My Co-Author, Kyra Wellstrom and I had the great privilege of being asked on one of the coolest podcasts (well, for anthropologists anyway haha) around. This last summer we recorded a discussion with This Anthro Life. The episode is about worldbuilding and nerd culture.
The Children of AEIS, the fifth book in my sci-fi series The Chronicles of the Great Migration, now has a cover! I am so incredibly happy with this cover. The artwork for this cover was created by the very talented Jon Stubbington. Definitely check out his amazing work.
Though I don’t have a firm date for release for the book yet, it will certainly be out before the end of spring of 2022. The Children of AEIS is the penultimate entry into this series, followed finally by A Hand to the Stars.
From the back of the book:
In the penultimate entry of the Chronicles of The Great Migration, Alexa Turon, Runner 17, Major Daniels, and their allies must learn the secrets of the mysterious AEIS and the underground city of Lastion if they hope to discover the key to defeat Miranda once and for all. Above, those aboard Manhatsten scrambles to deal with a new crisis from ROAM.
But from the ashes of the Battle for Langeles and the conflict with the Children of Gaia, a new power rises, one unlike any the world has ever known. It has only one goal, to consume.
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about what kind of biological costs superpowers or magic might have on the biology of the brain. We discussed the impact of cognitive maps based on different biological and environmental systems, and why these are things that might be useful to consider for building fictional worlds. The reality is, the one thing so often overlooked in fictional worldbuilding, is that different species, and different mutations (in regards to superpowers or magic powers) would have a profound impact on the brain structure and perception of the living person/creature. So, it’s worth at least considering a few elements in how a cognitive map, and how a special ability or power might not just impact individual characters, but also fictional cultures as a whole.
You might be asking, well, what is a cognitive map?
“A cognitive map is an internal neural representation of the landscape in which an animal travels. Animals that use cognitive maps can “visualize” the landscape and solve orientation problems by referring to these maps. While it is generally accepted that birds and mammals can form cognitive maps, and that the hippocampus is the most important part of the brain in their formation, considerable controversy has centered around whether other animals, such as honeybees, can form similar maps.”
Different animals have different cognitive maps. Different kinds of sensory input changes how a particular species would navigate their environment. Say for example a Mantis Shrimp, which has the most complex visual system of any creature on this planet, would have an entirely different cognitive map than a human. Why? Because humans have 3 photoreceptors in their eyes, a Mantis Shrimp has 12-16 depending on which variety of mantis shrimp you’re talking about.
Now imagine for a moment, a mantis shrimp took an evolutionarily leap and became as intelligent and as self-aware as the human species, but still had that same complex visual system. Naturally, their cognitive map would be far different than humans.
Well, one sci-fi author by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, played with this idea (though not specifically mantis shrimp) in his books, Children of Time, and it’s sequel Children of Ruin.
Children of Time and Children of Ruin
Without giving too much away, Tchaikovsky’s books Children of Time and Children of Ruin, ask the question, what kind of civilization would a spider, an octopus, and a kind of fungi analog build if they were genetically engineered to evolve human level, or greater intelligence. The answer? One that is a hell of a lot different than humans. But, at the same time, a creature, regardless of its cognitive map, still has to solve the problem of energy, or rather how do you build a large-scale civilization and economic system that could support a large population with different cognitive maps. So even though their maps might be different, to build civilization there would be some overlapping concerns.
For example, (and again I am not going to give away too many spoilers and ruin these amazing books for you) Tchaikovsky, at the beginning of Children of Time, introduces a jumping spider that has been accidentally introduced to a virus that will artificially accelerate its intelligence. The spiders, with completely different senses, biological imperatives, and priorities, build a civilization throughout the book. This civilization is based on a creature that not only builds a web but uses it as a primary means of communication. In this particular species, the male is much smaller and is often eaten after mating with a female, and thus, their world also includes a component of significant gender inequality, where the larger female spiders control civilization. Tchaikovsky, uses these differences to highlight how difficult communication would be with a species with a fundamentally different cognitive map than humans.
So it’s something to think about. If you have giant intelligent snake people in your fictional world, you would have different cognitive maps.
Oh and also, another bone to pick about video game worlds like the Elder Scrolls, Argonians and Kadjit would never, ever be able to mimic human speech, and certainly not English. This is also a problem with the Planet of the Apes series. Biologically speaking, the physical apparatus of a mouth, nose, throat, tongue, teeth, pharynx, larynx, and other parts create a specific kind of instrument from which certain sounds are produced by humans. It’s why some animals make noises that humans could never mimic. So an Argonian speaking English would be akin to trying to get trumpet noises out of a violin, it’s completely impossible. Of course, with your fictional world you can certainly do what you like, but understand that even other primates can’t mimic the same sounds humans make. It’s why Koko the Gorilla, and Kanzi the Chimpanzee, both used sign language and/or soundboards to communicate with humans because they physically can’t produce the sounds for human language.
Different Cultures Have Different Cognitive Maps
In the book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett discusses the Piraha tribe who live on the Amazon. Though he never explicitly discusses cognitive maps, at one point in the book, he takes some of the men from the Piraha, to a Brazilian City. While there, the members of the tribe are almost hit by cars, and have, what are basically anxiety attacks about being in the city. They really hate it. Why? Well first, Everett then talks about his own experiences in the Jungle for the first few years. In one story, he talks about a python hanging from a tree that the Piraha spot without a second thought. They try to point it out to him, but he can’t see it no matter how hard he tries. He talks about several other instances when he just wasn’t able to see or experience the things the Piraha tribe were, and he had, what was basically anxiety about it similar to the men’s experiences in the city.
One of the things that cultures do, is map their environment as they learn to navigate it. So, if you’re suddenly dropped in a new environment, say, as a Piraha person in a city they have never been to, or an Anthropologist, who grew up in a suburb and suddenly finds themselves in the dense jungle, the cognitive maps you have used your whole life will no longer function properly and you will struggle to adapt until you can construct a new cognitive map (which can take years for completely foreign environments). This is in part what creates culture shock for people who travel to other countries and cultures.
Remember, a cognitive map, is a mental picture of the environment around you. Over time, these maps become a part of our subconscious assumptions of the world and structure our biases. Different cultures are the result of different environmental conditions, and thus will have a different cognitive map as a result. Now, of course, the variation in which these maps can come in, is limited by human biology, but it’s work thinking about as you are building fictional worlds, that different cultures will have different perceptions and priorities based on the physical and cultural conditions on the ground. Of course, this certainly relates to my YouTube episode on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and is worth considering, how this also impacts language.
Neurodivergence, The Brain, and Super Powers
There are more than a few problems with the way that Super Powers and Magic use are displayed in popular fiction. Now granted, these aren’t things that occur to most people (myself included until recently) and of course, part of worldbuilding is the suspension of belief. But if you are doing a hard magic system, something you might want to consider is the physical toll that superpowers or magic might have on the nervous system and the configuration of the brain.
By definition, someone with super powers or the ability to wield magic would necessarily be neurodivergent. This term means, essentially, that the person’s brain would not work the same as the average population (Of course if your goal is to make a world where the norm is magic users, they would have normal cognition for that world).
I myself have a form of neurodivergence called Prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness. This means that I am not able to hold faces in my memory the way that most people can. It can be incredibly frustrating when dealing with large crowds, but once I discovered I had the condition, I was able to create new strategies for moving and interacting through the world. You could say, in fact, that I, had to have a different cognitive map to function. Neurodivergence comes in a lot of flavors, it’s most often associated with people with psychiatric disorders, autism, ADHD, and a host of other conditions that humans have in the modern world. Divergence doesn’t make anyone less of a person, but it does mean that their cognitive maps are different.
Take Albert Einstein for instance. There are many who suggest that he was neurodivergent. There is speculation that he might have had one or all of the following: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, on the Autism Spectrum, and possibly ADHD. There are a number of reasons for these speculations including his difficulty with social situations and his inability to function in traditional European school systems. But here’s the point, he was a super genius and that had a cognitive cost. His cognitive map was far different from the average human and the way he navigated that environment was different from most people. This, in turn, allowed him to tackle questions that most human beings could not, and he changed the world as a result.
Again, this isn’t saying that one kind of brain is necessarily better or worse than another, but that, in fact, different brains will approach problems and solutions differently. It’s one of the reasons that, I argue in my Ted Talk, that diversity is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal as humans. But be warned, I’ve met quite a few people who believe they are better or worse than others because their brain is different, that’s simply not true. It’s like arguing which fruit is objectively the tastiest. It’s pointless. But it is empowering to understand how your own brain works isn’t it?
So, back to superpowers. One thing you might want to consider if your character has, say, telepathy or telekinesis, is that they would in fact be neurodivergent. They would have completely different senses that were required for those abilities to function.
Different sense perceptions necessitate different cognitive maps. After all, cognitive maps are built from our sense perception. You use all of your senses to build a mental model of the environment around you. So if you could fly, that would necessitate different sense perceptions and thus a different cognitive map. Consider the Marvel character, Daredevil, who has the ability to see based on what’s basically sonar, but the cost of that ability, was the standard human trichromatic visual system that we experience. That gave him some advantages, but anyone who watches the Netflix series, or reads the comics, knows that it comes with some significant disadvantages as well. Though personally, I think the advantages are a bit unrealistic even though I definitely enjoyed watching Matt Murdock kick ass in the Defenders.
So if you have a hard magic system, genetically engineered super powers, or something similar, you might want to consider what things your characters would have to sacrifice in order for those abilities to be viable. Much of the world’s fiction is filled with examples of this done horribly wrong, but then, a lot of the time, imagination is about playing with the unrealistic isn’t it? Considering the above could be a really interesting way to build a different kind of fictional world. After all, one of the problems we face in fiction is repetitive stories, so perhaps different cognitive maps could help us ask different kinds of questions about ourselves and what’s possible.
Recently I sat down with the very wonderful Joanna Penn on her podcast, The Creative Penn. Her podcast has more than 500 episodes on just about everything you can think of when it comes to writing and she’s also a very well published author. Definitely check out her podcast and her books.
Good morning everyone, Today, Kyra Wellstrom and I go live to read a sample chapter from our worldbuilding book and answer worldbuilding questions on YouTube at 11am MST. You can find the stream at https://youtu.be/QS3Yse-rv3g
The discussion will be recorded so if you miss it don’t fret! You will be able to find it at the same link. But if you can come live, we’d love to field your questions about worldbuilding and anthropology.
This book is a product of a solid year of work with my amazing co-author Kyra Wellstrom. While my specialty is cultural anthropology, hers is biological anthropology giving the book a well rounded approach from both directions of the field. In many ways this book is an introduction to anthropology that you might take in a college course, but with a twist, it contains tips and ideas for building fictional world and lots of references to other pieces of fiction. We created this book to be a tool kit for creatives so that they can seriously consider real world cultural systems as they construct the world of their imagination.
In many ways this book was inspired by my several posts on Worldbuilding. This book is a much more expansive treatise on elements of real world and cultures. I hope those of you out there looking for a deep dive into cultures to improve your own work find this volume useful. Best of luck on all your projects!
This past Christmas in a gift exchange I wrote my brother a joke story. Recently he recommended I post it. Why? Because he suggested that maybe some people out there might want a custom made story of their own. I specialize in outrageous humor. It doesn’t have to rhyme of course but this one did. It can be a wide variety of genres.
Rates are as follows: $100 for 250 words $150 for 500 words $250 for 1000 words $500 for 2000 words.
If you are interested you reach me by email me at LoridiansLaboratory@gmail.com
So if you are interested in hiring me to write a custom made story for your friends or loved ones, consider the sample below.
Let’s be honest, 2020 was a train wreck no matter how you look at it. As the year winds down I find myself reflecting on all the crazy stuff that happened in the last year. It’s pretty unbelievable how much has happened so, I thought I would create a humorous way of remembering the years insanity with a little poem…
An Ode to 2020 in Anagram
A is for Abomination because after the failure of our political leadership this year I needed liberal libations with a side of alliteration.
B is for that bathroom turned bog, because when you can’t buy toilet paper and you have a clog it causes a major backlog.
C is Czech Republic, cause when Poland accidently invades you, you gotta make that shit public
D is for the Dog that was born green. People thought it was a prank, but apparently it wasn’t trying to make a scene.
E is for Election for a new president’s selection. A lot of misinformed people had an objection and called for further inspection, but the courts gave it a rejection.
F is for Fucked. This year sucked.
G is for Gas, oil prices dropped low, after the conflict Russian and Saudi Arabia, they had nowhere else to go.
H is for Hornets of the Murder kind, they were here and gone fast so I guess… never mind?
I is for Impeached, cause watching Trump’s pathetic attempt to defend himself was like watching a whale that’s beached.
J is for all the jobs lost, and that while many suffer, the Senate and McConnell were more concerned with spending costs.
K is for klaxon, you know, the warning bell. Rona made us see all the things in our culture that weren’t going so well.
L is for long. No rhyme needed, but perhaps I could write a song about how wrong it was to make a year this long?
M is for misinformation that spread across the nation, because half of us can’t tell the difference between correlation and causation.
N is for Novel, a word that means new, masks and stay at home orders were something we all needed to do.
O is for odd, that despite decades of evidence otherwise, people still believed in voter mail fraud and other lies.
P is for pathetic. We learned again that many people in our culture aren’t very empathetic and would rather believe rhetoric.
Q is for those who follow a conspiracy that ends in Anon. For this year they carried the crazy baton and didn’t realize it was nothing but a con. Perhaps they should follow their own advice to get over it and move on?
R is for Racism and Race. No matter how people protested, they were told it wasn’t the right time or place.
S is for star, you know, the one that went missing? That’s bizarre, and it’s not something we should be dismissing.
T is for Tiger King, but for the life of me I can’t understand why this was ever a thing.
U is for UFO’s because Aliens figured, why not keep us on our toes? The pentagon told us… ‘who the hell knows?’
V is for virus and vaccine because COVID-19 messed up our whole daily routine.
W is for wildfire because half of Australia and the United States were practically a funeral pyre
X is for the exit to this year, Thank god the end is almost here. And for those of you who say that doesn’t start with x, let me assure you, doing this is pretty complex.
Y is for yellow because even though our president is orange, his behavior this year showed us he is a cowardly fellow
Z is for zig and zag, there was so many things that happened this year it made it seem like we lived in a time lag.
I hope you got a chuckle or three out of this. May the year 2021 bring you happiness and joy and the end of all things insane.