Monday, June 18, 2012

Guest Post - Bryan Thomas Schmidt on Culture in World-Building

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

What is culture? 

Looking at, we find the following definitions:

cul·ture (noun)

1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.; 2. that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.; 3. a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.; 4. development or improvement of the mind by education or training.; 5. the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.

For me, the most significant of these for world-building purposes are numbers 1 and 5. The others play a role, yes, but they really flow out of 1 and 5. Artistic excellence comes from education, training, and from behaviors and beliefs of an age, social or ethnic group.  And the determination of excellence various by your age, social and/or ethnic group. Each of these groups has different influences and tastes. Number 3, stagesof culture, is a period, part of the larger, developing picture. So, when I talk about culture in world-building I want to be clear: I am talking about the qualities in persons or societies which arise from concerns for what is excellent in arts, letters, manners, etc. and the characteristic behaviors and beliefs of those persons or societies, divided by age, ethnic and social group.

To create a more realistic world, culure is essential because how people react to different events, people and situations is dependent upon their culture. Culture is an influence on how we life, what we value, and how we view the world and everything in it. It affects our understandings of joy, of meaning, of excellence, and of so much else. It affects how we choose to spend leisure time an what we even consider that to be. It affects our determinations of what is creativity and which results of creative action applied are worthy of respect and admiration and which are not.

The culture in the Borali Alliance of my Saga of Davi Rhii novels (The Worker Prince, The Returning, The Exodus-forthcoming 2013) has similar social divisions to many on Earth, particularly those of the Western world cultures. The Boralians are, after all, colonists who emigrated to the stars to escape fighting on Earth. The rich and powerful are the elite. The middle class are somewhere between and are workers. The lower class are the slaves and servants. There’s some blending, yes. Your richest man’s servant may be paid wages that make him or her middle class, for example. But along with this class division comes a mindset. Not only the mindset of who your higher ups tell you you are, but also the mindset of whom you think you are determine where you fit. Some are on a fine line between groups. Others are more firmly placed. But the level of comfort they have in their identity affects how they live and react to various situations.

In the same way, those who are wealthy are less likely to pursue artistic pursuits. They enjoy art appreciation and funding the arts, not just for enjoyment but also to claim they are generous or to act as benefactors to society, thus improving their reputation and spreading their names. But the actual artisans tend to be servant class, and, occasionally middle class. It takes a special class and skill to do art that’s worthy of admiration and there’s not much money in it, but it does elevate you as you succeed in prestige, reputation and demand for your presence and work. 

The wealthy, especially those who serve in the governing group, the Council of Lords and the Royal Palace, tend to think as if they are genetically deserving, despite the fact these positions are elected. They support this false impression by voting in each other’s heirs to positions and thus helping to perpetuate the sense that you are born into power.  Artisans take on apprenticeships and endowments, etc. And many business owners pass their business acumen and, they hope, their businesses to heirs. I think you get the idea.

The various goals and differences and understandings of place, role, and opportunity to move up or down or sideways affect how each person in each group relates to the others and goes about life and how they dream, what they dream, how they live, etc. Thinking through these things is vital to lend a sense of realness to your worlds because all worlds, as we know them, tend to have hierarchies. And the characters must understand the hierarchy and their place in it to be comfortable in the world. We as readers must also understand to get a sense of the order of the world.

In addition to all of that, of course, and even some of these details don’t necessarily get discussed openly in the novels due to space, etc. but the story itself is affected by culture because at the heart of this story, people are trying to move themselves from a forced grouping, as Vertullians and slaves, into free, equal citizens, thus, those who are wealthier want to join the upper classes. Only a few attempt and even fewer succeed. Others want to join the middle class. And still others move laterally from slave servants to free servants. But even that small adjective affects how they view themselves and their rights. Davi Rhii, our protagonist, drop a bit in class and that’s part of his arc, moving from prince to slave in The Worker Prince, and then having to move from salve to free man and find his place in the middle in The Returning.
Within all that comes a sense of the value of education and the opportunities it provides as well as its limits. The importance of art, money, property, vehicles, etc. All of these things are different between classes and individuals in many ways but form the heart of cultural values and understandings in the world.

Have you thought through the implications of all of this for your world? If not, you should. Even if most of it doesn’t go in the book directly, it will be reflected in the relationships, attitudes and actions of the characters and thus subtly portrayed for and understood by your readers. So much of what we do in fiction is subtle and unspoken. Readers grasp it based on their own education, class, social, ethnic, and class levels and how their worldviews and understandings interact with the nuances of the material. Without sitting down and being asked specific questions, most would never likely be able to tell you what those nuances are. They might not even be consciously aware of them. But if they are missing from the text, they will be missed and noticed, at the very least, subconsciously, and your world will, as a result, feel incomplete. It will lack layers of reality they expect to be there, and, thus, be weakened in those readers’ minds.

What areas of culture have you concerned yourself with in your writing? What are the unique approaches you’ve taken? Have you gone so far as to define specific art forms, styles, genres, etc.? Or do you deal with those more generally? Have you defined them by artistic terms, social terms, age group or ethnic terms? What are your criteria? Thinking through questions like these and coming up with the answers will be invaluable to your world-building. Readers picking up your books and stories will do the same. And if they corner you at a Con or event to ask those questions, you’ll actually be able to give an articulate, reasonable answer. Not a bad thing for the “god” of a world to be able to do, right? For what it’s worth...

In Bryan’s second novel, The Returning, new challenges arise as Davi Rhii’s rival Bordox and his uncle, Xalivar, seek revenge for his actions in The Worker Prince, putting his life and those of his friends and family in constant danger. Meanwhile, politics as usual has the Borali Alliance split apart over questions of citizenship and freedom for the former slaves. Someone’s even killing them off. Davi’s involvement in the investigation turns his life upside down, including his relationship with his fiancée, Tela. The answers are not easy with his whole world at stake.

1 comment:

Paul Weimer said...

What areas of culture have you concerned yourself with in your writing? What are the unique approaches you’ve taken? Have you gone so far as to define specific art forms, styles, genres, etc.? Or do you deal with those more generally?

Thanks, Bryan

It can be difficult fo writers to create entire literatures and genres out of whole cloth, but novels such as Anathem suggest you can do it.

But it takes a lot of effort on a writer's part, and so resorting to a more "blurred approach" is what I generally seen.