11.15: The Environment, with L.E. Modessit, Jr.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. joined us at LTUE for a world building discussion centered around the way the environment informs the story. We talk about lead in Roman plumbing, water lilies in Las Vegas sewers, and coal power in the British Empire, and how these examples can help us more effectively use the environments in our stories.

Liner Notes: We mentioned both Americapox, The Missing Plague, (a YouTube video) and the excellent book Guns, Germs, and Steel.


Come up with a fantasy fuel that has extreme, but unintended consequences.

Solar Express, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr, narrated by Robert Fass

20 thoughts on “11.15: The Environment, with L.E. Modessit, Jr.”

  1. Fantastic podcast guys! Really got me thinking about my writing in a different way. I feel that factors, like the environment, are really underutilized in fantasy, so it was refreshing to hear of some examples where it was done well.
    An odd idea for a podcast on similar lines: income. No one talks about it, and perhaps no one has used it better than Patrick Rothfuss in his Kingkiller Chronicles. How money/wealth affects a character in so many ways – just struck as a similar factor. Perhaps there is an umbrella term for these kinds of factors?

  2. Great podcast this week! I had been really thinking about this very topic lately with my WIP, as it required me to think about the ramifications of the ecology of my story. I had a key plot point surrounding the concept of a village of people and their symbiotic relationship with large herbivorous creatures, and had to think more about how that would really impact a society and the ways in which that would play out.

    With that said, one aspect of the environment that is fascinating to learn about is the relationship between the creatures in a given area and the humans that settle near them. I recently watched a documentary called Wild China that explored how different people interact with the creatures in their respective environments, and some people-animal relationships had been going on for maybe even thousands of years. One of the more popular examples was of how the presence of the silkworm really brought China to its golden age, and it didn’t so much focus on the history (though there was some) but showed how even today, many people rely on the existence and maintenance of this small, simple creature.

    There’s a lot of interesting stories when you look at how animals and humans interact…but also how the reaction of humans can affect the environment. One of my favorite periods to look at is Maoist China and how there were events that caused the people to interact with their environment in unique ways. For instance, the Four Pests Campaign practically wiped out the Eurasian tree sparrow, and while that seems small at first, the elimination of one small bird across China led to such disastrous effects, like famine, the decimation of crops, and the impact on larger food chains which led to other species disappearing, etc. Even today, China is still recovering from the effects of an era that, relatively speaking, was not actually that long ago.

    BOOK RECOMMENDATION: If anyone is interested in a fascinating look at how a society can be shaped by the ecology and the environment around them, as well as how they interact/affect it, “Mao’s War Against Nature” by Judith Shapiro does exactly that. It’s incredibly fascinating to read about how people literally tried to move mountains by hand, how certain environmental laws affected China at the time, and how it all plays together. It’s a unique case-study if anyone wants to look at some examples of the interaction between social and environmental aspects. I find Maoist China particularly intruiging because it was a time of rapid change and so a lot of the effects (of mass species elimination, mass deforestation, steel manufacturing, etc) also occurred quite soon afterward. It’s also pretty inspiring if you’re a writer–it almost feels like reading a fairytale or dystopia.

  3. Fantastic podcast – in general – and this one was particularly interesting.

    I have a book recommendation for your guest! Slow River, by Nicola Griffith, is a riveting and highly technical noire novel, mildly futuristic and very steamy, set in the world of waste water treatment.
    Seriously, I couldn’t put it down.

  4. Nice reminder to think out ecology. It is so easy to forget even the most basic consideration:

    In my space opera WIP there is one planet that is covered entirely in magical bacteria who eat anything that is not biological in origin. I hope this will look a little bit like Skullkickers with satellite overwatch and air support.

    Cool idea, but how do these bacteria sustain themselves, when they have already eaten everything on the planet?

    Better plan (as I hope): These bacteria live on air and sunlight (photosynthesis), but rapidly consume non-biological stuff as a catalyst for explosively enhanced growth and reproduction.

    Now I have a reason why people need to use leather clothes, wooden helmets, and bone swords on that planet. (And spider silk parachutes to get their feet down on the ground.)

    Thank you, guys.

  5. I just wanted to point out that L. E. Modessit is right about lead, but the blurb is wrong. Lead in pies is not bio-available unless you have acidic water, and most water is slightly alkaline. He is talking about them actually putting lead in their food. A great example of this is lead-sugar, which is was a common sweetener in the Roman Empire, and even up to the late 1800s.

    1. Hate to be a Debbie downer but a bad story with great attention to detail with correct scientific explanations is still a bad story. A good story with poor attention to specific details and incorrect science is still a good story. I’m looking to write a salable book. Do I worry about the hundreds of biochemists who will read my book with incorrect biochemistry and scoff? Or do I worry about the thousands of potential readers who don’t know/don’t care if the science is a little off? I think the answer is obvious.

  6. I liked the premise of this episode, but the execution made me really uncomfortable. I absolutely agree that geography/climate/environment have far-reaching & unanticipated consequences that writers should consider.
    But example after example felt like it not only pushed the “geography is destiny” thesis, but specifically a very Eurocentric “Europeans were going to conquer other lands” narrative.
    We learned vaguely that mezoamericans had an impressive culture that Europeans didn’t respect, but then specifically that they lacked wheels, pack animals, technology to defeat horses, and indeed because of how Europeans structured their cities they had a more robust immune system. In other words, that European geography destined them to colonize the world. (This is, I think, the thesis of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I haven’t read but was cited in the episode & also has come under criticism for similarly Eurocentrism)

    By the end, the assertion that it’s easier to navigate the oceans in the northern hemisphere than the southern (tell that to various Chinese fleets as well as the explorers of Oceania) just felt really wierd and uncomfortable. Each anecdote by itself maybe makes sense. Taken together, they suggested that the world could be effectively divided into Europe and not-Europe, and that by virtue of their climate, Europeans were destined to have superior technology and abilities in every way that the western scientific tradition (created in Europe & that we’ve grown up in) values. Which should be questioned, not lauded.

    Good premise, unpleasant execution.

    1. I don’t hear where they were promoting Euro-centrism at all. It was just history, and they tried to balance it as well as they could, given the short format, and I think they did a pretty dang good job of it. Also this episode was about the enviroment so of course they focused on that instead of culture.

      1. >>I don’t hear where they were promoting Euro-centrism at all

        After examples of desert cities & Rome, talk turned to mesoamerica, and mostly the european conquest. After a disclaimer that in many ways the mesoamerican societies were more advanced that europeans (i.e. Calendars & other areas I don’t remember, but notably no real specifics and nothing driven by climate), we got a bunch of specific examples of how climate & geography affected mesoamerican encounters with Europeans:
        1 – No forests (west of the Andes) so no wheels.
        2 – Also no pack animals.
        3 – (Also, I think no pikes for fighting horses, though this went by fast)
        4 – European cities & animal husbandry techniques meant they were in closer proximity to animals, more disease spread, and therefore brought diseases with them & also had a stronger immune system.
        5 – Gold & Silver relatively plentiful especially compared to iron, so Europeans both got greedy & had more materials actually useful for making weapons.
        6 – Mesoamerican cities fit together really well because they couldn’t make limestone because that requires lots of fire & not much wood.
        7 – Also something near the end about how it’s easy to navigate in the northern hemisphere because of the north star & hard in the south because of the southern cross.

        These were seven specific examples of how geography affected cultural development. All seven talk about how mesoamerica and/or the southern hemisphere is different from Europe. With the possible exception of number 6, all are explanations for why Europeans were best situated to make developments that led to them conquering the world. Even #6 focuses on a lack in the americas.

        In other words, for the bulk of the conversation, the majority of the specific examples where about how other places were different from Europe, and how that led to important developments (the wheel, coal came up at one point) in Europe. That’s pretty much the definition of Eurocentrism.

        I haven’t (yet) passed any judgement. As far as I can tell, everything above is statements of fact about the episode.

        I said in my first post that this made me uncomfortable and advanced “a very Eurocentric “Europeans were going to conquer other lands” narrative”
        I think I’ve given the examples of why.

        I said then that “Each anecdote by itself maybe makes sense.” Which I think is true (other than maybe the north star/southern cross thing – I am no expert on historical navigation, but I think there was plenty of impressive ocean voyaging in the southern hemisphere early on.

        What made me uncomfortable was the series of examples, in aggregate, all of which focused on why other places were different from Europe, in ways that meant Europeans had better technology & fighting equipment. Which, in aggregate, made me uncomfortable. Because (and here I’m going to stop citing & explain my feelings. Take them or leave them, I’m not going to lay out all the assumptions & logical steps along the way to be poked at):
        It seems to me that this advances a narrative that European conquest and colonization in the form that it took was inevitable.
        It seems to me that this narrative (in part) has the effect of avoiding any discussions of collective guilt or responsibility. We didn’t want to massacre anyone, our geography made us do it.
        It seems to me that this narrative focuses on Europe & it’s geography without corresponding discussions of what the impact of geography in other areas was. That is, centering some of the different parts of mesoamerica, or Oceania, or Eastern Asia, etc. Europe isn’t the default from which everything else varies.

        So anyway, this has gotten long. I haven’t mentioned your:
        >>Also this episode was about the enviroment so of course they focused on that instead of culture.
        Because I have no idea what you mean. I am pretty sure I kept my focus on the examples in the podcast of environmental impact, I don’t think I talked culture very much.

        I like Writing Excuses. I listen regularly. I wouldn’t even have bothered mentioning this if I didn’t think that not only is it worth talking about, but also that Dan, Howard, Mary, and Brandon probably will think about & consider the impact of their words. I wouldn’t have bothered with a public comment if I didn’t see some useful comments already, and feel like it was worth adding another note to think about.

        I’ve listed above both some facts (as best I can remember them) about the episode. If I was wrong in my facts, I’m happy to be corrected. I’ve also listed my opinions about why those facts made me uncomfortable. If we disagree, that’s great. I don’t think the world will always agree with me. I’m not sure there’s a lot of point in discussing further, but will check replies.

        1. No need for a flame war, you’re entitled to you’re opinion, just as I’m entitled to disagree.

          Great job Writing Excuses team and L. E. Modessit, I wish more books would follow you’re advice, too many of them fail to think of the logistics and it breaks the story for me.
          L. E. Modessit I loved you’re Soprano Sorceress series, it was great. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.

        2. “So anyway, this has gotten long. I haven’t mentioned your:
          >>Also this episode was about the enviroment so of course they focused on that instead of culture.
          Because I have no idea what you mean. I am pretty sure I kept my focus on the examples in the podcast of environmental impact, I don’t think I talked culture very much.”

          I think it was your reference to “We learned vaguely that mezoamericans had an impressive culture that Europeans didn’t respect…”

          I agree that Euro-centrism is a problem. I had to go back and listen to the episode, because I didn’t remember what we talked about. I see the points that you’ve raised, but there are other things that I’m confused about.

          In addition… I have to ask, why, of all the people participating in this episode of the podcast, the only one you called out on twitter is also the only woman?

          1. Hi Mary,

            You’re right, I didn’t read my original comment clearly. As for approaching you on Twitter, I didn’t, but I have been discussing the episode over there with another listener – I think that’s the confusion.

            I made a mistake coming into the comments (which I rarely do), and I apologize. I’d meant to say that a show I enjoy, with a guest who I quite like and a very interesting premise went off the rails at a live event in a way that made me uncomfortable. I was hoping that either that would’ve been noticed during editing and addressed, or noticed afterwards & not repeated if a similar topic comes up in the future. I didn’t express myself well and this became a much bigger and more adversarial conversation than I’d intended. I apologize for that.

            1. Ah, my apologies for confusing the two of you. The other listener said that they left a comment here, but yours was the only one that I could identify that seemed related to their concern.

              And you didn’t make a mistake coming into the comments, because Eurocentrism is a problem and it is good to point out. I think this is a case of us all being in agreement about that, but disagreement about the execution.

              Our listeners tend to repeat things they read and fantasy has been dominated by an Anglo-European mold for decades. When trying to break listeners of that habit, we’re necessarily going to have to compare things to Europe. That’s why Brandon said that bit about how the Europeans tried to pretend that MezoAmerica was less advanced and that this persists until today.

              By the way you’re right that when Guns, Germs and Steel came up, I should have mentioned that it’s been cited for being Eurocentric. It went through my mind, but I couldn’t remember the name of the alternate text (and still can’t) fast enough.

  7. Jonah, the argument presented, is that geography provided key advantages to people living in Europe. Those geographical advantages did not exist outside of Europe. And it’s those disparities of geographical advantages which explains the outcomes of history. This argument is a rebuke of Eurocentrism, not endorsement.

    1. That was totally MY thinking as well. 19th-century Europeans thought they were superior because they were whiter and smarter and whatever. Today we’re under the impression that they were lucky several times in a row.

  8. I’m taking the liberty of removing a long, mean-spirited “fisking,” and simply providing some good references from someone who disagreed with us, and took issue with this episode.

    As should be obvious from the comments here, writers should do their homework.

    Craig A. Lockard. “The Sea Common to All”: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, ca. 1400-1750. Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 219-247.

    D. Lewis. “Voyaging Stars: Aspects of Polynesian and Micronesian Astronomy.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Vol. 276, No. 1257, The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World (May 2, 1974), pp. 133-148.

    Glenn Petersen. “Indigenous Island Empires: Yap and Tonga Considered.” The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jun., 2000), pp. 5-27.

    Ben R. Finney. “Voyaging Canoes and the Settlement of Polynesia.” Science, New Series, Vol. 196, No. 4296 (Jun. 17, 1977), pp. 1277-1285.

    Roxani Eleni Margariti. “Mercantile Networks, Port Cities, and “Pirate” States: Conflict and Competition in the Indian Ocean World of Trade before the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 51, No. 4 (2008), pp. 543- 577.

    Philippe Beaujard and S. Fee. “The Indian Ocean in Eurasian and African World-Systems before the Sixteenth Century.” Journal of World History, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec., 2005), pp. 411-465.

    Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf, 2005.

    James Lockhart and Stuart Schwartz, Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    John H. Rowe. “The Inca civil war and the establishment of Spanish power in Peru.” Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology. No. 28 (2006), pp. 1-9.

    Brian S. Bauer, Madeleine Halac-Higashimori, Gabriel E. Cantarutti. “Vilcabamba and the Fall of the Inca Empire”. Voices from Vilcabamba: Accounts Chronicling the Fall of the Inca Empire. University Press of Colorado, 2016. 3–22.

  9. Regarding Eurocentrism: It’s difficult to not sound Eurocentric when talking about how Europeans did, in point of actual fact, roll over the Americas over the course of three centuries. They did so with such vigor that the vast majority of what was lost has been lost—completely—and we must depend on the science of forensic archaeology to tell us who these people were.

    Perhaps we could have qualified every statement with something that underscored the magnitude of the tragedy from the perspective of the Mesoamericans and North American natives, but the ice is so very thin there’s really no way to skate across it safely.

    Especially not in a 15-minute off-the-cuff discussion.

    Listeners may not know this, but at live events when a guest joins us for a wildcard topic, Brandon, Mary, Dan, and I come into the subject completely cold, with no more than 10 minutes of notice, and certainly no time to haul out a reference library. We do our best with what we know, and we follow where the guest leads us.

    For my own part, over the last 18 months I’ve consumed hundreds of hours of documentaries related pretty closely to this topic. With half a day to prepare, I could have come up with a long list on non-Conquistadorish examples of environmental effects on culture. The power of salt in the African and Mediterranean world is a fascinating subject, and we could have spent half the episode talking about how this resource drove trade routes across what is arguably the most dangerous terrain on the planet.

    Sadly, that’s not the episode we got to record.

    1. Hi all,
      As a world history professor who teaches and writes about the issues you have been discussing I am at one level impressed with how nuanced your discussion has been and concerned about some of the historical inaccuracies. Although Jared Diamond’s work has much to recommend it, his analysis is flawed on several levels. We can’t get into all of those, but lets name the most important. He is a rather extreme environmental determinist. Obviously, the environment does constrain human activity, but it does not determine it. The lesson to be learned from the Norte Chico in Peru and the societies of Mesopotamia, among others, is that humans are very effective at manipulating their environment. The native peoples of the new world did not develop widespread use of the wheel (even though the Maya had toys with wheels on them) because they didn’t have large draft animals to pull carts (as Diamond says) and because they simply did not need them. The Aztec, the Maya, and the Inca had plenty of human porters to carry their goods over difficult terrain. Human porters were simply more efficient than wheeled vehicles would have been. For the same reason the wheel disappeared from Mesopotamia and North Africa after the introduction of the camel (See Richard Bulliet’s book The Camel and the Wheel). When the Spaniards arrived, they quickly abandoned use of the wheel in favor of native porters until many decades later when they had constructed roads intended for wheeled vehicles. We could go on to challenge his assertions about writing and guns (which were so ineffective for the first hundred years of contact that they had little or no effect), ect. We should also challenge the notion that Europeans simply rolled over native societies, because it is not true. This perspective emerged from Eurocentric justifications for conquest and ignores historical reality. Native peoples actively pursued their own interests in the conquest period and were very adept at manipulating Europeans. The Tlaxcalans made the conquest of Tenochitlan possible because they were removing a dangerous political rival. In Cortes’s final assault on Tenochtitlan, he brought with him over 200,000 native allies who did most of the fighting and dying. Pizarro marched on Cuzo with tens of thousands of native allies. Lewis and Clark manage to cross the continent because of native assistance and because of their young guide Sacagawea. An Inca ruled the Incan empire until 1572. The last independent Mayan state was not destroyed until the 1860s. The Auracanians of Chile fought the Spaniards to a stand still for 300 years. The list could go on and on. The crucial historical detail that permitted the European conquest of native peoples in the Americas but not in Africa or Asia for at least another 300 years was disease. Societies that experience over 90% mortality are not in much of a position to control events.

      So, put simply, most of what the general public thinks they know about the conquest period is the fanciful creation of ethnocentric Europeans who were desperate to control the narrative so that they could avoid prosecution for their often illegal actions and secure the profits from their enterprises. We have uncritically accepted these narratives for over five hundred years. It is time we corrected our narrow visions of the past. If truth matters at all, certainly it should be sacred when we discuss the past.

      For more on these issues see Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquests and my forthcoming book Columbus and his First Voyage: A History in Documents. (Oct. 2016)

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