How to Build a Culture

I wrote this for Westercon 34, and delivered it in 1981. At that time Jandrax and A Fond Farewell to Dying had been published, and I had written all or part of several other novels, some of which are mentioned here. Works by other authors were then current, but may not be so familiar to present day readers.

It will be the policy of Backlist to provide virtual chapters in longer works for the sake of navigation. Click a link to go to a virtual chapter. Use the back arrow to return to this introduction.

chap1    chap2    chap3      chap4     chap5    chap6    chap7    chap8    chap9    chap10    chap11


chap1 Since the title of this presentation begins, “How to . . . “, I presume that you are all here for the same reason you attended the [name lost from ms.] panel. You want to write science fiction. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are committed to it, but at least you are interested. Here are some sad facts about would be writers. Most never get the nerve to start anything, and most of those who start don’t have the drive to finish. Of those who finish a short story or novel, most never see publication. If that discourages you, I’m sorry. Those are the facts, and I don’t want anyone accusing me of making writing science fiction sound easy, or even rational. It’s more like an addiction.

But you are here, so I’ll treat you like the demented few who have the guts or stupidity to go against the odds. What you do afterward is up to you.

In 1966 Poul Anderson wrote an article for the SFWA Bulletin that was later reprinted as “The Creation of Imaginary Worlds” in Reginald Bretnor’s Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow, and as “How to Build a Planet” in Damon Knight’s Turning Points. When I first ran across this article, I thought I had died and gone to writers’ heaven. With only a little aid from Asimov and Sky and Telescope, everything you ever wanted to know about how to build a planet was in that article.

Poul Anderson showed us how to use physics and astronomy to build planets that were not only fun, but scientifically sound as well. And if that were not enough, there is an added bonus. When you do your homework and design a planet that really could exist, all kinds of story ideas turn up to stimulate your imagination. Even if you start with a story firmly in mind, the act of tailoring a planet to fit it broadens and deepens your understanding of what you are trying to do.

World building is addictive. I’ve wasted weeks at it when I should have been writing novels. I’ve built a half-dozen worlds using Poul Anderson’s article and I will be eternally grateful.

When it came to building cultures to fit these worlds, I really didn’t need help. I had studied anthropology for five years and knew at least one non-western culture, that of rural India, with reasonable intimacy. Then, at last year’s Westercon in LA, I said to myself, “Why not put together a presentation that uses anthropology like Poul used physics? And why not call it How to Build a Culture, in tribute?” So I did, and this is it.

There are some basic differences between anthropology and physics, however. The inverse square law is as viable, as far as we know, in orbit of Procyon as it is on Earth. Anthropology has no such laws. What it has are concepts to help us clarify our thinking about what it is to be human.

chap2 Science fiction and anthropology have a lot in common. They both seek diversity. They both seek to understand the whole human condition – not just what common wisdom and home town ethics would call human. Both seek to make the strange comprehensible, without diminishing the sense of awe at its strangeness.

Both anthropology and science fiction tend to expand our horizons. They both refine our conceptions of what we are, and lead us to recast our values in a larger perspective.

Their common ground is the concept of culture.

A lot of science fiction owes nothing to the concept of culture. Gadget stories, space operas, some horror stories and a few fantasies operate quite well on the assumption that modern American conceptions of right and wrong, truth and beauty, are carved in marble. I don’t want to criticize these stories, but they hold little interest for me, and I don’t intend to talk about them here.

Nowadays, everyone knows what culture is, just like everyone knows what ecology is. That is to say, it has become so commonplace that no one ever thinks about it.

Well, I’m not going to insult you by offering a definition. Instead, picture this with me. Picture someone who has never heard of the idea of culture. He might be a Dyak from Borneo, a peasant in medieval France, or an inner city child in modern America.

He will probably believe that his god is God, and that all other religions are superstitious nonsense. He will probably believe that his sexual mores are natural and right, and that any other standard would be weird, warped and sick.

He will have his own ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, and he would probably consider your ideas on the same subjects as stupid and pointless.

If someone tried to force him to change, he would fight back. And he would not see the fight as being for “cultural autonomy”, but as good against an invading and alien evil.

I don’t know about you, but that list sounds awfully familiar to me. It sounds like me. Or like you.

The fact is that at some level, however submerged, we all believe that our own way of life is right and good. And we should. It’s what keeps us sane and makes us human.

Yet, on an intellectual level, most of us would agree that what it strange is not necessarily false. Cultural relativism – the notion that other cultures meet the needs of those who share them, and are right for them – has become almost axiomatic among those who have taken freshman anthropology. Perhaps too axiomatic.

No, there is no conflict between our emotional attachment to our own way of life and an intellectual understanding of diversity. But if you take anyone, even someone well educated in anthropology, and drop him bodily into another culture, he will suddenly be faced with the necessity of making a drastic emotional adjustment.

chap3 This immersion in another culture is a rite of passage among anthropologists. You can’t get your doctorate without it. And rightly so. The immense, all encompassing strangeness of living in an alien situation is designed to shock the mind out of its cultural conditioning, leaving it better able to confront the world as it really is.

Anthropologists have a term for this confrontation; they call it culture shock. The best of modern science fiction writers put vicarious culture shock between two covers and leave it on the newsstand, looking innocent, but ticking like a live bomb. We take it home; we read it; and if it is well done, it compels us to reexamine our lives against a larger background.

Science fiction was already doing this thirty years ago, but then it was mostly showing us how huge and strange the physical universe was. Today, the best of science fiction is showing us how strange, and wonderful, and terrible mankind can be.

This is the kind of science fiction I want to talk about.

Ursula K. Le Guin is the master of it. Her background is certainly a factor in her excellence. Her father was A. L. Kroeber, one of the finest anthropologists America has produced.

Marion Zimmer Bradley is another practitioner of the packaging of culture shock. She is constantly throwing the varied cultures of Darkover into conflict with representatives of mechanized Terran culture. That is, with representatives of us. She also provides us with the phrase leave others their otherness, which is as nice a summation of cultural relativism as I have seen anywhere.

I could expand the list considerably, but I’ll leave that pleasant task to you.

We are dealing with alien cultures, but there is a limit to alienness beyond which culture building becomes a sterile game. It may be interesting, but it is not moving. I don’t care if a wolf spider eats its mate; if someone in Pittsburgh did, I would be disgusted; but if a native of Alpha Centauri III ate his, I would only shrug and yawn. I think this is why so many truly alien cultures come off as caricatures. I love to read Heinlein and Larry Niven, but Heinlein’s Martians and Niven’s Puppeteers leave me cold. I can’t take them seriously.

This is not to say that building truly alien creatures can’t be fun and intellectually stimulating. It just isn’t what I am interested in. If you want to know something about it, read Hal Clements’ “The Creation of Imaginary Beings” in Bretnor’s Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow.

I believe that science fiction pseudo-cultures, at their best, should be close enough to our own to recognize a likeness and establish empathy, but different enough to be unsettling.

This is not as arbitrary as it may sound. It is based on the notion that at its highest, culture building is not only done for the sheer joy of diversity and the titillation of the bizarre, but to explore the limits of human nature, and thus to better understand our place in the great range of variety of which the human species is capable.

That’s enough of definitions and limits. Let’s get on with the how-to.

chap4 Of course, strictly speaking, no one creates a culture. Mostly you rearrange bits and pieces of old cultures, just like writers mostly rearrange bits and pieces of old story lines. You might run across a truly new idea once in a while, but chances are what looks new is only sparks thrown off by rubbing two old ideas together.

When it comes to assembling cultures, nothing succeeds like having a big basket of spare parts to begin with, and that means reading. Lots of reading, on lots of subjects, mostly anthropology. And you should read more than just ethnographies. Theoretical analyses are equally important. You don’t just need spare parts, you also need to know how they fit together.

If you are a recent graduate of Hoboken High School, and not widely read, then any culture you create, no matter how powerful your imagination, is going to look suspiciously like Hoboken. Not that there is anything wrong with that, if you are a beginner, but don’t expect to be another Le Guin overnight. And don’t expect an editor to be impressed right away.

Let’s set down some ground rules.

First, the cultures we create should be alien. Luke Skywalker may run around the universe sounding like a refugee from 1981, but we can do better. The cultures we create should be distinctively different from everyday experience.

Nevertheless, these cultures must be comprehensible. Strictly speaking, this is not part of the culture-building function, but part of the art of storytelling. You have to tell your reader enough to let him know why your hero saved the priest’s daughter and let the priest die – or vice versa.

But before your storytelling can make sense, your culture has to be internally consistent. This means taking your time and thinking through all the angles, and it means, above all, being honest with yourself. If you write your own prejudices into your culture – and we all do – be aware of what you are doing and make it consistent. Don’t just tack your prejudices onto your culture; build the structure of your culture out of them. If you don’t do this part of your homework, you’ll never be able to write yourself out of the hole it puts you in.

The last ground rule is that you can only go as far as your reader will let you go. Today’s reader will accept almost anything. If you don’t believe it, look at the Gor books. But when you move into these areas, your reader will follow you only for the worst of reasons.

If you feel, as I do, a moral obligation to bring out the best in your readers by presenting challenges to the good that is in them, then you must stay close enough to the norm of their experience to keep them from freezing up and refusing to experience what they are reading. The further away from Hoboken you get, the greater your skill must be, and still, the more readers you will lose. That is why space opera sells so well. Aboard the Millennium Falcon you can leave the galaxy without ever leaving Hoboken.

chap5 How do we go about getting such cultures? Our own won’t do, no matter how we disguise it. The days of Doc Smith’s characters naively reflecting the mentality of the forties are gone forever. However, by using our own culture as a base and extrapolating trends, we enter legitimate culture building of a limited type.

What if our materialistic civilization drove Christianity completely underground? What if a nuclear war were to render womankind barren? What if men were to conquer death? Science fiction has been asking these kinds of questions for so long now that we don’t stop to think of coming up with answers as culture building. But it can be, if the ramifications are visualized thoroughly.

There is the rub – the thoroughness with which the changes must be visualized. Suppose you were a science fiction writer in 1931 trying to imagine what life would be like fifty years in your future. Suppose you said to yourself, “What if mankind were to perfect a truly effective contraceptive? What then?” Do you really think that you could imagine all the changes that the pill has brought about?

This is perilously close to that old, tired question of prediction. The real question is not, “Could you have predicted modern American culture?” but, “Could you have visualized a culture of equivalent complexity and richness?” The answer to both questions is, “No.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to predict and we don’t have to build cultures as good as the real thing. If we did, we would be out of business. Even Le Guin’s Gethenians in The Left Hand of Darkness have but a shadow culture.

In the contraception example, we followed an old rule of short story writing – introduce only one independent wonder along with those wonders derived from it. You will still find that rule espoused today by such an authority as George Scithers, editor of IASFM. But an extrapolation from 1931 to 1981 depending only on the rise of contraception would miss World War II, the Cold War, Viet Nam, the rise of the third world, space flight, the rise of a drug counterculture and the reputed death of God. Among other things.

The “one wonder” rule may make for good short stories (I am not convinced that it does), but applying it to culture building would be a terrible mistake. This is not to say that one culture trait can’t dominate. In Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar overpopulation was the guiding factor, and in The Left Hand of Darkness it was androgyny. But either factor alone would have made a thin parody of a culture.

There is another way of using our own culture as the basis for constructing a new one. We can choose a trait that already exists and push it to its limits. This may be done through extrapolation, but it can also become the ruling passion of a pseudo-culture that has no external similarity to our own.

chap6 For example, we could take the American love of freedom and personal independence – entirely laudable in its context – and explore what that same trait could become if pushed too far. We might set such a story on twenty-first century Earth, but we could equally well take that idea and set it on some other planet, with some non-human species. We might even invent some biological rationale for their hyper-independence. We might see this species as hunters in a rain forest, with secondary and tertiary culture traits drawn from a number of sources, say the Dyaks of Borneo, the Jivaro of the Amazon and, of course, imagination. Perhaps we could use this culture to tell the story of the travails of a human anthropologist from the Galactic Federation who is charged with studying a group so independent and suspicious that they won’t even answer questions.

I did this sort of thing in a grim and as-yet unpublished novel called Who Once Were Kin. Since the wife of an acquaintance of mine was raped some years ago, I’ve had a whole new appreciation for the feminist notion that rape is a form of social control – that it is fear of rape that helps keep women in their place. I asked myself two questions: what kind of culture would result if this were to be carried to the limit, and what kind of situation would cause such a culture to arise.

Such broad questions could have resulted in any number of answers. The particular course I chose was dictated by the fact that I already had a larger world to set the culture in, and by the fact that I had a secondary interest in portraying close, almost incestuous, brother-sister relationships.

The novel was to be fantasy; the larger world was one in which ai, or the power of the soul, was a dominant concern, and in which the soul at death is incorporated, or enreithed, into magical objects called menhirs. The culture of the city of Lankarea arose from the interaction of this setting with my two guiding concepts, and ultimately included its financial base, its history, some of its language and a few of its crucial proverbs, its religion, its politics and most especially, its marriage customs.

The end result looks like nothing on Earth. The story that evolved along with the creation of Lankarean culture is of a brother and sister who are forced to look squarely at how their city is warping their lives and may shortly destroy them. It is held together, and given immediacy, emotional depth and relevance by the fact that it rose out of my need to hold up an example to my contemporaries and say, “Look. See what we are doing to our women.”

One step up from using American culture unchanged is stealing another culture outright. Now I don’t know of anyone who has taken, say, Malinowski’s studies of the Trobriand Islanders and transported them spaceward to become the Warbles of Wulff VII, but I’m sure that it has been done. I do know of innumerable American Indian tribes inhabiting the galaxy under assumed names, and usually those stories are told by people who wouldn’t know a real Indian if he walked up and bit them on the tomahawk.

(Yes, dear reader, we used to say Indian instead of Native American, with no trace of racism in our minds.)

I will admit, however, that I would rather read a story based on some real non-western culture traveling incognito, than one based on the culture of 1950’s Kansas. Especially if I didn’t recognize the culture being pirated.

chap7 There have been a number of fine stories which borrowed earthly cultures more-or-less intact and admitted it. Zelazny built his Lord of Light openly out of transmogrified Hindu materials, and I borrowed that same culture, with some extrapolation, by setting A Fond Farewell to Dying in India two hundred years hence.

The highest art of culture building results in cultures which are not recognizably derivative. Whatever bits and pieces of real cultures they are based on, these borrowings are skillfully submerged.

If you asked ten writers how they go about this kind of culture building, you would probably get twenty answers – or dead silence. In its application, this can become very personal and idiosyncratic. But there are some general guidelines.

Which brings me to my visual aid.

 I need to stop here and insert a story. I gave this talk at Westercon 34, July 4, 1981. for HtBaCThere was a good turnout; as best I can remember a couple of hundred attendees in a small auditorium. I had prepared a piece of mat board with a hand-drawn circle, divided into four pie-slices with the words environment, technology, world view, and biological structure hand written in the quadrants. It was makeshift because my first computer was still five years in the future.

When I said, “Which brings me to my visual aid”, I stood it up and, to cover it’s crudity, added “We have spared no expense!” The joke got the chuckle it deserved, but the sound died instantly. A young man in the middle of the auditorium was saying, in a conversational voice, “He is showing a chart. It’s circular, divided into quadrants . . .”

We all realized that he was describing the chart to a blind companion, and for the length of time it took him to give his description, you could have heard a feather drop in the room. The respectful silence the crowd gave him made me proud to be a part of the moment.

In this we break down human experience into four components to make it easier to deal with. They use a chart something like this is freshman anthropology classes, but they don’t need the biological structure category because there is little significant variation in the human species. Science fiction writers need it to deal with other species and with genetic variations on humanity.

In the original version of this chart, environment, technology, and world view were arrayed in the form of a stacked pyramid, implying that technology arises out of environment and belief systems out of technology. This simply will not hold water. Every component influences the others, and no one of them determines any other.

Take any one of the four components and make a decision. Let’s say that you take environment, and decide to set your culture in a desert. This will not determine the other three components of your culture, but it will set limits on them.

For example, you cannot have a highly concentrated population except in oasis cities which are essentially removed from the desert.

chap8 Your first decision will also suggest further ideas. To Frank Herbert, Dune‘s environment suggested a pseudo-Bedouin flavor with loose clothing, water consciousness, water as wealth and dispersed small groups. But where a lesser writer would have simply transplanted Bedouin culture more-or-less intact, Herbert tied it in with a galaxy wide complex of competing forces. His Fremen were a high technology people, with a culture distinctively different from any that Earth has produced.

Incidentally, I believe that Herbert said he spent about six years working out the details of Dune’s culture and environment before he started writing!

Any environment you choose would present different problems and possibilities, as would any variations away from the normal human species. Would you like your people to be human, mutant, alien, or genetically modified? Once you choose you have to think through the probable results of your choice. For example, if your people are telepathic, what happens to the concept of privacy? Can there be crime in a telepathic society? What kind of social control would be necessary to preserve the sanctity of the mind – or would such a thing be unthinkable? Would a social deviant be judged by his actions or his state of mind? Would a murderer be freed because he was confused at the time of his crime? Would another individual be banished for cold-bloodedly contemplating a murder he did not actually commit?

Could marriage, or any other long-term relationship, exist where each party is privy to the other’s least friendly thoughts? And if such relationships existed, would the participants be angelic, or terribly repressed?

Sometimes a single biological factor, with its secondary ramifications, may suggest a whole culture, as in Gardner Dozois novel Strangers.

It is the bittersweet story of a love affair between an Earth man and an alien woman of a people called the Cian. Throughout the novel, Dozois drops hints about the central paradox of Cianian culture, but Farber, his hero – if that is the right word – doesn’t pick them up. Because he doesn’t understand his wife’s culture, he chooses to have children by her, thinking that is what she wants, and in the closing chapters Dozois drops a house on all of us when Farber – and we – discover that Cianian culture is all built around the fact that, because of a biological defect, its women always die in childbirth.

Technically, this is a gimmick story, but it is so well done and the culture is so detailed and so well thought out that it doesn’t feel like one.

Remember what contraceptives did for us all? That is a technological change, no less than the invention of a stardrive would be, with ramifications that were immediate and inescapable. Let’s look at a couple of other examples.

Suppose effective genetic screening could predict a foetus’ potential? How would this affect the relationship between men and women? Could traditional marriage survive – assuming that it is not dead already. What if mankind developed a truly effective program of genetic manipulation and test-tube babies? What would be the effect on man-woman relationships if, once and for all, women stopped being baby machines?

chap9 Science fiction stories by the thousands have been built on technological changes, and these particular ideas have been done to death recently. But there is a difference between using a technological change in writing a short story and in building a culture.

In a short story you cannot explore alternate possibilities arising from one idea. In culture building, you must. Every innovation, change, or idea will cast shadows; it will be opposed, with more or less success, by other elements in that culture. This tension between dominant and deviant thought is the driving force of cultures. It gives them their richness and diversity.

A single factor cannot create a convincing culture. In Strangers, the Cianians’ biological tragedy was Dozois central focus, but he also dealt with rebellion and rebellion’s failure, anomie, and the inferiority complex that can infect a whole people when they are forced to confront a technologically superior culture.

Denseness, richness, consistency in its main tenets, but with a leavening of contrary and even irrational elements – that is what any living culture consists of, and that is what we science fiction writers have to emulate.

I have left a discussion of world view for last. Of all the things that go into the making of a believable pseudo-culture, world view is the most subtle and the hardest to create. And once created, it is the hardest to write convincingly.

Religion has been the focus of an inordinate amount of science fiction. Usually it is Christianity, or Christianity in disguise. Sometimes it is offered seriously, as in Richard Cowper’s Road to Corlay, or in jest as in his Profundis. Sometimes it is some other real religion, either openly or in disguise, and occasionally someone tries to build one from scratch. But religion is only the most obvious of things that science fiction writers have to look at under the concept of world view.

Putting it as simply as possible, we do not see with our eyes or hear with our ears, but every sensory perception is filtered through our cultural upbringing. We have an internalized vision of what the world is like, and every perception is censored by that view.

Proof of this lies in the psychology of perception and in linguistics. I haven’t the time or energy to enter those complex and subtle fields now; nor would an intellectual understanding of world view alone be of any help.

What a science fiction writer needs is a bone deep knowledge – a feeling – that what his parents believed, and what their parents before them believed, is not carved in marble; a knowledge that what he himself believes may well be wrong, or at least trivial. Only time and maturity can bring this knowledge, and then only if you search it out diligently with an open mind and an open heart.

chap10 Your people will have a unique way of looking at their world. They will be incapable of seeing it themselves – it is too close to them. It is your job to see it for them, and to understand it thoroughly, if they are to be believable.

You may choose an environment, a technology and a physical structure almost at random, but your culture’s world view should come from your soul. If it does not, your creation may be interesting, even entertaining, but it will lack the power to move your readers.

As with all other aspects of writing, when the technical details have been talked about, there is still something more. In the final analysis, the difference between a culture that provides entertaining situations to exploit and one that moves the reader cannot be taught. Nor, I think, is it a talent, unless that talent is sensitivity to the pulses of your own inner being.

Creating a culture, like creating a story, is an interaction between the conscious and the unconscious mind. You have to work at it; nothing worthwhile is free. You have to wrack your brain, and read, and make false starts, and analyze your work with a sharper eye than any critic. But that is not enough. That will only tell you if your work is logical and internally consistent. It will not tell you if it satisfies.

Only your own subconscious – your heart, if you will – will tell you that. And it lies; frequently. Sometimes your subconscious will recommend garbage as good work because it is tired of the battle; another time it will call your finest work trash because it – and I mean you – are afraid to expose your true feelings for the world to trample.

If you let your subconscious be your master, your writing and your culture building will be simple minded and self-congratulatory. If you bottle it up, then everything will be sterile. You have to come to terms with your muse; you have to strike a balance between inspiration and critical analysis in culture building as in writing.


So you’ve built a culture. You know all you need to know about the environment, and you’ve come up with an interesting technology to match it. Everything meshes with your creatures’ biological structure, be they human or alien, and you can see the world through their eyes.

Now you have to tell a story or everything you’ve done so far will be as interesting and as useless as a solo chess game.

Remember that your reader knows nothing of the culture you’ve created – and furthermore, he really doesn’t care! He wants to know what happens to your characters. He wants to know why they did what they did, what it meant to them, and what they will do next. Anything else is incidental, and while a little incidental material is good for local color, it had better be damn little, even in a novel. So you have to lay your culture between the lines.

chap11 You have to tell your reader just enough, but no more, in time for him to use the knowledge, but not so soon that it seems irrelevant. It is a balancing act – but then, all of writing is a balancing act. And probably the hardest words a writer has to deal with are the ones his good sense tells him not to write, even when he is dying to expound on some ritual, or the role of some official his hero passes in the hall. If it doesn’t advance the story, cut it out, or give it no more than fourteen words dropped in passing between two scenes of action.


chap11 It takes time, sweat and soul searching to do a workmanlike job of culture building, so before you start, ask yourself one question.

Ask yourself why?

If you only want to entertain your readers, more power to you. Bang, slam, slice! The hero wins in the end and along the way we meet some new ideas and see some exotic scenery. Honestly crafted adventure has a valid place in science fiction.

But if you want to engage your readers’ emotions deeply, or force them into a moral confrontation, then you had better reach down inside yourself first and bring up the best your soul has to offer. Because ultimately that is where these pseudo-cultures come from. Understand before you start what it is that you want to say. You may not be able to put it into words; if we could always do that, there would be no need to write novels. But you have to come as close as you can to a conscious knowledge of your motives: and your subconscious has to know on its own non-verbal terms what you want to say or who you are out to get. Let your subconscious be sullen and angry – let it hate if it needs to. Give it time. Contemplate. Take a month or a year or a decade if it calls for that to let your soul ripen.

I truly believe that the best writing comes from this. That doesn’t mean that you have to seek out unhappiness; or that you can’t write the Great American Novel unless you’ve had your leg blown off by a land mine. Everyone has plenty of broken dreams; thankfully, most of us also have had plenty of happiness. The happiness will find its way into your work spontaneously. But when the broken dreams find their way into your work spontaneously, chances are that they will come out as bitter self-pity. You have to distill them, transmute them, come to understand them, and put them into perspective. Then they can become, if not sources of beauty, at least sources of strength.    finis