I’ve been thinking in the last couple of days (it hurts, but I’ve found that it generally pays off well). Specifically, about the culture of this world that I’m creating for my novel.
It takes place in the far future, after a 300-or-so year war with hostile AI. Kind of like Battlestar Galactica, with the Cylons. But really, the story has nothing to do with that war. It has to do with what happens after the war is over.
Just so you know, world building is one of the things I love to do when I write. I don’t get as into it as some epic fantasy writers, with inventing new languages and naming every landform on the face of their world, but I really do get into it. I think that sci fi world building differs from fantasy world building in that sci fi focuses more on how some sort of technology, historical event, or other thing would alter basic humanity as we generally know it, whereas fantasy tends to be about building a world from the ground up. Sometimes I have a hard time getting into fantasy for that reason–I’m more interested in what it is that’s causing the fictional reality than in the fictional reality itself. And it can also be annoying to have to remember more than a couple dozen proper names full of multiple apostrophes.
<spoiler alert> So, in this world, just as the war was starting out, a group of refugees (like in BSG) got stranded from the rest of humanity, and fled out into unexplored space. They ended up landing on this planet that had just been discovered and explored a few years earlier by a group of scientists. The planet was uninhabited, but in all ways it was able to support unassisted human life. Basically, it was like a second earth, with its own biosphere, seasons, and everything else. This is significant because all of the hundred or so other planets that humans have colonized up until this point have basically needed to be terraformed before they could be inhabited by large numbers of people.
The refugees land on the planet and set up a sort of EMP field in orbit that basically fries a certain type of futuristic computer circuitry when it enters the field. This is to defend the refugee colony from the hostile AI, which they believe has completely wiped out humanity by this time. They land in the fertile areas of the continent, near the ocean and river deltas, but almost as soon as they touch down they find remnants of an ancient civilization (is it human? is it alien? how did it get there? bwahaha!) and are violently chased off of the land into a desert by these strange robotic things that shoot anything that comes near the ancient ruins.
So now, completely deprived of everything and poor and starving on a strange planet, the society is in turmoil, loses its history, its technology, most of its accumulated knowledge from the outside world, and exists in a state of starving chaos on the edge of a desert. After about a generation or two, it reaches a tenuous equilibrium, with the development of some basic agriculture and a rudimentary economy, but the political system is very authoritarian and the rule of law is thrown out when it’s convenient. Social justice is a distant dream of only the most optimistic, and there really is no moral code that everyone abides by. The strong do what they wish, with the weak at their mercy.
After a couple of generations, a new prophet comes out of the wilderness with a revolutionary religion. It spreads quickly until it becomes universal throughout the community. This revolution teaches the principles of social justice, establishes a new theology and cosmology, exhorts its adherents to live a moral lifestyle, and creates a new culture that, in many ways, washes away the negative effects of the years of chaos in the generations before. It establishes a stable social order in which the civilization can finally start to grow and progress.
Of course, it doesn’t come without negative consequences, since over the next couple of generations religious schisms divide the people, political entities seek to use the religious framework to justify their attempts to conquer each other, and a few short religious wars cause limited trauma and destruction. However, generally speaking, the religion does a tremendous job of bringing about civilization in the midst of barbarous chaos. From this, a unique and exotic culture develops over the next hundred years in isolation from the rest of humanity.
The novel begins as the main character, Ian Steffek, finds himself suddenly thrown out of the world he has known and into this strange and exotic culture. As the remnants of humanity on the other planets slowly start to rebuild after the terrible war, they come increasingly into contact with this unique and–in many ways–alien culture, and a clash of cultures starts to develop, with the main character caught in the middle. <end spoiler alert>
Basically, I need to create a tribal/medieval culture for this civilization on the lost planet. And, since I’m studying Arabic and the Middle East, and because I want to use this novel as a way of sorting out my thoughts on contemporary issues like the allegedly inevitable clash of civilizations and the many terrible conflicts that are causing so much pain and suffering in that troubled region of the world. Apparently, I’ve been doing a fairly good job, because many of the comments at the last writing meeting went along the lines of “I really like how you’ve written about Arab culture here.”
But the thing is, is it really such a good idea to base a fictional culture so much off of a real culture?
Of course, my response is that I really don’t know very much at all about Arab culture–REAL Arab culture–and so the stuff in my novel is going to be different. But is it different enough? If people look at this book and say “basically they land on a planet full of Arabs,” is that a good thing or a bad thing? I tend to believe I should think of some ways to make this culture unique and have it stand on its own, apart from anything else we know. But do I really need to do that?
I don’t know. But I don’t really want people to point at my book and say “look, it’s a bunch of Arabs on another planet.” I want them to point and say “look, it’s a culture that feels as foreign to us as the Arabs.” Because, really, I can’t write about Arab culture. It’s just too foreign to me. I’d butcher it up really bad. I can write about what I think Arab culture is like, but it won’t be an accurate representation of the thing itself.
But really, I don’t want this culture to represent the Arabs. When I started out, I did. I basically started with this vague notion of trying to symbolize different Middle East struggles by the conflict of this society with the rest of humanity. I scrapped that idea really fast–not only because writing fiction with a conscious and clearly defined normative message in mind is generally a very bad idea, but because I actually started to learn something about the Middle East, and realized that there’s no way this civilization could effectively mimic the Middle East as we know it today. There’ s just too much history and too many complications. I’d fall flat on my face with every word.
So, that’s where I’m at now. I need to create a culture that can stand on its own, with a story unique to itself. I’m not here to tell the story of the Arabs or the Middle East, I’m here to tell the story of Nova Salem (I might change that name sometime in the future…) and the Lost Colony that landed there (I’m definitely going to change that title).
How to do this, I don’t really know. But I’m going to do it, because come April, the rough draft WILL be finished!