enjoyed the lost cities theme, with Tarzan exploring the Earth’s core and Opar. Mad queens and strange societies people his worlds. For a time, lost worlds, journeys to the centre of the Earth and weird creatures and debased humans flourished.

Post apocalyptic novels or sci-fi often describe a world debased by pollution, wars and the like. In extreme environments, society itself becomes extreme. In various episodes of Star Trek, there are tales of societies fixing the problems of our present.

It is easy to become disillusioned by the prospect of change, falling into the pattern that the future is always going to be grim. But in general, the past was a whole lot worse – harder to live, to survive without disease and pain, and have the time to think deep thoughts. Isn’t that what a book is about – giving the reader hope, and an escape into a world that is better. Maybe they will shut the book and go out and make a small change in their world.

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World Building: Cultural survival
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