About the Fifth World
The Fifth World presents an open source shared universe — a vision of a neotribal, ecotopian, animist realist future created by a growing community of authors, artists, designers, gamers, and dreamers — and we want you to join us.
The term “open source” originated in software development with programmers who cared about the freedom to look at source code, tinker with it, and make it their own. From there, it spread into other creative endeavors with tools like Creative Commons licensing. We’ve made the source code for this website available online, but more importantly, we’ve licensed all of this site’s contents under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
That means that you can use anything you find on this site to tell your own stories, create your own art, or build your own project, and so long as you include a notice that you built on the work our community has done here and release your own work under the same license, you can publish it and even sell it as widely as you like. In fact, you’ll even find people here who will help you do that. We believe in open source, and that by working together we’ll create more for all of us to share in.
- The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary by Eric S. Raymond
- Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity by Lawrence Lessig
- Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source by David M. Berry
Overwhelmingly, tribal life has formed the foundation of the human experience. For the first 99.99% of humanity’s time on earth, no other way of life existed at all, and even through most of the remaining 0.01% most humans still lived in tribes. The modern, industrialized world has existed for half a heartbeat in evolutionary terms and we already refer to it as “unsustainable” so routinely that the term sometimes starts to seem innocuous. As Herbert Stein’s Law states, though, if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.
The Fifth World imagines a future where things that cannot go on forever have stopped and humanity has returned to its normal mode of operation: the tribal life. The Akan have a proverb: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten,” but Westerners have a proverb, too: “You can’t go home again.” We refer to the Fifth World as neotribal rather than simply tribal because our modern world has changed the future, both the world and the people who dwell in it. You can never simply go back to the old ways, just as an animal that escapes domestication becomes feral, rather than wild, which sometimes makes a big difference. Neotribalism calls for creativity to form a new synthesis to carry ancient principles into a new future.
The old Greek pun inherent in the word “utopia,” worked in by Thomas Moore from the start — it means both “good place” (εὖτόπος) and “no place” (οὐτόπος) — always reminds us that a completely perfect society could never exist. That said, we also use the term “utopian” to describe portrayals of societies that simply work better than our current one, though they may still fall well short of perfection. The Fifth World doesn’t show us a perfect society, but war, poverty, and tyranny have disappeared. People live longer, happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives. They have their jealousies and rivalries, but also customs to help deal with such problems.
“Ecotopia” refers to a particular type of utopia, one where society’s improvement springs from an improved relationship between humans and the rest of our more-than-human world. We sometimes describe the Fifth World as deep ecology’s answer to Star Trek. Where other utopian fiction depicts a society that solves its problems with advanced technology or the author’s favorite political philosophy, the Fifth World focuses on big problems that humans solve by renewing ancient covenants with other-than-human people. The earth itself has healed many of the problems the modern world left behind. Those that remain loom too large for humanity to face alone. Luckily for us, we never stood alone.
In recent decades a number of anthropologists have focused on “taking animism seriously,” including Bird Nurit-David, Tim Ingold, Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and Rane Willerslev, as well as more popular authors like David Abram and Graham Harvey. We usually think of animism as primitive superstition, but that may owe more to the projections of Christian missionaries than the concerns of real animists. Real animists focus on other-than-human forms of personhood. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram highlights how animals, plants, and even landscapes and the air itself, act like persons in our phenomenological experience. Only with specific training can we convince ourselves that they are inanimate.
Animist realism arose from the post-colonial experience, with authors like Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Niyi Osundare, Wole Soyinka, Duro Ladipo, Amos Tutuola, and Ben Okri, who often blend indigenous storytelling with Western literary traditions. Again and again, mediation and boundaries appear in this genre. “The plots of magical realist works involve issues of borders, mixing, and change,” Lindsay Moore writes about the more popular sub-genre. “Authors establish these plots to reveal a crucial purpose of magical realism: a more deep and true reality than conventional realist techniques would illustrate.”
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
- The Famished Road by Ben Okri
- Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction edited by Grace Dillon
Civilizations do not typically collapse because of a single reason like a war or a plague, as they do in post-apocalyptic stories. Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies points out that no crisis can adequately explain why a civilization falls, since we build civilizations precisely to help us deal with such crises. We must go deeper, and ask why this civilization could not handle this crisis, like we expected it to. Tainter argues that complexity yields diminishing marginal returns, and that civilizations collapse when enough people realize that they could enjoy the same benefits at a lower cost by accepting a lower level of social complexity. “Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe,” Tainter writes. “It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.”
From one place to the next, various catastrophes — terrorism, disease, ecological disaster, or war — may have played a role. For the people in the Fifth World, those events belong to the distant past, and their oral traditions may not clearly or accurately preserve the historical details. In general, though, people become better in times of crisis, not worse. Those people became the honored ancestors of the Fifth World — the people who faced a time of crisis and change with bravery and grace, and in doing so laid the foundation of a new and better world.
- A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit
- Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
- The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
Mundane Science Fiction
Geoff Ryman’s 2004 “Mundane Manifesto” calls for “[a] new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.” The Fifth World falls into a tradition in science fiction defined by authors like Ursula Le Guin, George R. Stewart, Kurt Vonnegut, or Walter M. Miller, Jr., where the speculations of speculative fiction deal more with social sciences like anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, than physics, engineering, or chemistry.
Critics of mundane science fiction say that it depresses them to think of a future with no more frontiers, nothing else to discover, and nowhere left to explore, but we remain surrounded by so many wonders that we have only begun to explore, right beneath our feet. There remains so much still to discover in the places that seem so familiar, and even in ourselves. The Fifth World deals with discovery and exploration as much as any other science fiction, but it deals with the discovery of the places we’ve always lived, and the exploration of the places where we dwell, our own selves, and the web of kinship that connects us to a more-than-human world.