Last year I heard some excellent advice from Melissa Marr at a book signing she was holding. She said to read something from every section of the bookstore, not just the section that is most obviously related to one's own writing genre.
This month that advice took me to the “inventions” section of the library. I pulled out a giant book on ancient inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe which is conveniently called “Ancient Inventions.” The book is all about the technologies, medical practices, agriculture, etc of ancient cultures around the world.
It's fascinating stuff! Did you know that in the last few centuries BC the Hindus were perfecting rhinoplasty? Or that the Incans built a suspension bridge of twisted plant fibers that lasted 500 years? Or that the ancient Chinese already knew how to make magnetic compasses for navigation? Or that anthropologists have found evidence that people in Baghdad created the first batteries millennia ago? I am truly amazed.
And of course, all of this has got me thinking. How might cultures develop differently on another world? Earth's technological history is already written (at least to this point), but reading through this book I could easily imagine that history might have turned out differently had people used their inventions in slightly different ways.
Which leads me to wonder how I might design the cultures in a fictional world according to believable technological advancements that are nonetheless different from any recognizable period in earth's history. So often the worlds we design are created out of genre paradigms. Take epic fantasy, for example. There is no written rule that other-world fantasy must occur in a medieval setting, and yet nearly every such fantasy follows that trend.
I think this is what makes Steampunk so interesting to some people: the whole concept is based on manipulating the technology of the Victorian age. And yet the idea has been used so often now that even Steampunk has become set in its ways.
So what can we create that is completely unique? Reading this book has given me a few ideas (and I'm only three chapters in!), but I'm sure doing even more research will lead in new directions. How about a city in the jungle that has a vast system of cables and pulleys and wooden gears and operates on steam power? Or what about a desert community that harnesses electricity for lights and distance communication but that has little else in the way of advanced technology.
I know I would love to read about cities like those. Maybe other people would too. What sort of cities would you want to see?