Last night, my wife was telling me about a person of her close acquaintance who can get teared up looking at needlepoint. This came up after I mentioned a sociologist I heard on NPR. This fellow had mentioned that in some culture(I’ve lost any specifics), it was considered normal for people to see spirits. Yeah, this is my conversational style, fly off on tangents from orbit to orbit. My wife has learned to roll with this :).
Aaaanywaay, these folks see spirits. That’s normal. Not seeing spirits in this culture would be a little bit like not seeing cars in my culture. Similarly dangerous. These spirits are important. They provide guidance, warnings of danger, all manner of information that these people in their dense tropical forest environment(I remember that much) found useful and important.
Going on a tangent, I could ask, “What are they really seeing?” As a believer in a secular, logical, objective reality, I’m not about to suggest that they are really seeing the magical spirits of their dead ancestors or whatever. What I am willing to say is that they are aware of subtle hints in their environment, right at the edge of the sensory envelope, of the presence of dangerous or useful things. Much as I can see animals in clouds or faces in the random tufting of a carpet, they have been trained to see guiding spirits in those hints. This works for me, especially in the science fiction realm. Now if you are writing a fantasy story with magic and ghosts, why not have actual personified spirits? No es problema!
A couple of tangents from one conversation and we see two things. The first is that all those tangents and non sequiturs can be a creative tool if written down. The second is that those little personality quirks can make for interesting cultural traits. Yeah, you could probably take other things from that conversation, too. The relation between creativity and a faulty memory, for instance, or the skills required to maintain a working relationship with a nutty husband…
A useful tool I found in detailing different societies was the Customs lists on pages 75-77 of the MegaTraveller World Builders Handbook(Amazon). These are lists of no more than 36 quirks in Dressing Habits, Eating Habits, Living Quarters, Family Practices and a couple of lists of Miscellaneous Customs such as sleeping location, gift-giving and specific holidays for different Practicing Groups such as Political Figures, poor people or everybody. Now the lists may not be hugely imaginative(What do you expect? This is my kind of book: mostly physical stuff… Even if they did mess up the illustration of eccentric orbits…). Let’s face it, you can easily extend the family practices list without going far beyond reading some Heinlein. On the other hand these are good for dislodging the little gray cells. As things come up, I add to the existing lists. All manner of fun things come up: astrologies, numerologies, odd dietary and bathroom restrictions(Fun with Leviticus!), geomancy(invent your own Feng Shui, in a fantasy story it could actually work), and funerary customs(go down to the temple to ask grandpa’s pickled head for marital advice? Sure!). I think I have inklings of a story to go with the title, “Corpse in the Corner…”
Realistically, you don’t have to go that far to make something really different. Look at all the conflict between Christian, Jewish and Islamic cultures. The differences are pretty trivial(at least by the standards of your average socially tone-deaf science fiction writer… like moi), but the conflicts sure ain’t. The burkha? Well, gender-liberalism is a pretty new thing in the West by historical standards, and Taliban is probably a pretty close equivalent to Inbred Hillbilly. Saudi Arabia is what happens when the Westborough Baptist Church makes the laws. Looking at those kind of equivalents can be pretty fertile ground for weird cultural concepts. The parallax view. It’s pretty easy to get seriously dystopic with that.
Here are some reference works I’ve found useful, particularly with developing religious customs and mythologies. (Amazon links)
- “Mythology,” by Edith Hamilton.
- “The Religions of Man,” by Huston Smith.
- “Great Religions of the World,” National Geographic Society.
- “Anthropology: The Cultural Perspective,” James P. Spradeley and David W. McCurdy.
- “The Forest People,” Colin M. Turnbull(cool name 😉 ).
- “GURPS Religion: Gods, Priestly Powers and Cosmic Truths,” Janet Naylor and Caroline Julian.
Also, Bible, Book of Mormon, anything by C.S. Lewis, Bhagavad Gita, and Xenopsychology by Robert A. Freitas(Analog magazine, April 1984 issue. Good luck!). Actually Robert Freitas is a good author to look up, generally.
I’d also add anything by Ursula LeGuin, Jack Vance or Donald Kingsbury(back to those funerary customs: Dad jerky to fortify the heart when facing adversity). Ha! Some of these are much more prolific than others…
Thus, to quote Buffy, endeth the lesson.