Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

World Building

When we sit down to write a novel, we start with a blank page. The world we create can take any shape we like. It doesn’t need to have our rules. It doesn’t need to have our history. The only constraint is our lack of imagination.

Oh, but what a constraint this is. Our imaginations aren’t very good at conjuring up worlds dissimilar to the ones we know. When we create new lifeforms, they tend to look and act pretty much like us. When we predict the future, we tend to be too optimistic about some kinds of progress and technology, while being way too pessimistic about advancements we can’t seem to imagine. True world-building is hard. In reality as well as in fiction.

If you created a world from scratch, what kinds of rules would you create? How different would it be from our world? How different from the American constitution?

We change our rules slowly and begrudgingly, even when the answer is obvious. It’s partly because our imaginations are poor, and partly because of the heavy weight of existing systems and biases. Many of the American founders wrote poetically about the equality of all men, but pragmatically settled on a compromise with the southern states to retain slavery in their new government. Again, a blank page isn’t as blank as we imagine. We bring all our old thoughts and knowledge with us.

How would we structure our government today if we were starting from scratch? Would we really come up with an electoral college, where votes count more based on land area rather than people? Would we enshrine gun rights in a world where governments have tanks and flying bombers? Or would we need to arm people with tanks and nukes to keep ourselves safe? Would we make voting as difficult as it is today? Or would we make it more difficult? Would we lay out our infrastructure based on car ownership? Or some other means of transportation? What would our cities look like? How would the internet work?

What we have today is a mish-mash of what’s come before, much of it hammered roughly into place. For a country based on cries of equality, we’ve had to constantly amend our constitution to include more people in that universal claim. The Supreme Court has several times declared that we aren’t all equal. Wouldn’t this be one of the first unbendable rules we’d create?

The reason I read and write science fiction is that the genre allows us to explore these questions. The future as a blank canvas … this is what I spend a lot of my time thinking about. Inspiration often comes from questioning something we all take for granted. My newest short stories came about as I questioned the notion of inheritance. It started with this idea: What if we had an inheritance tax of 100%? What if every penny you owned went to the state the day you died?

The reaction most people have to this question is anger and barely controlled violence. People want to leave their things to their loved ones, and they often rely on acquired inheritance to pay off lifelong debts. But let’s think about it for a moment. Because everything would change if we couldn’t control where our money went after we died. And if we had all the things we could fund by wiping out generational wealth.

First, let’s think about the children of wealthy parents who balk at the notion of not getting a huge lump sum one day. For most of these kids, a 100% inheritance tax would be a massive gift to them. Rather than hoarding away their money in large piles until the day they died, wealthy parents would suddenly feel the pressure to provide more to their kids while they are still alive. The threat of losing it all to the government would loosen most pursestrings immediately. And wealthy kids don’t seem to get that many of them will be in their 60s, 70s, or 80s by the time they inherit anything. With a total inheritance tax in place, parents would be transferring money to their kids immediately, funding college, investment accounts, providing housing, everything they can. So the fears of trustfund kids is unfounded. The results would often be the opposite of what they imagine.

Now think about it from the wealthy parents’ point of view. I had a long talk with a friend of mine who grew up poor and had to fight and scrape for everything he has. So did his wife. Both were successful and managed to save and acquire several million dollars of combined assets. They have three kids, and they wrestled with how best to make sure their kids didn’t suffer undue hardships, but that their kids also learned the lessons of independence that they had. How could they take care of them without spoiling them?

Their solution was to let the kids know from the earliest of days — as they were first learning about money as kids — that they would be taken care of until they graduated high school, and that their college would be paid for, but no other money would be coming their way. They’d be on their own. They’d need to plan for their futures. Don’t expect a windfall late in life, and don’t expect handouts or help with the bills throughout life. Here are some solid values and lessons, here is a college education, you can handle this, prepare yourselves.

It seems like a fair balance. A complete inheritance tax would annoy the vast majority of wealthy people, but some would probably find on further reflection a hidden benefit or two. Questions on how not to leave too much would no longer drive a wedge between family members. Everyone would know not to expect a windfall late in life.

Those are the outlying cases, of course. The people who have vast sums. Wouldn’t this really punish those who have very little and rely on inheritance to get out of debt late in life? This is where our lack of imagination traps us inside a system that benefits the wealthy few. Those of us who know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck will suffer a system that gives us a glimmer of hope for a big payout one day. A lottery win. A wealthy aunt or uncle. We want a big pile shoved our way. Why? Because housing is expensive, healthcare is onerous, and college debt is crushing.

Let’s go back to our blank page for a moment and talk about building a world. We might build a world like we have today, where most people are born into poverty, where the middle class barely exists anymore, and these people live with the stress of making ends meet, they acquire debt in the form of credit cards, college loans, and mortgages. And when they are sixty years old, they might get a lump sum that erases most of that debt, just in time to build up a tiny lump sum to leave to their kids, who have been struggling and acquiring the same debts right behind them.

That’s one way. Here’s another:

Every person is born into a world where college is free, healthcare is free, and housing is guaranteed. Those debts will never accrue. You’ll never have to make those payments. If any unlucky accident happens to you, you’ll get patched up without a bill. If you want to get a college degree, you just need to make the grades and get admission. If you can’t afford a mortgage or your rent, there are non-stigmatized rooms waiting for you. All of it is funded by a 100% inheritance tax and higher taxes on luxury goods.

What fascinates me is not that the latter system makes more sense, but that human psychology would still have most people choose the former system. Our current system. Even many of those who have to struggle to make those payments, and who acquire those debts, have an animalistic attraction to an unfair system that rewards luck and handouts to a system of equal opportunity. An entire blog post could be written on why I think this is. Part of it is that we live in a diverse society, and for many the assumption is that people of a different demographic will gain more power in this new system. Part of it is the irrational belief people have that it’ll be them who gets lucky and wins a fortune, and they want an unfair system to step inside once they join the club. Whatever these psychological failings, it creates a system that harms those who keep voting to maintain that system.

My upcoming short stories in the Dystopian Triptych coming out next month are about inheritance, and they were inspired by these economic musings. In this future world I’ve built, a medical researcher has discovered a way to unlock a newborn’s full potential. With a bit of DNA manipulation, their every dial and knob is turned up to the max, so you get the most physically and intellectually gifted version of that child and that adult. It’s the gift that every parent dreams of, for their kids to maximize their potential.

Of course, the people who can afford this procedure are already those with the most to leave their kids. The gap between the haves and have nots is going to become a chasm. This researcher quickly realizes this and decides to go rogue. She destroys her notes and takes her procedure underground. She starts giving this gift to the very poor. The idea is to level the playing field. Since we refuse to distribute money fairly, she has found another way to tilt the scales back toward equality. The children of the poor will soon catch up. They’ll become the leaders and the wealthy of tomorrow. And someone else will get this gift of hers.

But of course it’s not that easy. Because the people with money and power aren’t going to stand by while their advantages are eroded away. They’re going to attempt to wipe out these upstarts and steal the process for themselves. They want it all. One advantage is not enough.

The scariest thing about writing these stories is that they feel entirely believable to me. Like the dystopian works I love to read, they don’t seem to have come from a blank page, but from the world in which we live. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about our current systems. If I were designing a world from scratch, it would be a lot different from our world. One of my foundational rules would be that there could be no profit from suffering. Prisons, healthcare, military contractors, could not make a penny. Because the incentive becomes to have more inmates, more procedures, and more war. A lesson capitalism teaches but then does all the wrong things about.

There would be no inheritance in the world I’d build. But there would also not be so much debt accrued by basic human needs. Doing this would prevent money from pooling up in static, stagnant accounts. There would be inherent pressure for that money to flow and change hands, to never sit still, which is what drives a vibrant economy and creates widespread wealth. Right now we have wealthy people buying artwork that sits unseen in warehouses because they’ve run out of viable investments. That does not create jobs. Handouts to the wealthy does not create jobs. More money injected to the bottom is what drives spending and boosts everyone’s fortunes.

In my world, where you were born would be irrelevant to where you can choose to live. As long as you pay your taxes and obey the laws, you can go live anywhere you choose. We hear much about the benefits of competition among businesses, but we rarely espouse the same forces among geography. And we often hear the dangers of allowing new people into our society, but we are free to have as many children as we like. Why do we fear the former and not the latter? I have guesses, and they aren’t flattering.

What about you? What things in our current systems of governance make little sense to you? What kind of world would you paint on a blank canvas? Unleash your imagination. Assume everything you currently believe is wrong. And then start writing.

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11 replies to “World Building”

I disagree with a lot of what our current administration is doing, although I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem.

First thing I’d advocate: I’d renew the militia act.

Our second amendment has always started, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” and in 1792 this was accompanied by the Militia Act, requiring all able-bodied males between the ages of 14 and 40 to serve in the militia.

We are not Democrats. We are not Republicans. We are Americans. I believe we would be more unified on every front if we trained and served through a militia training program. Instead of requiring all citizens to serve, I would put some caveats.

All citizens shall report for militia training (14-20 for the first 2 years). That includes military style basic training, fire arms training, military history, and United States history as told through the military in the first year. The second year would be serving either in a military setting, disaster recovery, medical capacity, or another civil service program. Funneling into the military would also be an option.

At the end of a 2 year-period, all servicemen and women have the opportunity to pursue a specialized career based on skills uncovered by the training. This would not require citizens to pursue a path outlined by the military, it is simply a funnel for those unsure of their direction. If you have a job and you want to work, great. If you get into MIT or you want to study nursing at your local community college, great. Do it.

By completing your 2 years you have gone through training, and provided one year of service. In my book you have earned the right to basic housing, a public option for healthcare, and a guaranteed education based on your natural talents as determined by the United States military.

The American Militia act of 2020.

Just a draft idea.

How about if we take your idea and instead of teaching our young people to fight, we teach them to explore the arts. Everyone gets a basic exposure to music, painting, dance, playwriting, sculpture, and fiction. You find out what you’re great at creating, and choose how to spend your two years. When you’re done, you may choose to be an artist. Or anything else. You still get your guaranteed basic income, housing, healthcare, and education.

Imagine a world where we didn’t spend our resources and our young people’s bodies trying to defend imaginary boundaries and kill other people.

Something from psychology that explains a lot about our current world is the principle that an intermittent reward is more powerfully reinforcing than a constant reward. The classic experiment is where you give rats a piece of food when they press a lever. Some rats get food every time and some rats get food only randomly and occasionally when they push the lever. The difference is that if you stop giving food altogether, the rats who got food every time quickly lose interest in the lever, whereas the rats who got food randomly and occasionally will keep pushing the lever for days. That is because they were taught that if it does not work, push it again.

If you step back and look at our world, you can see how this principle drives so much of human behavior. From porn addictions, gambling, online dating, video games, to televised sports and all kinds of consumption and shopping, the rewards are intermittent and often unpredictable, which keeps us all pushing our levers convinced that the next time we will be rewarded.

I wonder if that is why the current system of inheritance is so popular. We are conditioned to believe that eventually we will be rewarded, and the bigger the potential reward, the more we are willing to put up with unfair and dysfunctional systems. We do not have to always even have experienced a reward ourselves, but just to have seen someone else win a literal or metaphorical lottery is enough to hook us into pushing the same old levers.

I’ve thought a lot about this, and work in the social service industry. So I’m with the havenot tier of society everyday. My big idea was Star Trek replicators (or what could really happen: atomic printers, have a cartridge full of various atoms that constructs whatever you want). What the replicator would do is create a system where everyone had all their basic needs met. They can print food, clothes, homes, etc. Then capitalism would rear it’s ugly head, and there would be subscription based services for access to the latest Louis Vuitton prints. So it works like this: You’re done with dinner? Deatomize the plates and forks and those atoms go back into the pool for everyone’s use (think of it like electricity, except law makers decide access to this grid of atoms is a human right so free). Take a poo? Wohoo, more atoms to turn into crispy bacon!

So, in this system there are of course free blueprints uploaded by social services, your government cheese, goodwill t-shirts, etc. There is a ten by ten cube for every person on the planet to fill with their stuff (families add ten by ten per person). So now everyone has food, shelter, free entertainment, etc. Now in this atomic printer world, bones, organs, even cells could be printed into the body (sorry surgeons, you’ve been replaced by technicians), so medical procedures are so cheap they are a human right, so free. Now you have food, shelter, medical.

That leaves transportation and connectivity. We got all these other human rights, why not internet access and self driving transports in the city? Okay, all the basics covers. Food, shelter, medical, connectivity, and transportation.

How do we pay for it? Nip some defense spending (do we really need 7 secret warplane projects? Why not pick the best two?). Medical is cheap now, goodbye medicare and medicad. Basic needs are met, goodbye social services (I’m out of a job!). (Maybe keep the mental health ones, those are important and not accounted for yet).

So finally, the most terrifying words to a Republican, what would people do for jobs! Egad! Why would people work in this system that takes care of everyone? Simple, they want their Louis Vuitton monthly subscription, or they like to travel, or they can’t go without their Red Robin pepper bacon explosion. Or FOX charges a subscription to watch The Masked Singer (if they are smart, they’d give it away for free with commercials and upgrade for ad free). The point is the people who want to work will do it to get Kraft Mac and Cheese rather than Free Blueprint Mac and Cheese. (Oh business owners, because basic needs are met, you can probably get rid of minimum wage. The poor barista’s will suffer because they are only getting $3 an hour, but they are only working a couple of hours a month because they can’t stand ads during The Masker Singer. They have to know now!)

Anyhoo (self promotion warning), I fictionalized this world in a book called, The Robin Hood of Couches. It starts off with a guy going broke and then his couch and all his stuff disappears when he can’t pay the monthly fees. I only mention it, because I detail the system more thoroughly in the book.

I like the thought of 100% inheritance tax, but what if a parent died suddenly ? Oh no! I didn’t transfer enough of my wealth to my child, because they were only 13 and I didn’t want them to spend it all on Buscemi 100 MM Diamond sneakers ($132,000)!! Oh well. Parent dies suddenly and child loses it all. That seems unfair.

Every person gets a free college education and complete healthcare coverage for life. Seems like the guarantee is worth more than the hypothetical and rare loss.

Not to mention that the parents could gradually transfer some of their wealth into the child’s name while they were still alive. If there was a 100% inheritance tax, then any wealthy parent would probably start taking advantage of the opportunity to transfer some of that wealth starting at their child’s birth.

This. Is. Great. Perspective. Thanks for putting it into words and posting for the world to see. I have distributed all of my liquid assets to my three sons so they have the money now rather than waiting until my death in 25-30 years. My only request was that they use it for housing, health care, and education (no imported luxury vehicles).

I like Will’s idea of the militia act. I’ve always been a fan of how Israel does it. Everyone should serve and be exposed to the very real dangers of this world. There’s a reason we “defend imaginary boundaries” and that reason is that in much of the world, even so called “civilized” countries, people behave like animals. They do not value life, they do not value honesty, and as for tolerance, they possess none. Romanticizing people based on their colorful woven clothes on the cover of People magazine or a rug in an art book won’t teach you that. They do not live as we do. In the near east, a man will murder his daughter for kissing the boy next door, then he will gather his male family members and rape the boy. Got a problem with that? We’ll just tie your hands behind your back, slip a tire around your waist and set it on fire. These people do not dwell on social justice or their socioeconomic standing.
Think I’m a mean guy? Think I’m making this up? It happens, REGULARLY and it happened in the US more than a few times after we allowed an influx of refugees. That’s why we have borders and soldiers. To keep our culture and values from being overrun and destroyed.

The most natural and successful system of life is one where everyone respects the rights and property of others and pursues their own self interests. Whether you’re a lion on the plains of Africa, a Neanderthal in 45,000BC or an artist on the streets of St. Augustine, when we all do what we do without interference, it works fantastic and its worked for millions of years! Some people could care less about money…awesome!! You do you! Literally every attempt to control, force or guide an ecosystem or economy by other means ends in disaster. It is the resourceful, capitalistic mind that finds a way to undercut the big guy and keep monopolies from forming to take advantage of people. It is government that creates those unfair advantages. The only foil to capitalism is when a shrewd business man packs a suitcase full of cash and goes to Washington, D.C. and gets politicians to implement a rule that creates an unfair advantage to the big guy. It unbalances the whole thing. Anyone remember the Insurance industry complaining about Obamacare forcing Americans to buy insurance? Neither do I. Where do you think they got that idea? Who got paid? The government is a tool used by cheaters to KEEP YOU OUT and keep you from competing with them. They pay politicians to create rules that are impossible for a small guy to follow and licenses you can’t possibly afford. They do it all under the guise of “helping” you.
Sorry this is so ugly folks, but its the hard truth. We stand on top of 50,000 years of civil development. The US and capitalism are the shining result, the pinnacle achievement, of all that trial and error. Its all been done. When you have an idea you need only look to history to see how it turned out. Except open borders. No one’s been that….adventurous…yet.

No one owes anyone an education, healthcare, a salary, their inheritance or one red cent. We could divide up all the money in America right now and in a couple years, the rich would be rich and the poor would be broke and in debt up to their eyeballs again.
You keep looking for some deep systemic contrivance or vaunted academic theory to “save you from the injustices foisted upon you”, but the fact is ITS YOUR FAULT. YOU are the problem.

How about…..stop borrowing money to live above your means and then hoping an inheritance is going to save you? (The crowd gasps at the audacity) I didn’t need a PhD in Sociology or Economics to figure that out.

All I needed was an 8th grade education, an unstoppable work ethic and this BANGING ESTATE ON 10 ACRES!! Which I did not inherit. I earned it. It represents the pinnacle of MY achievement thus far. You have no idea how hard I’ve worked for this over the past 35 years and you should take a minute or two to imagine the things I’d do to defend it.

I owe you nothing.

Change your life. Learn to manage your money. Read Richest Man in Babylon. Stop blaming rich people for your inability to balance a checkbook and care for your own basic needs. Stop making bad emotional decisions that will only make life more difficult for yourself.

You’re welcome,
Dad