New Worlds Theory Post: Cultural Spheres

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

One of the ways to think about the relationship between a made-up world and the real one is with the anthropological concept of a cultural sphere.

The easiest way for me to illustrate this is by pointing at the animated film Moana. You will not find the island of Motonui on any map; it isn’t Hawaii or Samoa or New Zealand. But it does feel like, if you were to sail around the tropical Pacific for long enough, you might find yourself on the shores of Motonui — and that’s because it was built to fit into the Polynesian cultural sphere. Which makes it different from, say, Dorne in George R.R. Martin’s series, where you might be able to trace similarities between certain aspects of life there and real-world societies, but there’s no single place where it very obviously belongs.

The concept of a cultural sphere is one with inherently fuzzy boundaries, because it’s about a cluster of traits which will be found in greater or lesser proportion in a given society. Often a cultural sphere is at least partly bounded by language: the Polynesian languages are related, and so are the Germanic ones, and the clusters of traits we call the Polynesian or Germanic cultural spheres tend to map to where those languages are traditionally spoken. This is because it’s easier to transmit cultural practices between groups who can communicate more easily — or, in the case of Polynesia, what happened is that a particular ethnic group spread out and settled a wide swath of islands, bringing their culture with them. Over the centuries those traits changed, with some of them vanishing and others evolving to be slightly different (the same way their languages evolved), until you wind up with a bunch of places that clearly resemble each other, without being quite the same.

But it doesn’t require a language family to happen. You can also have a sphere that’s created by the influence of some strong institution: both Catholicism and Islam have spread their particular stamp across large portions of the world. Obviously there’s still a linguistic element there — Latin for Catholicism; Arabic for Islam — but the cultural package has been adopted in part or in whole by regions where the indigenous languages are Mande, Austronesian, or Uto-Aztecan rather than Romance or Semitic.

The traits in question can be practically anything. Religion is usually an easy one to spot; the Catholic and Islamic spheres are both specifically religion-based, but elsewhere you can see things like the cognate relationship between Odin and Wotan, where differing mythologies closely resemble one another. The foods people eat; those are going to be shaped by the local environment, but when you get something like the Polynesians spreading out, they bring their staple crops and livestock with them, and an imperial society may do the same thing. Writing systems: the Sinosphere, the area of Chinese influence, can be mapped out in part by seeing where people adopted the Chinese writing system — even when, as in the case of Japanese, it made for a very poor fit.

Not everything in the sphere is big and load-bearing, though. It might be a particular game, like the ballgame common throughout pre-colonial Mesoamerica. (Though to be fair, that one had enough religious and political significance that maybe it shouldn’t be considered small.) It might be a particular style of artwork. It might be a folktale rather than a sacred myth, a story told just for entertainment, but found in a number of related forms throughout that region. But the key thing is that it’s never just one of those things. It’s a whole cluster of them, and while any given society within that sphere may not have all the traits, their Venn diagrams overlap enough to be meaningful.

What’s the significance for this and writing? To begin with, when people talk about “Eurofantasy,” there’s a sense in which that’s a statement about a cultural sphere. Or perhaps several, since there are distinct strands of Germanic, Celtic, and post-Roman Eurofantasy out there, which loosely replicate the traits of Norse or Irish or medieval European society. Many of the writers of such books don’t even realize they’re doing that, so being aware of societies as packages of interlinked traits can help you be more alert to which packages you’re drawing your ideas from.

It also describes a distinct space which I’ve taken to calling “world-and-a-half,” as a facetious way of pointing out that while it’s technically a secondary world, it isn’t fully divorced from the primary one. The map may be different, the history may hit different beats, but the cultures are recognizable. This is the kind of thing Guy Gavriel Kay regularly writes, though he’s far from the only one. It’s the space you head for when you want something that has the feel of India or Egypt or the Pacific Northwest, without locking yourself into the exact historical facts of a particular point in time (or spinning out a specific alternate history). By familiarizing yourself with the traits of that sphere, the shared commonalities between its constituent societies — and also their differences! — you can make better decisions about how to craft your society to evoke that feel, while still maintaining the freedom to move around in your fictional world.

And when you’re not trying to fit into a cultural sphere, but rather to make something less singular in its inspiration, being aware of this concept can help you avoid some pitfalls. As I’ve said, these traits are interlinked. Not rigidly; if they were, then you wouldn’t get the variations within a sphere that happen in the real world. But it’s still true that you can’t necessarily yank X out entirely and still have Y make sense. Medieval European kingship was heavily rooted in Catholicism, from its ritual to its politics to the underlying cosmological idea of what a king should be; if you de-Catholicize your medieval fantasy and replace it with something like Shinto, but don’t rework the monarchy to account for that, you may leave your reader with a niggling feeling that this doesn’t really hang together. Some instances of cultural appropriation amount to a failure to notice the interconnection between cultural traits, such that the author grabbed the shiny obvious one and ripped it away from its necessary underpinnings.

It can be difficult to see how things are connected, though. Cultural spheres don’t come with instruction manuals telling you how they’re assembled. Like everything else in worldbuilding, it helps to read widely — not just in fiction, but in nonfiction that discusses real societies and how they work. It’s more an osmotic process than a step-by-step one. But having researched Polynesian cultures to make my own fictional Polynesian society for Voyage of the Basilisk, I was delighted to see those familiar traits crop up in Moana, and the same goes for any other story that triggers that spark of recognition. I do love a good, original-feeling secondary world — but there’s something about a world-and-a-half that makes me smile.

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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, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds Theory Post: Cultural Spheres — 20 Comments

  1. I too have noticed the problems of fantasy writers copying the tropes of medieval fantasy (often from Tolkien, sometimes from fairy tales), yet not really understanding the cultural underpinnings. Over at The Billion Light-year Bookshelf I’ve often commented on how many American writers create pseudo-medieval settings, yet have a landscape that feels more American. The deserts have cacti, the forests have pecans or hickories, and everything feels fresh and new even when you’re told the civilizations are thousands of years old. The adventurers encounter skunks and raccoons and white-tailed deer. When fields of corn are mentioned (assuming agriculture is even mentioned), it’s pretty clear from context that it’s Zea mays, not Triticum aestivum.

    Sherwood Smith avoids it in her Sartorias-deles books by making it clear that humanity is an immigrant species there, that people have migrated across the Worldgates from a multitude of Terran cultures over the millennia of both Terran and Sartorian history, bringing with them their customs and domesticates and adapting them to new environment on a world where magic works. So it doesn’t jar when her characters are trying to study Old Sartoran from an agricultural text and it’s pretty clear their corn is the American kind.

    • D&D tends to pose a low magic world on the theory that adventurers are only a tiny slice of the population and not even all of those are spell-slingers, but the world-building requires enough magic to mimic many modern industrial traits such as low infant mortality.

      • Plus D&D has the inherent problem of positing a low-magic world while providing endless books full of spells and magic items and mystical enemies. Sure, in theory those things are rare and all the ones you don’t encounter might not even exist in the world of your campaign . . . but in practice, players are presented with a world absolutely soaked in magic, and most GMs run it that way, too.

    • I honestly wouldn’t mind cacti and pecans and white-tailed deer + a medieval kind of society — because I don’t think the social structures of twelfth-century Europe strictly require a European ecology — if it were done well . . . but yes, agreed that many of the writers who copy those tropes do it without understanding how the different elements tie together.

      • Yeah, I’d say those don’t bug me much… though I guess something like potatoes, with higher densities and different vulnerability to raiding, might make a difference. OTOH I’ve realized recently that if you count the land use of lumber and pasture and non-food crops, changes in pure food-based population density might not make much difference — or lead to bigger but poorer populations (less firewood and cotton to go around.)

        • That’s a level of nitty-gritty where it stops bothering me, generally speaking. Very few stories provide enough detail on population density or hectares under cultivation for me to tell whether they’re being reasonable or not — and those that do seem to mostly do it via forgetting that crops even need to be a thing at all . . .

  2. When I teach worldbuilding in a class or panel discussion, I do a spiral: start with one thing that is different from here and now and build outward. Everything has to connect backward to the original idea or it scatters to the wind like dandelion fluff.

    • That’s sort of how I ran my Clarion West workshop a few weeks ago: I had the students start with the ecology and build things based on that. Not that all worldbuilding has to start with ecology, but I think it’s a useful place to begin if you want to get people to focus on the material culture and daily life of the invented world, rather than high-level cosmological concepts and the like.

      • I’ve come to think Tolkien was deliberately mysterious about elven food production, given how thorough he was with human populations. It still bugs me.

      • Weather shapes a lot of societies in everything from clothing and shelter to food production. Ice Worlds have to be very different from temperate or desert worlds. Giant iguanas won’t survive a Siberian winter unless they develop hibernation biology. Jungle dwellers who find even a loin cloth too much, can pick food as they wander, and sleep in the fork of a tree wouldn’t survive in Norway without a stockpile of food, clothing and shelter.

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  4. Oddly enough, the cultural fail that bothers me is when people don’t want to write a sexist world, so they write medieval or musket-level tech with women’s equality, including women serving in armies at rates higher than the modern West etc. But they never think to describe a reason for low maternal mortality, so you’re left wondering how these cultures reproduce themselves when their young women are taking battle casualties *and* dying in childbirth. They also handwave the ability of women to be soldiers at a time when it was far more physical than it is today (holding a pike in formation requires a lot more physical strength than shooting someone with a gun, just for example).

    Or they have modern attitudes to sex in a civilisation which doesn’t have reliable contraception. (And yes, you can have pre-contraception cultures with something close to free love, but you need to change an awful lot about social support structures and inheritance of property. You can’t just retcon it into a standard medieval setting.)

    I am a woman, I consider myself a feminist, but it still annoys me when people do this and just don’t think it through.

    • Jo Walton avoids at least some of that with *The King’s Peace*. The land gods provide a fair bit of useful magic, including healing, contraception, and abortion (which shouldn’t even be needed, normally). Doesn’t help the strength problem, though all the women warriors I recall are either mounted knights or Big ‘Vikings’. No wait, I guess Emer, from “Ireland”, was neither big nor mounted. Fierce, though.

      Not sure if Paksenarrion went into details, though being basically D&D it’s a higher magic world.

      Tolkien has the opposite problem: asserting (in an obscure essay) that elves had a high level of equality (justified given elf biology) apart from combat, but not showing it well (no women at the Council of Elrond; no female rulers other than Galadriel and maybe Elwing, humans and hobbits do better!)

      • The world building can be done right, it’s just that Walton is in the minority if she actually thought it through (I haven’t read her book).

        And the strength problem isn’t insuperable, there really were some women who went to battle in pre modern armies, but people need to put some thought into what is and isn’t possible. Is this a large, strong woman who really could hold a pike or fire a longbow? Is this a smaller woman doing a job like scout, or mounted archer (not longbow) where strength is less necessary? It can be done, it just annoys me when people don’t think it through.

      • In the first Paksennarrion book it is noted that there’s some kind of herbal birth control/abortificant available. Also this is a setting with both divine and magical healing, although those come with restrictions.

        One thing I like about that series is that Moon, having actual military experience, doesn’t fall into the common fallacy that size/gender determines strength or combat efficacy. Instead she (properly) focuses on the importance of training in developing the *kind* of strength, endurance, and discipline needed for a professional soldier, in both men and women.

    • Rowan, thanks for articulating issues that bother me with these bad fits in many novels! Just sticking “modern woman” attitudes into a medieval culture really jars.

    • I wrote an article yeeeeeeeeears ago that basically said, if you want one lever to push on to affect women’s roles in society, look at childbed mortality — mothers and infants both. If you can improve those, you can maintain your population while freeing women up to do something other than having children.

      As for contraception, wait <checks calendar> nine days. We’ll get there! 🙂