June 4, 2017


Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August 2016 (to which I was invited and had a friend pay my membership! [Thanks, Paul!] but was unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #3405. The link is provided below…

5 Questions to Ask When Creating a Fictional Culture
This panel will discuss 5 important questions writers must ask themselves when creating a fictional culture.

Tim Akers: four books, two very different cultures
Jeannette Cheney: (aka J. Kathleen Cheney) fifteen books, three cultures
M.C.A. Hogarth: many books, mostly self-published, several cultures
Rose Lemberg: many short stories, one major culture
Ian McDonald: lots of novels with at least a half-dozen cultures

Based on Ms. Cheney’s notes below, I thought I’d touch on some of the things that I’ve considered as I’ve written fiction and built worlds – and some of the things I HAVEN’T remembered to do.

What is their relationship with God, god, or gods? What is the culture’s measure of spirituality or belief? What is the nature of faith in that culture? Or do they live without faith? (Tim Akers)

What are their food sources? What do people fear most? Starvation? Riot? Revolution? Why have they banded together as a culture? Are they alien? Does their biology give them other imperatives? (M.C.A. Hogarth)

What are the relationships of power within the culture? How is this expressed/determined by language? What sort of family relationships are common? What about folklore? Do they favor proverbs? Riddles? Are they superstitious? Are they religious? What is the level of diversity within the culture? (Rose Lemberg)

What is the economic base for the culture, and how does that affect their everyday life? Are they rural? Or urban? How are their houses built? Their cities? (J. Kathleen Cheney)

Wow…interesting list. The thing that strikes me most powerfully is that while these are certainly CULTURE questions, they also become profoundly PERSONAL questions for a character. Also, a character who answers a question differently than the culture answered it sets up and instant story.

Two examples off the top of my head are DUNE and the VORKOSIGAN universe. In DUNE, the Bene Gesserit have bred a thousand years of humans to produce the Kwisatch Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit sister, who will be the new messiah. One of their own takes the future into her own hands, out of love producing Paul Atreides who becomes Muad’Dib and himself a sort of “wild messiah”. Society says: produce a daughter so we may breed her to… Person says: I’ll make a son. In VORKOSIGAN, society calls him a mutant and he must die. He says: “Nah, I think I’ll live and change society.”


DUNE also plays with Tim Aker’s questions about gods – the society created its own god out of a “mistake”. Figuring out gods seems to be one of science fiction’s favorite playing field, mostly because the players tend to believe that gods are simple (or complex) Human constructs and have no validity outside of a Human frame of reference. I find it amusing because I believe that there is a God who will surprise the players when we meet our first extraterrestrials. How will a sizable chunk of the SF community – and Humanity at large – respond when an alien steps out of their ship and we discover their creation “myths” and faith stories are so similar to ours that it would stretch credulity to think that the source experiences were anything but the same? Hmmm…not many people ask that question; at least not in my experience.

Hogarth raises a question that my favorite SF author deals with on a regular basis – is the foundation of all culture, BIOLOGY? I would tend to agree with Julie Czerneda’s assessment that it is. How can it not be? She explores this at length in the three-book series SPECIES IMPERATIVE in which the migratory habits of one part of an alien culture’s biology is unknown to the other part of the culture, separated by non-communication as well as taboo and custom. My favorite books of her series by a long shot!

One aspect I think that has been largely ignored until recently, is diversity WITHIN alien cultures (Rose Lemberg’s question). We seem to think that when we meet aliens, their cultures, unlike ours (which is by implication, inferior) will be monolithic. In fact, most aliens represented in movies and on TV – and even in books – seems to be of a piece. Some of this is, of course, practicality. We barely understand our own multi-cultural (with added subcultures and sub-subcultures). How can we create alien worlds whose intelligences are separated into multiple races, cultures, and genders when our own species of H. sapiens is fractured in a thousand different ways? Our languages don’t even match up across state lines! (I live in Minnesota. Does anyone from another state know what “pop” is? Have you ever asked a native Idahoan what a “pastie” is? What’s a “grinder”, anyway, New Hampshire? What’s a “bubbler”, Massachusetts? We think the boot goes on the foot, England!)

At any rate, even this short summary has raised all kinds of interesting thoughts for me – and for you as well. LOTS to explore here. I’d loved to have added a sixth question: Which has the greater effect, the individual on the culture; or does the culture have the greater effect on the individual?

Thanks go to Ms. Cheney for posting this for me to find!

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