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.