Monoculture approaches to SF

edited April 9 in Make Stuff!
What are the issues involved in creating a SF setting (ie a technological universe encompassing many different worlds - a space opera, hard or soft) based on a single culture. For example, creating a space opera based on a single mythology from our world?

How do you resolve those issues? if that setting was 'Ragarok in space' for example, is it an issue if everyone is called Sigrid or Freya and they are all of european descent?

Comments

  • edited April 9
    I see no problem in it. It could be caricature, it could be that you take inspiration from Wagner, or a specific Saint Seya season.
    Insisting on planting history fiction facts about why this culture is supreme would be a problem, but it's not what you bring.
  • IMO, there's no built-in conflict between drawing your inspiration from a single source (like Norse mythology) and having people of various ethnicities and races represented. Marvel did it in in the Thor movies with Idris Elba playing Heimdall, and nobody but a few trolls had a problem with it.

    OTOH, if you specifically create a setting where it says that there are only White folks, people will notice.
  • edited April 9
    To me the main issue with that is that it's boring. Honestly it's how a lot of the not-so-great SF (my less favorite SF rather) did it historically. Just painting the universe with one brush, or simply pasting fantasy or mythology into space. I would hope you are doing something like a critique or caricature as DeReel says.

    If you want to see a great sci fi universe inspired by mythology then I will check out the into the gap cycle by Stephen r Donaldson.
    *Specifically they were inspired by Wagner's Ring Cycle*

    Finally I am wondering why you would specify that a universe is populated by European decent? Was that just an off the wall example?
  • That was just an example. I'm not advocating White Power the RPG! :open_mouth:
  • edited April 9

    I’m reading some fat fantasy book set in Yet Another Faux Medieval Europe. Nothing in this story jibes with my understanding of actual medieval Europe. There’s no fantasy version of the Silk Road bringing spices and agricultural techniques and ideas from China and India and Persia. There’s been no Moorish conquest. There aren’t even Jewish merchants or bankers, stereotypical as that would be. Everyone in this “Europe” looks the same but for minor variations of hair or eye color. They speak the same language, worship the same gods — and everyone, even the very poor people, seems inordinately concerned with the affairs of the nobility, as if there’s nothing else going on that matters. There are dragons and magic in the story, but it’s the human fantasy that I’m having trouble swallowing.

    It doesn’t matter which book I’m reading. I could name you a dozen others just like it. This isn’t magical medieval Europe; it’s some white supremacist, neo-feudalist fantasy of same, and I’m so fucking sick of it that I put the book down and open my laptop and start writing. Later people read what I’ve written and remark on how angry the story is. Gosh, I wonder why.

    You should read the rest of this essay, here.
  • @Jeph This is an incredible essay. Thanks for sharing it.
  • edited April 10
    Some people have sh*tty imaginaries (guess what), but the essay is about treatment when OP is about content. It's not what you put in your fiction, it's whether you treat it right.

    This for me is more closely related to OP (it's in the comments) and is discutable.
    "a dumbed-down version of the traditional formalist approach – in which we are taught to interpret a work of fiction as the self-contained world of a singular authority, and the act of interpretation is limited to explicating the dramatic structure and the thematic content as the author intended it. Never mind the social/cultural context in which the work was produced, or what the author “omitted” from the text, either through carelessness or by design"
  • Jeph said:

    I’m reading some fat fantasy book set in Yet Another Faux Medieval Europe. Nothing in this story jibes with my understanding of actual medieval Europe. There’s no fantasy version of the Silk Road bringing spices and agricultural techniques and ideas from China and India and Persia. There’s been no Moorish conquest. There aren’t even Jewish merchants or bankers, stereotypical as that would be. Everyone in this “Europe” looks the same but for minor variations of hair or eye color. They speak the same language, worship the same gods — and everyone, even the very poor people, seems inordinately concerned with the affairs of the nobility, as if there’s nothing else going on that matters. There are dragons and magic in the story, but it’s the human fantasy that I’m having trouble swallowing.

    It doesn’t matter which book I’m reading. I could name you a dozen others just like it. This isn’t magical medieval Europe; it’s some white supremacist, neo-feudalist fantasy of same, and I’m so fucking sick of it that I put the book down and open my laptop and start writing. Later people read what I’ve written and remark on how angry the story is. Gosh, I wonder why.

    You should read the rest of this essay, here.
    I don't disagree, but what is the message to take?

  • We should distinguish between focused and homogeneous SF on a literary and narrative level, with some particular kind of story and tone, which can actually have something to do with mythology, and on a concrete level, with similar characters in recurring situations.

    For example, with a planetary colonization background a "monoculture" of highly homogeneous colonists on a particular planet is the simplest and easiest choice, but the culture characters come from wouldn't be related to Ragnarok-like storylines. They could do anything depending on contingency and historical factors, from desperate guerrilla against an overwhelming alien invasion to visiting strange new worlds and learning something from each.

    Instead, Ragnarok "emulations" would be founded on individual major characters of specific types and with a specific history, i.e. a sinner like Odin vs. a powerful enemy like the giants, a nihilist like Loki and threats like Fenrir and Jörmungandr, etc.
  • edited April 10
    @ghostwhistler This little blue dot has approximately 6500 languages (and corresponding cultures). It's only 40,075 km in circumference.
  • Language differentiation seems to correlate with practical travel distances - people do generate a new language over a few short centuries, but only if they're left relatively isolated from other populations. Most of the world's small languages persist in isolated areas where people don't travel or communicate much with the outside world.

    Rather than new languages being born all the time, old ones have tended to die out after modernization kicked in. The majority of the world's languages aren't likely to survive the next few generations simply because they're small and relatively useless in the wider world where nobody knows that small language. There are about 400 languages with a million or more speakers in the world - perhaps that's roughly the number of languages we end up with after this century? In an even longer term I don't know why the Earth wouldn't end up with a single world language just for the convenience.

    I would expect a scifi space empire to be rather monocultural unless it involves some sort of long-term separation between inhabitated worlds. If we're speaking of humans coming from Earth, you'd expect that e.g. a hundred years of total separation might already allow the development of an unique local patois. A thousand years of low-efficiency communication (e.g. trade but not mass media or tourism) might justify the emergence of a new language on each separate planet.

    There's nothing inherently unrealistic about a mono-culture space empire, though. If communication between worlds is instantaneous, there are plenty of reasons for the core culture (the culture of the ruling group) to be adopted everywhere even if a distinction used to exist at some point. Expecting otherwise would be like expecting the US Midwest to somehow develop and retain a distinct language and culture separate from the imperial core - not going to happen unless you separate the Midwest from the coasts for a couple of centuries somehow, preventing the constant high-intensity cultural exchange.

    In practice it's easy to justify a human-based space empire going either way, insofar as the social simulation model goes. Depends on the history of the setting and its current technological situation.
  • You'll still get distinct dialects and cultures, though. Humans use those to help feel identity and community as separate from Everyone.
  • That's true, subcultures are a thing in even the most solidly connected large communities. An author working on a fictional world can use that to give a sense of social scale to an otherwise unusually monocultural world.

    Ultimately we're forced to speculate quite a bit about what a monocultural space empire would look like. Truly isolated, internally uniform cultures haven't been very common on Earth, after all. The most realistic monocultural scifi setting is probably one where there's a dominant culture that's just dominant enough for its members to be able to ignore all the minorities, thus thinking that they live in a monoculture. Sounds familiar to most, I expect.

    Going further than that, a thought on the modeling: would subcultures rise in importance in a world that does not have external cultural pressures and independent minority cultures? Cyberpunk occasionally goes that way: the world culture may essentially be defined by McDonalds to its own advantage, but that just means that people start taking their invented novo-cultures really fucking seriously in response to the situation. The weird postmodern tribalism may not be real culture in anthropological terms, but if people actually need that variety, then it could come to fill the void in the social and political context. I went pretty much this way the last time we played Paranoia, there simply was too much social utility in cultural distinction for people to not invent new subcultures on the seemingly monoform chassis of the bunker dystopia.
  • Unless we're talking about space opera or soft sci-fi, it's very likely that within a space empire, every planet quickly drifts apart in culture and language from each other. Communication, travel, even internet, would be far from instantaneous and cheap. It's also quite unlikely that many habitable planets exist within a single solar system, which would further makes distances greater, and more expensive. I'd imagine the situation closer to today. We have globalization, for sure, but only a minority gets to experience it outside of internet. Many marginalized cultures have a precarious access to the globalized culture, and thus remain somewhat insular even today.

    It might be possible that some planets get colonized by a fairly homogeneous group, but I think it's far more likely that capitalism's push for expansion pushes hundreds of thousands of people to the space, and usually those first settlers will come from marginalized cultures or classes, not from the privileged.

    I empathize a lot with The Expanse's depiction of a close future, where the first colonies outside earth received a diverse influx of settlers and, due to how different they were from Earth, culture and language rapidly drifted apart.
  • I do imagine some sort of mono culture approach, if internet were to become so instantaneous and ever present that we sort of fused into a planetary consciousness. One culture per planet, or even reaching many planets. However, that's closer to a transhumanist approach than vanilla sci-fi space empires.
  • Authors of science fiction get to pick and choose all but arbitrarily what they want their world to be like. Are colonies created by taxiing excess poor people from an overpopulated Earth, or by carefully chosen, elite seed populations? Artificial clones, why not - cheaper to haul genomes than people, after all.

    Or maybe Earth is just a forgotten colony and there already exist a hundred thousand human worlds just like it, except everybody's Indian in space for reasons. The realm of possibility is vast, it depends on what sort of world you want to depict. We've seen all kinds of things over the varied history of the genre.

    The one thing we do know is that if you want a fairly monocultural setting, credibility seems to dictate that something's keeping it that way over the long term; it's not the natural human condition for culture to remain static. If it's not cheap and ubiquitous travel and communication over the span of the civilization, then maybe they have other reasons for maintaining cultural cohesion. The space magic stops working unless the operators speak perfect Latin? That'd at least maintain a common technical language.
  • Why would you want to create a monoculture sci-fi? Cultural diversity, regional difference, and political plurality are all rich parts of the human experience that I enjoy seeing reflected in play. Some of my favorite sci-fi (Iain M. Banks, Ann Leckie, Ursula K. Le Guin) is about these topics.

    I can think of many pitfalls of monoculture sci-fi. The biggest risk is that it would unintentionally glorify fascist and eugenicist agendas which promote mono-culture through the eradication of difference. I have a much harder time thinking of the advantages of this approach.
  • edited April 10
    (edit : this was written before moconnor published and therefore directed to Eero_Tuovinen, Guy Srinivasan and Khimus)
    Are you guys willing to admit the predictive value of these conjectures is very low ?
    Or can you refer to scientific documentation and simulations on the topic of cultural evolution ?
  • Given that the OP was talking about "creating an SF setting", arguments about scientifically valid cultural evolution are not very relevant IMO. What is more important IMO is how the SF setting relates to how we understand the real world and how well it holds together.
    When I think of some of the great classic SF settings, like Dune or the Galactic Empire of the Foundation Trilogy or even William Gibson's Sprawl, they're not sober-minded extrapolations of current trends, but all three of them are very definitely speaking to modern preoccupations.
  • What would science fiction speculation predict, anyway? We've pretty much just gone through a few old variations on space opera world-building. The predictive value of saying that this sort of stuff has worked artistically in the past is pretty high, but that's probably not what you meant.
  • edited April 10
    What I meant is this : pseudo factualize a fictive future outcome doesn't hold water AND leads into issues. Namely that some half wit will take any argument from your talk without scrutiny and spread it for a scientific fact.
    On the other hand, I respect SF authors when they do some brain hurting work to inform their speculations.
  • DeReel said:


    Are you guys willing to admit the predictive value of these conjectures is very low ?
    Or can you refer to scientific documentation and simulations on the topic of cultural evolution ?

    Nope. Or, rather, depends on what you mean by predictive value. If there were a way for me to bet $100 to your $10 that in the future humans still cultivate different subcultures I would do so in a snap. But I agree that I don't have a good way to convince someone who would take the $10 side of that bet that they were wrong. And I'm okay with that.
  • edited April 10
    DeReel said:

    (edit : this was written before moconnor published and therefore directed to Eero_Tuovinen, Guy Srinivasan and Khimus)
    Are you guys willing to admit the predictive value of these conjectures is very low ?
    Or can you refer to scientific documentation and simulations on the topic of cultural evolution ?

    Well, taking into account this discussion is about creating fiction, I think it's kind of a move made with bad faith to start asking for papers and scientific evidence. But nonetheless, do we have any historical example about a culture remaining unchanged for a lot of time?
    -I think it is undisputable that language changes over time, and language is one of the foundations of culture.
    -Production and technology. Another condition for a culture to remain unchanged over time would be that the environment around them remains unchanged, there's no development of new technologies, no change in people's lives that makes it necessary to produce new things or change language.
    -Homogeneity. For a monoculture to remain this way, the environment for the whole empire should be homogeneous. Communities develop their languages in relationship to their environment, in such a way that even within a single community, varying registers emerge from class differentiation, age groups, bureaucracy, etc. But excluding that, it could be argued that even geography and climate make their way into language and shape it a little.

    Taking all that into account, my idea of a monoculture is more or less a posthuman society where natural environment has been all but replaced by a human produced environment, to an extent where people's lives are the same wherever you go, with no class structure or inner struggles, and no serious change in technology for years.
  • I don't think the OP refers to this hyperbolic idea of a monoculture, of course. I can certainly imagine some sort of Roman empire in space, but that's not and never was a monoculture. I can also imagine a possible future where globalization absorbs even more of our lives and seamlessly connects us with no escape, but even then globalization during capitalism reaches unequally different parts of the planet (universe in this case), and with different rythms.
    So, yes, I can imagine the project of an empire with a single culture, successful to an extent, but breeding it's own resistance by the factors I mentioned above.
  • Actually, if we get back to Ghostwhistler's project, isn't it about a mythically pervasive monoculture? Correct me if I'm wrong here, Ghostwhistler, but are you still working on that space wuxia thing? In that project space culture is superficially Chinese simply because that's the setting's guiding aesthetic. Sort of like Exalted, except in space.
  • edited April 10
    Chill. I asked in perfectly good faith, not to attack you, just as a signpost to halfwits that "this is fiction".
    When I look at how thoroughly you follow your hypothesis I want to point at the fact that not only, as you 3 acknowledged, one hypothesis is just a small part of all of the possibles, but also that Hard cultural /sociological SF such as LeGuinn's is but a small part of all SF. So I express my doubts that this way will yield much for OP, whose question was not about coherence.

    It was about issues. Did you understand it as "coherence issues" ? I, and many others, read it as literary X political or ethical. In other words, I don't see in OP the question you are answering. I think it's because you're way ahead of me on the genre. No kidding. I left world creation simulation after the geology step.
    Maybe you could point at space opera cultural worldbuilding on the map ? To me it looks like going plain fantasy, justifying post hoc what was felt at some point rich in narrative possibility, and milking it up to two or three surprising consequences. In other words, a "What if ?" From this distance, I don't think any amount of arguments can add value to such a work. Mostly, style or rather "treatment" will prevail.
  • Someone's monoculture can be someone else's conflict-rich diverse collection of groups and subcultures. It's a matter of perspective: in a game of local and personal conflicts individual persons can be a faction by themselves (e.g. a colony or space station caught in the struggle between a serial killer and a vigilante, or between two rival prophets), while in a large-scale game whole planets can be flattened to a single gimmick (e.g. Star Wars: Corruscant is the "city planet", with generic inhabitants).
  • OK, going back to the OP, I think one approach that is very fruitful is to go back to the original source. The real thing is almost always weirder and richer in detail than its second-hand genre version.

    For example, Dune the novel is better than Dune the sourcebook, and going to read some of Frank Herbert's inspirations is better still. This goes in spades when you're talking about something like "fantasy version of Tang dynasty China". I mean, I like Exalted, but using that as inspiration for a fantasy Chinese empire is like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.
  • @ghostwhistler This little blue dot has approximately 6500 languages (and corresponding cultures). It's only 40,075 km in circumference.

    I don't see the relevance.
  • Khimus said:

    I don't think the OP refers to this hyperbolic idea of a monoculture, of course. I can certainly imagine some sort of Roman empire in space, but that's not and never was a monoculture. I can also imagine a possible future where globalization absorbs even more of our lives and seamlessly connects us with no escape, but even then globalization during capitalism reaches unequally different parts of the planet (universe in this case), and with different rythms.
    So, yes, I can imagine the project of an empire with a single culture, successful to an extent, but breeding it's own resistance by the factors I mentioned above.

    It's monoculture in the sense that it's the Roman empire, as opposed to a setting encompassing many human cultures. Of course ancient Rome was a diverse place, but that's not really the point
  • edited April 12
    "OK, going back to the OP, I think one approach that is very fruitful is to go back to the original source"
    So meta
    Sorry, couldn't help it.
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