Confecting fantasy and SF cultures

I’m going to have to listen to Episode 73 again, because I was distracted. Nevertheless I have a few preliminary thought to offer on the topic of confecting human cultures for fantasy and SF.

One of my tricks is to start with a household structure that is dramatically different from the nuclear families and at a stretch patrilocal extended families that we barbarians consider to be laws of Nature. When I was designing the culture that I published in Pyramid as the Nemorae the first decision was to make their households matrilineal patriarchal extended families¹. Then I thought about how that would work and extrapolated features. I’ve used essentially the same structure in other fantasy contexts (the Auroronesians in my long-running fantasy setting Gehennum) and in planetary romance. I have also designed societies by starting with the posit that there are no households (everyone has their own bed/sit suite), by positing that there are women’s households (matrilineal extended families) and separate men’s households (adoptive guilds), by positing households based on triples instead of couples….

Another trick is to posit a basis of subsistence that is different from the assumed family farm or occupational career. The Nemorae were pastoralists practising transhumance in a dissected plateau with high summer pastures and meadows in the valleys. In the culture with separate men’s and women’s households women were landowners and men were workers (different men’s lodges professing different trades and occupations). I often play around with assigning different economic roles (worker, capitalist; landowner, tradesman; warrior, magistrate, priest) on some basis other than hereditary classes (gender roles, life stages).

A third trick is to appropriate behavioural traits and social structures from non-human animals. The Nemorae were partly informed by lion prides. The Ramastaarni (a fantasy culture with the separate territorial families for women and occupational guilds for men) and the people of Margulis (a planetary-romance instance of the design) had courting behaviour inspired by bower-birds (and other birds with male display and female selection). On the colony New Fujian here has been a transhumanist attempt to have humans go through a sequence of metamorphoses between socially-constructed life stages with different occupational, social, and occupational roles.

My fourth trick is something that I have been told is deconstruction, though I’m doubtful that it is. I take an assumption that people treat as inevitable — such as “priests are chosen servants of the gods”, “boys grow up to be men, girls grow up to be women”, “gender roles are basically associated with sex” — an posit a radical alternative — such as “priests are diplomatic representatives of the human community”, “boys grow up to be men, but they’re rare anyway; girls may grow up to be either men or women, sometimes intersexed, willy-nilly”, “gender roles are a matter of choice, and have to do mostly with violence”.

If you start from a sufficiently bizarre starting-place you can get unfamiliar fantasy and SF cultures without relying on cultural appropriation. And if you do splash a few cosmetic appropriations around nobody seems to mind so much.

¹ The original design was in 1985; I was inspired by having read J.G. Frazer’s imaginative reconstruction of the society of of pre-republican Rome in The Golden Bough.

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Several of those (particularly the family structures) are what I think of as “bottom up” decisions: given that people work like this, what sort of society will they build? Stealing an existing human culture tends to be top-down: we know what sort of society they have, it’s the one where warriors are kept under control by a rigid honour code that at the same time says they are the élite of society. As with building a world, it’s probably best to use ideas of just one or the other type at least until things have firmed up a bit.

I like Sherri Tepper’s notion that there is a Big Lie or Horrible Contradiction embedded in every society. The ones in her novel are obviously plot reveals, but a real world example would be gang culture/mafia:

  • To show that you are a manly man, you have to sleep with as many women as possible.

  • If anyone sleeps with your wife, your sister or your daughter, it is a slur on your honour, and you have to hunt down and punish the guy.

Animal models can be good inspiration, but authors tend to use a very anthropomorphic version of the biology, rather than how it works in the real world. For instance polygyny (polgamy). An author might think Red deer stag with a herd of hinds = Sultan who is an old, rich guy with a harem of wives, except that he has antlers and gets into a lot of fights every autumn.

In reality, only a subset of guys in the prime of life have harems. Adolescents, middle aged guys and old guys can’t win fights against experienced guys in the prime of their life. Meanwhile the hinds are wandering around checking out all the experienced guys in the prime of their life, deciding who they like best. So Stag A might not have the same number of ‘wives’ two days running. And outside of the breeding season they may split into male herds and female-with-young herds.

Running an economy on the basis of the above becomes complicated!

Esther Friesner’s Psalms of Herod has a mutated human species (it’s post apocalypse) where an Alpha male does all the shagging in a community because women are only fertile twice a year. When he is beaten in a fight, all the small kids hide, because she does include the infanticide that is pretty much a given in social, polygynous species.

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It seems to me there are two different, though related, topics here: Inventing cultures for humans, where cultural differences reflect economic situation, ideology, and that sort of thing, and inventing cultures for nonhumans, where they reflect racial biology and psychology. Indeed, it’s fairly common in fantasy and science fiction worlds for an alien/nonhuman race to apparently have only ONE culture: elves and dwarves, or Vulcans and Klingons, or stsho and kif and hani.

For example, my current campaign has seven humanoid races, each of which has a different underlying behavioral profile, different from human; even the “men” are not quite human behaviorally. I did do something slightly unusual in coming up with secondary cultural differences within each race; for example, there are dwarves where males try to find a female lineage to marry into, and bring a dowry, but there are other dwarves where male dwarves try to find a wife and offer a bride price.

But years back, around 1990, I came up with a RuneQuest setting that had two cultures in symbiosis: a settled culture of noble landowners with thralls, and a nomadic culture of cattle herders. The landowners used silver as their currency, because it was good for small transactions; the nomads used gold, because it was portable—and there was a specific cult that would do currency exchange, giving 12 silver for 1 gold or 1 gold for 13 silver. I wanted to have something different from the usual stereotypes about nomads, so I decided that the nomadic law was that only women could own major capital assets, such as wagons or herds of cattle; men could own a horse and whatever it could carry (such as weapons), and they hired on as laborers for women “capitalists,” and part of hiring on was being married to the woman for the term of employment, which meant that a man’s looks were part of his job qualification.

(Looking at these examples, I see that they suggest that I assume courtship and marriage and sexual conduct are an important element in culture. That’s probably valid in real world terms…)

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I, too, am a bit inclined to exaggerate the role of family in society. Ideas related to subsistence and workplaces come easily to me. Ideas related to family, sex, and homes come easily. I tend repeatedly to overlook people’s engagement with society through other structures (fandoms, clubs, secret societies, sporting teams etc.) in third places (social spaces etc.).

While I do have a vague sort of affinity-group feeling for e.g. role-players or boardgamers, I have never experienced the sensations of sports fandom* (when someone says “we won”, my first assumption is that he is on the team he’s talking about) and I despise crowds. I think I would find it difficult to write/portray ,in a realistic way an individual who did this stuff. It certainly feels as though there’s a set of associations/drives which normal people have which in me is largely absent.

* Not strictly true; I had a favourite in the 2017 Sand Marble Rally, a set of marble races recorded and show on YouTube, and was happy when it won.

I am in the same predicament. Nevertheless I understand that

  1. there are a great many people who prefer to fill their recreation time with social activity,
  2. in many cultures the groups in which people recreate together are neither families nor workforces, and are a salient feature of social structure
  3. the "third places’ in which characters tend to spend their time when neither at work nor at home are related to this social groupings, and represent an important tactical opportunity to PCs trying to gain access to NPCs.

This post may be of relavence to this discussion


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Having read books on the development of plough technology from simple ards to the kind of thing the UK was using in WW2, I strongly suspect that we could apply Ben Goldacre’s catchphrase to that theory: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.

Also, surely it depends on what crop you are growing and how labour intensive it is to process it for eating and/or for storage? Potatoes… dig them up and they are ready to cook. Wheat on the other hand… reap it, then thresh it, then grind it into flour before you can make bread out of it. So the women might be indoors, but they are not “home making”, they are engaged in the back-breaking agricultural labour of turning the grain into flour with a quern.

It’s when your economy (and your technology) can support professional plough teams, professional millers, etc that you can afford to totally exclude the women from agricultural jobs.


In one of her essays on women (it might have been “Are Women Human?”), Dorothy Sayers wrote that in the middle ages, food preservation and related industries were dominated by women, and that men had taken them over with industrialization.

Querns and hand mills seem to have been a big thing in the Roman Empire; I’ve read that grain rations were handed out unmilled and troops carried hand mills. But they also hand mills powered by oxen or donkeys (or low-value horses), and the beginning of water mills; and by Domesday Book water mills were all over the place.

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I very seldom venture upon designing societies for nonhumans. I’ve never found my work in that direction satisfactory.

Now that I think about it, my recent SF games have been largely free of aliens - or if they’re there they’re of the vast and incomprehensible variety. The sort of gallimaufry of broadly-similar races rubbing up against each other that you get in many fantasy games, Star Wars, and some Traveller-type SF doesn’t seem to work well for me.

I haven’t done it very often—the last time might have been my first GURPS campaign, in the 1990s, set in David Brin’s Uplift universe—but I’m pretty happy with my current fantasy campaign, which has seven humanoid races.

This account of herds makes me wonder about the evolution of lifespan in harem species. If males over a certain age don’t get to mate, they don’t get to pass on their genes. So any gene that makes for increased competitive success during the prime of life, at increased risks of ill health, lowered fitness, or death for older males, would seem to bring Darwinian benefits with little or no cost. Why are there any older males at all? Do they die off sharply in middle age? It seems as if they ought to have about the life expectancy of a salmon that has already swum upstream.

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The males have a reduced lifespan compared to the females. Here’s some data on reindeer, red deer and roe deer: deer life expectancy. They also reach sexual maturity much earlier than females. Live fast, die young.

In many deer it is complicated by the fact that antlers get bigger and more complicated as they get older. Bigger antlers with more points are both weapons and a signal to females that you are worth shagging. “Look at the size of my antlers and how easily I grew them. Your daughters will inherit these genes and will be able to grow and shed a big, bouncing baby!”

The other thing that older males (or very young males) get up to in red deer is kleptogyny - the sneaky fucker strategy. When big butch male A is busy beating the crap out of big butch male B, then wimpy male C tiptoes up, flutters his eyelashes at a hind and sneakily gets laid. It is a low risk, low gain strategy. There won’t be many fawns fathered this way compared to the fight winners, but it is something that those not able to win can attempt.

The dropping dead like a salmon strategy is only done by males of one mammal: the marsupial ‘mouse’, Antechinus.

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They must really feel like every other mammal is having an enormous laugh at their expense. “But we agreed! We were all gonna get tattoos and die after sex! You guys promised!”


I would have thought that would be called “kleptogamy.”

A lot of biologists don’t use “-gamy”, because they prefer to specify the sex of the mates, so use -gyny (female) or -andry (male) as the suffix.

Kleptogyny = stolen females
Polygyny = many females
Polyandry = many males
Polygynandry = many males and many females (e.g.lions)

Not using ‘polygamy’ in biological texts also helps to distinguish it from human marriage systems.

To a scholar of Greek, though, “kleptogyny” suggests that the females are stolen, not that matings are stolen. It suggests abduction.

I can see most of it, but it really doesn’t do the last. I’m accustomed to seeing Tibetans described as having traditionally practiced polyandry, for example, and I do see one husband/multiple wives describes as polygyny, though perhaps less often than as polygamy.