World Building 101: Human Universals

World Building 101: Human Universals

Yes, Virginia, there are some common universal traits that go across every culture, every religion, and every civilization in human history. These are things that are so ingrained into us that we will tend to obey them without thought whether our skin is as pale as an alba blossom or dark as pitch, whether Dr. House would call us danglers or say that our genitals are aesthetically pleasing, or even which particular deity we do or do not pray to when we’re in the foxhole with a grenade sans pin.

Some of these are taboos that we don’t even really have to think about: don’t have sex with your kids, your parents, or your siblings (and stfu about the pharaohs because that’s the sole exception I can find that was practiced with regularity). Don’t kill your immediate family. There is a mystical being watching you so nothing you do is perfectly hidden and if you make this being mad, things will go bad for you. Other universals have to do strictly with the fact that, on average, males and females are different in a biochemical sense. Social differentiation tends to follow this biochemical lines where men in tribal to late-Industrial societies tackle jobs that require use of their raw strength while women tend to go for jobs that maximize their dexterity and are within their (somewhat lesser) raw strength (and believe me, it takes some serious strength to be a farm wife. Most of those ladies could probably bench-press and dead-lift more than an Army Ranger today!) You don’t see a lot of women in African tribes running out on the savanna chucking spears at antelope and you don’t see a lot of men sewing altar cloths or weaving rugs.

So, those are the general universals. That doesn’t mean you have to use them in your story. Instead, look at them. What are they? Two of them are “don’t screw with your family” and one is “there is something beyond you.” Finally, the physical differences simply say “if there are differences, society will tend to do its best to find a way to make maximum use of it; if you want everyone to be identical and interchangeable, society will treat them as such but you had better be prepared for real equality in this case and not the cobbled-together crap we have right now.”

I’ve seen the last one turned on its head. Probably the most well-known example is the society on Angel I in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is a world where women evolved to be larger and stronger and men were shorter and more dexterous. Another example is from the Wheel of Time where, since men who channel go insane, women have generally played a larger role in both channeling societies (the Wise Ones, the Windfinders, sul’dam and damane, the Ayyad, and the Aes Sedai) and in ruling in general (Randland runs heavily towards queens since there’s always a risk that any given man could turn out to be a channeler — especially if he’s from a bloodline that has practiced cousin-marriage). This works out to the entire civilization tending to trust women before men.

In economics, there are also some universals. I have yet to find a religion that says “ya know what, if your neighbor has something, it’s cool to beat the shite out of him and take it.” Since religion tends to be the first highly-developed aspect of human culture (even government tends to stem from religion early on), yes, religious views of trade and ownership are important. We can see that there are several religions that out-right forbid things like interest on loans or that regulate, quite strictly, who can be charged interest and how much can be levied. Religions also develop and under-gird most early tax systems (tithing, for instance). However, every religion that I have been able to find has established that trade has to be somewhat voluntary and that equal value has to be exchanged. Yes, yes, religions also teach that a bounty is to be spread around and that the poor should be given charity — usually that stuff comes from the institution itself using the wealth it has taxed (or tithed) from its followers. This giving is generally voluntary (meaning that there’s no punishment beyond shunning for failure to do so). So, when setting up an economy that is more advanced than bartering, you might want to consider what particular universals you’re going to have and where they’ll stem from.


Don’t you dare judge me over the kinds of things I store in my brain.

Economics is one place where gaming things out can either be an eye-opener or can drive you stark-raving mad. For me, I usually do myself a favor and just use one from history. Trust me, when you’ve had three different systems with three different underlying assumptions turn into “Geez, this makes Stalin look like a Boy Scout,” you start to appreciate how great a job history has done of bug-testing and shaking the major problems out of economics for us (not to say it’s perfect yet but the systems we have now are fairly robust).


Yes, you will have to handle these situations in any system. You cannot ignore them if you want to write characters that people might actually understand. If you want to write about perfect angels, may I suggest LSD and starting your own religion?

Next week we’ll go into a bit more detail about workable ways to come up with different social institutions (things like marriage, the family, religious institutions, and basic local government) and the kinds of questions you need to consider in order to determine if something is going to work out the way you want or if you’re going to wind up with one of the aforementioned “Good Lord, even Stalin would consider this a bad idea” kind of situations.

— G.K.

Book Review: Forbidden Thoughts

Book Review: Forbidden Thoughts

If you, like me, have gotten a bit sick and tired of the constant “you must not think this” and “you must never say this” and “never offend anyone anywhere — no matter what” that permeates most of modern sci-fi, you’ve probably been looking for a good bit of satire to help you cleanse your palette. That’s where Forbidden Thoughts comes in.

Frankly, it’s hilarious. This compendium of short stories takes most of the silliness that has taken over our society from the Snowflake Generation and ramps it up to eleven. Anyone who isn’t a devoted member of the TrueFen will love this book. Anyone who is a devoted member of the TrueFen will think that the writers are insane and honestly believe that TrueFen think that unqualified people should be granted highly skilled jobs just to tick off the Diversity Checklist or that mothers should be able to kill their kids up to adolescence. To borrow a favorite saying of His Most Illustrious President, let me be clear — no one thinks that aside from the extreme morons on the far, far, so-far-as-to-almost-have-looped-around-to-the-left Right. However, good satire often does take the most extreme possible view and make mock of it. That’s fine in fiction even when it’d be fallacious in a debate (it’s the Strawman and/or reductio ad absurdum).

At any rate, if you’re looking for something that is funny, satirical, and is a damned good read, then Forbidden Thoughts is the book for you! Four out of five rainbow-farting zebricorns!

— G.K.

Wizard’s First Rule

Wizard's First Rule

Update: After posting this, I read Sarah Hoyt’s post today and it’s got an interesting take on the same problem. For her, it’s the elites who have gotten out of touch (and they have) and the people are seeing that the Emperor has no clothes and it’s creating a lot of problems for everyone. I encourage you to head over there and read her post.

I’ve been forcibly reminded of Terry Goodkind’s wizard’s rules over the past few weeks since the inauguration. The first of these rules sums up everything: People Are Stupid.

I’m not just talking about Trump voters or Hillary voters here. I’m talking about the ones on both sides who reduce everything to politics. The ones who are so religious with it that they’re shunning non-believers. These two groups are so incredibly similar that I actually have difficulty telling them apart. They differ only in which particular aspects of life they wish to dictate upon. Neither of them can imagine that any reasonable or rational person could hold an opinion that differs from their own. They’re so insulated in their bubbles that they actually fear those who question their religion. And I do mean “religion” here. Politics, for normal people, refers to “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” These folks aren’t political anymore. They’re religious and they will never question their religion anymore than a devout Muslim will question the existence of Allah, a practicing Jew will question the Exodus, or a Catholic will question transubstantiation.

Which brings me back to “People Are Stupid.” Right now, we essentially have two groups of nearly identical theocrats fighting each other for power. When one gets the reins, the other flips right out and the conspiracy theories start flying. These are the people who make me understand that Loki from the Avengers had a damned good point with his speech.


Kneel before me. I said… KNEEL! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.

It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around this but it is very true. There are people — perhaps the vast majority of people — who desire subjugation. They want to be ruled with an iron hand. They want someone else to make the decisions, to tell them what is right, to dictate every aspect of their lives to them. They don’t want to sit down and do the hard and messy work of reasoning out a moral code. They don’t want to have to consider all the different angles and aspects of their choices. They don’t want to grow up. These are the kinds of people who flock to support monarchs, dictators of one stripe or another. One group wants to make decisions about who can get married to whom, keep things as they “always” have been, and not have to tackle questions that might possibly lead away from easily answers intuited during the Iron Age. The other group wants to dictate what people can think, what they can say, how they can feel about others, and to punish anyone who dares to be a square peg in their Round Hole Utopia. Both groups cite guys with beards who either wrote books or had books written about them, who claim that their followers are superior to non-believers, and that both groups will get to live a utopian existence. Both groups believe they are the more intelligent and that the other is filled with either Literal Hitlers, fools, or dupes.

Thing is, both groups are idiots. They just cannot see it. It’s not that they don’t want to see it, mind. It is that they, quite literally, cannot. The cognitive dissonance is too much for them so their minds shut down and they go to flinging insults at anyone who points this out to them. It was seeing people whom I had once considered intelligent do that very thing that made me realize that they do this not out of any kind of rational argument or strength of position or surety that the facts will bear out their view; they do this just like any devout believer lashes out when you begin pointing out inconsistencies in their religion. They did not reach this set of beliefs through logic or reason; they reached it through Teh Feelz(TM).

I actually feel sorry for people like that. They’ll never be able to change and they will always hold the rest of us back because they can’t understand that feelings aren’t useful. They also will never be able to actually convince anyone to adopt their views since they can’t articulate what they are, why they hold them, and what is good about them. They can only explain these things using invective and inflammatory language to contrast themselves to Those Other Guys. And God help you if you point out a potential issue with one of their core beliefs. Then you really get to see a screaming fit. This is why I’m beginning to think, in the interests of actually having separation of church and state, we need to chuck both parties out on their ear.

— G.K.

World Building 101 — Story Drivers

World Building 101 -- Story Drivers

Once you’ve finished asking yourself the major questions I mentioned in last week’s post, you’re in a fairly good place to start working on writing the story in your world. That said, though, before you get into writing too far, you will want to take a few minutes — maybe even an hour — to think about what events drive your story.

Yes, yes, there’s all kinds of cool things happening in your story. Otherwise, it’d be about as interesting as watching paint dry or grass grow. Still, all of these things that are going on in your story — battles, wars, arranged marriages, kidnapping, OMGEXPLOSIONS, whatever — all have their origins in things that happened before the story begins. Your characters will probably make references to historical or mythological events that are part and parcel of their culture but may not mean anything to the reader unless you take a second to explain it. You’ll want to develop these things well and have the shorthand references down before you have your characters do things like swear that they should pull a Seostaz* and claim the hill in the name of Zara**.

Robert Jordan was awesome at doing this with Mat Cauthon. After Mat went through the doorway in Rhuidean, he started making all kinds of references that even scholars in Randland wouldn’t have gotten. However, Jordan could weave those and the explanations into his story in a way few others can do — myself included — without data dumping.


If you get this reference, you are awesome

So, what do you do? Well, instead of having your characters say something like “This is another Antietam” and then going into a long explanation about what the Battle of Antietam was, try having them say “I feel like the Spartans at Thermopylae,” “But they won, didn’t they?” “Nope.” That right there tells your readers that the character feels like the underdog in a fight who did well enough that another character (unless that character is a moron) would think they won. No need to go into the whole history of Greece and Persia. Just a quick explanation that covers the high points.

You do want to be careful, though, when coming up with cultural references, historical events, and mythological references that you don’t find yourself going down too many rabbit holes. I generally keep to a rule of five — no more than five of each. If I find myself needing more than that, I know that I need to spend a lot more time building the history because I’m writing a story that spans at least five hundred years. Now, there are times you do want to do that. One of my sci-fi series I’m working on here and there is set 10,000 years in our future. I do have to develop a full history for that filled with wars, societies, religions, scientific advances, Dark Ages, and more. That’s not because every detail I sketch out in my backstory is going to come up but it is because I need to have all of this down cold so I can explain why two different groups diverged as much as they did.

Next week we’ll talk about the very basic universals found in religion, politics, and economics and why studying human history can help you develop a workable world.

— G.K.

*Made this up. No clue what it means.
**Ditto the above.

TV Review: Travelers

TV Review: Travelers

So, last week I stumbled on this new series from Netflix, Travelers. It is, to put it mildly, awesome. The premise is that the distant future kind of sucks so humans, who are living in overcrowded shelters and facing extinction, start sending their consciousnesses back to the 21st century and take over people who are about to die in preventable deaths and then perform missions to try to change the future.

It’s a fun premise to run with and it’s probably one of the better concepts of time travel that I’ve seen. All of the Travelers are great characters and show how difficult it is for someone to assume a new identity — even if they have access to all that person’s “historical records.” It also shows just how short-sighted humanity it is (at least en masse), even in the future.

I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen the show (and you definitely need to see it). Eric McCormick is great as Grant MacLaren but my favorite character is Philip Pearson, the group’s historian. He winds up being sent back into the body of a heroin addict and has to deal with that, the withdrawal, and all of the stress that comes with being in a completely unfamiliar place and having zero support (everyone else in the team has some kind of family to fall back on). The actor playing him, Reilly Dolman, does a great job of striking the balance between “genius historian with eidetic memory” and “junkie trying to get clean with no real help or support.” And yes, I may have just found my latest fictitious crush.

Aside from McCormick, the cast is all a bunch of unknowns and they all do a great job. Hell, everyone does a great job — the directors, the producers, the writers, the camera guys, the effects dudes, the music crew. Even the guy who makes the coffee for the second assistants to whatever does a great job and deserves kudos.

Travelers is available on Netflix. Check it out if you haven’t already! This one gets five — yes five rainbow farting zebricorns.

Seriously, go watch this show if you haven’t already. If you liked Star Trek (any series), Star Wars, Doctor Who, Quantum Leap, The X-Files, or any shows like that, you will love this one!

— G.K.

Interesting Google Searches

Interesting Google Searches

So, I’m writing a story (not that this is news) and I was looking for a way to describe someone who has dark skin without coming right out and saying “this dude is black” because, well, that has specific cultural connotations and this culture pre-dates the Big Bang. This led me to what is probably the most convoluted Google search I have ever conducted.

Hint: if you’re looking for a way to describe skin tones, Googling is usually a bad idea. You will waste about three hours filtering through irrelevant crap before you finally find something that is close to, but not quite, what you were looking for. I learned more about foundation, face powder, how to pick the best color for any given complexion, how to hide freckles, how to highlight freckles, which color eyeshade goes well with which color iris, and where I can get contact lenses that will make my sclera (the whites of the eyes) black.

By the time I finally found a suggested list of ways to describe skin color, I was beginning to doubt my own sanity. However, I finally stumbled on this Tumblr post and got exactly what I wanted.

I will say this: it is difficult to describe skin colors when one of your Rules is “This Is Not Earth — Don’t Use Historical Earth Descriptions.” That meant that unless I wanted to say that someone’s skin was literally black — and I’m talking onyx black here — I had no quick reference to use. In my world, if a character were to say “the best wine-maker in the city is Prenia — she’s black with long hair” people would assume that her skin color was somewhere between pitch and coal. If Prenia actually has warm brown skin, no one would recognize her from the description as “black.” The trouble is that “brown” skin can describe (for us) anyone who is African, Indian, Amerindian, Arabian, or even Caucasian with dark hair. Fair skin is easy to deal with — you can’t have fair or pale skin tones without implying that the person is further down the “pink” end of the skin tone scale. But describing people who aren’t fair skinned without making any Earth-culture reference is actually a bit tricky. I can’t say “Mediterranean” or “Asiatic” or anything like that. I have to give the literal color and tone of the skin. Figuring out how to do that without just playing Crayola is not easy.

So, for those of you who are considering doing the same, I composed this somewhat helpful graphic to aid you in your endeavors. It’s nowhere near exhaustive — there’s a near-infinite number of ways you can mix overtones and undertones or deal with shades of the seven groups I’ve put here.

Do you have some suggestions for words that could be added to this list? Feel free to let me know either here or on Facebook. If I use your suggestions, I will give you credit for them!

— G.K.

World Building 101

World Building 101

In light of a semi-serious comment I made on Facebook earlier about my latest stories tending to build worlds where humans don’t exist, I thought that this would be a great time to start posting about world building in general. I’ve been told that my world building and alt-history worlds tends to be my strongest suit as a writer. I also read a lot of fiction that attempts various world building schemes and are not as successful as they could be if they used methods akin to what I do without much thought.

So, what is world building? Well, I’m sure that there’s some fancy-ass dictionary term defining it but I tend to ignore that crap. World building, to me, means building a world to work the way you need it to in order to tell an interesting story. In order to do this, though, you have to sit down and ask yourself a few questions before you start writing. Below are some of the first questions you should consider.

Yes, you'll do a lot of work the reader never sees. This is why writers are masochists. Deal with it.

  1. Sci-fi, hard sci-fi, fantasy, or a mix of them?
  2. Is your story about a far-future civilization? Is it about an advanced race of mortals (notice I don’t say “humanoids”) who have technology most of us haven’t even imagined in our wildest dreams? If so, then your world building will be a lot different than someone who is planning a story set in a world with only a pre-Industrial technological level.

  3. What is my opening salvo?
  4. Are you writing about a group of plucky young mortals who are going to overthrow an oppressive system? Are you writing about a planet about to be destroyed? Is your world about to undergo a major war between Good and Evil? All of these will have very different backstories to give rise to the current history in your setting. You’ll have to think about where the oppressive system came from or what is going to cause planetary destruction (and it’s harder to destroy a planet than you think). What defines “Good” and “Evil” in your world and why?

  5. Will I be relying on or avoiding deus ex machina?
  6. Some stories simply will not work without a deus ex solution. That doesn’t make them bad stories — hell, look at Doctor Who! — but it does mean that if you take away the deus ex, the story fails. Most writers tend to avoid relying on such things and get irritated when their worlds’ internal logic won’t let them get to the particular point Q they need to be at without a deus ex machina. Writers who find themselves painted into that particular corner need to go back and examine the foundations of their world. Usually, if you hit that point, you’ve done something silly such as assume that your world and your mortals must follow Earth and human logic.

    COME AT ME, BRO

    That’s crap. I’m working on a story about quasi-sixth dimensional mortals. Sure, they have humanoid bodies but they also have senses humanity couldn’t dream itself up ever because humanity can’t visualize a tesseract without getting a collective nosebleed. Their technology and the ways in which they interact and interface with it resemble ours almost not at all. They also don’t follow our human logic. Why should they? They are not bloody human! Instead, I’m making their society internally consistent with itself. Sure, they have emotions, goals, and ambitions that us poor quasi-fourth humans can sympathize and empathize with. Still, they ain’t human.

  7. What is magic like in my world?
  8. Yes, you do ask yourself this even if you’re writing the hardest of the hard science fiction. Technology is magic that works within our laws of physics. If you doubt that, consider for a moment what would happen to the poor sod who fell into a wormhole that spit him out in 1387 AD London and who happened to have a flashlight with him. Yep — he’d be considered a witch because, even though a flashlight is technology (and rather simple tech at that), it’s magic to someone from seven centuries ago.

Once you’ve asked and answered these questions, you’re ready for some of the more advanced stuff such as considering your world’s mythos, its history, societies, economics (and yes, even a world that would give Marx a hard-on has economics), climate, weather patterns, and the rest. We’ll get into those things next week, though, because otherwise I’ll be here until March writing this post.

Don't build another Earth. Earth v1.0 sucked balls.

Do you have any questions or see anything I missed? If so, hit me up here or on Facebook and I’ll see what I can do!

— G.K.

Book Review: Nick Cole’s Ctrl Alt Revolt!

Book Review: Nick Cole's Ctrl Alt Revolt!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’ve heard of this book. If you haven’t, then all I can say is

This book is awesome. It’s so good that I have a hard time really believing that the publisher dropped it because some snot-nosed editorial intern felt squicky about how AIs might consider elective abortion. I mean, that part is such a tiny part of the story and it’s more like the “straw that broke the camel’s back” when added with all of the other things AIs find to be evidence that humans don’t play well with others that I just shake my head over it.

I’ll confess, I spent most of the book rooting for the AIs. They were so logical, rational, and dispassionate. The people in the story, on the other hand, made me wonder how some of them managed to tie their shoes without strangling themselves. Oh, they were well-written and I liked them, yes, but with me, logic wins out over humanity. Still, Nick Cole does a great job of making everyone (and everything) accessible.

At any rate, the story moves well and is very believable. The characters (yes, even the humans) are interesting and multi-dimensional. The society is a bit dystopian and the ending felt a bit too pat for my tastes but, overall, it wasn’t bad enough to detract from the story. Factor in that the book has a high re-readability score and you’ve got something that is worth every penny.

I give this book four-and-a-half rainbow farting zebricorns out of five. It’s that good. You can see more of his books (The End of the World As We Knew It is on my review list) over at Nick Cole’s Books.

— G.K.

Holy Crap, I’m Back

Holy Crap, I'm Back

Okay, so it’s been a while. As in almost a year and a half. What can I say? Life began kicking my ass in mid-2015 and I was too exhausted to deal with it. However, things have been (slowly) getting better and I’m kind of getting over it. That said, there’s no way I’m going to be able to keep up a five or six day a week posting schedule. Three is going to be pushing it but that’s what I’m aiming for.

Yes, one of those three will be a story update on one of my short serials in the future. Probably not for the next few weeks, though, because I need to go back and re-read them and find my notes for them. Instead, I’ll be doing an extra review or posting about writing or something until I get a few chapters in the bag on each story so that I’m not posting with nothing in the bank.

Also, my reviews will continue to have the recommended dosage of 100% USDA Grade A Prime Choice Zebracorn. Because zebracorns are awesome.

So, let’s get started again, shall we?

— G.K.

Oy Vey…

Oy Vey...

This is just a quick update to apologize for the lack of posting this week. It’s a combination of new job and a few big projects wrapping all at once. Hopefully the madness, she will slow down a little soon. But, September is looking to be kind of a bad month so I may not be able to blog every single day. I’ll try to commit to at least four out of seven, though.

Thanks!