Friday, 19 November 2021

Human Non-Universals, or: Make Your Own Vancian Culture (tm)

"Remember," Anacho warned, "the Khors are a sensitive people. Do not speak to them; pay them no heed except from necessity, in which case you must use the fewest possible words. They consider garrulity a crime against nature. Do not stand upwind of a Khor, nor if possible downwind; such acts are symbolic of antagonism. Never acknowledge the presence of a woman; do not look toward their children - they will suspect you of laying a curse; and above all ignore their sacred grove. Their weapon is the iron dart which they throw with astonishing accuracy; they are a dangerous people." 

"I hope I remember everything," said Reith.

-From Jack Vance, The Dirdir

One of Vance's neatest tricks and the secret of his worldbuilding success is to create a culture with unusual, even absurd, characteristics and then play out the consequences completely straight. You see this technique, if that's the right world, appear time and again in his Tschai and Gaean Reach books, and it is a large part of what gives them their appeal - if you want to learn 'What then?' worldbuilding from a master, Vance's science fiction writing is the place to start. 

But if you want to cheat, try this Make Your Own Vancian Culture Generator (tm):

First, determine the rough lifestyle technology level of the culture:

1 - Stone age, 2 - Bronze age, 3-4 - Medieval, 5-6 - Renaissance, 7-9 Industrial revolution, 10-14, Contemporary modern, 15-28 - Gaean Reach standard, 29-30 - Hyper-advanced 


This does not indicate the limit of technological advancement of the society, but rather the general level of social development enjoyed in the average settlement. 

Then, determine the culture's geographic origin:

1-2 - Swamp, 3-4 - Hills, 5-6 - Mountains, 7-10 - Forest, 11-14 - Plains, 15-16 - Jungle, 17-18 - Desert, 19-20 - Aquatic


Next, determine its d3 absurdities by rolling on the following table (adapted by subverting elements of the list of 67 'Human Universals' proposed by the anthropologist Donald Brown):


Dice

Absurdity

1

Lack of abstract thought

2

No affection expressed or felt

3

No distinctions made between different age grades (such as ‘child’, ‘middle-aged’, ‘old’)

4

No religion

5

No belief in fortune or misfortune

6

Biological and social mother are usually a different person

7

Abhorrence of body adornment

8

No classification of colours

9

No classification of flora or fauna

10

No classification of kin

11

No classification of weather conditions

12

No classification of sex

13

No conflict

14

No cooking

15

Taboo against sex in private

16

No cooperation

17

Absence of greetings

18

Absence of daily routine

19

No distinction between right and wrong

20

Nocturnal

21

No understanding that dreams are not reality

22

Lack of envy

23

No etiquette rules

24

No facial expressions

25

No fear of death

26

Lack of figurative speech

27

Generosity considered weak

28

Lack of gift-giving

29

Absence of group living

30

No attempts made to heal sick or injured

31

No concept of imagery

32

No rules concerning inheritance

33

No concept of inheritance

34

No concept of humour

35

Language is only a simply reflection of reality

36

No concept of law

37

No distinction made between general and particular

38

Women dominate public realm

39

Women more aggressive

40

Women more prone to lethal violence

41

Women more prone to theft

42

No concept of meal times

43

No concept of metaphor

44

No prohibition of murder

45

No numbers

46

No personal names

47

No concept of poetry

48

No concept of music

49

No concept of promising

50

No concept of revenge

51

Extreme risk-aversion

52

No concept of punishment

53

Lack of shame

54

Time only understood as cyclical

55

No concept of trade

56

Language has no verbs

57

Language has no nouns

58

No concept of weapons

 

59

No death rituals

 

60

No preference for one’s own children or close kin

 


Then, determine its d3 Suspicions and Taboos:

Dice

Suspicion or Taboo

1

Standing upwind of someone

2

Standing downwind of someone

3

Walking across somebody’s path

4

Entering a building without explicit invitation from someone inside

5

Sitting down in company

6

Eating in public

7

Being seen while asleep

8

Contact with animals

9

Being in the shade

10

Being in direct sunlight

11

Particular colour

12

Direct speech between members of the same sex, age category, etc.

13

Eye contact

14

Discussing intentions or desires in public

15

Refusing requests

16

Stepping on anything living

17

Being touched by rain

18

Laughing

19

Being seen to be bleeding

20

Shouting

21

Standing in front of, behind, or beside somebody

22

Encountering any acquaintance without performing extended ritualistic pleasantries 

23

Being seen/heard to ask for, or accept, money

24

Being seen to be breathless, sweaty, or having otherwise striven in the performance of any task

25

Being visible through a window

26

Exposing one’s hands, feet, nose, ears, etc.

27

Carrying anything in one’s hands

28

Asking a direct question

29

Picking anything up off the ground

30

Whispering


Each of these suspicions or taboos might be vitiated:

1 - At certain times of day, 2 - After performing a particular ritual, 3 - While wearing a particular item of clothing or other body decoration, etc., 4 - On certain days each year, 5 - If performed by a person of a particular caste, or a particular type of person such as a man, woman, child, etc., 6 - After making a donation to a temple, etc.


The trick then is to combine all this into plausible societies. Hence:

The Sevelites inhabit the mountains of Sevel, where they have reached a comfortable level of technological development. They are a highly fastidious and taciturn people. Their language lacks figurative speech, and they communicate only to import or receive information. They also have a strict taboo against exposing their hands, and go about in gloves at all times; except for a particular hereditary servant caste they do not pick anything up off the ground unless it has been purified with a fine spray of salt water. A Sevelite's hands are seen only by a sexual partner; an ancient, secret tradition of pornography focuses on the hands as an erogenous zone, and complex codes and rituals concern its sale and usage.

The Masoon are native to the plains of Masurine, where they inhabit vast industrial cities refining crude resources for export. Their society is highly communal, regimented and homogenous: they make no classifications of colour (and themselves wear only white), make no distinctions between the general and the particular (considering themselves, and the resources they refine, to be part of unified wholes), and live in almost total harmony, having no understanding of the concept of conflict. They abhor being seen to be seated in company, lest they disrupt the tenor of communal exertion with perceived relaxation, and likewise consider whispering to undermine social cohesion with a desire for secrecy that must always be unnecessary.

See what you can come up with!

15 comments:

  1. This is awesome!!! Not much to add other than that XD

    ReplyDelete
  2. You could also add that once you figure out 1 culture, one or more neighboring cultures may have looked at the benefits and drawbacks of that culture and said, "we're not like them, let's do the opposite!" In anthropology this is known as schismogenesis. It doesn't need to apply to all aspects, but to the overall SPIRIT of the culture. Example: Sevelites have many erotic/sexual practices that are about limiting exposure to their hands. A neighboring culture may then look at that and say, "we glorify hands in public art!", "we commercialize the sensation of touch," etc.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Swipers gonna swipe me some cultural listings!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm still struggling with my first random lot of stuff.

    Gaean Standard tech, hill country
    No sex in private, women more prone to thievery
    No direct speech between same sex (except by a certain caste), No laughing (except for children)

    I mean, one obvious route is a culture where many adults makes their living through performance sex work, which they take very seriously indeed. Perhaps anyone who treats them as prostitutes rather than artists will may be beaten unconscious and their possessions legally forfeit to the person they offended. Horny spacemen and offworld sex tourist trend toward mostly male and het, resulting in the culture's women being accosted more often than males, hence the "greater rate of theft" thing. Maybe their live in hill country surrounding a starport on a plain, and keep the "performance art theaters" atop teh hills to draw in tourist money.

    Creepy, but it seems like the kind of dangerous-to-misunderstand culture Vance often produced.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think you're struggling - I think you came up with something excellent!

      Delete
    2. Eh, I'm not quite happy with it, but it does intrigue me. Perhaps I'll put some proper work into it and flesh it out into a proper blog post of my own.

      Delete
  5. This is a great little system for producing Vancian subcultures. The problem is running them.

    Usually (I think) Vance...as an author...has a point to make with one particular absurdity or another, or (better stated) he has a particular story to tell. So he already has an idea of how the absurdity will play out in the narrative, based on the plot (rather short form or long) and only has to deal with the ways in which these absurdities interact with the story characters...not the overall long-term ramifications of such a society.

    This system you've created would be well implemented in something like the Dying Earth RPG or a particularly whimsical version of D&D but...for me...it would cause the same issue that precludes from playing DE: namely that I am not a fiction author nor someone that very interested (or capable) of inventing/mining absurdities and their cultural consequences for an "adventure" RPG. I enjoy reading the stuff (in fiction); I just don't want to run it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure, but I plan to use this (and other lists similar) in a manner to inspire creativity or thought in how I build a culture in my game world..

      Frex, take a random roll that says the culture has a Taboo against "Entering a building without explicit invitation from someone inside". Why do they have this taboo? Were their communities historically preyed upon by creatures that lost power over others if they submitted to another's authority? So breaking into or entering a home without permission could keep a Fae or Doppleganger's powers intact, but once they submit to authority, perhaps their glamour loses it's luster, or a Fae would then be bound by Host/Guest Laws, laws older than the community they were preying upon.

      This could then lead you down the idea of having that culture have very strong beliefs in abiding by Host/Guest customs, such that breaking those customs might actually have supernatural consequences!

      Nut yes, I agree just rolling a bunch of times and trying to make whatever insanity the chart produces work is not the route I'm interested in either.

      Delete
    2. I dunno, I think you could have a whale of a time running a "strangers in a strange land" style campaign across, say, Alastor. I mean, that's basically what a lot of Vance's books are all about: outsider goes to weird place on weird planet, takes advantage of the idiosyncracies of its bizarre culture - and gets the money and the girl at the end!

      Delete
    3. @Noisms Agreed. The Ports of Call/Lurulu duology were perhaps my favorite of that style, although the "happy ending" for the various protags of the story is a bit more ambiguous than most of the Reach stories, or Tschai.

      Delete
  6. This is great!

    The Relumite are a Medieval Mountains Culture inhabiting a series of villages in the Relmuli Range.

    The culture has no prohibition of murder, which is akin to anger and shouting in our culture. While frowned upon, it is sometimes seen as necessary to achieve success. This may come from the absolute taboo of direct speech between members of the same sex. Communication between members of the same sex are done through a limited type of sign language, but only when absolutely required. In general, every person is partnered with a member of the opposite sex, but this is rarely marriage or sexual in nature. Romantic entanglements lead to jealousy and are shunned, the procreation of children seen as a duty to the village. Along those lines, being seen to be breathless, sweaty, or having otherwise striven in the performance of any task is taboo and punishable by death - the presumption being that one is weak or engaged unsavory activities.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The people of the Neorheimian delta have dwelt for centuries in the dense mangrove thickets of that wetland. Historic reports detail them as dwelling in fear of the 'Be-Clawed' and the 'Be-Beaked'; the best way to avoid these was to stay in the shadows, out of the direct light. Once you were out of the shadows, then a Neorheimian had to be able to climb a tree.

    Given the apparent deadliness of the 'Be-Clawed' and 'Be-Beaked', it will not be a surprise that Neorheimians have a strong set of taboos against being in direct sunlight or carrying anything in one's hands. Tools swing from the body on straps and most forms of dress involve a sort of webbing, with villages having particular styles of belts and pouches - and an utter conviction that their tool-customs are best.

    The Neorehimians have not however suffered unduly, from this or from the lack of nouns their language seems to possess. They live among the 'Be-Leaved', they are preyed upon by the 'Be-Clawed', they pull from the streams the 'Be-Scaled'. These are loose categorisations and Neorheimians cannot or will not distinguish (say) a salt-water fish from a fresh-water.

    However, the delta is rich in certain tars and natural gases, which the Neorheimians have lately earned much money from, either exploiting themselves or conveying foreign labourers in to work the swamps themselves. The Be-Clawed seem to object to this, but they object more to buckshot.

    There was a further obstacle standing in the way of Neorheimian prosperity. There is a great objection to either asking for or accepting money. This might be overcome, but the Neorheimians do not give (or accept) gifts. All things are exchanged and it is very clear that 'The Lunched do not exist without the Sacrificed.' So one cannot proffer payment for a meal or a barrel of Grade-K pitch in an 'anonymous' parcel.

    Thankfully, this custom may be circumvented. A Neorheimian will happily give or receive payment if properly veiled. Gauzy fabrics are much prized for their role in covering the face and hands. It has even recently been noted that Neorheimians have happily walked through patches of direct sunlight under the covering of a parasol, carried by some presumably desperate underling.



    8 - Industrial Revolution
    1 - Swamp

    Absurdities
    28 - Lack of gift-giving
    57 - Language has no nouns
    09 - No classification of flora or fauna

    Taboos Against.....
    10 - Being in direct sunlight
    27 - Carrying anything in one's hands
    23 - Being seen/heard to ask for, or accept, money

    That may be defied....
    3 - While wearing a particular item of clothing or other body decoration, etc.,

    [Well, 57 and 09 go together. But 28 and 23 make life difficult. Hmmmm.... ]

    It occurs to me that there is something of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in these. One can almost hear them as interspersed Guide entries in the familiar accent of Peter Jones.

    ReplyDelete