'Tis the witching hour. And I'm going to think out loud here, as input would be most welcome.
One of the things I'm always cognizant of when I'm world-building is influences. I was, alas, raised in a culture that's heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian ideas, and while I appreciate some of same, I don't want knee-jerk assumptions creeping into my fiction. I read far too much stuff wherein the author just plucked the low-hanging fruit and didn't think outside of the culture they're immersed in. You'll see some poorly-incorporated elements from "exotic" cultures thrown in any-old-how, just for the sake of appearing different. But when you pick at the surface, you realize it's all gilt.
The more I scratch at my writing, the more gilt I find. It would be nice if I could just scrape it off and rebuild from the bottom-up, but we're talking core concepts. I won't be telling the stories I want to tell if I remove all the gilt. So the problem becomes, how do I turn it solid gold?
Take souls, for example.
The major concept in my series, the foundation upon which the rest of the edifice is built, is the Ahc'ton K'san Torveneh: Souls Who Travel. For years, I just took it for granted that these folks were unique souls who get reborn over and over in service to their people.
But that's mere gilt. That's assuming a soul. Even with the little bit of gloss a physicist friend added - the concept of the soul as an other-dimensional entity with a propensity for attaching itself to biological forms in this dimension - it's still just gilt. I never really questioned it before now, but having embraced my atheism and hanging about with science buffs and proud atheists, I'm certainly questioning it now.
And the question is fascinating. What, in fact, do Atheseans mean when they refer to a "soul"?
I can tell you straight up they don't mean anything religious. The soul isn't something as solid as a body, and you can't extract a soul from a body and study it (that I know of - who knows what these buggers will get up to as I explore this question?). But it has a physical reality. It has nothing to do with religion, any more than electricity does. Because it's so hard to grasp, directly perceive, it's easy to put it down to something spiritual, but it's a really real thing with an objective existence.
The Ahc'ton are special because their souls are reborn with identity intact. That's the whole point of being Ahc'ton: to remember who you were, carry all of the accumulated knowledge of lifetimes with you and put it to good use in new lives among alien species. No other souls travel this way. The soul as a distinct identity ceases to exist once a person dies. If we're talking an other-dimensional entity, it basically loses the "I" it became when it was attached to the physical body. There's no eternal life, no consciousness beyond death - except for the Ahc'ton.
So that's the challenge of the week. I have to go beyond my assumptions, peel off the gilt, and really get into the meat of this thing. If the soul is not something religious or spiritual, what is it? Why does it have this propensity for attaching to a brain? How did the Ahc'ton's souls end up being discrete entitities with an identity they've carried for millennia, when everybody else's soul goes back to being an undifferentiated something?
It would be so much easier if I could just take the religious view and be done with it, but it's so much more fun to struggle with the concept of something material, objective, and so far beyond our current science that it just looks like a miracle.
There ye go. Speculate at will, my wise and wonderful darlings.