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In my low-fantasy setting there is a civilization of blind people living in a very safe and isolated region of the world. Thinking about how this civilization could have developed throughout the centuries I realized that many alternative development paths not requiring sight involve very flammable materials. For example:

  • Housing. Since development of metallurgy is hindered by the lack of sight, and this also means lacking the necessary tools for other types of advanced crafts (masonry included), they live inside buildings made of wood and animal skins and various types of fabric.
  • Settlement mobility. How can they know what buildings are around them, where other people live, where to turn along the road? By having signs based not on a written language, but on a smell based language instead. And this means a lot of plants to grow the flowers needed for those smells.
  • Indoor orientation. How can you move inside a closed space where having too many smells would be confusing? By being barefoot and following carpets made of different fabrics, related to some sort of touch-based convention.

Fire would be a disaster for most of these things, not only for the risk of everything catching fire, but also because of the smoke covering other smells. Then I realized that blind people have no need to use fire for one of its main uses: providing light. They would just need for heat. So, is there some alternative way to heat the buildings?

In my low-fantasy setting there is no magic way to do it. I thought that they could build settlements in places with geothermal activity, but geothermal energy comes with a strong smell of rotten egg that could create a lot of other issues for them. Any other ideas?

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    $\begingroup$ I think you have several issues that need to be solved before you can address how a blind civilization heats up their stuff. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2023 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ Woodworking and skinning/butchering at levels above neolithic require metallurgy of some sort. Even neolithic stone tools require vision to create. I'd be much more comfortable with a blind species/civilization trading for tools like knives, planes, and saws, than with them trying to make stone tools to do those jobs in the absence of metalworking. This is how North American natives did it up until the 19th century, and they weren't blind... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ (a) Blind people live just fine in today's complex societies without any of the troubles you mention, like finding buildings and moving around in rooms. Braille... walking sticks... trained animals.... Your worldbuilding would benefit from some research into how blind people solve the problems you list right now. (b) I'm not sure your people would be unaware of heat or even fire. They might not use it as much, but blind people today use candles, fireplaces, and cook on stoves. How your people solved those problems would be different, but I'm unconvinced that they wouldn't solve them. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Negdo You're looking at how society operates today and jumping to the conclusion that it's the only way society can operate. Just because the blind needn't be involved in the design and manufacturing process doesn't mean they can't - especially when you're talking about an entire species. Half the fun of worldbuilding is setting aside your preconceptions and asking the question "how would that happen?" You'll be surprised by what your imagination can come up with when you stop limiting it. The blind are not limited because you think they are. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 15, 2023 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ As an aside, I would be very reluctant to start writing about a blind civilisation without consulting at least a couple of blind people first. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Mar 16, 2023 at 14:28

8 Answers 8

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Housebarn

Have you ever slept in a tent? When you wake up, the inside of the tent is warmer than the outside. Steam issues forth when you unzip the panel, and you go "AAaah!" when the chilly morning air hits your face.

This is because your body makes heat and a good tent traps the heat. The ancients understood this. But instead of piddly little human bodies to heat their homes, they used the mighty cow.

enter image description here

A cow puts out 600W of heat. So build your house with a barn room, and a human room. Bring the animals inside at night when it gets cold.

Make sure to put a divider so the cows do not scratch your varnished oak floor and plop all over your fine china. As an added bonus, your house now smells like farts!

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    $\begingroup$ Downvoted because every bonus is an "added bonus". It is in added to everything else. That's what makes it a bonus. Get wrecked pedants. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Daron I don't know why you added bonus pedantry here. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Mar 15, 2023 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ The first notable thing about your chosen photo is the fireplace in the background... $\endgroup$ Mar 15, 2023 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JackAidley That's a Sky Tunnel to get Helium Cows into the house. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Mar 15, 2023 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ Another similar setup I've seen for such houses is to have the barn on the ground floor (sometimes partially dug up) and the "human" part on the first floor, with not-too-well fitted planks as the floor of the first-floor to let the warm air come up. $\endgroup$ Mar 15, 2023 at 14:21
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Frame Challenge: The blind can use fire perfectly well, and should

You are searching for a solution that itself is looking for a problem. Respectfully, everything listed is a non-issue.

  • Housing: Native Americans made hide tents and wooden longhouses, and kept fires in them without issue.
  • Mobility: The blind memorize directions and orient themselves without the need for signs. Feeling for a path (and "landmarks") with a cane is more than sufficient.
  • Indoor navigation: Even easier than outdoors. Feel for walls and furniture, the same way a sighted person does in the dark. In a house you've lived in for years, I guarantee you can find the fridge without a light ;)

I'm not trying to shoot down the concept of your civilization, but rather save you from a rabbit hole. Use of fire is required for primitive civilization for many, many reasons besides domestic heating. Cooking food, preserving meat, creating tools, making ceramic vessels, purifying water, sanitizing bandages (via boiling), and making medicines just to name a handful. You need to explain a heck of a lot more if you insist this people group has no fire, and you still have plenty of interesting things to explore and explain without that wrinkle

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    $\begingroup$ This is a frame that deserves to be challenged. It's ridiculous to assume that sight is required for managing fire. Heck, I can imagine a race with pit-viper-like thermal "vision", feeling sorry for creatures that couldn't possibly ever use fire because they can't see its heat. $\endgroup$
    – jeffB
    Mar 16, 2023 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ I think the frame being challenged is more that having "flammable material" everywhere makes it impossible to use fire. We could have just as easily said that primitive stone and earth construction is easy, and that smell is a terrible way to navigate $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    Mar 17, 2023 at 0:10
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Your blind civilization has long moved underground, where heating is not an issue.

Sight is too big an advantage for surface dwellers. Your civilization would fall to predators or natural disasters. How do they hunt animals for their pelts? Are the animals blind too?

If they survived at all, they would need to at least neutralize their disadvantage. Therefore, moving underground makes a lot of sense. Deep inside caves, temperatures are rather stable. Creatures with sight need to either bring their own light sources or be at a severe disadvantage. Those who are blind from birth are better adapted to navigate dark places.

What you need then is to flesh out an underground ecosystem that allows them to fill their basic needs. Water, food, shelter, materials to craft with.

But since the scope of this question is only heating, there you go. Moving underground makes that a non-issue.

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    $\begingroup$ As I wrote in the first post, the region they live in is very safe and isolated. Being attacked by predators is extremely rare. Pelts come from domesticated cattle they raise for milk and meat (i.e. yak-like bovines). $\endgroup$
    – Soel
    Mar 14, 2023 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ +1 I love this answer. The existence of pre existing shelter can not be underestimated. It provides protection from the elements and it goes without a question it would be extremely hard for blind humans to build shelter. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2023 at 16:04
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Geothermal Heating

So, this does require your world to have some specific pre-requisites around tectonic plates and volcanic activity - but not impossible - The Maori of New Zealand - and specifically those in Rotorua, Waiwera etc. used the hotspring water for all sorts of Cooking, Cleaning and yes - Heating.

This is Whakarewarewa Village in NZ Although there are 'modern' houses built there, NZ houses are primarily Wooden in nature (Wooden frame, weatherboard exterior, plasterboard interior) so not too far off from the type of dwelling you describe.

Pre-Colonization, the Maori Marae (Meeting house) were entirely wood constructions (IIRC) and they used the Hot water to heat the house, cook food etc.

The only issue story-wise you may have is that these natural hotsprings (at least in NZ History) were highly prized and considered a Taonga (A Treasure - literally 'Obtained at the tip of the spear') - and so were fought over constantly. The Natural hotspring waters believed to have magical and curative powers.

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Yours is a civilization of master chemists

Ignoring my concerns about the blind in my comment to your question, your problem is solved by making your people master chemists. There's a lot of ways to make heat. Fire, after all, is simply the result of a chemical reaction that produces a lot of heat. But it's not the only chemical reaction that generates heat. Such reactions are known as exothermic reactions.

In short, your problem isn't with fire per-se. It's with having too much heat in a somewhat uncontrolled circumstance. I say this because exercise could be used to heat a well-insulated house. (This underscores the statement in my comment about it being unlikely that they'd not know about fire....) The question is how to bring a useful amount of heat to bear safely.

BTW: blind people today do that.... Intelligent people solve problems. Lack of sight is just another problem to be solved.

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You've got a bunch of problems here:

  1. Scent-based navigation isn't going to work. What happens when the wind blows?

  2. Instead, let's consider what China has done for blind people--paths for blind people are marked out in the sidewalk by using bricks with different textures. You can feel if you're on the path or not even without using a cane. It would be even more obvious to an experienced user of a blind-cane and more information could be conveyed. (A different texture is used to convey when a path is going to cross traffic, but the road surface isn't marked.)

  3. Indoors an experienced blind person with intact hearing will normally know where the walls are without any assistance (a sighted person can learn this skill, but won't be nearly as good.) You can simply have a standard location for labels to be put, they'll be able to find them. (Note that normal age-related hearing loss will destroy this ability--I suggest having your people have superior ears.)

Outdoors, I suggest using the Chinese approach to path marking (but lay them out with lanes, the Chinese approach doesn't handle two blind people encountering each other too well) and a separate texture to say "sign here"--as with the indoor signs it's in a standard location.

As for heating--underground does wonders except for the drainage problem. Removing the water is going to be problematic at your tech level. Thus, instead, I suggest a pseudo-underground. Build against a hill--you pile a lot of material against the side of the house and you use the thickest, most insulating material available for the top. Additionally, you have a bunch of air ducts built into the fill material, these can be opened or closed based on the weather--when the air is warmer than the thermal mass you open them and let heat in.

Houses will be very labor intensive to build but can be built to last many generations so it's not utterly prohibitive.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you talking about tactile paving? It was invented by the Japanese, not Chinese, and it is not unique to China at all (e.g. it's required in the US under ADA). $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Mar 15, 2023 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ @user71659 I wasn't aware of the name but that's what I'm talking about. I've seen a lot of it in China, I've seen warning blocks but never directional ones in the US and I've never seen any in Japan. $\endgroup$ Mar 15, 2023 at 4:49
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Composting Chamber

At the back of the hut, there is a small door to a chamber sealed off from the front of the hut that they toss vegetable material to compost down. The composting material naturally generates heat to heat the hut.

The chamber could be easily made from mud brick like materials which give a good thermal mass.

Temperature is controlled adding or removing vegetable matter.

Built properly, you could place the beds on top of the chamber for a gentle heat throughout the night.

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a. Warm region, heating is unnecessary. b. Cold blooded species, heating is unnecessary.

These people evolved somehow. For vast majority of history of this species they were doing fine without buildings or heating. Heating clearly not a life or death matter for them.

Unless it is a major plot point somehow, there seem to be no reason to introduce this problem. I feel pity to them just from this short description, on top of evolution being extremely cruel to them they are also freezing. Sad.

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