One of the things I’ve always appreciated in a well-told fantasy or sci-fi story is a well-built society. Ever since Tolkien, the fantasy genre has been treated to many evocative worlds, often following a more-or-less medieval template (although there are plenty of exceptions). Sci-fi, for its part, is replete with visions of future societies with sentient robots, interstellar travel, and all manner of technological marvels.
World-building societies can be a lot of fun, particularly because the history of the world has so many options to choose from. At the same time, it’s important to understand how real-world societies work, or worked, if one is to write about them and have them feel real.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at four main types or “modalities” of human societies: hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists, farmers, and industrialized people.
For most of human history, all human societies were hunter-gatherers, hunting wild game and gathering wild plants. They were usually nomadic, moving from place to place in search of new plant and animal resources. Their group sizes also tended to be very small, perhaps a few dozen at most. Although they were limited by naturally-occurring food resources, hunter-gatherers often ate very balanced diets, and had plenty of leisure time. Today hunter-gatherers are very rare, having been replaced across most of the world by other modalities (Diamond, 1999; Harari, 2015; Morris, 2010).
Because they usually lived in small, highly mobile groups, hunter-gatherers were neither able nor willing to tolerate would-be lords or kings. Not only did they have little or no ability to amass any kind of wealth that could lead to inequality, they also had powerful social norms that aggressively checked the ambitions of would-be tyrants, even up to the point of killing them (Boehm, 2012). On that note, and on the other hand, hunter-gatherer societies also tended to be very violent: since every small group had to defend itself in the absence of any centralizing authority, there were plenty of opportunities and incentives for murderous violence (Diamond, 1999; Morris, 2010; Pinker, 2011).
The domestication of large, hooved animals, like cattle, goats, sheep, horses, Bactrian and Arabian camels, and even reindeer in the Arctic, opened up new possibilities for some groups of people to become nomadic keepers of livestock. Broadly speaking, these so-called “pastoralists” have tended to flourish in areas where growing crops was more challenging, or even downright impossible, with the technology available. The desert and semi-desert of North Africa and the Middle East, the vast steppes or grassland plains of Eurasia, and the Arctic tundra of northern Eurasia each had, and to some degree still have, their own distinctive types of nomadic pastoralists (Barfield, 1989; Francis, 2015).
Being highly mobile, nomadic pastoralists have tended to be somewhat independent-minded, with clans and other small units handling much of their business themselves. They also have had to be skilled warriors to defend their herds from livestock raids by other pastoralists — and to conduct raids of their own. Their mobility and warlike habits have made some pastoralists, particularly those of the Eurasian steppe, formidable adversaries to larger settled societies in China, Central Asia and the Middle East, India, and Eastern Europe. In fact, the existence of those larger societies encouraged many pastoralist groups to form larger coalitions for the purpose of raiding and extortion. Some of those coalitions developed dynastic models of organization, effectively mirroring the larger societies they were extorting from and trading with (Barfield, 1989; Chase, 2003).
Agriculture emerged from hunting-gathering in multiple areas of the world, at different times, and with different crops — and sometimes domestic animals as well. The great advantage of agriculture was that it could raise the amount of biomass in an area that is edible to humans, from about 0.1 percent to 90 percent (Diamond, 1999). More food meant more people, but it also meant less balanced diets, more hard work, and more disease, especially in very large farming societies that also had a lot of livestock living in close proximity to people (Diamond, 1999).
Despite these downsides, agriculture won out over hunting and gathering because it produced so much more food. Over time, it made possible the rise of great civilizations, first in Egypt and Mesopotamia, later in the Indus Valley, China, and still later in a few other places. The defining characteristic of civilization is living in cities, which were possible because agriculture produced a surplus of food which could be used to feed people who did not directly produce food themselves: potters, blacksmiths, weavers, other artisans, and merchants, but also priests, lords, kings, and in time, armies. Occupational specialization and inequality, then, are a major legacy of agriculture (Diamond, 1999; Harari, 2015; Morris, 2010).
From Steam to Stars
In the 18th century, a remarkable phenomenon called the Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom. The results didn’t become obvious until well into the 19th century, but when they did it was clear something astonishing was occurring: for the first time in human history, economic growth was outpacing population growth. New technologies, like the steam engines that were originally invented to pump water out of coal mines, were allowing people to create wealth faster than anyone could create people to consume it (Rosen, 2010).
It’s fair to say that the Industrial Revolution marks the beginning of a new type or modality of human society: in many ways, the 19th-century age of steam power had a lot in common with futuristic sci-fi societies capable of interstellar flight. People in industrial societies have technology that allows them to exploit energy in new ways (think of electric power grids, nuclear submarines, and starships), mass-produce goods (think of automobile factories and 3D printing), and exchange information (look at the internet!). They have also tended to have many political and social revolutions in political organization, revolutions which have toppled or greatly reshaped older forms of organization (think of the French Revolution, for example, or the Russian, Chinese, and other revolutions of the 20th century).
I grew up on Tolkien and the part of the fantasy genre that was heavily shaped by him, and as a result I was treated to many pseudo-medieval societies. While it’s true that the fantasy genre now includes plenty of works that do not follow this template, I think it’s fair to say it’s remained influential (look at the success of George R. R. Martin’s books and the TV show).
What I’ve always appreciated about the best worldbuilding — and Martin’s is definitely some of the best — is how real the societies feel, speaking in terms not only of technology but also of social relations, politics, etc. This is why it’s a good idea to learn about real-world history: not only the events of political and military history, but also how people lived in their daily lives, what they ate, and how they related to each other.
I’ll add, too, that part of the fun is how much there is to explore. For example, I’m writing a fantasy with worldbuilding that draws from the Iron Age Middle East, a time of cities, kingdoms and empires, and powerful armies. I’m not writing a history, so the real-world influences go into the pot and come out as fantasy tribes, cities, kingdoms, even living gods, with their own distinct histories and modes of social and political organization. There’s a world of rich cultural possibilities out there, each one a portal into a different way of being.
Barfield, J. (1989). The perilous frontier: Nomadic empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Boehm, C. (2012). Moral origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. New York: Basic Books.
Chase, K. (2002). Firearms: A global history to 1700. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Diamond, J. (1999). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Francis, R. C. (2015). Domesticated: Evolution in a man-made world. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Harari, N. Y. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. New York: HarperCollins.
Morris, I. (2010). Why the West rules — for now: The patterns of history, and what they reveal about the future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.
Rosen, W. (2010). The most powerful idea in the world: A story of steam, industry, and innovation. New York: Random House.