Fantastical worldbuilding seems to be the topic of the day, with WrittenWyrdd and Charles Gramlich both talking about it. They both made some good points and it got me thinking about something I've noticed here and there, especially in science fiction stories.
WW made the point that things are changing pretty quickly, and that someone who was born ninety years ago has seen a huge amount of change in his lifetime. That's very true and the rate of change has been increasing. And yet how often do SF books set in the far future, whether the setting is a future Earth or a planet colonized long ago, where the culture changed only so far and then stopped? It's as though the writer needed Setting X for the story, so they explained how it came to be that things changed from what we have now to what they've got then, and then it all froze and has remained static ever since.
A ship full of religious zealots who believe it's sinful to read on Wednesdays and that long pants are an abomination unto their god leave Earth to build the perfectly moral society. They find a nice planet, build their colony and ban reading on Wednesdays and all pants longer than the knee. A thousand years later when the story takes place, they're still religious zealots, they still don't read on Wednesdays and they still toss the protagonist in prison for wearing long pants.
Seriously? What's the likelihood that any culture stays that static for that long? Even assuming a static environment, which in itself is pretty far-fetched, this would be unbelievable. But on a newly colonized planet, where the people have to deal with alien plants and animals and geology and weather and who knows what other conditions, where any food stock they brought with them has to be adapted, where completely unforeseen dangers and problems and challenges will force them to adapt their habits and values and priorities in order to survive in this strange and possibly deadly place -- a thousand years later they're still rabidly anti-long-pants? Ummm, right. Sure.
The guy WW knows who just turned ninety has seen not only great technological changes, but also huge changes in attitudes and morals and values and priorities. The expectation of what's "normal" has changed several times since 1917, and society has adapted each time. Your average American in 2007 has a much different world view from that of your average American in 1917, or even 1957.
And if there's anything we know about large groups, it's that they're going to disagree. More than two people can't agree on where to go for lunch, much less on what government policy should be. Heinlein once said that a committee is a creature with six or more legs and no brain, and snark aside, I think he was pretty much on it.
So how is it that our entire religious society is still monolithically anti-long-pants after a thousand years? We're supposed to believe that every single generation grew up in absolute accord with the beliefs of their elders? They somehow completely eliminated teenage rebellion, and the desire of the young to be new and different just because? They eliminated the tendency toward factional divisions, and the really useful technique for an opposition party of proposing something different from what the party in power espouses, just to be different? They completely forbade all scientific and technological innovation, and are still using the technology their ancestors brought to the planet, since significant technological change always brings social change with it? (And yeah, in too many stories they still are using the same exact technology their ancestors were. [sigh])
Things just don't change once and then stop. Or if they did, then that's a major issue and big enough to dominate a book all by itself, explaining why and how. Realistically, though, human societies continue to evolve. Sometimes it's slower and sometimes it's faster but they always do change, and they keep changing, and then they change again. Writers who are developing new worlds for science fiction need to keep this in mind.
How did your society begin? What was the baseline? How and why did it change after that? What was the new baseline? Then what changed, and how and why? Then what changed? And then what changed? The farther in the future (or at least, the farther from your baseline) your story is set, the more change you need to work out, a whole series of changes which are all logical or at least believable. The readers might never see a lot of this info (but we're used to that, right? readers rarely see more than ten or twenty percent of our research and development no matter what genre we're writing in) but the writer needs to know it so that everything hangs together. And if the writer doesn't know how a civilization (or a character or an institution or whatever) got from point A to point Q, it'll show.
Charles talked about wanting to see the exotic in fiction, and the exotic is what makes SF -- and fantasy, and horror -- especially creative and memorable. But just as too many books don't show enough change, it's also too common to see what are presented as differences, as exotic and strange and weird, being just rehashes of our mainstream culture. If all a writer's familiar with is American culture, or Western Civilization, that's not a very large pool from which to draw, especially when you're looking for really basic characteristics of a society.
Take the economy. It's always just a given that there'll be some sort of even-exchange economy. Whether what's exchanged is money -- some sort of symbology representing work or production -- or whether the exchange is a direct bartering of goods and services for other services and goods, it's rare to find a future society, or even an alien society, which works any other way. And yet there are other ways of organizing things.
Families, for example, tend to run on true communism -- from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. If Mom is a programmer and makes $65K a year, then that's what she does and that's what she contributes to the family. If Dad is a wood carver and travels to craft fairs on weekends selling his nature carvings, and takes care of the house and looks after the kids during the week around time spent at his carving, then that's what he does. If Sam is fifteen and can cook dinner every night and do all the yard work and laundry for the family, then that's what he does. If Chrissy is five and puts away her toys and cleans the bathroom (sorta) once a week, then that's her contribution. No one expects Chrissy to eat less food or go without shoes just because she doesn't contribute much of anything to the upkeep of the family. No one expects Sam to grow up with crooked teeth just because braces are horribly expensive and his cooking and chores don't add up to "enough" to "repay" the family for that expenditure. This system works for just about all of us and yet hardly any future or alien societies use it.
But okay, that's communism and there's a knee-jerk negative response toward it in the US. There are other systems, though. The potlatch system awards status to people or families who give away a lot of stuff to others in the community. In that kind of society, the status and admiration is worth more than wealth, so people accumulate stuff just so they can give it away in exchange for status. And reciprocity is like barter but not so direct -- more a system where people do favors for each other, give things to people who need them and get things from other people. There's a general awareness of who's given you things or done favors but not the strict record keeping that a money economy has, or the right-now exchange of value for value that a barter system uses.
Most of these alternative systems work best for small groups, but SF writers are supposed to be imaginative and good at extrapolating. If a society got to, say, the classical period on a communistic or potlatch or reciprocal system of exchange (and the Roman Empire did have a bit of the potlatch about it, with the Senators spending a lot of their personal income on public works and facilities and celebrations, because it was expected of their class and they'd lose status and influence if they didn't) how could that be tinkered with to last through the Middle Ages? The Industrial Revolution? The Information Age?
What new systems -- economic, political, social -- might settlers on a new planet come up with? After all, they're starting fresh. They can do whatever they want. What new and different systems might they invent and try out? And then how might those systems change in a generation or three? A century or three? A millenium or three?
There are more options than are immediately obvious in the industrialized world. An anthropology class (or even a good text or two) is a great source for ideas and will give a writer some notion of just how many different ways people all over the planet have organized themselves. When writing aliens, or even human societies far enough away from ours, it pays to give them customs and institutions and social organizations different enough from ours that they actually feel alien, different, exotic. And once you've got that, keep in mind that the society will change over time. A society with a dynamic history behind it will always feel more realistic than one which has apparently been stuck in the same rut for the last fifty generations.
The exotic is all about change, though. Whether your society starts with "us" and then evolves away, or starts somewhere strange and different and then evolves to be even more strange and different, it's not an alien (or elven or nether plane) society if it sounds like it was lifted right out of Iowa.