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Dispatches from the Front – Review of The World Until Yesterday


Review of The World Until Yesterday
by Jared Diamond

J. Comer

Science fiction authors create fictional worlds. In fact, this is a major focus of our field. Examples of intriguing fictional worlds include de Camp’s Krishna, le Guin’s Gethen, the huge structures imagined by Larry Niven and Bob Shaw, and the World of Tekumel, the lifework of Phil Barker. All of these have been used as settings for adventure stories and novels, and many fictional societies inhabit each one.

In all these places (and most other fantasy worlds) there are many small-scale or “traditional” societies: groups of people subsisting by hunting, fishing, and gardening, without large cities, literacy or complex governments. Most readers of genre literature recognize these cultures and take them more or less as given, whether the people are humans, Tolkein’s orcs and hobbits, or the insect-like Pe Choi of Tekumel. But what characteristics do real traditional cultures, those documented here on Earth, have in common, and how do they differ from the modern, industrialized world in which gamers live their lives? How can SF authors learn from the real-life societies studied by people such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Kroeber (the father of Ursula K. Le Guin), and Jared Diamond, who worked in New Guinea for many years with Stone Age peoples? And if we can, what can we learn?

The nature and relevance of studying traditional cultures is the focus of Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday. Though he does not mention science fiction or fantasy texts, the book is a gold mine for writer and worldbuilders. By examining certain parts of the book, it’s possible to learn a great deal about how “traditional” societies work, which will help both readers and writers, who are called on to create such a place.
The book begins with Diamond explaining what ‘traditional societies’ are and why modern Western and neo-Western societies study them. He then explains what’s meant by terms such as “hunter-gatherer” and band, tribe, chiefdom and state. This anthropological terminology is kept to a minimum in the book, but some of it is necessary
The book then covers a series of topics in which ‘traditional’ and modernized cultures differ widely. In this review I will mention the ones relevant to writing and worldbuilding, and leave the rest to anyone who would like to read the book itself. I’ll also give my suggestions and thoughts for storytellers.
We are treated, early on, to an interesting section on justice in Papua New Guinea, including a description of how a van driver who’d run over a schoolboy was at the center of a struggle between the schoolboy’s tribe and his own. What interests me is that the people involved were angry, revengeful, and painfully aware that retaliation and tribal warfare would waste more lives. The process of ritual compensation for the child’s death could be the basis of a fantasy novel: the heros could be judges, negotiators, or the offenders, who are forced to obtain the ‘blood-price’ for the dead person(and in a world of treasure and magic, what would be demanded as blood-price?). This section is highly recommended to writers unfamiliar with this sort of justice system, which was the norm in Viking Scandinavia as well as many native American nations. When interleaved with trial by ordeal and by combat, possibilities for adventures open up which many writers neglect.
The next chapter is the most important for fantasy authors, as it details a “primitive war”
 which was photographed and filmed by an expedition in 1962 in the Baliem River valley of New Guinea. Diamond details the war and shows how the alliances, weapons used, battles and tactics are typical of “primitive warfare”. The exacting and careful research on the war makes it possible for authors to use this as a stand-alone story. Too often primitive warfare is poorly described and even more poorly played out in fantasy stories which suffer from second-artist effect. Books such as this and Harry Turney-High’s Primitive War make clear how different tribal societies’ wars, and their motives and results, are from the conflicts in most fantasy novels. (Turney-High’s book is also worth reading.)
The next section of the book is about the treatment of children and the old, and will be of interest mostly to those designing fictional societies. But the fact that small children and teens in traditional societies routinely manage housefuls of children or go off on expeditions into wilderness areas might not surprise older writers who remember life in the US before the 1980s and 90s. In one anecdote, an aged woman was consulted because she was the last survivor of a gigantic cyclone which wiped out the crops on her island, requiring the people to subsist on wild foods which in other circumstances, they would not have known about. How does this have relevance for an adventure tale? How often are old people featured in our stories? Consider the life experiences of people, some still alive today, who grew up in the Depression and World War Two, and how different that era was from the present. How much do things change over time in your setting? If not at all, then consider this issue.
Diamond continues with the chapter which inspired me to write this review: a look at what kills people in ‘traditional’ societies on Earth. The answers are surprising. The statistics cover several groups of people, but the percentage who die of animal attacks, from cave collapses, or from lightning, is huge, in the eyes of a US whose inhabitants die of the illnesses of affluence, such as cancer and stroke. The similarity to a fantasy world in which people routinely die of plagues and are murdered by ogres or eaten by dragons is shocking. Also interesting is the writing on food shortages and starvation, which never seem to affect fantasy worlds. Imagine adventures built around searches for provender, or hunting monsters solely to eat them! Again, a novel could be built around surviving a winter in a remote wilderness settlement, as Laura Ingalls did in The Long Winter, which recounts real events of 1880-1 in the western US. Would stores of grain be found instead of gold, in a world, like George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, which had to survive deadly winters? How much magic must be dedicated to creating fertility in the soil, rather than blasting fireballs? Would humanoid or other foes attack the settlement to gain its stores of food? The mere variety of dangers shows that not all the people who fight monsters or explore underground mazes come out alive, and not all of them are armored heroes. (Diamond wasn’t attacked by cannibals or giant animals in New Guinea, but he encountered a dangerous sorcerer on one occasion; the story is in this book.) Note that Diamond and Turney-High also talk about salt and the salt trade being motives for wars, and about how difficult salt is to obtain, even on the island of New Guinea.

Finally, the section on languages is priceless to worldbuilders. Too often gamers follow the example of bad 1970s novels in assuming that everyone (why?) has a “common tongue” and that all members of a given species, such as Klingons or elves, speak a single language(how?). Diamond’s statistics for New Guinea, an island which has eight hundred and fifty languages in an area slightly larger than Texas, are hair-raising. On one random night at a campfire, his native crew of twenty helpers each spoke between five and fifteen languages, meaning that even traveling a short distance, a native must speak several languages in order to communicate at all. Imagine frustration when the hero travels ten miles and a new language is being spoken, or her confusion when an unfamiliar word is used for some unknown peril! The fun of designing new languages and using them in games is obvious, though not everyone in the gaming hobby does this; using real-world languages in the game can work also. Useful concepts for worldbuilders include spread zones where languages expand through school systems, conquest, conversion and trade; refuge zones where enormous numbers of languages, each with only a few thousand speakers, exist nearby one another; dialect chains, in which one nation/tribe and its neighbors speak slightly different versions of one language; and linguistic exogamy, in which because there are few people in their nation/tribe/village who are suitable marriage partners, people tend to marry partners of another language group (and, in SF and fantasy, another species?), thus bridging the gap between the two groups and providing a natural link. How would this Babel-like linguistic confusion help or harm the heroes? Would they hire natives as translators, as explorers on our world did? How would religion, shared school systems, a common army, or merchant clans affect the situation? Constructing languages gives a world its own flavor and look, and was the original motive of writers and world-makers as great at Professor Tolkien himself. [bl_all_in_one]

In any case, this book is a valuable find for writers and anyone who makes and loves imaginary worlds. Without knowing our world, how can we hope to know anything about any other world? And without any basis of knowledge for our imaginary settings, how can we make a world that is more interesting than a two-dimensional video game background. Diamond, true to his name, is a gem of a writer, and this book is highly recommended.

  • Diamond, Jared. The World Until Yesterday. New York: Penguin Books, 2013
  • Turney-High, H. Primitive Warfare. New York: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1991
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Long Winter. New York: Harper-Collins, 1990
  • http://files.usgwarchives.net/sd/history/robinson/liii.txt

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