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Home Away from Home: Writing about Housing in Science Fiction and Fantasy

June 13, 2017



A human visits Anonijeshiris, the homeworld of the Anoni aliens in Chronicles of Everen universe, and meets a friend. They invite them over for dinner and shocked to find they have a hard time getting into their friend's apartment. They don't have stairs leading to the lofty apartment. Why do they need it? The Anoni fly to the balcony entrances of their homes. Better hope their friend lives on the lowest level, the less desirable housing for their people.


Continuing on a series about using Anthropology for world building in science fiction and fantasy, this week I thought it'd be fun to talk about housing.


Different people will have different kind of housing. The architecture of that home, and what they'll find comfortable, is not only determined by culture but also their physiology.


The Anoni example above exhibits a bit of both. Culturally, they view the higher apartments as more desirable. Probably in part like how some cultures value the penthouse for it's breathtaking view but also because the Anoni people value strength and lack of physical weakness. An unhealthy winged person would have trouble getting to the top floor and therefore a lower leveled home would be seen as a place for the infirm.


Inside, you'll find the ceilings are higher, furniture is often placed not just at floor level but couches attached to the walls. Why not use all the space? This emerges from a physiological need for space to stretch wings and a mindset that sees movement as possible both on the horizontal and vertical.


This is one example of how both the culture of your people and their physiology can offer some interesting housing ideas.


Nomadic versus Sedentary


One cultural aspect that will have a lot to do with the housing is whether or not your people are nomadic, people who live on the move, or sedentary, people who live in cities, towns, and generally in one place.


In archaeology, one of the things we look for to determine whether or not a people were nomadic or sedentary is the shape of the house. Round homes are often put together more quickly while homes that are squares, rectangles, and homes in those variety of shapes, are a clue that the people are likely sedentary because of the effort and stability of those kinds of homes.


While this obviously wouldn't apply to people that are nomadic living on ships (both water and space), if your world has a people who live on the move, they'll likely put less effort into a temporary living space. The exception would be if they take those living spaces with them. In which case, they'll make sure their homes and possessions inside are easily moved.


Both nomads and sedentary people have advantages and disadvantages and it's important to stress that neither is better than the other. Cities have more crime and disease. They're also more susceptible to resource shortages if they over-harvest. Nomads have to rely on their knowledge of their surroundings because choosing to move to the wrong place, or not moving in time, might result in the death of most or all of their group from elements or lack of resources.


Because so much relies on moving at the right time, nomads might have a system in place of when to move. If it's in space, it might be less to do with the weather but maybe an ideological reason.


Another example from later in the Chronicles of Everen universe, the Hapsumtians are nomadic space-faring people. They have several tribes who move within a single solar system. They base their movements on a complex calculations of stars and planetary movement. This system likely developed when a planet's conditions made moving necessary but now they have integrated it into their animistic (that is, they believe everything has a spirit) beliefs.


It Takes a Village


Another thing that might affect housing in your worlds is how close-knit your people's communities are. In some societies, the very idea of privacy doesn't exist. Everyone is family and children are raised by everyone. People share all of their food and goods with each other.


In other societies, there are strict rules about who can enter what space. Spaces can be gendered or there might be a specific hut or house away from the rest of the others for when women are menstruating.


If the closeness of a society changes in the course of your story, it can have side-effects and create turmoil in the society (something that could be interesting plot problems for you.) For example, anthropologists studied a group of people that within a single lifetime, they went from nomadic to sedentary. People who never before hid anything from each other had to adjust to housing where there was privacy. It created conflict where the people started to accuse each other of hiding things from each other and sometimes resulted in hording and hiding resources that otherwise was shared before. It even affected the sexuality of the people who when from being open to the topic to a new concept of jealousy.


Symbolism in Architecture


Do your people have a particular way the doors have to face in every home? Is there something special they place in the walls of the home? Maybe there's an artistic meaning to the stained glass they use.


Architecture is an art in of itself and people love expressing themselves through their homes. Your world and culture will probably have their own things that they do that has symbolic meaning that may or may not be known by an outsider. It can be religious, some symbol of national pride, or maybe a custom started because the great Fairy King did it once several generations ago and people copied him.


Try to think of some interesting things that you could add to the housing of your people and come up with a few ideas of why they do it that way. It will help remind your readers that this world isn't the same as theirs and bring more depth to the world you've created.


Physical Comfort


So imagine you have a person in your story who's a demon, a people who have tails and like to climb, or maybe a people with claw-like hands. Maybe that person with a tail could live in a normal home but if we're in a culture where they've developed the homes, they might add some details we don't have for comfort. So maybe the demon has his house made so it's a kiln inside or the claw-handed people have specialized door knobs.


When you're writing about people who are physically different, it deserves an extra moment to consider how they might develop their homes based on their physiology. Werecats might like having perches on the walls, maybe big windows to look out, and, while we're at it, a big sandbox for a bathroom with replacable panels of scratchy cardboard? We're not even going to talk about the catnip-filled sunroom the nobles attach to their houses.


Environmental Factor


A house, at it's most basic, is protection from the elements in the environment. This can have a lot to do with the homes. A house in the swamps might be built on stilts. Maybe there's bridge-like highways that lead to each house.


It also changes what resources are available for building houses. If there are very few trees, you might find more clay or brick homes. Even if there previously was a lot of trees in the area, large populations can dwindle the number of trees available for lumber.


People who live on the move will probably choose things like waddle and daub (sticks and mud) or housing that can be taken apart (Like Mongolian Gers) to be taken with them. Since they haven't settled to make quarries and lumber mills, that also affects how processed the materials will be.


And finally, back to symbolism, they may choose certain materials for cultural reasons. Glass isn't the most efficient building material but modern homes often feature walls of it for cultural aesthetics.



Questions to Think About:


Do your people live in one place or do they move?

If they're nomadic, how do they determine when it's time to move?

Do they return to certain places at certain times of year or is it always a new spot?

If you have a people who are not physically the same as humans, come up with one difference the housing might have to accommodate that change.

How much privacy does is expected among your culture?

Can someone walk right into the home and be welcome or would that result in a body?

Do they share and share alike or do they have a strong sense of 'mine' and 'yours'?

How would the culture adjust and how might things be different if you switched them from living in one place (sedentary) to nomadic (maybe by force or natural conditions) or nomadic to sedentary?

Do they have gendered spaces?

Is there places where only certain people are allowed to go?

Who are they and why?

What are some symbolic features or ideas (like living on the bottom floor is for the feeble) are connected with the architecture?

How did these symbols become the norm for these people's houses?

Would an outsider understand the symbolism of these differences?

What building materials are available to build with?

How does environment play into what materials they use and how ample are these materials?


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