Repost: Motivations Governing Cultural History

I’m going to gradually go through the best posts of the last six years.

Part of building a world is populating it. Where are the cities? Who are the leaders? What do they speak? What kind of music is playing down in the Market Quarter? Where can I get a good Vilani beer that tastes like old gym socks?

Part of the process of answering these questions is to give your world a history. The cities will have a different character if they were founded by the Sardau tribe across the mountains than if the were founded by the Tlatanga tribe down the river or the Ga Harama riding out of the Great Sand.

History is, itself, a story. The various cultures of a world are as much characters in that story as the heroes and villains in their ancient legends. This post will try to describe one way of building cultures as characters. We need to look at the old cliché of the method actor asking, “What’s my motivation?” I try to differentiate cultures by giving them fairly simple founding motivations in terms of the problems that a culture was created to address. This can explain the conflicts as that society grows and as its set of challenges change. It can also drive the life cycle of a society as those mechanisms intended to address an existing set of challenges becomes increasingly maladapted to new and different challenges. As a hopefully illuminating example of how this works I will use my own very unofficial idea for the Vilani Empire in the science fiction role playing game Traveller.

The Vilani were descended from humans transported to their world by ancient starfaring aliens called, imaginatively, Ancients, presumably as slaves, lab subjects or possibly pets. The planet Vland had life, but it was not biochemically compatible with Earth life. The biochemistry was close enough that they could find nourishment from properly treated local biomass, but it was different enough that local micro-critters couldn’t cope. I’m not sure just how reasonable theses assumptions are, but there are three points of interest that stick out for me.

  • These people have really weak immune systems that haven’t had to cope with significant attacks for many generations. Kind of like the native Americans with smallpox(and syphilis, and…) only more so. These guys haven’t met a bug that didn’t come out of their own gut in ages.
  • They’re also really dependent on a small elite group with specialized knowledge to process their food. Without those shugilii, they starve to death or probably die of poisoning.
  • These Ancients probably planted humans on other worlds(they did) and they may even have transplanted other organisms from Earth on suitable planets. Food plants would be a likely choice, especially since I’m going to assume that the Ancients were fairly compatible biochemically with Earth life(they can eat our food and drink our booze, mmm Amaretto).

So about five thousand years ago, when these guys got off their home planet and started looking around they found a world with Earth life on it, maybe even another clade of humans. What happens? Suddenly back home on Vland people are eating imported peaches and onions and potatoes and corn… and beer that wasn’t produced by fermenting old jock-straps in human waste materials. Yay! The dominant shugilii caste starts to lose its hold on society. Suddenly the alternative to kow-towing to your local chef isn’t starvation, it’s food that likely tastes better than the nutrient mulch that comes out of a shugilii’s cauldron.

This could have been a revolutionary time of innovation and liberalization, two traits not well known in Vilani of later times. Now, the shugilii, while their power is slipping, still have a lot of resources, this becomes important later.

Remember those weak immune systems? Well all of this close contact with the delicious products of an earthlike ecology just about inevitably leads to contact with unfamiliar microbiota. In the canon history, a series of deadly epidemics that ravaged the Vilani Empire after contact and war with Earth was called the Plagues of Duskir. I’m going to assume that this was named after a much earlier Plague of Duskir which precipitated the creation of the Vilani Empire.

By the time these ancient plagues were brought under control, the shugilii were firmly back in control. They blamed the misfortune which befell the Vilani on their libertine actions and their shameful innovation. The psychic trauma of these plagues must have been great as the Vilani remained hidebound and conservative millennia later. I won’t comment on how realistic that timescale might be. The shugilii, although hobbled by a limited understanding of germ-theory, also move to break contact between the Vilani people and all of those bugs on planets with earthlike ecologies, also incidentally(heh-heh) strengthening their hold on the Vilani food supply and thus their power.

So the Vilani Empire is founded with a medical motivation in mind(and shugilii power-politics, of course). The first priority is to quarantine and restrict access to worlds with earthlike biochemistries. The Vilani thus passed by many of the best, most human friendly garden worlds in favor of unpleasant, marginally habitable dumps for fear of disease. Humans found on other worlds would be even more worrisome. I suspect the empire would keep those other humans restrained to their own worlds or tightly defined ghettos in space. By force if necessary. Exploration would have been slow and tentative, but methodical in the early days. No one wants to find more humans out there, carrying awful diseases, but too strong to be forcibly quarantined. Later on, slow and tentative would start to dominate and exploration would become less methodical in a tottering, decadent Empire.

Their dealings with non-human aliens might be much less strained. Once the aliens have passed through a quarantine period and shown not to carry organisms harmful to the Vilani, they might even be admitted freely into Vilani society, depending on their cultural tendencies, of course. Officious, by-the-book Bwaps are everywhere, more creative, incautious or wild-minded aliens might be nearly as restricted as all of those minor humans.

Fear of a reprise of the earlier great plagues prevents the Vilani from the exposure to disease organisms that might make their immune systems more powerful. On the one hand, we know that they suffered under the onslaught of Terran diseases during and after the canonical Interstellar Wars. On the other hand, we also know that a few hundreds of years later, Vilani are common throughout the Third Imperium, but don’t seem to have any particular tendency to fall dead with blood coming out of their eyes on meeting humans from Earth. When the quarantine structures are broken down due to the dual perils of the decay of Imperial authority and hostile action by the enemy Terran Confederation, disease ravages the Empire. Even with reasonable contact with other human races, the variety of disease organisms from the homeworld of the human race would have had unpleasant repercussions but probably less devastating than what they suffered.

Shugilii efforts to restrict innovation as pretty much of a horribly-punished sin, results in an Empire poorly prepared to cope in the face of an active and technologically-advancing enemy.

Going back to that fear of disease, the Vilani response to contact with other humans would lead inevitably to the conflict. The Vilani contacting Earth would be happier talking with Ridley Scott’s Alien over a conference table than representatives from Earth, and it would show. The people of Earth would be less than happy at being cordoned off like lepers in some little corner of space. Other humans weren’t any happier, but contact with Earth was a perfect storm: the Empire was in a state of decay; Earth had been given a lot of time to grow, unfettered by Imperial authority; the humans of post-industrial Earth were just a bit more innovative and advanced than previous humans had been at the time of contact. In combination, this time, the humans could resist quarantine and did.

So the end of the Vilani Empire is predicated by its beginning as much as any classical tragedy.

This same pattern of traumatic problem, particular set of solutions, and failure of that solution set to be adaptable to later problems leading to dissolution, could be applied to the creation of other societies as well. For instance, the Ramshackle Empire in Traveller was predicated on maintaining the gains from the Interstellar Wars and propping up the rotting cadaver of the Vilani Empire, and the Third Imperium was simply created to maintain interstellar trade and stave off a new Long Night.

Basically, try to isolate the motivating trauma, determine the enduring mechanisms created to handle the trauma, then come up with a new set of problems and remove some of the old ones to see how the mechanisms twist, deform and break to adapt and the ways in which those mechanisms fail to adapt.

This isn’t a philosophy of real life, though it does inform my own political viewpoint(Aaah! Politics! Run!), but it is simply intended as one tool in a box of tools for the creation of interesting cultures.

Thank you for your attention,

The Astrographer

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