Worldbuilding 101

Anyone interested in speculative world-building could do worse than reading Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution of Civilizations.

I just finished chapter 5, which is for such purposes a scaffold on which one can construct a fictional society – whether on the small scale (an organization, corporation, colony, etc.) or large (an extrapolation of current civilization into a future history, a galactic empire, an entire alien civilization, etc.).

As it happens, Quigley articulates in the earlier chapters (whether its his invention or he simply applies it, I don’t know) the PERSIA template that we applied to the development of the Ares Project future history. PERSIA is a mnemonic for six broad subject areas one should consider in examining a social entity or period: political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic. (Note that this is how I learned it in high school – Quigley adds military and subsumes aesthetic under intellectual, which makes more sense but wrecks the mnemonic.)

The earlier chapters are interesting, but consist of laying the groundwork for what starts in chapter 4 and really blossoms in chapter 5. The former chapter lays out his concept of instruments vs. institutions, and specifically the instrument of expansion central to all civilizations. The latter chapter is an exploration of seven stages through which each historical civilization has progressed, and how different civilizations have fared against each other (or against uncivilized societies/cultures) at differing stages.

So far, a much, much better read than Tainter’s oft-recommended (but probably seldom-finished) Collapse of Complex Societies. And it’s a quarter of the price.



I’m currently re-reading Jim Aikin’s Walk the Moon’s Road, a book I’ve only read once before, about eight or nine years ago. I really liked the book back then and wondered how it would hold up against my recollection.

So far, so good.

What I liked about it the first time (as well as now) was the world-building involved. The setting for the novel is a world colonized in a forgotten past by humans who are only now approaching a level of technology comparable (in many but not all ways) with about 1700AD Europe. Over an unknown number of years, the human colonists mutated into at least a half-dozen physically distinct human types who share the planet with two other native indigenous sentient species.

Naturally, in addition to having physical differences, each of the human types has (in one central case quite dramatic) social and cultural differences as well. Aikin does a good job in describing each of the different groups, such that it’s pretty clear what each group is like, what their interests are, how they are prone to behave, how they relate to each other, and so on. What’s better is that he doesn’t resort to lazy Star Trek writing by making each character a representative of their culture’s monolithic stereotype – each human type has good and bad members and outliers who don’t fit the mold of their respective group.

In short, he successfully builds up a “alien” world that is plausible, layered, and engaging. It may not be as complex or deep as Dune, no, but it’s still (ahem) worlds better than a lot of popular science fiction in this regard.

The dialogue is a little more stiff in spots than what I remember, and he seems to try a little too hard to be flowery in some descriptive passages, but not so much that it’s off-putting. It’d be nice to see Aikin maybe give the novel a scrub to improve these things and issue a new edition.

For that matter, it’d be really nice to see Aikin write more new material. His Wall at the Edge of the World* remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and I’m disappointed that he hasn’t written much fiction in the twenty years since.

* — The astute reader will catch a prominent (and not a little disturbing) reference to this book in our description of Port Lowell.