Once again these are stolen — er, I mean, these are my notes — from a panel I attended at RiverCon science fiction convention in 1997. The panelists were: Jack Williamson, Stephen Leigh, Diann Thornley, and Maureen McHugh, author of some of my favorite sf stories and novels.
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Q Of what does a culture consist?
A Williamson: What a group does and thinks and believes. Their adaptation for survival to environment, etc.
Leigh: I start with one fact. Why is this so? I construct the rest from that one fact, and that makes it all hang together.
McHugh: Create a logical culture, then muddy it up a bit. Cultures are maddeningly inconsistent. Cultures are full of vestiges of things that were once important, but aren’t anymore. Still, the vestiges hang on. (Gave example of when she lived in China. People on bicycles were supposed to dismount and walk their bikes past a checkpoint. Gradually, by the time she was there, they would just barrel on through without slowing, but would swing a leg over and touch the ground with their toes in a sort of symbolic dismount. One day, she didn’t bother to touch down, and she got stopped and reamed out for it.
Diann Thornley, ex-military, said that the salute originated with men in armor lifting their visors so their superiors could identify them. Now there’s no armor, but it would be unthinkable for a soldier to fail to lift his hand to his forehead in the presence of a senior officer.)
Thornley: I start with the environment and then ask what it would take to survive in this, and build the culture from that.
Talk turned to cultural differences clashing, different cultures of the same species, and Terran/alien cultural clashes.
Williamson: Many “alien” cultures in literature are actually based on real ones. Mike Resnick does Africa.
All agree they crib bits from other earth cultures.
McHugh: Most sf novels over-explain. You only need to suggest; put in a detail here, a bit of history there, and the culture builds itself in the reader’s mind.
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So McHugh gets the last word, because I like her bestest. I love her points about cultural vestiges and about suggestion. When I teach creative writing, I emphasize that the antidote to the info-dump is the telling detail: Instead of telling the history of a society and its change, her China anecdote only told three things: People were supposed to dismount at a checkpoint, people now only touched down in passing, failing to do that symbolic and essentially pointless thing was absolutely unacceptable. A reader could spend many happy hours extrapolating from that.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: There’s a village in the forest where the people build their houses of red clay. Not the blue clay, which is on this side of the river, but red clay, on the opposite side. Even a small streak of blue defiles the house and its builder. Think up three characters who would logically live in this village.
JaneJanuary 22, 2013 at 9:45am
Great post. I particularly like the red clay, blue clay thing. It brings to mind an article I read about tribes living along a river in the Rift Valley:
They were living pretty much as they had lived for easily 10,000 years, give or take a pocket knife or two. The guys up the river were enemies. They had always been. Resources now are on the slim side. I don’t know what they used to be, but given the ancient level of occupation, I’m guessing the place must have experienced the cycles that all of Northern Africa has been through: Lush, then dry, then lush. Etc.
To me, these guys were experiencing the red clay, blue clay thing. To them, no way were they going to get together and share stuff. Discouraging example when one starts thinking political thoughts.
By the way, I’ve met Jack Williamson, too. One of the Grand Masters of SF! As a child, he crossed Oklahoma (or was it Texas?) with his family in a covered wagon. As an adult, he became one of the forbears of science fiction. The mind boggles. He published his last novel the year before he died at age 98. Oh, go on and just read the Wikipedia post. What a guy!
Marian AllenJanuary 22, 2013 at 10:42am
I can’t claim to have MET Mr. Williamson; I only listened and took notes.
Discouraging story about the tribes who wouldn’t cooperate. It makes you feel, though, that we’ve improved some, because we CAN work together. Individuals more than parties.