Cultural worldbuilding in your SFF novel

Photo by Mohi Sakhaie on Unsplash

Today’s blog post looks at cultural worldbuilding. That is, the different ways of thinking about and representing cultures in your SFF book. I have also touched on these themes in the Worldbuilding Q&A.

How do writers use culture?

In everyday talk, people often use culture as another word for ‘national culture’ or interpreted as something that certain people possess (a kind of civilisational hierarchy). These usages may feel relatively normal in a (white) Western European or Northern American context, but this is not necessarily the case elsewhere.

Tolkien’s cultural worldbuilding borrowed heavily on folk ideas about nations and races that were common in the early twentieth century. In turn, these were inspired by Tolkien’s religious beliefs, as mentioned on the Tolkien Gateway:

‘Sub-creation’ was also used by J.R.R. Tolkien to refer the to process of worldbuilding and creating myths. In this context, a human author is a ‘little maker’ creating his own world as a sub-set within God’s primary creation. Like the beings of Middle-earth, Tolkien saw his works as mere emulation of the true creation performed by God.

Other SFF authors take such ideas of culture and peoples in a completely different direction. The cultural worldbuilding in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on one specific idea (an ambisexual people) and examines the implications of this. I prefer to focus on exploring a small number of ideas. However, many fantasy writers love inventing reams of customs and traditions that apply to the peoples in their work.

If you do want to explore culture and society in your writing, as with Le Guin, then you are likely writing ‘social SFF’. Others leave such issues to one side and foreground plots, characters, technology, or other aspects of their world.

What if I’m not interested in cultural worldbuilding?

If you are not examining ideas about culture, there is a danger of simply falling back implicitly on ideas about culture that are floating around wherever you live. If you live in a Western European context this might means lots of hierarchy and discrete ‘peoples’.

Kristen Kieffer’s advice is useful here: only discuss cultural elements of relevance to advancing your story. Excessive, unnecessary detail could lead to boring infodumps. Too much detail also leaves less to the reader’s imagination in filling in the gaps, and if your descriptions are based on real-existing cultural objects, practices, or ideas, you could be accused of cultural appropriation.

Three ideas if you do focus on culture

Three aspects to consider if you do focus on cultural worldbuilding or cultural politics are: diversity/difference, groupness, and hierarchy.

Diversity is the ‘cultural stuff’ you draw on. This includes rituals, technology, magic, customs related to clothing, food, leisure activities, work etc.

This ‘cultural stuff’ is usually ascribed to a named collective (e.g. the cave dwellers, the Romans, the Dutch). But how do people belong to these collectives? Is it through something they do (e.g. a people who farm or fish) or is it through something they are (e.g. being born into nobility)? How fuzzy are the boundaries surrounding membership?

Finally, how internally homogenous is the group? How hierarchical is it internally? Are hierarchies established with other cultural groups? What power do these hierarchies rest on, and how are they maintained?

An example: Tribes of Europa

Let’s look at the groups in the recent television series, Tribes of Europa. While these groups may appear strikingly different and opposed, the boundaries are not so clear as they appear at first.

The CrowsDraws heavily on fascist ideas (honour, glory in death, colosseum, slave labour) and combines them with a Goth aesthetic and sex slaves.
The Crimson RepublicDraws on the political idea of a European federation, uniting people from different cultural backgrounds; a militarised remnant of the EU.
The OriginesBased on a conservative or anarcho-primitivist rejection of technology.  
The AtlantiansHigh-technology.

These different groups are not ‘peoples’ in the same way that Tolkien intricately created a whole history, language, and customs; they are more like groups with different resources and tactics struggling for survival in a post-Apocalyptic landscape. Even the Crows have a route to ‘citizenship’ for those from outside, even if it is brutal. Some, such as the Crimsons, are more like social movements in a sense.

Tribes of Europa is a good example of conceptual borrowing that in my view moves far enough away from existing cultures and traditions to avoid charges of copying or cultural appropriation.

The different groups have a clear link to Europe’s past, but are vague enough to operate as a canvas for your mind to fill in the blanks and create your own imagining. Having lived in the former Yugoslavia for years, I couldn’t help but think of parallels between the socialist Partisans (the Crimson Republic) and the Ustashe (the Crows); all the more so because the Crimson Republic’s outpost was filmed at a Partisan monument.

Cultural appropriation

M.D. Presley discusses this in his worldbuilding book, and it’s a term that pops in ‘culture wars’ discussions from time to time. One problem is that it can be flexibly applied to different kinds of borrowing from real-world cultures, and the flexible pejorative application can detract from more deeply problematic borrowings. Of course, different people have different margins of sensitivity too.

One of the big issues here is that it’s impossible to get outside the context and have a bird’s eye view of a representation. Images and narratives used by those who consider themselves progressive today may be reinterpreted in 30 years’ time as having unsavoury, racist components to them.

One real danger here is a case of ‘writing paralysis’, out of fear of not representing a group in a respectful way. This is compounded for cultural anthropologists (especially young ones who have read the debate on Writing Culture). So, my advice is that if you have such concerns, put them aside until you come to the revision stage and deal with them at that point. The fact that you are thinking about such concerns suggests your work already has fewer problematic features than that of authors who don’t consider these issues.

Cultural anthropologists in the US and UK had similar discussions over representation and what their cultural descriptions were of in the Writing Culture debate, which you could take a look at to learn more about the issues from an academic perspective.

One issue is that a cultural appropriation frame can overemphasise representation and a ‘hard’ boundary between cultures.

What to consider in your cultural worldbuilding

When you think about the ‘peoples’ in your writing, consider whether or not they are closely or loosely based on existing cultures. Then have a think about:

  • The power relations involved: are you a White Australian using exoticised stereotypes of aborigines?
  • The ‘groupness’ of your peoples: how are boundaries maintained? How clear cut are those boundaries? Are you creating a ‘folk’ with an origin story and mythical history? Or is your group related to a particular environment (e.g. a cave-dwelling people, a cloud-dwelling people)? Or is it closer to a social movement?
  • How what you choose to focus on affects what you reveal about the culture

Groupness

Here are some different ways of thinking about groupness:

  • Fixed immutable group identity with strong boundaries (e.g. born into warrior class, born into a nation)
  • Group identity linked to a territory or built environment (e.g. islanders, Europeans, cave dwellers)
  • Practice-related group identity (e.g. scavengers, raiders)
  • Group identity linked to participation in an ideology (e.g. the federationalists)
  • Group identity loose and constantly changing

And then, within the group:

  • Homogeneity within the group (strongly identity based)
  • Diversity within the group (e.g. class-based hierarchy, group is a loose umbrella term for people from lots of different backgrounds)

Ultimately, your ideas will draw on your own experience of the real world, and your interpretation of the real world’s social reality in a more or less explicit way (depending on how sociological your worldbuilding and main themes are).

In the next post, I’ll be discussing magic.

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