Brainstorming Immersive Inclusive Worlds

Long post is long! And full of intellectuobabble. But hey, this is for Readercon; it’s appropriate.

I mentioned this in my previous post about Readercon, but I’m going to be running the following workshop there (description as submitted to Readercon; I think it’s been trimmed down for the program book):

Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy notes that the immersive fantasy should function on all levels as a complete world. However, many immersive fantasies fail to incorporate one of the most basic elements of any human society: our tendency to divide ourselves into socially-constructed subgroups such as race, gender, class, etc. Where such divisions are shown, they are often sorely lacking in completeness — for example, a planet split between magic-users and the magicless, but whose entire population resembles white northern Europeans.

In this workshop, participants will be invited to build a human-populated secondary world with realistic social construction. The results may be treated as a shared universe in which all participants are welcome to later write immersive fiction. Texts referenced may include fantasy literature and popular sociological non-fiction, such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Or, as I like to call it, this is the Secondary Soft Science (S3) worldbuilding workshop!

I get asked a lot about how I came up with some of the worldbuilding ideas I broached in the Inheritance Trilogy, and I’m always kind of puzzled by that question — mostly because I don’t think I did anything extraordinary in developing that world. I simply designed a world that made sense to me, utilizing the stuff I’ve picked up from my own experiences; years of reading sociological, historical, and anthropological texts; and my education. But it occurs to me that science fiction and fantasy based on the kind of stuff that appeals to me — the so-called “soft sciences” — is kind of rare in the field. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this, centering on the genre’s historical disdain for anything not easily quantifiable or indisputable… except that doesn’t account for the scads of SFF based on unquantifiable, frequently unobservable, “best guess” or purely theoretical material like whole swaths of quantum physics, dark matter, etc. But, ya know, those fields aren’t infested with girl cooties. And those fields don’t often, or at least not as frequently, challenge our thinking about the status quo of our society.

For example. I specifically suggested Mann’s book because it presents such a challenge to most USians’ understanding of our country’s history. I got the standard historical song and dance about the European settlement of the Americas, growing up: Columbus stumbled onto Hispaniola, then a while later came the Pilgrims, and then there was a mad scramble by all the European powers to take ownership of this vast, untamed landscape sparsely populated by naive natives who didn’t even know the value of what they held before the Europeans took it from them. (“They sold Manhattan for $24!” and so on.) Mann not only points out the parts of this narrative that were horribly wrong — the landscape wasn’t untamed, the natives weren’t naive, and it wasn’t sparsely populated when Columbus landed — he points out why those history books got things so wrong. Some of it was simply lack of knowledge; there have been a number of recent discoveries in anthropology, genetics, etc., which have revealed that the population of the Americas before Columbus was much, much larger than originally assumed. Columbus’ arrival touched off a wave of catastrophic pestilence that may have killed 95% of that population by the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival, so what the Pilgrims found was essentially a postapocalyptic landscape. But one of the reasons the stuff I learned in school was so wrong — despite ample evidence to the contrary that has existed for decades — is that the false narrative served any number of political agendas: doctrines like Manifest Destiny which were rooted in white supremacy; the social drive to construct an “American identity” which could bind together the disparate peoples of Europe, Africa, etc. and give them a sense of ownership over a place that really wasn’t theirs; prominent scientists’ and schools’ reputations, which in some cases were ruined by newer discoveries which shredded their theories (so in some cases they actively and successfully waged “popularity campaigns” against the new discoveries and tried to trash-talk the newer theories), and so on.

In other words, scientific fact was ignored or distorted so that those in positions of power could maintain said power. This happens in all the sciences — hello Galileo, how’s that Catholic Inquisition treating you? — but these days the truly threatening ideas aren’t coming from space or chemistry; they’re coming from our understanding of ourselves and each other.

So, back to my point. I think the historical tendency of SFF is to build worlds around the undisputed, non-controversial facts available. There’s always some allowance for “sensawunda” or sheer creative license, a la faster-than-light travel or the prospect that our myths might be rooted in reality. But typically, immersive fantasy worlds have been built in a fairly superficial way, and grounded in fundamentally non-threatening, often overly simplified ideas. For example, Orson Scott Card’s books on writing (How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and Character and Viewpoint) suggest using the “MICE quotient”, a formula of his devising which urges writers to consider the milieu in which the story takes place, the central idea which is meant to grab the reader’s attention, the characters who will be carrying the tale, and the events that occur over the story’s course. But I think MICE is insufficient because it doesn’t explore the context in which all of this should be taking place. No milieu exists in a vacuum. Every kingdom has neighbors; every culture has trading partners and enemies; no planet is a monoculture. So I think writers should consider a few factors first, then consider MICE.

(To be fair, Card himself acknowledges that MICE is just a handy shorthand/mnemonic; good worldbuilding requires a much deeper delving into what it is that makes any society tick.)

For example. Jared Diamond’s Collapse examines the life-cycle of cultures by focusing on those that have died: Easter Island, the Maya, the Vikings in Greenland. He posits some reasons why these failures occur: if a society fails to anticipate a coming problem; if it fails to perceive a problem as it begins or progresses; if it fails to try and solve this problem, whether through rationalized stupidity, stubborn adherence to problematic values, or other wholly irrational reactions; or if it tries to solve the problem but just plain fails to succeed. All societies face these issues, constantly; societies we deem successful are simply those that haven’t a) passed a crisis point in the effort to resolve their problems — yet — or b) are in the “failure to perceive” mode. So it seems to me that writers trying to develop a story milieu would be wise to consider which of the above failures their created culture is currently dealing with, or at what point in its life-cycle their culture is positioned. Is it a newly-created society, a la the United States? Is it an ancient society on its last legs, a la ancient Egypt at the time of Alexander’s invasion? Is it a middle-aged society that hasn’t yet noticed the potentially fatal heart condition growing at its core? (e.g., Underclass about to revolt, a dangerous dependance on some resource that’s running out, customs interfering with growth)

And what about the geopolitics? I can’t tell you how many fantasies set in pseudo medieval Europes I’ve read. And most of these pseudoEuropes have been curiously monocultural and insular — everybody looks the same, there’s no evidence of trade or even contact with distant lands, only local/internal politics matter. The real medieval Europe was just one player on a global stage; this was reflected in its markets (supplied by the Silk Road), its military (which fought the Crusades, and was eventually improved by the Moorish conquest), its laws and customs (much of which was borrowed from older societies, like the Code of Hammurabi), its cuisine (which rapidly incorporated staples and spices from distant lands), and more. Even the most small-scale politics were heavily impacted by problems and issues taking place continents away.

Then there’s the idea of societal systems analysis. What are the axes along which its hierarchies of power are arranged? (e.g., In the US, it’s race, class, gender, and so on; in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it’s ownership of magic, degree of godly involvement/intervention, and religion.) What are the core values that the society is — intentionally or inadvertently — designed to support and encourage? How does this created society protect its status quo, and to what degree — the society’s death? — will it do so?

…So to make a long story short (too late!) this is what I want to introduce, via the workshop. Of course the workshop is only an hour, so there won’t be nearly enough time to cover all this material — but I do think there’s sufficient time for a good entry-level discussion, and maybe a bit of fun with the exercise itself. I’d initially intended to have handouts and a resource list… but honestly, this has turned out to be an incredibly busy week and I’m on six program items at Readercon, so I think maybe I’m not going to spend much more time than I have on preparation. I’m going to ad lib a bit, and we’ll just have to see how that goes.

I don’t want to do all this purely as an intellectual exercise, note. I do think that SFF’s aversion to “soft science” leads to poor worldbuilding, but more specifically I think it leads to exclusionary worldbuilding — SFF that inadvertently supports our own society’s power structure by centering white heterosexual (etc) men and marginalizing everyone else. Remember that “inclusive” part of the workshop title.

So I’m going to walk a group of total strangers through the process that I normally use to come up with a secondary society. I’m going to ask people to first consider the following, re the story world:

-Planet (we’ll assume Earthlike, but how many continents? How much ocean? What can its people see in the sky, from the ground?)
-Environment in the specific story location on this planet (access to resources, physical challenges, the environment’s influence on morphology)
-Sociology (power structure and reasons forwith, internal and external challenges, adaptations, economic considerations, point on the cultural life cycle, supportive and harmful systems)
-Psychology (how they think and why, how they react to stress, what they consider neurotypical and atypical — yes, this is often culture-dependant)
-Linguistics (language[s] and method of communication — spoken? written? hand-signs? knotted cords? — the impact of culture on language and vice versa)

And also an important bit:

-Reality check: Consider the impact of our society on the worldbuilding. (Do the women have agency? Are the PoC stereotypes? Are the richest and most powerful people in this world really the best PoV from which to tell the tale? How many of our cliches are actually evidence of unexamined assumptions?)

I imagine that asking a few of these questions is bound to trigger lots more. In fact, once it gets going, I think (hope) my role will simply be to record what everybody’s tossing out, as fast as I can. It should be interesting to see what we come up with. It should be even more interesting to see whether anyone in the workshop runs with the world we create, and produces any work as a result.

Now. Having put all this forward for your consideration, let’s start the exercise here! I’ll get the ball rolling with an example. Using the categories I listed above…

-Planet: A world with one long, narrow continent spanning from polar region to polar region, though with a number of inland seas and rivers. There are some largish (say, the size of Madagascar) islands along the edges of this continent, broken off from it due to plate tectonics, etc. In the sky, the people of this world can see a very distinct band of stars (the galactic plane — i.e., the Milky Way, on our world) and two small moons. One moon is higher in the sky and larger, the other is smaller and seems lower.

-Environment: The story will take place on one of the islands edging this continent, near the equator. Its people are distantly related to the folk of the mainland; they are the descendants of people living there at the time the island split away from the continent. But they’ve been there for many thousands of years — long enough to physically differentiate from the people of the mainland. The island is mountainous, with little arable land but a sprawling rainforest. The people are generally dark-skinned; those who live in the mountains have adapted to high altitudes; and they’re short, since fish and very small mammals constitute the only protein available on the island. Uplanders tend to be deeper-chested and darker-skinned than lowlanders.

-Sociology: Divided into uplanders (the people in the mountains) and lowlanders (where the forests are located). The two subgroups trade extensively — the lowlanders produce food from fishing and rainforest orchardry, the uplanders mine metals and stone. Although uplanders can tolerate the lowlands, lowlanders get altitude sickness in the uplands — so uplanders regard lowlanders as weak. The goods the uplanders produce are more valued in their society, being rarer, so uplanders dominate the lowlanders. Also, the genes for high altitude tolerance are more readily passed on maternally than paternally (picking this out of a hat — don’t know if it’s true for Tibetans, if you’re wondering), so upland women are revered, and a religion has developed around a powerful mother-goddess who is said to live on the island’s highest mountain. This mother-goddess is symbolized by the larger, higher moon. However, the society is predominantly patriarchial (a holdover from the mainland). The uplanders constantly innovate new ways to use metals and stone, so the society is now at about a steam-using level of technology. Steam is easier to use at high altitudes (lower boiling point of water), so the uplands have more fantastic technology than the lowlands. The island has recently made contact with the mainland again — which has a very different culture — and the warning signs of future conflict have spurred the uplanders to concentrate more on military applications of steam tech.

-Psychology: Both groups think it’s madness to try and live outside one’s “place”. Aside from this, atypical psychology is widely accepted as a manifestation of the religion — sociopaths are steered toward the priesthood, schizophrenics’ delusions are treated as prophecy, autistics are “gifted by the goddess” and steered toward some particular focus, etc. Altitude sickness is the only thing regarded as a mental illness — something the lowlanders are more susceptible to because of their assumed inferiority.

-Linguistics: They speak a common language, very distantly related to that of the nearest mainland culture — though mainlanders can’t understand this language. (Think French and Italian, both Romance languages.) They write. They also use a very complex semaphore-like flag code for communicating across great distances, developed by the uplanders for disseminating information to their subjects in the lowlands. Lowlanders also use a kind of aural Morse code, evolved from the days when they would thump on tree-trunks to communicate through the thick forests. It’s built into their music as drumbeats, and is frequently used to hide information from uplanders; most uplanders aren’t even aware that this code exists.

-Reality check: Why am I making these people dark-skinned? Granted, equatorial people in our world tend to be, but most of them (except in Africa) didn’t evolve in those environments; it’s just that dark-skinned people happened to migrate there. Maybe the idea that equatorial islanders = dark-skinned is just a racial cliche. Also, why am I making these people patriarchial? Granted, most societies in our world are. But is there any reason why these people would retain their patriarchial customs given the obvious value that women possess here? Maybe I’m just being lazy. Also, why do the lowlanders put up with the uplanders? Because the lowlanders would have trouble doing the mining, etc., themselves due to the altitude sickness. But really, all the lowlanders would have to do is cut off the uplanders’ food, and they can control them. Why are the uplanders in charge? That doesn’t make sense; I need to reconsider it.

…Okay, I’ve talked enough. Anybody else want to try? (Also, post-workshop, any participants may feel free to post their thoughts here.)

24 thoughts on “Brainstorming Immersive Inclusive Worlds”

  1. I’ve been constructing a secondary world for a YA sci-fi I’m working on, and this has been extremely helpful in making me reconsider some aspects. Thank you!

  2. Very interesting topic. My favorite bit on a first read of your example is that atypical psychology is culture-bound.

    “Why are the uplanders in charge?” Don’t know the answer to this, but makes me think about why revolts *don’t* happen — even in the absence of overt physical oppression — and why sometimes they do. Keeping conditions from getting too bad — stopping before the point of truly intolerable — while also building up cultural values which reinforce inequality (not necessarily intentionally, though often that, too): I’m sure the uplanders in charge can work.

    This looks like a great workshop. I know I’ll be back to read this post in more depth, as well, as I work on worldbuilding.

  3. This is awesome! Some of this stuff is second nature to me (hello, linguistics major) but this post makes a good checklist for questions I don’t think to ask myself (Diamond’s types of failures and how much water a planet has being two). I’m bookmarking this for future reference.

  4. Pingback: Worldbuilding « Emmie Fisher

  5. Agreed! Whether it’s obvious to all readers or not, the soft sciences are essential to good world-building, and often lacking.

    Part of that is because readers fail to notice both the lack (in many such works) and existence of soft-science elements…and provide no positive reinforcement for writers who do it right (or even partially right.) Writers, like every other critter on this planet, do more of what’s reinforced…if editors and readers praise a story element, they’ll do that more (and other writers, if the praise is open enough, will do likewise.) Un-reinforced story elements, like any un-reinforced behavior, will gradually die out. Unless writers have a pre-existing readership interested in the same issues, or someone influential notices their use of soft-science elements and points it out to less-perceptive readers, such use will be ignored, and even if the writer continues to use them, the intensity of effort will lessen…and thus lessen the chance that these elements will ever be noticed.

    Also: SFF is the one area of literature in which writers are expected to do world-building–and are thus open to criticism that they haven’t made it big/complicated/realistic enough, as well as open to criticism that they’ve expended too much wordage on the world-building and not enough on character and story. Other fiction writers can rely on editors, critics, and readers to supply the milieu and the context. They can construct stories within very narrow limits (all those books about the angst of white suburbanites in the eastern United States–but equally any work set in one neighborhood, city, region, social class, racial group, religious denomination, etc) and still be given that positive reinforcement.

    Those of us who recognize the lack, and write fiction, do need to be aware of our own work’s balance between “hard” and “soft” sciences. We do need to ask all those questions about power (who has it, on what basis, how is it concentrated, how is it distributed), about the way society is organized (rigid v. fluid, resource allocation.) We need to be aware of our own cultural heritage and its complexity; those with no formal background in the soft sciences would do well to spend some time studying at least three. As readers, we need to recognize the influence of the dominant cultural assumptions on the way a work is presented to us: we need to be aware, for instance, that cover art is not an infallible guide to the book’s contents or the writer’s intent. Sometimes it meshes; sometime it doesn’t. We need to look for, and recognize, and praise even partial success in the use of soft sciences in order to reinforce writers in that area.

  6. Pingback: Sterling Editing » Written on the internet

  7. Just thought I’d pop in with a semi-contrarian view. You wonder why so many SF novels aren’t “inclusive” enough (actually, you don’t wonder–but your lengthy digression on Columbus conflates revisionist history with the individual perspectives of authors).

    Here’s one non-political, purely functional (and to my mind, highly defensible) explanation: story bandwidth. Making a rich and unusual social setting requires space to explain, and time for the reader to read. In some cases it almost *becomes*(hah!) the story. Which is fine, but that’s not the story everyone wants.

    And here’s what I think the currently fashionable wave of social-inclusion-at-any-cost SF misses: there are a LOT of “idea” readers out there who honestly don’t care about any of what you discuss above. They want to explore bizarre physics without having to “challenge [their] thinking about the status quo of our society.” Which is probably true for most readers in any genre.

    As a SF reader with graduate degrees in social sciences, I applaud the use of such thinking, when appropriate. But as a much-vilified white heterosexual male, I do take offense at the constant chorus of right-thinkers shaming me for expecting to be able to read the stories that I enjoy (when I should obviously be enjoying what is good for me instead).

    Remember–inclusion also means the pigheaded white male geek, who quite possibly still comprises a majority of SF sales (I’ve wondered if Romance authors and editors lecture about putting more realistic male perspectives and beer-bellied love interests into their genre?). And if you want to try out a new flavor of marginalization, try arguing my points here at the next convention…and then write a book about your ostracization by your “inclusive” peers.

    Of course, there’s room for everyone on the bookshelf. And you’re not among the worst offenders–but you know what I mean about those (not always female!) voices in SF who would replace all the non-politically correct SF books out there with transgender midget love stories in the Martian ghetto, if they could.

    Actually, that story might not be half bad…

  8. Noman,

    That’s not contrarian, that’s silly. And ignorant, apparently, of the existence of sociological and other SFF which has successfully been inclusive. It doesn’t happen often enough, which is the root of my complaint. But offhand I can think of any number of author examples whose inclusive SFF has not only been well-written, but has been rewarded by the SFF community in the form of awards and bestseller-level sales (e.g. Le Guin, Gaiman, most recently Paolo Bacigalupi). So for you to claim that this is too hard is frankly foolish. Good authors do it all the time.

    Sure, you’ve got a point that there are some people (not just white males; don’t even want to be inclusive there, do you?) who simply don’t want to think about this stuff, but this is not exactly a news flash. I don’t want to think about this stuff — if for no reason other than that it forces me to constantly argue with people like you, which is a drain on my time and energy — but I have to, because if I want a career then I need SFF to be around for a long time, and that won’t happen unless it changes to fit the world around us. Sadly, pigheaded white male geeks do not exist in sufficient quantity to sustain this genre, and their numbers are going to diminish further with time. The field must become more welcoming to people outside that demographic if it is to survive. Though clearly you don’t agree.

    Which is why I wasn’t talking to you. I don’t really care about whether exclusionary SFF survives; it’s irrelevant to my point. You are welcome to continue writing and reading exclusionary SFF until the cows come home, as far as I’m concerned; nobody’s stopping you. And as long as your fellow pigheaded white male geeks exist, there will always be some for you. Mazel tov. In the meantime, I’m going to keep talking to those who do care about being inclusive. ‘K?

  9. I never claimed it was too hard–just that it is actually a distraction from the desired subject matter for some.

    But I’m really interested in one thing: when you say there is not “enough” inclusive fiction, is that a statement of hard economic reality, or of social desirability (i.e., is the market not fulfilling the existing demand for such stories, or should the market be nudged toward a different center for the good of itself and/or others)?

    The former reason is admirable, if somewhat unlikely. But usually when I hear this topic spoken of–as it is so often these days–the motivation sounds like the latter.

  10. Wow. Okay.


    As a reader of this blog, I find your question about demand vs. for-its-own-good a distraction from the desired subject matter; I came to this blog post because I want to read and write SFF with inclusive worldbuilding. Why did you come here?

  11. is that a statement of hard economic reality, or of social desirability

    Both and neither. As I’ve asserted for quite some time on this blog and elsewhere, and even in my first response to you, I think it’s simply a matter of good writing. It’s clear that your mileage varies if you find plausible, realistic worldbuilding a distraction, because for me it’s overly simplistic, unrealistic worldbuilding that kicks me out of a story. When I watch a TV show set in some place like New York but which has an all-white cast, that’s not the New York I live in and see every day. It’s some city called New York but which is actually some clueless — or racist — person’s whitewashed fantasy of New York. When I read an SFF novel set on a spaceship which ostensibly is staffed by a sample of Earth’s population but whose characters are mostly white men, I can’t immerse myself in that story. This planet is currently about 75% nonwhite and 50% male, and the racial ratio will become even more pronounced in the future, so that novel makes no sense. My brain refuses to accept such blatantly illogical and implausible worldbuilding. It aggravates me as much as a basic physics error in hard SF probably annoys some pigheaded white male physics geek. But since all of us live in the real world, and not all of us are physics experts, there’s no reason why all of us shouldn’t be “people geeks”. And we should be just as geekishly insistent that our SFF get the people right, as the science or mythology.

    Now I have a question for you. Are you asking this question out of genuine interest? Because it sounds like you’ve heard these conversations before, multiple times, and you didn’t bother listening then. So I suspect you’ve really just come here to vent your frustration with yet another person who’s asking you to think about something you’d rather not. If that’s the case, I’d appreciate knowing, because I’m not really interested in feeding your cycle of denial. If you legitimately want to converse, and you can lose the passive-aggressive crap, I’ll converse. Otherwise, you can go your way and I can go mine, and both of us can spend our time on more productive things.

  12. To leave Norman’s silly distractions behind:

    But really, all the lowlanders would have to do is cut off the uplanders’ food, and they can control them. Why are the uplanders in charge? That doesn’t make sense; I need to reconsider it.

    This argument is often used with oil. “Why don’t we just cut off those Arabs’ food? They’re in the frickin’ desert!”

    Short answer: It doesn’t work because someone ELSE will sell them the food. Maybe at a slightly higher cost, but more than willingly. Your question seems to assume a unified lowlander group that will flawlessly cooperate on this food boycott. But it never works that way.

    As I say to people who suggest trading food for oil: food’s easy. Everyone can do it, or they wouldn’t exist anymore.

  13. Very belated — thanks for dropping by! — and some thoughts:

    I agree completely that SFF is the only genre in which this level of from-scratch worldbuilding has to be done, and SFF writers do face an extra level of scrutiny and accountability for it. But I disagree that writers in other genres don’t have to think about these questions. As I said to “Noman” farther down the thread, this is a matter of good writing, IMO; it’s not unique to any one genre. I’ve seen complaints from readers in the literary fiction genre about lit novels that exclude women (or plausible women), or characters of color, or poor people, etc., in situations where they really should be there. And I’ve seen RaceFail-scale debates all over the media field regarding TV shows, movies, and video games that fail to plausibly capture the complexity of society in their stories. So all writers should be thinking about this, IMO, though the non-SFFers can probably skip the “planet” and “linguistics” stages of the process. ;)

    And I agree that writers do better when good work is reinforced… but I think it is being reinforced. I’m thinking here about the Hugos, Nebulas, and bestseller rankings accorded to Le Guin, Gaiman, and other writers who’ve done a good job of this. Readers notice. I’ve seen any number of recommendations lists and communities in which fans recommend to each other inclusive works (usually along some specific axis, like “works featuring non-stereotyped gay characters”), and also recommend authors who help to make SFF more inclusive — heck, I’ve been the beneficiary of lists like that practically since my book came out. I’m grateful for it, and I definitely feel reinforced. :)

    But something’s wrong, IMO. I’m not seeing the kind of imitation that I should be seeing, after all this positive reinforcement. One would think that after Gaiman got film rights offers, etc., for writing a fantasy duology with black protagonists and involving an African trickster god, that fantasy writers would leap on the bandwagon and start mooching African deities all over the place. (I’m kinda glad they didn’t. But I expected them to.) And one would think that after Le Guin transformed epic fantasy with her Earthsea saga, there would be many writers studying and aping her brown-skinned Ged. In most artistic fields, one breakthrough success summons imitators; that’s just the way art works. But in this case, I suspect the artistic pattern is hitting resistance from something deeper-ingrained — namely, our culture’s status quo, and our tendency to protect it even at the cost of our own success. There may very well be Gaiman imitators attempting African-god fantasy out there… but are they trying to publish it, or telling themselves it’s hopeless because “nobody wants stuff like this” and shoving it into a trunk without even trying? If they’re trying to publish it, can they get an agent? Are they finding publishers? Is the publisher trusting it to perform well in the mainstream, or shoving it into the African American Interest ghetto? Is it finding readers from a wide swath of the fantasy community, or are many fantasy readers preemptively deciding that it’s about black people, therefore it can’t be all that good? And so on.

    So yeah, positive reinforcement helps. I just don’t think it’s enough, given what it’s got to work against.

  14. Hi Scott!

    Y’know, I hadn’t even considered this real-world analogy. (Though in truth, I’ve never heard the whole “why don’t we cut off their food?” argument before. I kinda wish I hadn’t still; just thinking about such an asinine and reprehensible idea raises my blood pressure.) But good point about food being easy to produce, so not much leverage. Okay, that does explain why the uplanders would have the upper hand; they’ve got more power in terms of resources.

  15. Well, I’m not here to fuel the fires of my raging Caucasian denial. And I appreciate your responses, particularly the second one, because it was both more civil and more informative than the first.

    And yes, I have heard these conversations before, multiple times, and I do listen but usually hear the same venomous rebuttals (you yourself managed to call me silly, ignorant, and foolish just in your first paragraph) rather than discussions. No one seems willing to directly answer my economics-vs-social-engineering question (you also dodged it pretty thoroughly, but more gracefully than most). And I ask that question because it seems to me to lie at the heart of any rigorous intellectual scaffolding of the argument.

    For what it’s worth, while I am a WASP, I married a Chinese woman, went to graduate school in Spain, have worked in Japan, have Jewish relatives and my best friend for years was a Nigerian girl (and Samuel Delany is my favorite SF author). I’m probably not the hater you seem to think I am.

  16. My 2 cents of reality check:

    Does it really make sense for a steam tech level society to steer sociopaths and schizophrenics toward the priesthood? Something about that doesn’t pass the smell test for me, except maybe in a society which considers religion second-tier to technology (i.e., “get the weirdos out of my hair so I can do something useful”…do people who have successfully militarized steam technology *really* worship a moon goddess?)

    More broadly, if the two social strata are so different, how much of a common culture do they really share? Even with the same religion, how might they practice it differently and assign it differing value? Think of the difference between the way someone like Barack Obama practices his professed religion, and the way an immigrant laborer from Kenya practices the same nominal faith.

  17. I seem to have hurt your feelings. Was it my expression of surprise, or was it my question? Interesting.

    In your current comment, you seem to be caught up on technological complexity, and what you suppose that would imply about religious expression within a society. You have surely encountered the notion that the development of European societies — including the role, value, and expression of religion — was culturally and historically specific, and not the template for how societies must develop? Right?

    For generations, social scientists have been investigating the role of atypical psychology in religious practices throughout the world; they have found a variety of cultural expressions, even in societies where religion is considered “something useful” and people with atypical psychology are not labeled “weirdos”. Social scientists rely on observation and analysis, not “the smell test”, as I’m sure you’re aware from your graduate studies. Speculating on how some of those variations would play out in cultural worldbuilding is a challenging — and difficult — endeavor. Starting from the point I mentioned above about a cultural template (that is, remembering what does not constitute one) can be helpful.

  18. Yes, it is a difficult endeavor. And yes, as a practicing social scientist I understand the role of observation and analysis. I also understand when the combined wisdom of practice and experience must, for one reason or another, substitute for empiricism. Fantasy worldbuilding would seem to obviously be the latter.

    So I would ask again, though it grows tiresome, now that we all agree we understand the fundamentals: does it really make sense for a society that has mastered at least a basic form of science (presumably understanding causality and disprovability of conjectures, etc.) also truly still worship a moon-goddess just like their ‘inferiors’ beneath them?

    I don’t claim to know the answer, and there are several possible ways through this question. Perhaps the answer is no, they have moved beyond religion. Perhaps most uplanders really do still worship/believe, but the steam scientists among them are quietly agnostic. Or perhaps steam science allows them a new way to prove or heighten the value of their religion. But to imply as you do that something as psychologically and sociologically significant as ‘science’ would have no real impact on religion seems naive.

    [Non-Western example:] Do educated Indian computer workers still worship the same way as thier traditional rural families? Why or why not?

    As a tangent, it’s interesting that (you and) NKJemisin considers religion to “develop” around sociology. No possibility of divine revelation from an actual deity? That assumption seems to be based pretty heavily on a Western postmodern cultural template itself.

  19. Noman, there’s so much that’s risible in your most recent posts that I’m not going to bother picking them apart. If you’ve listened during your previous conversations on inclusiveness, or to the many Brown Friends ™ you’ve totted up as proof of your openmindness, it doesn’t show. You’ve answered my question as to whether you want a serious conversation or just to waste my time, and the latter can occur only if I let you, so I’m going to ignore you from here. And you’re derailing the conversation, so I’m also going to put you on moderation. I’ll approve only those comments of yours that are related to the topic from here forth — and which show some evidence of the social science education you claim, because “the smell test”, “wisdom,” and your unsupported belief in the incompatibility of technological advancement and nonwestern religion doesn’t cut it with me.

  20. And to bring all this back on-topic —

    It doesn’t matter why the people of this world mix moon-goddess worship with their steam tech, or whether that “makes sense” or fits any preconceived assumptions any of you might have about technological societies or animist societies. The point of the exercise is that they do, and it’s up to us the worldbuilders to find a way to make it work. Proceed.

    I’ve been pretty busy with life stuff lately so am a bit behind on posting, but I’ll post a report of how the workshop went at Readercon later this week. (Short version: packed house! not enough time! fascinating digressions!) This will include the worldbuilding that the at-con participants came up with, for all to share and nom upon.

  21. “-Reality check: Why am I making these people dark-skinned? Granted, equatorial people in our world tend to be, but most of them (except in Africa) didn’t evolve in those environments; it’s just that dark-skinned people happened to migrate there. Maybe the idea that equatorial islanders = dark-skinned is just a racial cliche. ”

    Sorry if I’m posting on such an old post, but I just wanted to say that there is a very good reason for these people to be dark skinned – the sun. It’s not a racial cliche to make them dark skinned- it’s what’s logical. It just doesn’t make sense for them to be light skinned, and it especially wouldn’t make sense if they were blond or redheaded (not that you were suggesting that). White skin burns, and is far more susceptible to skin cancer than dark skin, so it’s not logical for a light skinned people’s historical home to be an equatorial country. Recent colonization is a different issue.

    One of the things which drives me crazy about so much fantasy (not yours – sorry, this is turning into a rant about racist fantasy where the worlds are dominated by white people) is that they make a culture white when really it’s not logical for the culture to be white – like the redheaded Aiel from Wheel of Time (hate that series, by the way), or blond Luke in Star Wars on a desert planet with two suns. I’m white. I have pale skin. In an equatorial country, or the desert (not that I’ve been to the desert), if I forget to wear sunscreen for even a half hour I get very badly burned. So unless the white fantasy culture had magical sunscreen that they wore all the time to keep their skin pale and unburned and they’ve been using that sunscreen for the past thousand years, it just doesn’t make sense for their historical home to be a country with strong sun.

    This is what bothers me so much about white dominated fantasy – white skin and blond/red hair can only really develop in certain conditions and certain regions. It’s the exception to the rule, not the rule. Most fantasy writers shouldn’t be asking themselves “Why should I make these people dark skinned,” but rather “Why should I make these people light skinned?” Most fantasy writers should be doing what you’re doing, and writing about PoC. (I love your books by the way!) It’s just so twisted that people write about white dominated worlds when that doesn’t even make logical sense.

    Sorry for the rant, and on such an old (and interesting) post that isn’t even really about this.

  22. Hi Ilana,

    Nobody but us is likely to see this, but it’s an interesting point you make, so I’ll bite. :) My concern about skin color is that, in the example cited in the OP, the people of these islands are immigrants to this environment. They could have immigrated from a part of the mainland with pale-skinned people, or those immigrants could have been darker-skinned. This was the basis of my “reality check” question — what was I assuming to be their, er, basal coloring? ancestral coloring? And if they started out as pale, for example, would they have been there long enough to darken, from that?

    I did establish that they’ve been there long enough for their culture and language to differentiate, but that can happen with great speed relative to biological change. The transformation of Gaulish into modern French took only about 800 years, for example. (Maybe less, but the only evidence found was written in 800 A. D.) But skin color appears to change significantly in about 2500 years, at minimum. So the big question is, how long have the people of the island been there, isolated from the mainland? If they’ve been there, say, 5000 years, then regardless of how they started out, yeah, they’re probably dark-skinned now. But if they started out very pale — say, blond, burn-don’t-tan Nordics — and they’ve only been there, say, 2000 years, then they’d be browner, but not by much. They would probably still look white to American eyes, maybe just on the “swarthy” side, a la Mediterranean people.

    So to use your example, Luke on Tatooine makes perfect sense if his ancestors are recent immigrants. (And as the prequel trilogy establishes, his ancestors were slaves; they could’ve come from anywhere. So yeah, immigrants. Dunno how recent.) I haven’t read the Wheel of Time, but I take your point, because I’ve seen lots of other examples of redheads in deserts, equatorial jungles, etc. One of my favorite authors, Carol Berg, has the Derzhei — as far as I can tell, they’re pale Celticish-looking redheads who’ve been living in a desert environment for generations. But maybe not many generations.

    The thing to really question is, why are so many races in desert/equatorial environments depicted as still being white, in fantasy? Do all of these fantasy series take place in lands (relatively) recently colonized? If so, there should be more evidence of recent colonization — an indigenous population that’s been displaced, heavy-duty seafaring technology, language drift, stories of a distant homeland. I don’t see most desert-dwelling redheads or equatorial blond people given that kind of worldbuilding plausibility.

  23. Thanks for the wonderful response.

    About the island – you’re right. I kind of assumed that since the continent was huge and the island was equatorial that they were colonizing it from the equatorial part of the mainland. It didn’t occur to me until I read your response that they could have come from anywhere on the mainland. So you’re right, it is an assumption to make them dark skinned.

    About Luke – correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the entire planet was a desert. If that’s the case then blond white people really have no business being there at all. If the entire planet is not a desert, then you’re right, it makes perfect sense for him to be blond.

    About fantasy world building in general, though, it still frustrates me considerably. Colonization is a huge trauma that echoes in a culture for hundreds and hundreds of years after it occurred, even from the perspective of the colonizers. If a writer doesn’t want to tackle that, fine. But then they shouldn’t put white people in an equatorial or desert environment. Either way it’s illogical. It’s illogical to assume white people have lived in such a land for thousands of years, and it’s illogical to assume that colonization did occur, but with no ramifications.

    But I still think that the base skin color for all fantasy cultures should be some shade of brown. That’s what makes the most logical sense. If they must be white, then there should be a clear cut reason for it – they live in a northern country, or they live in a colonized country. For instance, I think everyone’s white in ‘Mythago Wood’ by Robert Holdstock, but it takes place in rural England and deals with distinctly European mythology, so the fact that everyone’s white only makes sense. Instead, the base skin color for most fantasy worlds is white, and many fantasy writers tie themselves into knots to make their fantasy land white even when there’s every possible reason not to.

    Anyway, that’s what I love about your work – you have multiple ethnicities (that are not direct parallels of our world, which makes it even better) – and you tackle issues such as colonization. I love that – it makes the world so much more real. And when you do have white characters/cultures there is logic behind the choice.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top