Clay: the History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element
I’ve come to love books about ‘the history of stuff’. This is one of my favourites, full of insight and facts and some jolly good stories. If you spread all the clay in the world over the surface of the earth, it says, you would create a mile thick layer of mud. Little wonder such a common substance imbues so much of history and invention. That humans ever worked out how to fire it is amazing, but we did, and have used it for a seemingly endless myriad of purposes to this day.
A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900
T.K. Derry and Trevor I. Williams
I bought this book purely as research material, when I was building the world in the Age of the Five trilogy. While I don’t like to base any of my worlds on societies in ours, whether in the past or present, I do like to match the technology of the culture to ones similar to it in our history. So for the Age of the Five I chose a classical era, and needed to know what had been invented and, more importantly, what hadn’t, at that time. Of course, the book has proven to be a good resource for all of my stories, and I’m sure it will continue to be – so long as they’re set earlier than 1900, of course.
From Armageddon to the Fall of Rome: How the Ancient Warlords Changed the World
Jennifer Fallon recommended this book to me as a good one for research into battles and warfare. It’s a fun read, as the author can’t resist lapsing into descriptive prose now and then to evoke the tension, discomfort and fear of battle. The explanation of strategy and the sequence of events is clear and easy to follow, and there is plenty of inspiration for fantasy battle scenes within.
Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years
This fascinating book explores why some peoples of the world developed faster than others. In seeking the answer, the author explores many influences on humans, from those that benefited a particular culture to those that limited their growth. Reading through, I learned a great deal about many subjects I might not have explored – like agriculture and climate – and added to my knowledge of others. This book and the following book, Collapse, have been a great source of information and inspiration for my worlds.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
The natural follow-up to a book on how civilizations rise is one on how they fall. This book is as engrossing as its predecessor, yet it has even greater relevance to the world we live in today. It explores places and people of the ancient past as well as recent history, using them as examples of the many ways in which human societies fall. Again, I took a great deal from this book that has been and will be very useful in world building.
The World Without Us
The only book in this list that doesn’t have a subtitle! Though written by a different author, this book is a good continuation from the subject covered in Collapse. So what would happen if modern civilization collapsed? How quickly would our creations decay? What species of plants and animals would benefit and which would not? The television documentary based on the book concentrated mainly on what human creations would fail, and how quickly, (well, it did mean there could be lots of dramatic animations of bridges and buildings falling down) while the book is more rounded with it’s coverage of what would outlast us. The answer to that last question is both sinister and hopeful.
Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice
Nancy G. Siraisi
A friend and medieval historian, Gillian Polack, recommended this when I asked her to put me onto a book I could read in preparation for fleshing out the Healing profession in The Magician’s Apprentice. It was a fascinating but also slightly horrifying read, that made me appreciate living in modern times with modern medicine, for all its limitations. It also provided plenty of inspiration.
Surviving the Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey to the Limits of Human Endurance
Kenneth Kamler, MD
Written by a doctor, surgeon, and attending physician who has accompanied or advised explorers of extreme locations, this book examines six different environments hostile to man, from deep under water to outer space. Not only is it full of ripping yarns, but insights into the human species’ ability to endure and survive in these places. And considering how often characters in fantasy novels end up on these sorts of places and don’t seem to encounter the problems they ought to, this book would be a great starting point for adding a little realism to your stories.
Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary ‘Body Farm’
Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
From survival to the opposite: death and decomposition. This book describes both research into how bodies decay and the cases, both archeological and forensic, that the discoveries have been applied to. It is written with a personal perspective, the science very approachable and the stories of the deceased covered with compassion. It would be essential reading for a crime or horror writer (and not for anyone prone to queasiness) but I found it fascinating. You never know when information like that in this book will come in handy. For writing, that is, not attempting to hide a body…
The Origins of Violence: Religion, History and Genocide
Of all the books in this top ten, this one is the least readable for the average reader. Yet I felt it was worth including for the contents, which are enlightening and, perhaps predictably, often chilling. It explores what qualifies as genocide, and what the justifications for it have been. Examples range from ancient to recent history, and I found it both relevant to today as well as good fodder for stories.