Guest Post: How to Build Great Fictional Fantasy Cultures

I am beyond excited to turn my blog over to Kameron Hurley today! Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire (which I loved) and Empire Ascendant (out now–which I also loved) and the God’s War Trilogy (which is now in my TBR pile waiting to be loved). Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. Now she’s here to tell us about worldbuilding.

If you are tired of seeing the same pseudo-patriarchy, fake-medieval societies in your purported fantasy novels – fantasy! In which anything is possible! – then please raise your hand.

Yes? All right.

So was I. If you’re a writer who wants to build truly new and unique societies, it takes some work, I won’t lie. We’re all raised with certain expectations of how the world is and what it could be. One of the most insidious jobs of many governments is to scrub out anything from history that doesn’t support the idea that this particular government is the most natural, logical form of government and that all of our fits and starts led us here and we have reached the pinnacle of progress. Very rarely do we realize that social history is not progressive; it’s more like the Wheel of Time. Throughout history we’ve had far more progressive ideas about abortion, same-sex relationships, and a multiplicity of genders than we do today in the West. Not to mention radical ways of governing and organizing ourselves that don’t involve a few men decrying their word as law from atop a high mountain.

It’s worth mentioning this because even though we approach the writing of fantasy knowing that we can, in theory, do anything (because it’s fantasy!), we still encounter a lot of mental roadblocks on the way to making something truly unique. The voices bubble up, voices from critics, from peers, from less imaginative teachers – you can’t do that, that’s not OK, that’s not realistic, that’s silly, that’s wish-fulfillment, that’s crazy, that’s bad.

But I, for one, got into writing speculative fiction because I liked being silly, and crazy, and bad and not-OK, and I liked to fulfill wishes. I liked to push at the edges of things and see what happened.

So let’s start building something different.

Organizational Structure
When I’m building a new society I like to start very broadly with how each individual society organizes itself from the top down (if there’s a top at all), because this is going to bleed into the family structure, and then into the culture. If you have a hierarchy, who’s at the top? Priests and kings? Men? Women? Or are genderqueer folks in places of power? In fact, how many genders are there? (some Native American societies had four). In my Worldbreaker Saga, I have one country with three genders, where the relative power and authority of each gender goes: male, ataisa, and female. I have another with five genders where gender means nothing as far as power goes, but can mean something politically and influence how people organize themselves into political factions.

The reality is that humans have been around with brains like we have now for well over 100,000 years. If you think there’s a way we haven’t organized ourselves at some point, you are probably wrong; so it’s not that it’s never existed, just that we rarely see it. So hop to it.

Family Structure
How are your families constructed? Do multiple generations live under one roof? Is there

marriage? If yes, what’s the point of it all – love, cementing family alliances, politics, purely religious custom? What types of genders are allowed to get married? Is there a limit on number of spouses? How are the children raised?

One of the biggest issues I have with the creation of fantasy societies is figuring out what happens to the children in cultures where all the able-bodied folks of whatever gender are working outside the home. This is easily solved with multiple generations living under one roof – it makes sense for young and middle-aged people to go off and work in fields or join the army if there are generations at home to look after children. There is also, of course, the idea of communal childcare, which we definitely don’t see enough in fantasy. The two-parent household is a relatively recent Western invention. If you feel crazy trying to raise a child with just one other co-parent, well, you’re right to feel that way – it’s terribly unnatural and not something humans have typically done. Moving away from extended families in the rise of the industrial era has radically changed how we view what parenting looks like.

Customs and Extended Culture
This is where I see a lot of folks fall down. It’s all very well and good to create fabulous ways for people to organize, but we then have to follow that down the full length of the rabbit hole. How does the way we organize ourselves bleed out into all the other aspects of our society? I would argue that here in the United States, our emphasis on maintaining one’s position through violent patriarchal oppression carries over into all aspects of our society: gun violence, rape, brawls, abusive relationships, and more are all heavily influenced by the power structures within which they happen.

When I created a polyamorous pacifist society in my Worldbreaker Saga, I needed to explore how that would extend into how people interacted with one another. I created a consent based culture where the age of consent was 12. What that meant was that after the age of 12, it was illegal to touch a person without their consent unless they appeared to be in life-threatening distress or were harming someone else. There was no death penalty or corporeal punishment. If you did something moderately bad, you were shunned. Terribly bad and you were exiled.

These are the sorts of things we need to think about when constructing cultures. Every decision you make will impact another decision. This extends to magic, too.

I almost didn’t include this one, because to be honest, writers already spend more time constructing their magic systems than their cultures, but these things should be intertwined. How magic users are treated in each of the cultures I build depends heavily on what sort of place they come from.

So in my violent, hierarchical society where different families vie for the throne, all magic users are expected to become government assassins. Those not suited to it are still relegated to some form of government service. In my consent-based culture, they can run off and do as they like, but if they choose to do that and end up harming someone it’s exile for them, so isn’t it just easier to get training in one of the religious temples? Another society rounds up all their magic users and segregates them into camps, ensuring they are controlled in much the same way as the men in their culture are.

The Butterfly Effect
Finally, a note on the butterfly effect. You can’t change one thing about a culture and have everything else be the same as a 1950’s magazine ad. Oh, Ok, you can but it’s lazy and boring. Giving human beings magic, or putting them in a world full of sentient plants, or saying that polyamory is the law of the land, can’t be the only thing you change if you want a fully realized fictional world. If you want to create truly unique and interesting cultures, you have to follow the change throughout the inner workings of a society to its logical (or fantastic!) conclusion. Technology, childrearing, religious practices, work habits, the relationship (or not) between employees and employers – all of these should be considered when you’re building a world, and all of these things should inform and influence one another.

Because this really is what you’re doing: building a world from the ground up. And if it’s meant to be a fantastic world, shouldn’t it be at least as interesting and complex as our own?



Amazon | Goodreads

FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Notes on Diversity:
As with The Mirror Empire, a huge and deliberate amount of diversity is on display in Empire Ascendant. The second installment in the Worldbreaker Saga digs deeper into the explorations and subversions of power and marginalization that were introduced in the first book. For example, more is revealed, very deftly, about the way gender and sexuality function in Dhai Prime vs. Mirror Dhai vs. Saiduan. Issues of dis/ability dig in deeper and deeper, especially in Lilia Sona’s storyline.

While The Mirror Empire was almost exclusively populated by brown people, Empire Ascendant introduced characters I, at least, read as white (in Tordin). The focus remained very strongly on brown voices still in Empire Ascendant.

It took me forever to write this review because this book sat like a stone in my heart.

Kameron Hurley warned us all on twitter that Terrible Things would befall the characters introduced in The Mirror Empire, and she did not lie. But she also didn’t give the whole truth. Empire Ascendant is a deeply complicated book. Yes, it is dark and brutal. But it is also almost bizarrely hopeful. It has these hopeful moments, these moments of hidden triumph, that made the book work for me.

I confess I typically struggle with second-books-in-trilogies. I think, in many ways, Empire Ascendant suffers from what I can only think of as Two Towers syndrome: after doing such a beautiful job pulling together so many disparate stories in the first volume, Empire Ascendant (like Two Towers) then splits those narratives apart. The story fractures again; the driving force of the book is not ‘how are these threads connected?’ as in The Mirror Empire but ‘what happens now that we know that they are connected?’

As a reader who gloms onto characters more than onto plot, these in-between novels are often difficult for me. I am guessing that Empire Ascendant fits well into the overall arc of the Worldbreaker Saga, but the long breaks from one narrative thread to the other left me wondering and drifting a little as a reader. That said, the book still worked for me because in every thread I was invested. In every thread, I still cared about the narrative.1

I’m trying to write this review without spoilers, so I’ll speak now in generalities about things I wish I could dissect in much greater nuance and specificity. The book delves deeper and personalizes the Tai Mora in ways I loved. Empire Ascendant complicated relationships I thought were stable from the first book and stabilized relationships I thought would never work from The Mirror Empire. Many Terrible Things happen. Many decent people are forced into making brutal and vicious decisions because this is a time of war and invasion.2

But healing happens, too. Oh, god, how I wish I could talk about spoilers here because I want to talk about some the the healing arcs in this book so badly. About how one character’s arc so beautifully mirrors something from the first book and in such an unexpected way. About how a character I’ve been rooting for since the beginning gets something–finally–that they deserve, even as the world seems to fall down around them. About the secret kindness delivered to one character that I hoped for but did not think was going to happen, but did. About how one character, when it seems like the entire world has beaten them, rises again: fierce, vicious, brilliant as ever. Self-destructive and walking a knife’s edge, and precisely, exactly what is needed in that moment in that place–and, again, mirroring someone else’s arc in very clever, very subtle ways.

There is much brutality in Empire Ascendant–and portals, and wastelands, and bizarre murderous alien bug creatures, and Bad Plants–but there is gentleness, too. And regrowth. And small moments of justice that very well could lead to larger moments of justice.

Oma is the star of change. Change is a brutal force–brutal, but, at heart, ambivalent.

5 stars

1I rarely do this–partly to keep from influencing my own reactions to books, and partly because usually I don’t sit with a book so long before writing a review of it–but I read a couple of other people’s reviews of Empire Ascendant to get the juices flowing before actually writing my own. Some people have had trouble, it seems, connecting with the core plot, or character’s motivations for doing what they do in service of it. I have not had that problem.

At Sirens last week, I gushed over Mirror Empire and listened to other people’s critiques of it. And again, those critiques (that it’s full of terrible people, that it’s not a particularly realistic of portrayal of genocide) are valid. Other people bounce off books I don’t.

These books treat me, as a queer and genderqueer reader with disabilities, with so much respect that I am, frankly, so hungry for them that I am, I think, taking them utterly on their own terms. I fell in love with The Mirror Empire because I felt seen by it, recognized by it, like I could exist in that world with a fullness that is unavailable to me in this one, and I engaged with that book at a deep level because of that. My devotion in no way waned while reading Empire Ascendant. I drank both books in like a man dying of thirst drinks water. I can recite the intricacies of the plot to you in my sleep.

2One critique of The Mirror Empire I’ve heard that I don’t fully agree with is that the book is about bad people doing bad things. I think, actually, the books are about mostly decent (and/or deeply broken and complicated people) doing fucked up things they have to do in order to survive. That’s different than, say, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, who truly is a Bad Person doing Bad Things because he is Bad (until the ending or whatever). But, you know, YMMV.

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Notes on Diversity:
If you’re looking for an epic fantasy that takes diversity seriously, this book fits the bill. Hurley writes across an entire planet, and unlike many writers who do so, she writes most of the planet as people of color. A handful of arguably white people pop up, but the majority of the cast is Black or brown–and I read all of the POV characters as people of color. Contributing to that complexity is that two of the POV characters were mixed-race and dealt with the complicated responses to their biracial identity that society reflected back to them.

But that’s not all! One society (Dhai) had a five gender system which emphasized choice; that is, gender was not ascribed to individuals, but instead individuals adopted pronouns and genders as they saw fit. Another culture (Saiduan) had a three gender system with specific pronouns for individuals who did not fit within the binary1; there was less choice presented here, but it was still amazing to see these things called out. It is a rare gem of a book to see alternate genders presented with grace and nuance like this and I, as a genderqueer reader, felt for once like I was actually acknowledged.

Queer sexuality is normal and accepted. Non-monogamous relationships are similarly normal and accepted by at least the Dhai culture.

AND (and!) the arguably most important character in the book has multiple physical disabilities which are never wiped away and which are treated with respect.

Seriously, diversity is firing on all cylinders here.

I loved this book. It’s a wonderful book. Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is essentially what I wanted Game of Thrones to be: it’s a truly epic fantasy which grapples with fraught ethical questions while immersing me in a meticulously built out world of wonder. But where Game of Thrones was full of White men and rape and ponderous descriptions of what people were eating, The Mirror Empire was full of brown women and consent2 and really good dialogue.

Like Game of Thrones, The Mirror Empire follows multiple POVs, but nearly all of these characters are women and I read all of them as people of color. They are strewn across the world, and slowly their stories intersect as it becomes clear that their entire world is beset by a force from without, brought to bear by an ascendant star and the magical forces that star brings. It’s a convoluted narrative, and if there’s anything to fault the book for it’s that the book races forward and trusts the reader to follow. But I followed. I didn’t have any troubled keeping pace.

The Mirror Empire is notable for so many reasons. It has entire societies led by women, and they are not peaceful, loving societies. It has unabashedly ugly women in it who are not punished for being ugly. It has fat women in it, and their fatness doesn’t matter. Hurley deconstructs so many things in this book it’s impossible to touch on them all in this review without spoiling the book itself, but suffice to say she slices the idea that women are inherently more gentle or nurturing to ribbons in the case Zezilli. She destroys the idea that people with disabilities are fragile and incompetent with Lilia–while adamantly maintaining that those disabilities should be accommodated.

The book serves as the beginning of the Worldbreaker Saga, and it’s a beautiful start. The ending leaves a number of questions open, and I’m dying to find out what happens in Empire Ascendant.

Honestly, this was a book I was waiting to read, and I didn’t even know it. It’s a long story shot through with gender weirdness, questions about autonomy, obligation, and redemption. It’s a challenging story full of challenging characters, and I highly recommend it.

5 stars
1In Saiduan, it seemed implied that this third gender category was fixed and assigned to intersex individuals.
2Dhai culture, especially, is focused on issues of consent. Casually touching another person without verbal consent given is a taboo. I loved this. Loved it. I wish we had this in our culture.

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