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Ravages of Honor: Handwavium Part 4, The Concept of Generations

Worldbuilding isn’t just about establishing how the hyperdrive works or how the government works. It’s about establishing the “social” and “girl cootie” aspects of how their world works, since demography is destiny (to quote philosopher Auguste Comte). Some people dismiss this as “social scifi” as if it somehow makes it less scientific and unworthy of the title. They are wrong.

When I was creating (handwaving into existence) the donai, I didn’t expect the “rule of cool” concept of “ooh, genetically engineered samurai” to lead down the rabbit holes that it did. 

One of those rabbit holes had to do with age disparities in a long-lived species and how to deal with the ick-factor brought on by the so-called “creepiness formula” which states that a person can only date/marry someone who is at least half their own age plus seven years.

What that means is that if you’re 30, the formula says that you shouldn’t date someone who is younger than 22. Why 22? Because (30)(.5)+7=15+7=22.

Even though it’s a made-up world, we have to deal with two things. 

  • The first has to do with suspension of disbelief which is dependent on things making sense. And the more you know, the harder that is. (Trust me on this. I’m quite ignorant when it comes to historical fashion which is why I can enjoy The Tudors more than my friends who know a lot about fashion history.) 
  • The second has to do with social mores or acceptance of certain practices and it’s a lot more ingrained than one would expect.

Case in point, the number of people complaining about Edward being so old as compared to Bella in Twilight. Ridiculous really, since it was dealt with up front. 

“How old are you?” 
“How long have you been seventeen?” 

the movie

The idea of vampires being static, i.e. not aging, not maturing, being anachronistic because they are frozen in place, etc. is a trope of the vampire genre (and some others as well).

Edward may have come across as too mature for a contemporary seventeen-year-old boy, but that too was dealt with. He was an artifact of his own time, the turn of the 20th century, when a 17-yo was a man, not a boy. He grew up in a world and in circumstances where a 17-yo was far more mature than the 17-yo of today.

The very same people (the ones who have a problem with this) have no problem with a science fiction story where some guy goes on ice (stasis or cryogenic suspension) and then boings a girl/woman who could easily be his great-granddaughter. Yet the same situation applies, a stasis or developmental pause that is not just physical but mental. And it makes sense in both situations. If vampires don’t age it stands to reason that their brains don’t age either, which is why they’re not grumpy old men yelling at clouds or at kids to get off their lawns.

(I wrote about this from a more general perspective about a year ago. Vampirism and Other Afflictions)

But it still presented a problem for my worldbuilding, and not because I figured some might object. It was one of those things I had to figure out, if only for myself.

So I started off by looking into how generations were defined. I had always assumed (been taught?) that generations were twenty years. Well, there are generations and then there are generations. Obviously I’m not talking about the “Gen X” type of generation, i.e. a group of people born in a certain decade.

I reached out to one of my doctor friends, as one does, and got quite an education on the more scientific definition. Long story short, generations are determined by how long a woman is fertile.

Menarche typically occurs between the ages of 10 and 16, with the average age of onset being 12.4 years.—NIH
The menopausal transition most often begins between ages 45 and 55.—NIH

Oh no! We’re in girl cootie territory again! Surely this can’t have anything to do with “real science fiction.”

Sure it does. 

So let’s go with 50 as the end of fertility and 15 as the start of it (because of the lack of regular periods at the onset of 12.4 years) which gives us a nice number like 50-15=35. (Or if we go with 55, we get 40; either way that’s much longer than the 20-yr span I thought it must be).

Keep in mind now, this is for handwavium, for a made-up world, so don’t waggle your finger at me about how a real biologist might do this. I’m using this as a launching pad for my handwavium. My handwavium may be crunchy, but not so crunchy that it’s no longer handwavium.

Now, this period of fertility is obviously dependent on life span as well, so if you live at a time when 30 was your expected life span, it would be 30-15=15 and then also factor in that percentage body fat is a factor so girls who don’t live in industrialized first-world countries or who lived when they couldn’t accumulate enough body fat by age 12, would have later menarche-onset dates. It’s entirely possible that at one point in history, the fertility period (generation) was between 18 and 30 due to limits of body fat percentages and life expectancy, so 12 years. 

Apply the creepiness formula to that and you can see why a 30-yo man paired with a 22-yo woman wouldn’t make sense or be typical, but a 30-yo man paired with a younger woman makes far more sense. And then factor in the number of deaths due to childbirth on top of that. If you’re not glad that you’re living today instead of way back then, you should be. (Backwards time-traveling heroines notwithstanding).

This is why we shouldn’t judge the past by our own distorted modern lens. Things happened for reasons (usually) that have everything to do with rules imposed by nature, not because of The Patriarchy (TM) or whatever the hate-on is for today.

Once you start looking at things with an eye towards impositions made by nature, the world-building gets rigorous, i.e. your scifi elements aren’t just a thin skin or veneer for your fiction.

For the donai, this meant that I could not use generations at all. When the women that are able to have babies are an anomaly due to errors in genetic coding and only have a handful of fertile cycles, then there is no concept of generations. There can’t be. 

But it’s not enough to just say and handwave it away. It should be, but it’s not. You need more because of that issue of “aging” in terms of maturity, i.e. old man yells at cloud. The social derision for an older partner comes from the objection that a mature person is taking advantage of an immature one, even if the immature one is 22 and well into being considered an adult whose choices we shouldn’t question due to agency, respect, blah-whatever-blah. Having it both ways, aren’t we?

I see this derision all the time, especially when an older man is dating a much younger woman. We all assume she’s the poor victim and he’s taking advantage of her. Less so if the older partner is a woman for some reason. Now, there’s some sexism for ya!

So how to deal with it in-world for Ravages of Honor?

It turns out I already had a built-in answer, one I didn’t even think of when I created them. 

Since the donai can live for centuries (How many? I don’t know yet and won’t until I have written it.) and their nanite symbionts keep them in a semi-perpetual middle-age1 for most of their lives, it follows that we have that “stuck at seventeen” or static stage of life like vampires where the character doesn’t transition to the old-man-yelling-at-cloud phase, i.e. senescence.

Being aware of potential objections made by readers is very helpful, maybe even key, when it comes to rigor. Yes, it means that you can’t just write what you want, and there are certainly times when you’ll want to ignore such “objections” (I certainly do) but it works oh-so-much better when you can head them off with something that makes sense.

For the record, in RoH, Syteria is, I would say, in her early twenties (or the in-world equivalent) with Darien being about ten years older (chronologically), which makes him very young for a donai. He is not even in that middle-age phase yet. If you were to do an apples-to-apples comparison, as in judging a human by human standards, and a donai by donai standards, she’s “older” than he is because humans age AND mature faster, whereas donai do not. 

By the way, I was stunned to learn that 20-30 is considered young adult and that middle age as we define it is 40-50. I guess when you don’t start being an adult until you’re 26 that makes sense, but it was still a shock. In my world (IRL), you were expected to act and function as an adult at about 13 and by that I mean in terms of responsibility and maturity, and not by being sexually active. Yes, I’m very Old World. Go figure!

Now that I’ve started RoH4 and it’s looking like a story where Lady Neria Bhanot and Lord Dobromil (Darien’s father) are going to be forging a new world order, the “May/September romance” question kicked in hard since he is much older. But it doesn’t matter for in-world reasons. People are free to screech about it of course, but that’s not really my problem.

[crossposted to Substack]

Side notes for writers:

This kind of thing is also why I’m glad I resisted the urge to explain, that practice of dumping information into the story when there really is no need for it other than for the author to masturbate on the page and show you how much thought she’s put into it. In fact, I have no less than three deleted scenes over the last three novels where I gave in to that urge and then in going back over it, ruthlessly cut myself out of it. It saved writing myself into a corner, and one of the reasons I continue to love close/deep point-of-view.

Word of caution. The scientific rigor is what throws such stories out of the Romance genre. Once you start making your story about the worldbuilding or the handwavium rather than the romantic relationship you have crossed into romantic subplot. You’re going to end up overplotting it (for a Romance) because in order for it to make sense you’re going to have to dramatize the “science” to the reader.

Sci-fi, Science, Science Fiction, Writing

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