Posted by: kshayes513 | June 13, 2010

Moving Day

For some cultures, moving is a way of life. Mongolian nomads on a seasonal migration. Photo:

I’ve spent most of my free time in the past week helping my best friend move from a small third floor flat to become my housemate in a 3 bedroom I bought when my children still lived with me. The result, for the short term, is a house stacked full of boxes, bags, disassembled bookcases and other small furniture, with just paths cleared to walk through, until we reorganize our combined household and figure out what goes where and what goes out.

Plus a lot of random thoughts about what “Moving Day” might mean for the worldbuilder.

In our world, people move almost always for one of 4 reasons:  economics, family/social network, security, and health. The vast majority of people in the developed world move for a job. Less often, they move to be near family (parents, grown children, new spouse), or perhaps – if they can afford it – because they need a warmer or cleaner or otherwise more wholesome environment for their long-term health.  The political flame wars over immigration in some countries are, of course, the result of a large migration of people in search of a better living. Before medical treatments for tuberculosis were developed, it was common for middle-class and wealthy TB patients to move from the air pollution of the cities to the prairie or the seaside or the ocean, where the cleaner air sometimes helped them recover.

In many parts of the world, though, the most common reason people move is just to stay alive. Famine, natural disaster, and especially war will set whole populations on the move on a scale that people in secure homelands can’t begin to imagine, unless perhaps we’ve spent time in a refugee camp.

In worldbuilding, people may move for any of these reasons, or none of them. Why do people move in your culture?Are they required to move to a certain place at a specific time in their lives for some specific purpose? Or does your culture have religious or political taboos against moving, so that whole villages or populations might let themselves die in some disaster rather than violate this taboo?

People who are moving have to make choices about what to take with them and what to leave behind.  Refugees often get to take nothing with them at all, but the rest of us generally use moving as an occasion to get rid of goods that no longer fit our lives. The most extreme recent example of taking nothing with you when you move, is Jake Sully in Avatar; in moving in with the Na’vi, he leaves even his human body behind!

In your culture, what do people consider the most important thing to take with them? Do they embrace the culture and environment of the new home, or try to recreate their old home in the new setting?

What you do first in your new digs says a lot about your personal and cultural priorities. Kelly and I proved our total media geekiness last night by setting up the computer network and the new cable TV equipment, even before we set up the beds! For others, the first priority might be setting the alarm system and the guard dogs and sentries; others might be have in the priest/ess to bless the new home and set up the family shrine.

What happens first in your world when people move? Do they have to establish formal relationships with the neighbors? Pay tribute to the local warlord? Figure out what church/temple to join? Scout the whole area for hostiles? And what piece of the household is the very first thing they set up?

The concept of moving is so familiar in our culture (especially, perhaps, for white Americans with our mythic history of westward colonization) that we have a whole science fiction genre devoted to moving: the space colony story. No matter how many hundreds (thousands?) of times it’s been done, the imaginative worldbuilder can always come up with new answers to the same questions: who are the colonists, why are they moving to this planet, what do they think is essential to take with them, what surprises does the planet hold in store?

What’s your favorite story, from your own life or from film or literature, related to moving?



  1. One aspect of moving that might be considered is the type of culture in relation to hunting or agriculture. Many agricultural societies were tied more closely to a geographic area compared to the hunting society that followed the migrating animals.

    Also, anthropologists link some matriarchal societies with a worship of the earth while a nomadic culture might worship the heavens and be more patriarchal.

    Let me know what you think,


  2. That’s exactly why I used a photo of Mongolian nomads as a lead, knowing I wasn’t going to otherwise discuss nomadic cultures. For them, moving is a part of their annual routine rather than a major life transition. Probably “migrating” is a better word than “moving” to describe what nomads do.

  3. The nomadic life leads to an entirely different concept of permanence. Where we might feel that the apartment is relatively permanent and stable, the move becomes a stress-filled event. New ways to set up our atmosphere have to be arranged.

    But the nomad might think that permanence means the ability to travel for hundreds of miles and still find the necessities of life. Shifting the sticks to support the tent are not a major task.

    So while we might shrug that a change of clothing is not a question of permanence since we have a wardrobe, the nomad might think that changing a site for the night is also not a question of an instability.

    How does this play out for other ways we think of permanence? In ways we view history, or relationships, or nature?

    Let me know your thoughts,


  4. I have always thought the biggest challenge in worldbuilding is to figure out how to break through the cultural paradigms and definitions that each of us takes so much for granted that we can’t even see them. “What does permanence mean to us?” is one of those breakthrough questions.
    Once again, you got right to the heart of the matter! Brilliant, Tom.

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