As of this morning my sci-f books, the Chronicles of the Great Migration, are availabe on Kindle Unlimited. You can find them here Read Chronicles of the Great Migration on KU The books will remain in KU for the forseeable future. This includes the final two books in the series.
In Non-Fiction News:
Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers is in it’s final stages (we have been reediting it from the textbook version to make it more accessible to the general public for the last ten weeks) and we will be launching it on Feb 1st.
In Book 5 News:
The Children of AEIS (CotGM Book 5) is well on it’s way now (hit 25k words this week) and will be my main focus for the January version of NaNoWriMo. At the moment I am shooting for an April 17th publication but this book is turning out to be even bigger than I imagined (in a good way) and may well top the aprox. 600 pages of Serah of the Runners so it could get pushed back some.
In Audiobook News:
Mimi of the Nowhere is finished recording. It is now in editing it. I am shooting for a January 17th release of the audiobook of Mimi of the Nowhere. With the other’s following on its heels.
In Anthropology in 10 or Less News:
Two new episodes of Anthropology in 10 or Less are in post production and coming in the next few weeks with scripts mostly finished for 2 more episodes (probably released Feb). The goal is to put at least 2 episodes out a month for 2021 and possibly more if they gain some traction in views and patreon support. The more time I have, the more I will make.
More updates as I have them. I hope you have all had a wonderful start to the new year so far.
In the last few years numerous films, books, research papers, and podcasts have been published on the problem with social media. I address some of this in my previous blog Why Social Media Can Be Such a Dumpster Fire but that blog only highlights some of the social difficulties of navigating platforms as an individual and why there is so much conflict.
Social media is creating and/or reinforcing massive problems in our society. So here I wanted to write something short and open a forum for discussion of how we could possibly fix these systems and make them work for us, rather than the other way around.
My background is an as anthropologist, but more specifically, my area of research during my time in graduate school focused heavily on media systems. I read quite a bit of literature and research and conducted some of my own (You can find the documentary version here) on the relationship between culture and media. However, I would hesitate to call myself an expert, especially on social media. So what I am going to do here is outline what I know, a few ideas I have, and then, hopefully in the comments below people can engage in some serious discussion or propose ideas. My ultimate goal is to gather some of the best ideas and hopefully create an open letter for public consideration. Perhaps we could send these letters to some of the heads of these platforms or even state or federal representatives and propose action. There is no doubt that we must address the problems on social media, because we know, pretty clearly now that some elements of these platforms are making our world a worse place to live. Like any good tool, we must learn to wield them wisely.
This is a bottom up approach, something that anthropologists called, collaborative methods. This is when you source the wider community to formulate questions and answers that people may not have considered.
How do you understand media systems?
The most helpful element of graduate school that included a large component of media research was that I learned how to ask better questions about media. Generally, there are three major sites of research in media (of course there are more but these three cover a lot). These sites also have their own power dynamics, politics, and are areas that shift culture and representation. These three areas are, Production, Distribution, Consumption.
Production – The site of production is, where is the media or platform created. Who is making it? For what purpose? The entire production and post production side of media systems is all of this. Social media is less concerned with the production side of things, since most of the content isn’t produced on these platforms. That doesn’t mean how the platforms are built isn’t a concern though.
Distribution – A large portion of the issue with social media platforms is distribution. There is some overlap here with production via algorithms, but algorithms are largely centered in the distribution side of things. You may have heard already how YouTube’s algorithms shifted a lot of people toward wild conspiracy theories and helped spread fake information like wildfire. They have corrected some of this but have a long way to go.
Consumption – This is the site of consuming the media. What are they watching it on? How long are they watching? What habits do people have surrounding consumption? Do certain algorithms change consumption habits or not? Do people watch this stuff individually or do they share it with others? What makes something go viral? How do things like confirmation bias prevent people from consuming different viewpoints?
You can probably tell that these three sites of research have a lot of overlap, because well, creation of any medium is a cycle and creates all sorts of feedback loops, both positive and negative. Take algorithms for example. While algorithms determine what get’s distributed where (distribution), someone makes those algorithms (production) and then the viewers behavior (consumption) changes how the production and distribution cycle works. Over time these algorithms are refined to work better in both distribution and consumption. Better of course is a relative term here. If your goal is more revenue, that can create all kinds of problematic algorithms and is why YouTube accidently promoted massive amounts of conspiracy theory videos that had no basis in fact.
So why break it down? Because rather than tackling the whole system at once, it’s important for us to break down each site of research and understand the dynamics of each layer, so that when they are viewed as a whole they make more sense. It’s similar to how we learned how the human body works. We took it apart, analyzed it, and overtime our knowledge about how each organ functions in relation to one another.
So, I leave you with an approach (it may or may not be the best one) to try and think about these issues. I am going to make a few suggestions of my own here below for things I think would help move social media platforms in a new and better direction, but the point here is to source ideas from a variety of people with different backgrounds and disciplines so that we can come up with something collaboratively to solve this wicked problem.
My Ideas on Solutions:
Reinstitute the fairness doctrine and expand it to social media. The fairness doctrine was designed to make sure that all media exposes it’s viewers to a diversity of viewpoints on any topic. Air time had to be given in equal measure to conservative and progressive viewpoints (that is a bit of a simplication but go to the Wikipedia link above for more) forcing the viewer to consider several sides of each story. How could we do this on social media though? I think perhaps any article that is shared on social media, could have a required and connected article already attached to it from an opposing viewpoint. Is the article from fox news? Create a way so that an article on the exact same topic from MSNBC is sitting side by side with it, contrasting both headlines. This way the user and anyone who sees the shared post is required to see the different headlines from the different services. It can be incredibly illuminating to see two very different headlines on the same topic or event sitting next to each other, and it encourages critical thinking. Will many people dismiss the counter article? Sure, but what it does do is help those of us living in our bubbles to realize, there is a completely different way of thinking about the exact same set of facts. Facts are facts, but facts can also be understood from different viewpoints in quite a few cases. Showing different interpretations can at least give us pause and consider someone else’s viewpoint, even if we don’t agree with it.
Label Everything. I think a label could be created that sits at the top of every single news article regardless of the source. Blue could represent something that has good factual information. Yellow something that is opinion and needs fact checking. Red could be something that is clear and blatant misinformation. There should also be labels for satire (maybe purple?) as well and labels for blogs like this (perhaps gray) that are not as easy to evaluate because they don’t have a wide reach. Things that are difficult to evaluate could have a note above them saying, not vetted or evaluated for facts, until it is vetted. Labeling things might become annoying for a while, but using labels could help us understand what is good and bad information. Yes, some people will ignore it, but people might be more hesitant to share misinformation it is clearly labeled as misinformation.
Open the code for algorithms so people can see how they work and what they are doing. This one is tricky because a lot of these platforms are not interested in sharing their code. There are a lot of trade secrets and very likely, an attempt to force them will be met with a lot of pushback. That doesn’t mean that these platforms don’t need to be reined in and held accountable. I don’t believe that any of these platforms set out to do harm, but there does need to be social responsibility and accountability on these systems so they don’t hurt society. Why should we do this? Well this book Weapons of Math Destruction really helped me to understand how dangerous it is to keep coding closed. We need to understand how to refine and correct these algorithms so they don’t cause unintended harm.
Those are my three ideas for improving social media. Would they work? What do you think? The point here isn’t to throw up road blocks and say, well that would never get passed in congress or something similar. The point here is to brainstorm ideas for solutions. What solutions do you think would work? Let’s collaborate and see if we can take our ideas and make the world a little bit better. Even if we only improved things a little bit, it could have a massive impact on our culture and society. If we want things to get better, we have to try and tackle them. We can’t wait for people in charge to do something, we must find our own ways to source ideas and act. Be the change and all that right?
Please keep your comments and opinions respectful. I will moderate these comments. Differing viewpoints are very welcome (and frankly needed), but I will be sure to keep this a place of respect.
We live in a divided country. A lot of people think that this division is about progressive vs conservatives. But the reality of the situation is that perception is a mask for the real and primary dividing factor, wealth vs poverty.
There are an awful lot of narratives about what poverty means and relative poverty in our society. A lot of people think that the poor just aren’t saving well or that the government already spends too much on social safety nets. The problem is, these arguments are political folk tales, not based on science or evidence. The reality is so much more complicated than these simplistic arguments that surround our notions of economic purity.
We like easy, clear categories, to oversimplify elements of life and society and reinforce that with notions of morality that manifest in guilt, shamming, gossip and of course media. These notions of either/or logic (known in some social sciences as a false dichotomy) prevent us from understanding the actual situation on the ground. This leads to something called, perceived truth vs ground truth.
Perceived vs Ground Truth
Perceived truth is what we think is happening, or what ideally is going to happen when we institute new policy or laws or ideas in the real world. Ground truth is when that plan, or policy, or cultural norm actually impacts the lived experiences of human beings. For example, the idiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats”, is a perceived truth that comes out of the 1980s in economics. It’s the idea of trickle down economics and neoliberalism, that if you deregulate economics, empower companies and increase privatization, everyone will benefit. This is a perceived truth. With more than four decades of these polices, the truth on the ground shows us something different (Check out this article on Why Trickle Down Economics Doesn’t Work). The lived experience of working people is much different than the claim. They have not benefitted from these policies and in fact just the opposite. The ground truth is, these policies hurt most Americans while lining the pockets of those already in power. In fact, we now have the highest rate of inequality since records began.
Social Mobility, The American Dream, and Bootstraps.
What about social mobility and the notion that, given hard work, someone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? The Bootstraps idea is another example of perceived truth, something that the media often touts via anecdotal evidence, that highlights the exception and not the rule. This is a media system that is largely owned by private firms, have a vested interested in continuing the narratives of the people who own them and fund them. Many of these big companies own a large portion of the media system and thus you have limited narratives that are available for people to consider. One of the creepiest examples of this concentration of media is the script that Sinclair forced about 200 of their local news broadcasts to read.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman highlighted the relationship between these narratives in the media and the control of what the media can say through five major filters in their famous book, Manufacturing Consent. The book examines the structure of large scale media. As it turns out, Media narratives actually make the situation of working people worse by casting perceived truth as a form of ultimate truth. Scholar Peter Drier highlights the problems of media systems and perceptions of poverty in his article, How Media Compounds Urban Problems and notes that the media often makes poverty worse by highlighting the exceptions and not the normal experiences of people on the ground. Narratives about welfare queens and troubled youth lead the news, while communities working together to solve issues or what it looks like to be poor are largely ignored. The job of the media is to hold those in power accountable, not to trumpet their narratives and further the suffering of the average citizen.
The thing about bootstraps is, not only is social mobility extraordinarily difficult, but it’s not even uniquely American. It turns out, that data doesn’t support that social mobility is as common in the United States as we think. Yes, there is an American Dream, but not only is it rare, but many of the other developed nations have much higher rates of social mobility, and much lower rates of inequality. Countries like Canada, have near double our social mobility. If your a podcast listener, Radiolab did a great job of breaking down the numbers on social mobility as well as debunking some of the myths surrounding poverty as well. Check it out here.
It’s expensive to be poor…
So often I hear, well if the poor were better at saving, then they wouldn’t be poor. The problem is, it’s expensive to be poor. You may have seen this meme going around social media at some point.
Is this perceived truth or ground truth? In this case we know it’s ground truth. That on the ground, it’s more expensive to be poor then middle class. This was very effectively demonstrated in the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The fact of the matter is, simple little things like not having a washer and dryer in your house mean that you have to spend more time and money to accomplish simple tasks. If it was just one of these things, it wouldn’t amount to much extra labor or expense, but as Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrates in her book, every Nickel and Dime adds up and adds to the weight of extra time and money that poor people have to spend. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t just about saving, often it is impossible to actually put away money. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans are one emergency away from disaster and homelessness.
As a father, and even with a graduate degree, I’ve experienced events like this first hand. I have skipped meals to be sure my children eat. I’ve gone long periods of time without seeing a dentist or a doctor because I can’t afford it, which could cost me a lot more later (i.e. the meme above). I have to prioritize everything I do to figure out how to pay bills and keep food on the table. Many poor families are far more disciplined about money than I and working with communities and doing first hand research, I’ve notice that the idea the poor are lazy or unable to manage their money is not only false, it’s actively harmful. For example, when I was in graduate school, I was forced to dumpster dive for three months when I only had $1 a day for food after bills. The reality is, sometimes there is no way to save and even when you do, surprises happen and you suddenly find your savings drained because your car breaks down (because most poor people cannot afford a car that is newer and less likely to break down) or perhaps you get sick and can’t afford the copays because the insurance industry is all part of systemic poverty. Which leads to the next point…
Poverty as a System and Structural Violence
Poverty is a system, a structure in society that is not created on accident. It has little to do with a lack of work ethic or training and so much more to do with how the game is rigged.
Anthropologists introduced a concept called Structural Violence way back in the 1960s. It is the idea that systems of power do everything they can to maintain that power. Anthropologist Paul Farmer wrote a 2004 article titled An Anthropology of Structural Violence. In it, he details how altering history or hiding large portions of it, allow for the continuance of a system that significantly oppresses the people of Haiti. He shows that the large problems they have in arenas like health care are a direct result of wide systemic problems.
The reality of the situation is that the people of Haiti were purposely disenfranchised by the dominant European and American powers because their independence in 1804, came as a result of the a massive slave revolt. Wanting to make sure that their own slaves didn’t get any ideas, France, England, and the newly formed United States spent the next few decades (the United States still intervenes and did so for much of the cold war) intervening in the politics, economics and government of Haiti to ensure that it did not become a successful nation. Much of modern poverty is like this, it was created by those in power and is maintained by those in power. As I discussed in my YouTube video on the origin of the concept of Race, even the very notion that we have different races was created in the 17th century as a means to divide and conquer a diverse group of poor in the American colonies after Bacon’s Rebellion to prevent further uprising.
Poverty is no accident, it’s a structure. And while personal accountability is important the structure of a society can make change incredibly difficult for some, and much less for others. You may have seen this meme on the right traveling around the internet as well.
This meme is a simple and quick way to understand exactly how these systems work. Yes, hard work is a good thing. Yes, personal responsibility is a vital thing. But if the hardest working, most dedicated people in America were paid based on their work, it would be the janitors, the farmers, the construction workers, the teachers, and others like them who put all of their time and energy into the work who would do the best in society. We don’t really value a hard day of work, we value a false ideal of what work should look like and who is doing it. We are stuck in the perceived truth, the almost spiritual platonic forms of perception about work and wealth, and not what’s actually happening on the ground for the lived experience of many Americans. As long as we value perceived truth over real world evidence (and not anecdotes based on the extremes) we will face significant division and conflict. We must study and understand the structures of our society or risk further economic collapse and the suffering of many.
I am the incoming president in the academic organization called the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology and this Saturday we are livestreaming our conference on YouTube for anyone to check out.
I will be talking about Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers at 10:15am MST Denver, CO Come check it out if you have any interest in Anthropology.
Last week I posted a sample chapter from Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. The book is due out this fall and will cover a host of issues in worldbuilding from the perspective of Cultural Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology and Archaeology. By using the science to compare real life cultures and what core elements exist in them, the book talks about how better to create authentic fictional cultures.
Without further ado, here is the cover for the ebook version of Build Better Worlds. More info and the official release date coming soon!
Recently I have been wrapping up a book project with a fellow Anthropologist by the name of Kyra Wellstrom. The book is called, BuildBetter Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, FictionWriters, and Filmmakers. The purpose of the book is to use real anthropology to help people create better worlds and more authentic characters based on the actual science and data on culture. What follows here is one of the final chapters of the book (which is now in Beta Testing) and will be out this fall.
Monsters, Aliens, and Evil Androids an Exploration of Fear and Anxiety
What is a monster?
It has been stated by numerous philosophers and ethnographers that monsters are simply the embodiment of cultural fears; our anxieties made flesh and blood. We see these reflections and patterns across cultures and over again and for good reason. The monsters a culture believes in often shed light on the things they fear most, and monsters that emigrate to new cultures often change their form in their new surroundings. Monsters represent a fascinating blend of the familiar and the foreign; easily recognized but alien enough to terrify. Many monsters possess elements of humanity and exemplify the very worst elements of culture as a form of hyperbole. Their faces are what changes most easily. It is the bones, the marrow of the spirit of what a monster is, and the fears that they embody, that reflect the heart of what it means to be human.
Like our anxieties about death, monsters often follow patterns that reflect our collective fears as a species. Just like we see in every horror movie, monsters attack in lonely places, in the dark, and in our sleep. They reflect the anxieties we have about our natural environment and they come from the water or caves or the night sky. Demons and spirits come for us when we are weakened by illness, childbirth, or impending death. They target the isolated, the frail, and the young. They can often appear human to gain our trust, only to reveal their true forms when it’s too late to escape them. They can lure or entrap us through promises of food, or comfort, or money; playing upon our moral weakness and greed.
Think of how often a monster’s teeth are discussed. Monsters often feed off humans, either in a spiritual or a literal sense. Vampires suck blood, zombies eat brains, dragons and sea monsters devour virgins. Even in modern monster movies, monsters nearly always eat defenseless humans. Giant animals like sharks or snakes, aliens that feed us to their young, or giant kaiju that eat us like popcorn. They are discussed with terms like “fangs”, “razor-sharp teeth”, “drooling”, “sucking”, and “crunching”. Hell, even killer clowns from outer space cocoon us for later consumption.
When you consider our species, these fears appear logical. Imagine early humans, alone on the African plains, surrounded by frightening animals that lurked around every corner. These monsters were very much real, but this did nothing to lessen their terrors. We were small, between three and four feet tall, we had terrible night vision and no claws or fangs to help defend us. We were prey to birds and leopards that could drop from above. Snakes grabbed us from holes in the ground and lashed out with sharp poisonous fangs. Lions and hyenas slunk through the darkness just beyond the edge of vision, shadows out of the corner of our eyes, and crocodiles and hippos lurked in rivers and lakes making people disappear beneath the surface. Our only protection from the creatures that wanted to consume us lay in the light of day and our campfires, in our culture and its defenses, and in each other. The darkness, the water, and isolation became a natural reservoir for our terror.
Most of the world now lives apart from these real monsters. The megafauna that hunted us like any other prey are gone and the remaining large predators are dwindling in number and range. The vast majority of humanity has nothing to fear from large beasts. However, our fears remain. A tremendous number of monsters are described as being “prehistoric” or pre large scale human civilization.. We find these descriptions from as far back as we have writing. Many monsters that haunt religions are described as being from the time before their deities created peace and order in the world or before the world was civilized. Writers of weird fiction and cosmic horror like H.P. Lovecraft write of “antediluvian terrors” and “prehistoric nightmares”. It’s as though we as a species have some lingering genetic terror of the time when we were small and vulnerable. Coupled with our gifts as a species to spin tales and exaggerate for the purpose of entertainment, many of these creatures became larger than life when they filled our nightmares.
Many monsters also reflect the fears we still face in the modern world, despite our cultural advances in the last 3 million years. We can still all too easily be carried off by disease or poison, by other people, or, worst of all, by unknown causes. These very real and very human fears are interpreted through a cultural lens. Numerous cultures speak of spirits that will steal a woman’s life away during childbirth if attracted by her cries. This is particularly common in foraging cultures where the margins for survival are slim and medical care is an at-home affair. Cultures with a focus on purity (Catholicism and Malaysia are good examples of this) have demons that possess the body and cause their vessel to break the laws of the society, causing bouts of violence, sin, and general bad behavior. Industrialized nations tend to have human monsters, serial killers, zombies, or criminals, that reflect the unease we feel when surrounded by strangers, as well as anxiety about dark crowded spaces.
To die, to sleep…
Sleep is one of the reservoirs of fear for humans. Sleep makes us vulnerable as we lay unawares in darkness for hours on end. Sleep also exposes us to the world of dreams, which are as likely to be horrifying as they are to be pleasant. Many cultures have tales of beings that can drain the life from a person while they sleep, often while the person is awake but trapped in a horrifying state of sleep paralysis. People’s sleep paralysis nightmares almost always follow patterns; in the US, sleep paralysis monsters have passed through different phases. In the 1990s, when the cultural zeitgeist had become fascinated with aliens, sufferers often reported little gray men with giant eyes performing tests on them. In the early 2000s, when there was a spate of demon-child films, people began to report nightmarish children crawling on to their beds as they slept. Suffers from southeast Asia tell stories of a horrible old hag with white skin who sits on their chest and slowly chokes the life out of the sleeping person while they lie awake and unable to move or cry out.
This monster, the dab tsog in the Hmong language, became widely known in the 1970s and 80s when there was a rash of deaths attributed to it in the United States and Thailand. More than 100 Hmong refugees in the U.S., almost exclusively men in their 30s, died in their sleep from unknown causes. Some men reported nightmares about the dab tsog at the time. Men became terrified of sleep and would try desperately to stay awake. The story so intrigued director Wes Craven that he went on to write A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Instead of the white-skinned hag, however, Craven changed the face of the monster to that of a disfigured homeless man who had chased him as a child and changed him from an evil spirit to the ghost of a murderer.
Stories of night hags may be so common in southeast Asia because of a very real genetic condition. Brugada syndrome causes electrical abnormalities in the heart that can lead to Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). This syndrome is found most commonly in Southeast Asia, particularly Laos and Thailand, and predominantly affects men, with most deaths occurring between 30 and 40 years of age. A monster that kills men in their sleep is a much more palatable explanation, especially before the era of electrocardiograms, and no explanation at all. A night hag may be terrifying, but not nearly so terrifying as the unknown.
Sometimes monsters are used to explain myriad, nebulous fears; things we could hardly put into words. The wendigo is a perfect example of this. Territorially, the wendigo is one of the most widespread monsters in the world; it’s spoken of in the mythology of a collective of First Nations groups all across subarctic Canada, stretching from the Rockies to the Atlantic coast and down into the northern United States. While there are slight variations in the story between the various groups, the stories all agree on the main features of the monster. The wendigo is a fascinating monster because it is a curious mix of a physical creature, a possessing spirit, and a culture bound syndrome (see chapter 10). The physical body of the wendigo is towering and lanky, with enormous clawed hind feet and paw-like hands. Its breath starts off howling, icy winds that blow with such force that they can blow down trees and even start tornados. Its heart, and sometimes its other organs too, are made of solid ice. Its most distinctive feature is its insatiable desire for human flesh; so strong that it eats off its own lips in its hunger, baring its pointed teeth.
Wendigos were once human. Once the wendigo gets hold of you it changes you into a monster like itself. This is where the wendigo begins to shift its mythological form. I can get hold of you in a number of ways: through dreams, visions, possession, physical force, or even through your own thoughts. If it catches you physically, it does so while you’re out hunting. Those who venture off into the forests in winter and never return are thought to have been taken by the creature. It captures you and transforms you into a monster like itself. If it catches you though your thoughts or dreams, it has worked its way into your head through your hunger and cold. When a person dreams of a wendigo, they begin to have cannibalistic desires towards their own family. Most cultures believe that a person in the early stages of wendigo madness can be stopped and cured, although often the cures are horrifying enough, but if the person actually consumes any part of another human being, they are done for. There’s no hope for a person who has gone wendigo and the only course of action is to kill them for the safety of the group. There are numerous recorded cases of wendigo killings in tribal and legal records throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The diagnosis of “wendigo madness” is found in psychological papers throughout this time as well as a way to explain a temporary psychosis with a focus on cannibalism.
Look at the main features of the wendigo story: a monster of cold that lives in the wild spaces and feeds off hunger. It drives people to cannibalize their family and turns them into cold-hearted monsters. It will ultimately separate you forever from the people and civilization you love and strip you of your humanity, leaving you to wander alone in the freezing wilderness. These fears are easy enough to imagine in subarctic Canada, where temperatures that go well below freezing and isolation caused by snow and weather can lead to starvation and madness over the long winters. It’s the same set of vague fears that drive Stephen King’s The Shining or John W. Campbell Jr.s Who Goes There?. The wendigo is a single, corporeal manifestation of these fears. It groups them all into one grotesque form and gives them shape.
Fears of domination, experimentation, and colonization
In the pantheon of monsters, aliens are relatively new. In some ways, they are just a new face on the same stories people have been telling for millennia. Space, after all, is just a combination of those things we fear. It’s cold, dark, isolated, far older than our little planet, and almost completely unexplored. Aliens are often just monsters from this final frontier rather than our own backyard. Many aliens fit the mold of grotesque, slobbering, man-eaters, or shape-shifting deceivers. Even stories of alien abductions, lost time, and mysterious lights are nearly identical to stories that people have been telling for centuries about fairies, will-o-the-wisps, and the little people of the hills, all of which can lead you away and trap you in another world.
But aliens can embody fears that other monsters cannot. These fears, like all others, are reflections of the time and culture in which people live. Aliens as colonizers, as invaders, and as dispassionate scientists are all reflections of the fears that stalk people in the industrial age. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1895-97) was written after the author and his brother discussed the terrible disaster the Tasmanians suffered after their invasion by the British. Wells was musing about what would happen if someone did to the British what they had done to the Tasmanians. In fact, there were many “invasion” stories written at that time, although Wells was the only one to use aliens as his aggressors. Britons were worried that their military might was waning and the increasing armament of Germany and France stoked anxieties that the British would face the same treatment they had given their colonies.
Throughout the Cold War, science fiction featured alien invaders, either working secretly or in open displays of aggression, trying to take over the Western World. Endless troupes of aliens landing on the White House lawn fill the fiction of the 1950s and 60s. Change “aliens” to “Russians” and you have a nearly exact mirror of what Americans feared happening at the time. Many aliens are often a gestalt consciousness, a shared mind, or can manifest as a kind of extreme conformity and the end of the individual as seen in the famous Star Trek villains, The Borg. We can also look at the protagonists in these films and see the kinds of qualities they embody and how they reflect the morals and values of our society like a modern myth or morality play.
Many science fiction stories from that time also reveal an uneasiness about the level of violence and aggression the world was experiencing. In the 1950s the 20th century was only half over and had already seen two world wars, half a dozen genocides, and the invention of weapons that could unleash destruction on a level we had never dreamt of. Many films in the 1940s and 50’s, perhaps most recognizably exemplified by The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), feature aliens as advanced beings, capable of great destruction but also of nearly miraculous feats of science and medicine, who come to Earth to warn us away from a path of violence. Klaatu, the alien emissary, warns all of Earth’s leaders that “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” People around the world, after decades of violence, nationalism, and xenophobia, were afraid. They feared that the ever-mounting aggression would eventually lead to a conflict that no nation could win.
“I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen…”
The famous words of HAL 9000, the evil artificial intelligence that coldly murders it’s crew in the sci-fi book and film 2001, demonstrate another one of our fears made manifest, our fear of the dangers of technology.
On August 6th, 1945 the world entered a new age, an atomic age. After the first atomic bomb was used on a population in Hiroshima, our relationship with technology changed forever, and with it, came the rise of a new kind of monster, one of our own making. To be sure, humans have always had anxieties about new technology, and with the industrial revolution came literature about automatons (what we now call robots) and other technological wonders that sometimes turned against their masters. One of the earliest examples of modern science fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, explored the potential and dangers, as well as the deep philosophical questions surrounding electricity. Shelly set off a wave of stories, that even to this day still discuss the idea of our technological creations getting the best of us.
As Anthropologist Willie Lempert explains in his article, Navajo’s on Mars  humans have developed countless films, like The Matrix, 2001, and Terminator, to highlight our fear of technology. Even the new Star Trek Series: Picard features a plotline surrounding evil ‘synths’ and questions about the humanity of artificial intelligence and it’s compatibility with organic life. Part of this has to do with our religious worldview, the idea that in most of western European based culture, there is only one kind of intelligence, humans. As we talked about in the religion chapter, other cultures have multiple kinds of intelligence. Further, our fear of AI may stem from the idea that only the Judeo/Christian God has the true power of creation. Ultimately though, fear of AI stems from the fear of what we do, to what we consider to be inferior species.
As we entered the 1980s and 90s, aliens changed slightly. No longer were they brazen colonists landing on our shores, they were shadowy and subversive, often entwined with the murkier branches of government. Aliens and the government branches that studied them would abduct people and experiment on them. They would implant people with tracking devices, create alien/human hybrids, and mutilate cattle in their ruthless quest for data. They were cold, unfeeling scientists that existed outside of human empathy or compassion. The declassification of wartime documents about Nazi scientists, exposure of government experiments like MK-Ultra, and a number of dubious psychological research projects like the Stanford Prison Experiment were increasingly making people uneasy about science and scientists. The perpetrators of the experiments seemed, to regular people, just like the inhuman aliens from another planet. Add this to a growing dissatisfaction with the government nearly everywhere in the world and the X-Files style alien/government conspiracy became not just a popular element in fiction, but also an integral part of the mythology of the time period.
When you are creating memorable monsters or antagonists in your world, it’s important to consider the core values of your fictional culture. Remember the chapter on Imagined Past, Myth and Cultural Purity? The core lessons of that chapter are essential to creating a creature that challenges the core values of your characters, and readers, world view.
Things to consider when creating monstrous beings in your world:
– What are the most significant fears and anxieties of the culture?
What are some memorable features of your creature? What keeps people up at night?
How does your creature tie into the myth structure of your world? Sense of purity?
Is your monster/creature sentient? How are it’s goals similar or different to your main character?
What arenas of your culture does the monster most impact?
What’s at stake if your protagonist fails to subdue the creature?
Last weekend I was on a panel with three other awesome authors discussing some of the core points on Worldbuilding in fiction. With permission I recorded the panel for anyone to listen to. You can play the recording below.
Michael Kilman is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Denver. He is the author of The Chronicles of the Great Migration and coauthor of the forthcoming book (August 2020) Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers. He is also the host of the YouTube Channel Anthropology in 10 or Less you can find more resources on worldbuilding on this page at Writing and Writing Advice
Stant Litore is the author of Ansible, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, The Zombie Bible, and Dante’s Heart. Besides science fiction and fantasy, he has written the writers’ toolkits Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forgetand Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, as well as Lives of Unstoppable Hope and Lives of Unforgetting, and has been featured in Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. He has served as a developmental editor for Westmarch Publishing and holds a Ph.D. in English. He lives in Aurora, Colorado with his wife and three children and is currently at work on his next novel.
Jim Henderson is a writer of fun, varied, and technically sound science fiction adventures that also explore the human condition. A long-term Air Force veteran and cybersecurity professional with decades of experience in intelligence, communications, computers, and cyber operations, he has been a life-long aficionado of science fiction in almost every form – books, movies, TV, and games (role-playing, tabletop, and computer). When not mentally exploring the universe, he lives with his wife, stepson, and two dogs and enjoys hiking in the mountains of Colorado.
Charles McLean Redding is an artist and author local to Colorado Springs, as well as an active member of the local theater community. His Wasteland Bears have turned heads at conventions throughout the region over the last few years, and his upcoming works include Western Steampunk, Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy, and Asian Mythic Fantasy titles, as well as his ongoing Snack Pack: Raptor Comics.
Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.
But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.
1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledgea culture uses to interpret reality.
Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.
Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.
When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.
2. Myths structure our idea of purity
Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.
Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.
Myths may or may not include the following
What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
How we mark or think about time
What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
Is there free will?
How many lives do we have?
What words are sacred/dangerous?
Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?
You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.
3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power
Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)
Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.
4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality
Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.
In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…
5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity
Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.
And one final thing…
6. Myths are not monolithic
If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.
If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.
This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last five years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.
I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.
1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.
2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.
3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.
4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.
5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.
6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.
7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.
8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.
9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.
10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.
11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.
12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.
13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.
14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).
15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.
16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.
17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.
I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.