Like any genre, science fiction and fantasy have their share of cliches and lazy shortcuts taken by creators who haven’t thought through their universes and the people who occupy them. One of the best known staples is where an entire world, usually one that supposedly supports human life in a near-shirtsleeves environment, has its surface completely covered by a single type of terrain. Star Wars is famous for this of course – the “Forest moon of Endor”, the desert planet Tatooine, the swamp world of Dagobah. But George Lucas isn’t to blame for this trope; they appeared in science fiction long before he came on the scene. I’m sure writers have a variety of reasons for coming up with them, such as being deliberately silly in the mode John Scalzi used in Redshirts. But if one is striving for something plausible, you need to put at least some minimal effort into world-building.
A similar shortcut which has come to bother me more and more in recent years is that of treating entire societies or populations as monolithic constructs. Now this way can lie some perilous ground, so I’ll say up front that I’m not talking about obviously racist drek such as we’ve seen through much of human history, impugning negative characteristics upon those not of the same ethnicity, religion or caste as oneself.
Rather, I’m talking about the notion that one can have an entire race composed of nothing but “noble warriors”, which seems to be the most common. Or dedicated scholars. Or ruthless traders. Or… the list goes on.
Now, perhaps this will in fact be the case in some sort of truly alien socieity. But what experience teaches us – or should – is that socieites are made up of individuals, and that those individuals, and subsets of the larger population, are going to have differences of belief and of experience that are going to result in differences in attitudes, in customs, in outlook.
Sure, broad similarities are possible and sometimes have bear out in the real word. Just within the United States alone we have the uptight East Coast versus the more laid-back West Coast. Miami has a completely different pulse and vibe than Orlando. The differences in things considered “normal” by my wife’s family in south-central Pennsylvania and by mine in central Maryland, barely 100 miles apart, are sometimes surprising.
Big populations, societies numbering in the billions or trillions, make these kind of silly shortcuts even more problematic. If we see so much variation among smaller groups in our daily lives, how can one make those kind of sweeping generalizations about whole species? And that’s before you get into the acutal needs for individuals to to fulfill all the myriad functions which an actual functional society requires. Who takes out the trash in your noble warrior race? Who cleans the toilets? Who builds their houses, heals their wounds, drives their busses? Clearly, all those people filling those roles are going to have different motivations, different views of what is important and what is not.
And yes, some cultures are going to prize some attitudes and features more so than others, and some cultures are going to enforce their norms with more rigidity than others. But again looking to actual human experience, these tend to be cultures which are more closed, less engaged with the world or with those from outside their culture. This is as true of the Japanese as the Amish. But even here, we find exceptions.
So if you’re going to try and sell me on a story, or a fictional background for a game universe, and you pull out these hoary old cliches, you’d better have something else up your sleeve to compel me to pay attention. Because for good or ill, I’m going to judge your work, and in this case, I’m going to find it wanting.