New Worlds Theory Post: Against Monoliths

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

I have nothing against giant lumps of stone. I do, however, have something against monolithic worldbuilding: settings where every X precisely conforms to type Y, without any variation or change over time.

In its worst form this becomes the “Planet of Hats” trope, where every single person in a society shares some particular characteristic: they all wear a certain kind of hat, or are all hedonistic polyamorists, or they all obsessively watch the same sport. You saw this kind of thing most frequently on shows like Star Trek, where the story needed to visit a new planet every episode, and there wasn’t a lot of time available for exploring the nuances of the setting. But it’s still lazy worldbuilding, picking out one colorful characteristic and letting that suffice.

Of course, most prose fiction doesn’t go that far, especially once you’re past short story length and into more substantial works. But novels and even long series can still be prone to monolithic worldbuilding, not in the sense that they define an entire society by one quirk, but in the sense that a given aspect of the society is the same for everybody.

Since the previous essays this month were about religion, let’s use that as our example. Take the religion of Christianity, and describe what it’s like.

Odds are good that you began describing a particular type of Christianity — probably the one you’re the most familiar with — or else you immediately ran aground on the question of, “which type?” Are we talking Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox? If Protestantism, Lutheran, Methodist, Quakers . . . ? Even within a denomination, there are variants. This skit by the comedian Emo Philips drives the point home (starting a little past the two minute mark): not just Christian, but northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes region Council of 1912.

The differences can be anything from tiny and obscure to big enough to start wars over. The point is that the differences are there. Even if every person on this planet were Christian, we would be different types of Christian. Irish Catholicism has notable differences from Mexican Catholicism from Filipino Catholicism, because of the way the religion has interacted with local history and culture, often absorbing things like specific festivals and practices or even pagan gods.

That historical element is important not just because it explains variation across space, but because it creates depth in time as well. Very few things about human culture are static; how things are done now is not necessarily how they were done in times past, even without major sea-changes like Vatican II to introduce alteration. And when those come in, some people will embrace them, while others will decry them as newfangled innovations or the corruption of modern times.

Even on an individual level, you can see differences. Some Irish Catholics are intensely devout, and some wouldn’t even be able to tell you the last time they went to confession. Some Catholics are deeply educated in theology and scripture, while others just know what to do when they attend Mass. Paying attention to this kind of thing isn’t merely good for avoiding stereotyping of characters; it’s also good worldbuilding.

This applies to a lot more than religion, of course. People here in the U.S. don’t all wear the same clothing — and even once you drill down all the way to the large subset of us who wear jeans and t-shirts, one look in a store will show you there’s a lot of subtle variation in the cut and material and color of the jeans, the decoration of the shirts. Fashion is all about those differences, and I more or less don’t believe in a society that doesn’t have fashion of some kind, unless it’s blatantly meant to be some kind of allegorical dystopia. (But these essays are generally written on the assumption that you’re trying to create a realistic-seeming setting, with speculative elements.)

Having said that, let’s acknowledge the counter-argument: what’s the point of introducing variation? A fantasy or science fiction novel is already throwing all kinds of new things at the reader; adding variation on top of that just increases the burden even more. Keeping things simple and singular is easier, and lets you save your effort and the reader’s attention and memory for the things that matter.

I freely grant that this argument has merit. Even the most sincere fictional effort will fall short of real-world complexity anyway, and diving off into variations can look like failure of continuity if you aren’t careful. But there are times and places where you can leverage that variation for narrative benefit.

For example, in A Natural History of Dragons, I was able to use the differences between Magisterial Segulism and Bayitist Segulism to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that both of them are based on Judaism (rabbinical and Temple, respectively), because my Magisterial narrator traveled to a Bayitist country and had some culture shock as a result. Furthermore, by pointing out that Segulism as practiced in the mountainous hinterlands of Vystrana was not exactly the orthodox theology one might find in more central regions, I was able to get away with having the local priest enact a ritual that maybe didn’t quite ring true to either my characters or my Jewish readers: rural traditions are often a bit idiosyncratic, not to say borderline heretical.

It all depends on looking at any given bit of worldbuilding and asking: how could some difference here add to the rest of the story? Does it give me an opening for some necessary exposition? Can I create tension by having two characters disagree over the proper rules of a game? Can I use regional food traditions as grounds for one person to admire another, or mock them? How can my heroine betray her lower-class origins by misstepping in what she thought was a familiar dance?

The more you look for these opportunities, the easier they are to spot. And then you wind up creating plot twists or moments of confrontation that aren’t quite as predictable, because they haven’t appeared a thousand times already in other novels, and couldn’t be subbed into a thousand more without a ripple. They’re specific to your story, your setting — and all the more interesting for that.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds Theory Post: Against Monoliths — 14 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds Theory Post: Against Monoliths - Swan Tower

  2. I recommend reading some average science fiction from, say the 1950s. Notice the roles of women matching American TV shows of the time. Notice the implicit American stereotypical values.

    Then don’t just laugh at the blindness of writers of the time – but assume that you have similar blindness now. And remember that as you write (and live).

    • I’m not sure what you mean by that. Are you talking about the tendency of fiction to replicate the values of the writer? Or the homogeneity of America (or at least, the science fiction producing and consuming contingent thereof)? Both can certainly combine to influence the tendency toward monolithic worldbuilding, but I don’t think that’s the only cause, or even necessarily the main one. The same result can happen regardless of whether the writer is positing something that matches their values or diverging from them — the issue is that, having posited that thing, they then apply it across the board.

  3. The homogeneity brought it up – but it was the homogeneity of the (ideal?) that we saw. Not only were worlds homogeneous – but so was the culture of the future.

    Even when attempts were made to show many different cultures, they looked like an America that we no longer quite believe in today.

    Certainly SF has to relate with the readers of today. So does historical SF, when we read a Regency romance, it helps if the main heroine likes reading and being competent, as we observe how obsolete the medicine was and the minor characters who had values of that time.

    That said, I want something *more* from SF. I want my Big Ideas to include culture and make me rethink assumptions.

    It isn’t just planets that need to have variety, it is cultures, attitudes, & assumptions about life.

    • Ah, I see. That’s a fair point — SF in particular has a lot of its roots in mid-century white America, where homogeneity was actually an ideal, not just a byproduct. So to some extent, worlds where everybody liked the same music or whatever might have been slightly utopian, because isn’t life better when everybody assimilates?

      • Yep. The “melting pot” of America was still touted as a great thing when I was a kid. All those furriners embracing the wholesomeness of hot dogs and baseball! And this attitude wasn’t just fostered by the white patriarchy in power. Many of my peers who turned out to have immigrant parents were forbidden to speak their parents’ language at home, by frightened elders scarred by war, whether in Europe or the Pacific.

        • I did a bit of a double take at this one due to the fortunate typo. The furrier I knew many years ago now wouldn’t eat hot dogs — not even Nathan’s — because the processing might expose him to treyff products, and too many baseball games were played after sundown on Friday and before sundown on Saturday for him to ever enjoy them (since he religiously ignored what happened in the world during shabat). Furriners, however… can I just say “currywurst” and sneak off, having started a further argument?

          But that fortunate typo actually makes the point — the Orthodox Jewish furrier (Ashkenazim, naturally) is quite recent in the US, and in the nineteenth century probably would have been a French Canadian down from Quebec; this is precisely the kind of variation that one doesn’t find enough of.

          • Heh! That typo was stupid auto “Correct” sneaking by me. But still, your point is a good one.

            (And I shudder to think what disgusting stuff those hot dogs in the fifties were made of. I do remember that one of our dogs, who would eat anything else, refused to eat them. Obviously they didn’t smell like food to him.)

            • Speaking of further variations, one of the reasons Shem didn’t eat Nathan’s hot dogs was that their rabbinical certification came from the *wrong subsect*, and his own rabbinical subsect didn’t think the manufacturer properly koshered its equipment (even though it was “more rigorous” than required either legally or by the certifying rabbis; which leads to endless arguments on what “more” means in this sense). This links back into the comments on the historical differences within Christianity in the main article, and brings to mind a man I knew many years ago who characterized himself as a “charismatic Catholic,” including keeping copies of a fanzine-like magazine called CHARISMA at his desk.

              • Oh, I remember charismatic Catholics in my youth, in my case my aunt, a dedicated Catholic who felt isolated from the church because she couldn’t get a divorce sanctioned by the church when she left my violent, extremely abusive uncle. The charismatics welcomed her, many from similar situations. I don’t know if they’ve blended back in during succeeding years, or what, but yes, there can be myriad subdivisions within any group.

  4. On the other hand, some random and pointless variation helps distract from the hand of the author.

      • but how do you know when its pointless? maybe the Final Rescue of Our Heroes depends on it…just much later in the story.
        *shrugs*