Building a Culture, pt 4

This series has focused on religion. Of course religion is only part of culture. I also want to point out that culture is generally not created by one person. But rather it’s a series of efforts over long periods of time that shape social behavior. These movements in cultural development could start out as folklore: cautionary tales, bedtime stories, and the like. They could also be part of mate selection. Parents(in addition to society in general) might pressure their children to select mates that follow the cultural rules. Prestige versus shame can shape behavior as well to keep people inline with cultural rules of conduct. One hunting tribe might honor the hunter who brings in big kills to encourage hunters to compete and work hard provide for the tribe. While another tribe might insult the hunter or belittle his accomplishments to keep him humble in an attempt to prevent jealousy and conflict. Two radically different behaviors. Each designed to solve totally different problems.

Now, let’s look at environmental conditions that could cause problems for a society to solve. First thing, they’re going to want food. The second thing is water. Water can be more problematic. Humans use an enormous amount of it from drinking, cleaning, bathing, cooking, and sanitation. Third, shelter, and forth security. These are essentially the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Culture will be designed around making sure these bases are covered. If you don’t believe me, try not having a job or means to support yourself and see how well society treats you. Not too good. That is because our culture shames people that do not follow the rules. And notice, these rules are not written down anywhere officially. We follow them because “that’s just the way it’s done” without giving it much though and then teach them to the next generation.

Now, let’s talk about some real world environmental differences and how they affect culture. China is a very old civilization, plagued by earthquakes causing their people to constantly rebuild after unpredictable disasters. Their culture emphasizes harmony and cooperation, this allows them to better work together to keep order in a chaotic natural environment. European colonists that came to North America saw this land as a mineral rich, underdeveloped nation. American culture stressed Manifest Destiny, rapid expansion, the American Dream, and consumption in the early days. Of those, consumption and entrepreneurialship persist. Our culture emphasizes rapid growth. Japan has a large population, densely packed on a small island, much of which is uninhabitable mountain. Japanese culture is very rigid with lots of rules governing honor and codes of fighting in an effort to maintain order. Japanese culture emphasizes social harmony in a resource limited environment. India, another densely populated area of the world uses a caste system to minimize interaction and thus limit personal conflict.

Oh, let’s not forget counter culture. In China, you have groups that protest against their government, when they feel their rights are more important than the maintaining of harmony. In American culture, we have groups that want to limit consumption or want to conserve, be it natural resources, the environment, or animals. There’s lots of examples of Japanese rebellion counter culture that can seem strange to the rest of us. The caste system in India is becoming a thing of the past. All of these examples are gross simplifications of extremely complex regions of the world. But hopefully you see where I’m going with this.

Food, Water, Shelter, and Security are the main issues that humans will develop culture to deal with. No two environments will be exactly the same, thus no two societies will have exactly the same culture. Now, Although this is the foundation of culture, this doesn’t cover music, dress styles, food preparation, ceremonies--the stuff people generally think of when they think about culture. Most of us in American Culture decorate Christmas Trees, don’t wear white after Labor Day, say “Bless you” after someone sneezes, and celebrate American Independence by shooting off fireworks made in other countries. This is all pretty weird stuff. And although it’s important to us, none of it solves problems in our environment. So how does this fit into things? These are all temporary elements of culture, that, while fun to participate in, may all go away two hundred years from now and be replaced with completely new, and equally strange customs. As you write your fictional world, you should be able to make up as much weird customs as you want, mixing and matching from other cultures, as long as these don’t conflict with the foundational, problem solving cultural base.

Ok, let’s close with how speculative elements can affect culture. Magic and high technology are tools that will first be used to solve basic problems much like culture does. Wizards and sorcerers are going to be a lot more interested in doing practical things like automating farm work, channeling out aqueducts, constructing housing, and maintaining order than they are in... well just about everything that they seem to do in stories. Nearly every fantasy story out there has wizards obsessed with war and combat related magic. This is not realistic. Now, you might be thinking that fantasy, by definition, is not supposed to be realistic: that defeats the entire purpose. True, but I think global culture is changing. And the epic fantasy that captivated fans of Tolkien is slowly being replaced by a harder, grittier, and more realistic brand of speculative fiction. That’s my hope at least.

This concludes my thoughts on building culture from the ground up. I hope it was helpful. I’d love to hear any thoughts on it. Next week, lets take a break from world building and get back into writing.

Building a Culture, pt 3

Last week, we talked about a pre-industrialized, Polytheistic society. As a society starts to industrialize, it needs to be able to formally educate its people. Through scientific understanding of the world, a society stops believing in things like Gods who drive a sun chariot across the sky and starts relying on science to explain the natural world. There are still things that no amount of technology can control and no amount of science can explain--death and human behavior. So how does society deal with such a gap? This is where Monotheism steps in.

Unlike Polytheism, Monotheism doesn't attempt to explain why the wind blows, the grass grows, and a river flows. It needs only deal with good versus evil behavior and what happens when we die. Interestingly enough, these two are usually related in Monotheistic religions--unlike Polytheistic religions where your after life is usually the same no matter what your moralistic behavior. Monotheistic religions stress rules that govern moral behavior. When a member of a society breaks these rules, they are considered evil and their after life is a reward or consequence of that behavior.

Fantasy writers tend to either focus on fictional medieval to prehistoric settings or on modern day, alternative Earth settings, aka, Urban Fantasy. So there isn't much more to say about Monotheism in this regard that isn't common knowledge. It's important, perhaps as we look at religion and it's place in Sci Fi.

Predicting the future of religion is about as difficult as predicting future hairstyles. Many Sci Fi writers either continue modern day religion, ignore religion completely, or revert back to Polytheism or Animism--which may or may not make sense in a society of advanced technology. The best bet here is to remember that religion, like culture, evolves to fill a need. So ask yourself when looking at the future, fictional society you're writing about: what rules of behavior does the society need to function?

Ok, so we've covered the big, over arching theory of Cultural Functionalism. But good writing is often about the details. How about next week, we cover how speculative elements of magic and space ships might affect those details.

Building a Culture, pt 2

We last left our budding culture at the Animist stage. In nearly every hunting and gathering society in history, the men hunt and the women gather. There’s some cross over. But in general, this is about as far as the division of labor goes. Women generally learn to make baskets to aid in gathering and, although this is highly skilled labor, it’s something that all women in that culture will learn to do just as all men will learn to make better hunting tools.

But as a society grows, so does its needs. Eventually, the material goods produced by a growing society become varied enough, that our tribe of generalists will need to start specializing. There’s pottery to craft, clothing to stitch, meat to smoke, beads to trade for, and crops to sow. That brings us to the rise of agriculture. This seems to be the stage where labor first becomes highly stratified and a growing culture turns from animism to polytheism. Of course there are always some stubborn cultures in history that buck this trend--many Native American tribes from the central plains for example which made the jump to polytheism without agriculture. But for the most part, once a society stratifies, so must its culture.

But as a side note, let’s discuss agriculture as there’s a misconception to clear up. We tend to think growing our food instead of hunting and gathering it is somehow better or more civilized. This is not the case. In fact farming is the less valuable alternative in nearly every way. Farming is a lot more work. It’s high yield, and high risk. That means when crops fail, there’s mass starvation. You’re also stuck, imprisoned if you will, to stay near your field to tend and protect it for long periods of time. And once you harvest your food and store much of it over the winter, you have to constantly keep it protected from bandits. This leads to cities and walls and armies and all kinds of hassle. Under no circumstance would any sane group of people chose farming over hunting and gathering, except for one. Hunting and gathering can’t sustain more than a small group in an area. Do not make the mistake of having your small fictional tribe see agriculture for the first time and think it’s a good idea if they can get by just fine hunting and gathering.

So as our society turns into specialists, they develop Gods and Demigods that equally specialize in different parts of the cosmos that need to be tended to. You might expect at this point, a society will develop Gods that do the same things they do. For example, a God of Basket Weaving, a God of Carrying Water for the Village, etc. But we all know this is not the case. Gods are, instead, created to personify things that the average individual cannot easily control: natural phenomenon, human behavior, acquisition of wealth and luxury goods, luck or misfortune, etc. Consider the most famous Gods and Goddesses cross culturally: Zeus is the God of Thunder and Lightning, Isis the Goddess of Fertility, Quetzalcoatl is the God of the Sun, Loki is the God of Mischief and Misfortune, Mars is the God of War, Lakshmi is the Goddess of Fortune and Beauty, and on it goes. Once these Gods are created, individuals can do things to gain favor with them in an effort to have some control over what they represent. Roman soldiers may pray to Mars. Egyptian farmers may pray to Isis. Hindu shop owners may pray to Lakshmi while Norse ones try to avoid attracting the attention of Loki.

Speaking of praying, notice that a shaman reaching trance state to commune with spirits is not terribly different from meditating to find inner peace or wisdom which is not terribly different from praying to a God. Do not make the mistake of assuming one is better or more civilized than another. They are simply different methods to achievement the same results of having more control over what is otherwise unpredictable. But notice how natural a transition it is.

So consider this when creating Gods in your agriculture, pre-industrialized based society. What aspects of their world will individuals want more control over? Up next: monotheism and the industrial revolution.

Building a Culture, pt 1

For the next several posts, we’re going to take a step back from writing and talk about planning. Specifically, this series of posts is about creating a back story for a fictional culture--be it science fiction or fantasy. Too often writers pick pre-existing Earth civilizations, change the names, plop in some magic, elves, spaceships, or ray guns, and just sort of hope for the best. In this series, I’m going to try and help you avoid culture cloning by sharing the fundamental building blocks of cultural theory.

Ok, let’s start by discussing what the point of culture is in the first place. If you’re an American like I am, or are familiar with our culture, you might know we are obsessed with freedom and prestige. We are a consumption based society and our culture reinforces the need to keep people spending. Every Anthropologist eventually sets upon the task of defining the word culture. Here is mine--a social construct created to solve problems unique to the geographic environment of the society. America is a land rich in resources. We need a culture that inspires production and consumption. Ok, before I get into too much trouble here, let’s move on to the very basics in human cultural development.

At first in our social evolutionary journey, humans scavenged. We hid up in trees to keep away from possibly lion-like predators at night. During the day, we used rocks to smash open the long bones of discarded carcasses to suck out protein rich marrow. We lacked the fangs, claws, tusks, speed, etc, of the other animals. Instead, we used our big brains to make us efficient hiders and scavengers. This is an important point because a brain is extremely inefficient. It takes an enormous amount of energy and protein to maintain. That means humans have to eat a lot of high protein meat without having the means to kill. In designing your Sci Fi alien people with claws, fangs, and all the other things that would have made having a large brain unnecessary for survival, consider that.

After hundreds of thousands of years of alternating between scavenging and being lunch, humans did learn to make weapons to kill and hunt and thus our place on the food chain shifted upward. This is where we start to see how our adaptation of having a big brain is starting to pay off. Hunting with spears and clubs is not very efficient, however. It takes a high level of luck and skill. There aren’t always animals around. Many of them run really, really fast and aren’t nice enough to hold still for you while you throw your spear at them. This is the point where humans(or alien / fantasy sentient beings) are going to seek ways to control that luck. How, might you ask? Through superstition and magic. A prime example, let’s look at modern day hockey players who use magic.

Like most athletes, hockey players on winning streaks might do things like eat the same foods, wear the same everyday clothes to the game, refuse to shower or wash their uniforms, refuse to shave during the playoffs, etc. Some players may tap their goalie’s pads with their sticks, refuse to touch the Stanley Cup unless they’ve previously won it, uh, what else? On and on the list goes. Through today’s rationale, we call this silly superstition. But this is ritualized practice of magic. It’s no different from a shaman consulting spirits to gain information about herd migrations, which holistic medicine to give the sick, influence of the weather, or other highly unpredictable events of which have high stakes. Whether it’s million dollar sports endorsements or survival, humans will turn towards the supernatural to influence their outcome. Now, hockey players live in a complex society like the rest of us, so they have multiple levels of social constructs. That’s because hockey players, though under a lot of pressure to play well, are not also under pressure to find food and shelter. So they have different levels of needs, and thus different layers of social constructions to solve these problems. But if you’re living in a cave or mud hut and your primary source of food is hunting and what you can gather as you migrate, then you have no reason to develop any higher level of social construction than animism and shamanism.

Ok, so at what point will a society advance to polytheism? Let’s say you want to build a society like the ancient Greeks and you want a God of the Sun, Hunt, Music, War, and all that good stuff. That’s where we’ll start for next week.