[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, we asked our panelists this question:
Here’s what they said…
A society can only ever be as good as the characters it’s reflecting. Through the character, and whether the reflection is a simple, mirror-like image or twisted and odd like a funhouse mirror, something is said about the society. It becomes something of a cyclical and symbiotic relationship: society shapes the character, the character reflects society, the society’s conflicts tend to feed the character’s conflicts (in good stories, anyway). Thus, the most interesting society are the most interesting characters.
Do societies portrayed in television count? I don’t know if anyone else watched Avatar: The Last Airbender as ardently as I did, but it was one of the few shows (and one made for children, at that) that tended to capture this idea of characters reflecting society perfectly. In the portrayal of the Fire Nation as a fiercely proud society who turned their determination and passion to the pursuit of conquest, we were given two separate reflections of it in the form of its crown princess and prince. Azula was the perfect reflection of the Fire Nation: aggressive, prideful and unrelenting. Zuko was a twisted version: someone who was passionate and stubborn, but wasn’t sure about what. I thought it was a brilliant portrayal in that typically, the heroes tend to be the certain, the absolute, the sure (and anyone who has actually seen the show knows that Azula was no hero) while the villains tend to be the twisted ones. Avatar did something that a lot of stories still have trouble with today and presented doubt, aimlessness and worry as positive traits. Not necessarily to be admired, but to be expanded and expounded upon. The end result was a deeply troubled character who was also very deep stacked against a very certain character who was infinitely more disturbed. And as a result, we saw a society that had a hard time figuring out just what kind of purpose it could serve when its power was drawn from the ability to destroy.
I’d go on about the other societies in that show and how their decision to divide themselves along definitive lines ultimately contributed to the war that savaged their land, but I made a promise to myself to only spend a paragraph ranting about children’s cartoons after the Spongebob incident that got me arrested in Kyoto.
Turning to more literary pursuits, the concept holds true and I think it’s pretty well-demonstrated in the Northmen of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. At a glance, they might seem like your typical barbarian subculture loosely based on every other Norse concept you’ve ever seen, but that’s a short and fleeting glance. Looking deeper, there’s not so much an “honor” that the Northmen address each other with as there is a very casual politeness. They kill each other, frequently. They maim each other. They murder each other in cold blood. But you very rarely see them hate each other. To them, killing is just something they do. It’s nature. You see this reflected in Logen Ninefingers of The First Law and in Caul Shivers of Best Served Cold. Ultimately, they’re kind of a depressing tale as they’re Northmen who try and fail to escape their natures, just as the North rises from and collapses back into war time and time again. It’s simply how it goes.
To be honest, the most interesting societies in SF are nearly always human – or they show humans for what they are, and give us greater meaning. Under unusual conditions, which only SF can really show, human socities can be fascinating – so for that reason, two novels in particular leap to mind.
Michael G. Coney is an often-forgotten SF author when we talk of the Greats. He wrote a very effective and often trippy brew of sociological SF, and did so in an immensely readable manner. His novel, Mirror Image (1972) was a great example of showing us for what we were. Though the alien society in question in this novel were “amorph’s” (changelings that transformed into whatever we desired), it was the reflection of our own human desires – in fact, the amorphs themselves believed they were human, too. A neat and difficult trick for Coney to pull off, but the end result is a cracking novel.
Another great book recently is comprised of entirely human races – Christohper Priest’s latest novel, The Islanders, which I reviewed recently. I love that Priest gives us not one, but hundreds – countless, in fact – socities and economies. The reader is only shown glimpses, snippets, brief encouters, walk-ons – the novel is a kind of fictional travel guide – and the end result is something hugely fascinating. It tells us nothing and everything about ourselves, our dreams and our flaws. It’s a beautiful work because of that.
Well, just lately I’ve been reading space opera and am as a result highly enamored of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. That’s a pretty fascinating trick, making what is essentially a utopian society be interesting on the page. It’s arguable whether they’re aliens or not, of course, but they are explicitly not Earth-descended humans, so I suppose that counts.
The ultimate expression of alien sociology for me is Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”. You don’t really see the aliens directly, but the whole effort the story makes to communicate the fundamental alien-ness of their point of view is profound and incredibly effective.
Another set of aliens seen only in passing are the Mules in Suzette Haden Elgin’s Ozark trilogy. I find them amusing and interesting. Aliens taken more directly head on that fascinate me include the assimilated aliens of Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and their more deeply assimilate analogs in Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I could also hardly fail to note the inhabitants of Gethen in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. And in the vein of alien reproduction, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Your Haploid Heart” shows an alien world deceptively different from our own in some surprising ways.
In looking back on this, I see that the alien societies which stick best in my memory are the ones that somehow mimic or reflect human societies with some deep difference. It’s hard to relate to a truly alien being, like C.J. Cherryh’s methane-breathing knn, t’ca and chi. For me, the less human, strange creatures like Frederick Pohl’s heechee just aren’t as interesting as the aliens who are tantalizing (in)human.
This is a tough question for me because the worlds of sf stick with me less vividly than the characters do, even if the characters are truly of their world. So with that in mind, I went to the works that influenced me the most. I found that I don’t remember much of Andre Norton’s worlds, although I read all of her books at exactly the right age (10-13). The first book that impressed me with world-building was Dune. Not the Frank Herbert sequels, which lacked the richness, but the original novel itself. I loved how textured that world was, and I can still remember the warmth of discovery from those summer nights of reading.
Of course, classic Star Trek truly intrigued me, because I saw it young (it aired when I was a kid, although I saw it in reruns at –again–ages 12-13) and that kind of sf utopian far future world-building was new to me. I just loved it.
I thought and thought about this and no modern writer has really intrigued me in the same way. Some of this is my fault: I have learned to read critically, and since I edited F&SF for so many years, I’m particularly critical of fantasy & science fiction. I can only tell you the worlds I keep returning to, at least in novels. They are Allen Steele’s Coyote series and Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series. Otherwise, I’m enjoying a lot of one-off short fiction, but again, the worlds stick with me less than the characters or the plot. Apparently not many folks are really ringing my bells on world-building these days–or I’m just missing the good stuff. I’ll be reading this one with interest to see what others have to say.
I’m kidding. No, really, I swear! Put down the torches and pitchforks!
Honestly, I’ve been reading and watching SF/F for *mumble, mumble* decades, now, and I still find this a hard question to answer. The problem is that most human cultures in SF/F are obviously based heavily on particular historical cultures. Aliens are even worse, because writers (and I admit, I’ve fallen into this trap myself; I’m not casting dispersions) tend to assume that one race = one culture, except for humans. Even though there are hundreds of nations/cultures on Earth, there’s only one (or at most, a couple) of types of, say, elves or Wookiees or Klingons. And then, that one culture is often just an exaggeration of one element of human cultures. (It’s the “religious” culture, or the “honorable warrior” culture, or the “serene” culture.)
The result is that, while these races appear in interesting stories, and may produce interesting individual characters, the races themselves don’t tend to be that interesting.
[There’s a rather large spoiler in the next paragraph pertaining to Babylon 5. If you have any interest in that show, proceed with caution — Ed.]
It’s far easier to find races that have one particularly interesting aspect. I love the idea of the Vorlons (from Babylon 5) having shaped human myths and religion through the centuries, for their own purposes. I love how the elves (Dragaerans) in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, or the werewolves in James Enge’s The Wolf Age, are portrayed as different from, yet still consistent with, their mythological/traditional counterparts. I’m fascinated by races about whom we know only snippets, such as the Tholians in Star Trek or (if you can call them a culture) the various alien “deities” from the works of HP Lovecraft.
But again, those are aspects of the societies in question, not the entire race/culture. I guess my ultimate answer to the question must be that, at least as an adult reader, I’ve yet to come across a culture in SF/F that I think is sufficiently intriguing on its own merits–without taking plot or individual characters into account–for me to list it as being notable head and shoulders above the rest.
(Except, of course, that I’m sure I’ll remember something I’m forgetting about six hours after this answer goes up, and I’ll feel really, really stupid.)
The most interesting societies in science fiction and fantasy are those that reflect back the times in which they are written. These societies add more value than world-building in a story: they provide a window into time. In one of the original Foundation stories, “The Mule” by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, Nov-Dec 1945), there is a scene in which the woman of the Foundation are sitting around a cafeteria wondering how they are going to defeat this person who has upset the Seldon plan. The tension and feeling in that scene reflect the tension of the time it was written–toward the end of World War II, and so the culture of the Foundation gives insight into the culture of its author at the time it was written.
Looking into the characters and culture of Golden Age-era stories allows you to look at the roles in the society in which they were written. Women were not as prominent (although there were definite exceptions to this). Multiculturalism, when it appeared at all, was often stereotyped. Reading these stories makes a modern reader cringe, but also gives us a view into the acceptable (and unacceptable) modes of the time. A. E. van Vogt’s Slan seems to me to be at least, in part, a plea for tolerance for those who are different from what society considers “normal.” Part of my great enjoyment in reading Golden Age stories is seeing the reflection of 1940s America as seen through its authors in the pages of the magazine.
But stories don’t have to be old to reflect the author’s vision of society. James Morrow’s City of Truth is a fascinating look at how society values truth and what lengths it will go to achieve it. Stephen King’s The Stand looks at society stripped complete bare and starting from scratch–with the knowledge of what came before. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books show cultures in which the arbitrariness of life is contrasted with one’s ability to affect it in some meaningful way. Good guys lose and bad guys win (and sometimes the other way around) just as they do in the real world, and the victory and defeats are not because we wish them to be so but because we take action to make them so.
This is not unique to SF/F, of course. All novels and stories do this to some greater or lesser extent, as does fiction of any kind. Television shows from the 1950s offer us insights to the culture of the 1950s as much as they entertain us. But because of the imaginative nature of SF/F; because of the allegory built into many of its stories, it seems to be an ideal medium for projecting the culture of the writer into the story, though that projection may be reflected through fun house mirrors. Deconstructing that reflection is part of what makes the stories so entertaining.