Savvy Saturday – Cultural Relevance in Science Fiction

One interesting question for a science fiction author to think about is how much historical culture of Earth he or she wants to include in his or her “new” world. Some science fiction series are set on other planets or in future so far distant that readers recognize nothing of the world in which the action of the story happens. These stories can be as rich in world-building as fantasy stories are; the only difference is that technology, science, or the simple passing of time, rather than magic, are the driving factors of what differentiates this world from our own. Other works of science fiction are more tied to our own society, either tangentially, to a greater extent but without culture driving the plot, or actually integrally. There are benefits and drawbacks to each that authors should consider…

No References to Modern or Historical Culture

Stories like The Hunger Games are technically science fiction (dystopia is a subset of the genre) which create entirely new worlds but are set in a hypothetical future. Advantages of this type of genre are the author’s ability to truly create new worlds without limitations, but also have a greater believability and relatability with their world than is possible in a fantasy context. Readers might be willing to believe that a certain society could arise after a nuclear holocaust, whereas no matter how well put together and internally consistent a fantasy realm is, no one will believe that such a world is possible. Disadvantages of this choice include the greater amount of work an author must put into their worldbuilding, and the lack of contextual cues and connecting touch-points for readers that are triggered with cultural references.

Minimal References to Culture

Many classic and modern works of science fiction, such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, choose to incorporate just enough recognizable cultural elements into their new worlds to give readers a sense of history and connection, but not enough to actually influence the societies or plots that the authors create. Advantages of this type of story are twofold. First, they allow authors to delight readers by inserting known familiar elements into an unfamiliar context in interesting ways that play with readers’ brains. For instance, in Ender’s Game, most of the action happens in a space station, but the nations down on Earth have names that are known and the characters practice known religions – albeit secretly. Second, this type of story adds believability to a setting, while still allowing the author maximal free reign to exercise his or her imagination. The main disadvantage of making minimal reference to culture is that an author still has to invest the work in creating a nearly entirely new world and culture, while also having to ensure that his world is believable from a historical standpoint. If no cultural references are included, the author has free reign. The more culture is brought into a story, however, the more care the author has to take with making sure that his story would actually logically flow from the events he or she describes.

High Levels of Non-Plot-Relevant References to Culture

 In this type of story, characters may live in a recognizable, real city or culture in which the science fiction book is set, or in a future society that is a direct extrapolation from real cultures today. For instance, science fiction set in Los Angeles in 2020, or in a colony on Mars in fifty years, or on a planet settled by colonists from England who set up the New United Kingdom, would all fall under this category. While cultural references do not affect the plot per se, the setting is very comfortable for readers because there are many elements that are recognizable. Advantages of this type of book include a greater ease of the author of world-building, as some (or many) elements of a real culture can be realistically and believably incorporated into the work of fiction, and a greater relatability of readers with the book’s characters and world. Disadvantages of this type of story are that it is easier for readers to critique an author’s extrapolations of culture to a future setting (“history wouldn’t go that way!”) and that it is harder to make a science fiction book stand out in readers’ minds when it has the same or similar settings to other books in its genre. The more elements from real cultures that are included, the less uniqueness of the world (by definition) and thus the more the author has to work at character and plot development to make his or her book “pop” in readers’ minds.

Culture As Plot Point

Finally, some authors actually use modern or historical culture as a major plot point in their works of science fiction. From classics such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to new popular books like Ready Player One, science fiction authors who go this route both have a potential for high short-term return, but run the risk of far stronger failure both at first and also in the course of time. The more that a reader’s culture is incorporated well into a science fiction book – especially elements of a culture that are dearly loved by a reader – the more that book will speak to them and the more they will remember it, love it, and recommend it to others. The problem is that this culture must be incorporated well for it to have this effect. If an author celebrates an aspect of culture that readers don’t care about, if an author gets a cultural fact wrong, or if an author makes a political or cultural point that readers disagree with, their potential love of the book often turns to loathing. On the other hand, if individuals from outside the referred culture read the book, they will often be lost and confused. An author must strike a balance, then, between explaining the culture and alienating or offending the target audience, or not explaining the culture and losing the attention and interest of individuals outside the target audience. Further, as culture (and especially pop culture) changes rapidly, books based on current culture can become outdated practically overnight. If this happens, the story that was yesterday relevant to a sizable number of people is now relevant to practically no one.

So which of the above is the best type of science fiction story to write? There’s no right answer – it depends on your particular story, the level of world-building you want to engage in, and the risk you want to run of becoming outdated versus speaking the language of a specific audience. Just think carefully about which choice appeals the most to you, then go forth and write with confidence!

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