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A personal point of view on the necessity of a new culture in fiction

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away", "Pandora", "Dune", "Middle Earth". All quite different worlds compared to ours, but every single character (Alien or not) have the common factor of human conflict (which is one of the fundamental cogs of a story). But why we need new worlds? You may say that is the will of the writer, or just a cool feature because the story of a character is what really matters. That's true. But why create, for example, an indigenous culture of 2 meter high blue aliens living in a moon far away from Earth since you have a plethora of these cultures here on Earth (Na'vi people - Avatar)?

Well, maybe one fruitful way to an author decide if he/she needs a new world is to verify if there are "Exotic Culture scenes" on his/her story. The Na'vi people are exotic, the Watto of Tatooine or Yoda are quite fascinating, Hobbits are unusual and so on... But again, there are many "Exotic Cultures" here on Earth. The thing is, are they considered exotic cultures of Earth really exotic? I mean, they are exotic compared to what?

An African Tribe is exotic compared to an every-day life of an average city X of Occidental World? Most people would say aloud: "yes." But if you apply a reference change, a person from African tribe Y would probably say the same about the people of city X. So which culture is really exotic X or Y? If you say that is the city X, you are pre-establishing a "true" culture, which of course do not exist; if you insist without any solid arguments, you may reach the edges of things like racism.

Now, the problem is then to say what is exotic or not. Maybe the creation of a new world and culture (based on Earth but without saying anything related to a particular culture) solves the problem of an "Exotic Culture." Now, in this new world, you can compare all our Terrestrial experience (culture) with something truly different (because it isn't a human feature), truly "exotic."

Question

My question is based on my ignorance about the necessity of a new world. So, beyond genre, why sometimes (mostly in sci-fi and fantasy) we need new worlds to tell about human conflict?

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    I think it is insincere to think that these worlds were only created as a backdrop to the conflict, and not as a significant standalone feature of the work. Heck, Tolkien only wrote a story because he had to--he loved his world way more than any one character within it. – Weckar E. Oct 15 '19 at 7:01
  • But the love for the work is a writer's inner and personal characteristic. It doesn't mean nothing for the reader, a priori (I think). – M.N.Raia Oct 15 '19 at 7:16
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    This is not really the place to have a discussion about it, so I'll just leave my ethos: Writers should not write for the reader. – Weckar E. Oct 15 '19 at 7:45
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    I would say that "avoiding research" is also a good reason one would not use an existing culture. Wait a minute, should my hitite warrior marry a 14 year old egypt girl without the consent of her parents? Is it ok? I don't care, my haposhian warrior will. – Chaotic Oct 15 '19 at 16:19
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Frame Shift Challenge: Logically, why wouldn't a culture from an alien world come off as "exotic" to the reader?

People have noticed that other groups of sapient beings (including this as a qualifier since we are talking about aliens and non-human sophonts like centaurs) around the world have different cultures. It's an observation that goes back to Herotodus' Histories. People in general come up with different ideas on how to live, how to survive in varied environments, how the world works, and their own cultural traditions all over the place. Why would the inhabitants of a fantasy world or an alien planet be any different?

You're saying that all of these cultures are "exotic". But why would you expect the cultures to be familiar in the first place? When Europeans first landed on the shores of the New World in the 15th-16th century, did they find perfect clones of medevial Europe awaiting them? And if someone from Ming China visited Spain during that same time, wouldn't they consider it strange how disorganized Europe was compared to their homeland?

When humans travel to the stars, would we expect alien species to have a society that resembles whatever cultural background the author hails from? No, that kind of thing has been done, and when audiences see it now we cringe because we know that alien culture wouldn't look identical to Earth culture (unless it's done for comedy, like in Planet 51). We would expect aliens to have an "exotic" culture, if for no other reason than their biology, psychology, and ecosystem would lead them to having their own solutions as to how to survive and the big questions of life. This isn't just Euro-centric, either, look at how much Avatar got backlash for copy-pasting Native American stereotypes onto an alien planet.

Is it a bit lazy to use IRL exotic or foreign cultures for this kind of thing (i.e., Romans IN SPACE, Native Americans IN SPACE, Knights and feudalism IN SPACE, etc.) Yes. The thing is we know of only one sapient species with culture with which we can reliably interact (cetaceans, elephants and the other apes, if they have culture, can't share it with us), and it's hard to write a complex character that doesn't at least act human enough to communicate with other characters. So we tend to extrapolate from the most extreme examples of what we know (i.e., other human cultures), like how scientists use extreme environments on Earth to predict environments on other worlds or what life was like on Earth in the past.

It's not that we need to go to a new world to see an exotic culture, it's that readers want to go to an exciting new world (whether that's Barsoom, Middle-Earth, Westeros, or Pandora) and an exotic alien culture is a logical consequence of that.

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  • this is a starting point on shiftting point of view of mine: how can I give enough feasable reasons to explain the humanoid shape of an alien world? Maybe the reader will not be preocupied with that. Like, Star Wars, I mean it seems that humanoid shape is the only way that life can evolve. – M.N.Raia Jun 28 at 2:36
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The new cultures stimulate the imagination. The problems are new, the ways of solving problems are new, what the culture allows is new. Perhaps the technology is new, or so old that we cannot use elements of real-life technology that would solve the problem instantly. Maybe there are no guns, maybe there is no steel or weapons.

Solving the same problems in present-day America just gets boring. It is not a great place for heroes and lethal villains; the Hunger Games movies require ruthless overlords willing to kill children, and a culture that finds this fun entertainment, without being primitive but extremely high-tech. That is a combination you will not find on Earth.

New settings add both restrictions and freedoms to our characters options, new dangers we don't face in present-day, and force the reader to puzzle out a premise (or follow along as the MC does) of new rules and tools. It is an adventure, like an actual trip to someplace you have never been. Also like that, it is an escape from the present-day world. It stimulates the imagination in ways no description of the present-day world can, because the present-day world is so familiar, and the fantasy world is not familiar at all; a great deal of new stuff working by new rules exists in the fantasy world.

Reading (or consuming) fiction is an escape from your everyday world. Making it unfamiliar facilitates that feeling of an adventure, it stimulates the imagination.

Moving from the left side of your living room to the right side is not an escape, or an adventure.

The stories themselves tend to have a large human emotional element, but that is to make them relatable. Setting is more like a character in a story, in that it can restrain or aid the MC or villain. In some stories, the setting IS the "villain", in The Martian the setting is what the MC has to conquer to return to his normal life.

We invent exotic cultures and new worlds as settings to change the rules for the MC and make her problem interesting, we want the reader to feel the adventure of navigating life in a new place with different rules.

A writer's job is assisting the reader's imagination. In a way, what readers are buying IS our imagination, putting together a plausible world with new rules, like Harry Potter, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Mad Max, or Zombieland, or Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings. They want an adventure. The easiest way to create an adventure is to create a new and exotic place to visit and absorb.

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I would say there's a couple reasons to create a world.

"Wonder" as a point of interest

As you mentioned, the genre is one reason. Something that appeals to readers of Sci-fi and Fantasy is being introduced to something new that inspires awe. (Think space stations the size of the moon or secret societies of wizards)

The writing podcast Writing Excuses covered this concept well here: https://writingexcuses.com/2016/02/07/11-06-the-element-of-wonder/

Abstracting an issue

When writing about an issue (politics, social issues, or plain ol' human condition) it can helpful to abstract the situation by using a completely different setting. When writers use a familiar setting, they are working with all the societal symbols and baggage that comes with it.

For example, it would be difficult to write a fictional story about a politician in a familiar setting without also evoking a gut reaction from your readers. Even if that story doesn't use the context of modern politics, the readers will still automatically apply the context to everything you write. So creating a new world is a strategy to distance the readers from the issue by forcing them to evaluate everything with fresh eyes.

I believe Writing Excuses also talks about this in their podcasts on writing Issue: https://writingexcuses.com/2016/11/27/11-48-elemental-issue-qa-with-dongwon-song/

Distaste for research

I lied! There's a 3rd reason to build a world. Sometimes a writer wants a setting reminiscent of a real time/place, but can't be bothered to get every location/date/figure 100% accurate. In times like these, it can be liberating to say "this is an alternate history 1800's" so you only have to sweat the details you enjoy writing about.

(This can also open a can of worms with regards to cultural appropriation, but that's another topic)

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Frame Challenge: Sci-Fi and Fantasy (often) REQUIRE a new World

Let's run with your example of the Na'vi. As you point out, they are stand-ins for various indigenous cultures that have been impacted by colonialism.

That's the whole point.

They are stand-ins.

When you say "Native Americans" or "African Tribes" or any of a dozen other common terms for various indigenous cultures, readers immediately conjure up their preconceived notions of those cultures. They see interactions through the lens of their previous experiences.

By creating a new culture from scratch, readers cannot fall back on some previous understanding of the topic. They have to follow where the author leads. This makes it easier for the author to create empathy and make the characters real.

Sci-Fi often seeks to explore the familiar by first making it exotic, and then revealing the commonality. You are meant to see that the Na'vi are Native Americans. And the intent was that this would change how you view the indigenous / colonial interactions that really occurred in our world.

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A have long and unpopular theory about the evolution of acceptable story formats. If all human life originated in Africa and you believe the two tribes theory, then the rest is logical. The tribe moving north (Caucasians) were inherently nomadic in nature. Global dispersion upholds this theory. The tribe that remained (Africans) preferred the trusted security of home.

Written story-telling is largely of Caucasian origin. Subsequently, a culture based on a nomadic tribe will be regularly encroaching on the territory of others. Here we see the major components of 'story': journey, conflict. Tribalism dictates: people like us are good - the others are bad.

We are not that creative when it comes to creating exotic worlds. More often than not we subconsciously attempt to place (stereotypical) familiar tribes in a new environment. (Albeit) with the same outcome.

In fantasy and sci-fi, people like us rule. We are normal.

We cannot relate to unfamiliar characterisations. Subsequently, even if we examine a successful franchise such as Star Trek we find the same ugly truths. Let's be politicly incorrect . . . Historically, African-Americans are portrayed as intellectually inferior, physically superior, and violent - sounds like a Klingon to me. And how about those weak, money grabbings Jews? Or should I say Ferengi? The jury's out whether those Romulans are really Russians but rest assured - they are not to be trusted.

We are not that creative.

An honest writer can examine his strange new world and reveal the extend of his own bigotry and prejudice.

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  • 1
    Except...there are plenty of nomadic cultures in Africa (Maasai, Berbers) and sedentary cultures elsewhere, there are lots of journey and conflict stories in African cultures (Anansi, Mwindo), and most cultures with written storytelling are not nomadic. Klingons were originally allegories of communist China before they got retooled into Space Vikings due to being boring. Ferengi were supposed to be caricatures of 21st century capitalists due to Roddenberry's political views. Star Trek is a bad example because it was always supposed to be filled with allegory due to its futurism. – user2352714 Jun 1 at 3:55

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