Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Power of Culture

Culture is stronger than you think.

Culture comes with metaphors for understanding life - ways to make sense of our drives and desires, ways to understand right and wrong, ways to categorize the familiar and the unfamiliar. It's evident in our thought, even if it doesn't actually limit the way we think.

I think there's no reason why anyone shouldn't use it as a tool in their writing - not just science fiction and fantasy writers, but mainstream writers as well. The people you write have a personal history, and a way of acting, that comes from their culture.

I've seen many sf/f stories that take non-human behavior and essentially say "these creatures act differently because their physiology or their dimension or their physics work in a way unlike ours." I'd like to argue that this is rarely necessary.

I don't mean that alien physiology shouldn't be taken into account when you're figuring out how an alien group acts. Of course metabolism (as in my earlier post) and body structure will have an influence over the kinds of infrastructure built by this group of people. Of course different behaviors might grow out of that.

The problem, for me, arises when culture gets omitted. A direct link is drawn between the physiology and the behavior. "Well, members of this group must behave this way because otherwise they'll burn up." It creates a rule that isn't really a rule, but a law of nature - and leaves out the people's ability to create rules for themselves.

If you've got a law of nature, then great. Take it and make it into a general principle within your culture. See if it can be extrapolated across contexts - whether the danger of some particular location gets turned into a general fear of locations resembling it, or whether stories grow up around the physical limitation that affect behaviors across the board for this society. The culture of the wolflike aliens of Aurru had a giant social and linguistic division that had grown up around the distinction between people who shivered in the cold (those with less fur) and people who didn't. The physiological fact was there, but its consequences were more than just physical. And it could influence behavior, as when Rulii took drugs - a choice based on a physiological fact that nevertheless brought significant social consequences along with it.

If you don't have a law of nature, you might not need one. Look for a law of culture. My otter aliens have very high technology, but they don't have virtual reality. It's not because their brains can't process it. It's because their societal structure is based on the idea that people operate in pairs, and one will vouch for the other in all situations. If they wanted virtual reality, it would have to take a form that could be witnessed by both members of the pair. A holodeck maybe, or some form of large-scale projection. It could never be something like headphones or a VR visor that would only be usable by one individual. Superstitions don't always have a basis in fact, but they have a powerful influence on behavior.

Keep your eye out. Look for cultural explanations for behavior, and cultural implications of difference. They will make your world feel much more real.

It's something to think about.

4 comments:

  1. We only need look at humans, who have the same physicals features that obey the same physical laws, but have developed a great many distinct cultures, few aspects of which are a response to physics.

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  2. Yes, indeed, Mike. Excellent point.

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  3. This post brings up a very good point. Culture cannot be ignored. Societal norms dictate how we, as human beings, act. These not only differ between nations, but with groups living within a single nation, state, province, city, etc.

    One thing that stands out to me as "unrealistic" when I am reading a book is that an entire planet follows the same belief system. It just wouldn't happen. Sentient beings have opinions and they will inevitably form opinions that don't mesh well.

    I am working on an historical fiction. It includes people from several different cultures; Greek, Roman, Germanian, Nubian, etc. One of the biggest challenges (and joys) for me is to research the differences in their cultures so that their actions ring true for my readers.

    Thanks for bringing up that vital element of writing a well-rounded story.

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  4. Thanks for your comment, Looneywriter. Your historical fiction project sounds interesting. I think a lot of this stuff can apply outside of sf/f, but I always address sf/f directly because it's my core genre.

    I'll add - and you probably already know - that it's worth taking some time to think about how the members of a society think. Just explaining the trappings of a culture may not be enough to make it come alive on the page.

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