Stepping outside yourself

One of the harder things to do when writing science fiction, or any genre that is not set in the present is to step outside your own biases, to create characters who are very different from you.
This sounds both obvious and simple but it is neither.

For example, I am an American, I like to think the best of my country, its people and our government. I can’t however allow that to mean that I make American’s in my story angels. Nor can I allow the opposite, for a people I dislike to be nothing but demons, caricatures without depth.

You have to allow groups who you like to sometimes be evil, and to have dishonorable members. Just as you have to allow the opposite. There were good and honorable men even in the Nazi party after all.

In one of my first drafts, it was only the US who had any real presence when the first colonies started to launch off planet. I realized that that made no sense. I might like the idea of the US getting into space and acting with honor but given the huge economic motivations, that would hardly have been realistic.

Even those things that you may think are inherently part of the human condition may not be. Make sure to know the difference between culture and biology.

Loving your children
The sad fact is that if you go back far enough in most societies people routinely abused their children, including leaving them to die by exposure if they were unwanted (ancient Greeks for one example). The idea that parents do or should love their children unconditionally is part of our culture, not part of human biology.

America had laws to protect animals from abuse before we had laws to protect children. A major case against child abuse was won by an animal rights lawyer arguing that children are mammals and at least deserve the same rights that animals have (Mary Ellen Wilson in 1870’s).

Romantic love
Marriage originally was a simple trade. The women agrees to provide her limited ability to have children, the man agrees to use his superior strength and endurance to provide for her. While obviously wives did more then just give birth, that is the only thing they did that only they could do. Everything else they did a man could do. Some of the things he could even do better (hard physical labor).

Love was not a factor. Love became embedding in the culture of the west during the middle ages somewhere around the end of the 11th century. If you look at literature before the 11th century romance as we would define it today is rare to nonexistent.

Even in other modern countries love is not seen the same way it is here. After all, you can hardly have both massive numbers of arranged marriages and a belief that love is what matters most in a relationship.

Tribalism is the feeling of belonging to a larger group, and of the feeling of not belonging to others.

While it might be easy for me to think of everyone being part of a nation that is not the case. It is not unusual for a people to think of themselves first, their family second their village a distant third, and their nation not at all.

In fact, seeing anyone beyond your family and tribe as being “one of you” is a relatively new development in human history.

Making your own way in life
It is a very common theme in both our media and our culture that you should go your own way. Walk the less traveled path. While that is an important part of our culture there are cultures where the opposite is true. There are cultures who are more collectivist then ours, such as most Asian cultures.

The Family Unit

The family unit is the first and most basic part of any society, upon it rests everything else. It is therefore of vital importance to understand how the family’s of a society function to understand the society.
As always, never assume that the way things work for you is how they work everywhere, nor how they will work in the future.

The first thing to think about is where the society draws the line on what the family is allowed to do. Some have almost no limits, the parents or guardians can do anything they want including abuse. Others might see children as a trust that must be raised with the correct morals or they will be taken away with little due process.

The purpose of the family unit is to raise productive children and to produce and protect wealth. While there are certainly going to be exceptions to this as a rule families tend to be shaped to do both of the functions as best they can.

Think about the average lifespan of your populace, if it’s short enough then often you won’t have parents raise their kids to adulthood. It will have to be someone else. This was true of America if you go back to pre-victorian times. It was common to see older siblings and one or two step parents raise children.

While it rarely comes up you also must think about the gender mix. You might start to see family mixes that differ from what we would consider normal if there are many of one gender. This happening over one generation is not unusual. Whenever you have a big war, a large number of men die but you rarely see even a small dip in the number of women. Because it is temporary normally, by the next generation nothing changes.
That does not always have to be the case. If you had a very large difference, something like 10:1 then you could start to see different types of families pop up. It would have to be something that lasted a couple generations but it could change what they consider to be the normal family.

For example in The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein (can’t recommend this book enough) the moon is a penal colony, mostly political prisoners. The first several generations are mostly men, like 1:9 or worse. This means that most family’s have more multiple husbands per wife. This has echo’s everywhere in their culture, as it should (you really don’t want to assault a women on Luna).

However there is the second point, economic. The second purpose of a family is to create and protect wealth. If life becomes hard enough you could start to see love and romance start to mean less when looking at spouses. You could even see group marriages start from this basis.
If the average person had to work fifty or sixty hours a week just for a sustenance living, with no time to raise kids, a three way marriage might start to look good. Two people work full time, one works part time and takes care of the kids.

One last thought. Just because the desire to reproduce is part of the human condition does not mean its not a choice. There are reasons developed countries can have very low birthrates. While you can look up untold papers on why this is the case it all really comes down to incentives and costs (not just money).
Think about what the average person values, then think about what is given up when you have children. If the cost is too high then you will have a smaller birthrate. In Japan and South Korea the birth rate is very low right now, to the point of causing major economic problems down the road.

The family unit is so basic to the human experience that its a good way to make it clear that a people are different. Changing it is a good way of showing a people are human but very much not American or Chinese ect.
For example what if you started a book off with your main character meeting with his family. Except he had three parents, his two fathers being business partners who worked well together but did not really like each other. Then you say that was normal, and mention how few women there are.


Taboos are an important part of any culture. Along with many other things you need to understand what purpose they serve if you are going to make cultures whole cloth or alter existing ones.

Google defines a taboo as:

a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

Many people also would add that taboos are irrational by definition, they are something that you don’t do mostly because it just is not done.

While taboos are perpetuated by social pressure and conditioning, it does not mean that they do not serve a purpose. Any taboo you care to mention is reinforced by something, often by several things at once.

For example nudity, in most of the world clothing is needed, it is rare to find a place where you could consistently go months without clothing. That feeds into taboo’s against incest.
The most likely reason you see someone naked is sexual, the two things become linked. Given that you would hardly want to be out and about with your sister when she is naked.

This leads to incest. While the obvious reason against it is inbreeding, that is not the only reason it is a taboo. If you look at cultures where it is less of a taboo you see problems arise where fathers and mothers see their children, and younger family as sexual beings and take advantage. The parent/child relationship dynamic is very different then that between romantic peers. When you mix them you get problems. Such problems are one of the reasons why incest has been a taboo for hundreds of years in the west.

All that stated, the salient thing to remember is that taboos are a large part of any culture, and need to be taken into account.
If you were going to have a culture where nudity was not a taboo, and it was normal to be out and about with your family while not wearing anything, you need to think about changing the causes of the taboo and maybe even think about things to work in opposition to it.

For example one of the societies in my novel, Liang, lives almost entirely on habitats. They of course are climate controlled, geting rid of one of the reasons for clothing taboo.
They also had a very hard first generation, They had to work everyone who could all day every day just to feed themselves. Using resources for clothing was not seen as important. After that, those in charge came to see clothing as a status symbol and started to discourage its use by the lower classes.

While taboos may have a rational basis, that is not how they are normally enforced. Taboos are often emotional, it just “feels” wrong. People will enforce them even if many of them have no idea the underlying reasons they exist.
I think most people would agree for example that, Pedophilia is taboo for a very good reason. However that does not mean that the rules and laws against it always make sense. People have taken naked pictures of themselves when they were kids then been arrested for it when they were adults because they had pictures of naked minors (themselves).

Rationally those actions make no sense. However taboos are emotionally enforced, so their enforcing does not always make logical sense.

Taboos are emergent, and if you are setting a story far in the future you need to think about new taboos, they can indeed be a good source for drama.

It may be tempting as a writer to make something a taboo as an easy way out, to make something be seen as wrong without having to think of a good reason for it to be wrong. You can not do that, you must think about it and plot out why it exists for it to be believable.


When creating societies one of the most important things is to think about the basic assumptions it runs on, and to make sure that I am not just projecting the way we do things here and now as the only way to do things.

Like every other element of cultures what adolescence means changes, from one generation to the next with massive ramifications.

For most of human history the concept of adolescence as we know it did not exist. You were a man or women as soon as you could do the work of an adult, before which you were taught by helping the adults.
In several societies there was some kind of test or rite where you entered adulthood. In some cases it was just recognizing you. In others it was a full on test to see if you were ready to take the responsibilities of being a full member of society.

Remember that when you set an age and call anyone below that a child and anyone over an adult you are making a generalization. Some below that number are going to be ready and will only be held back, some older are not ready and won’t be for years. Your picking a spot in a field of gray and calling one side white and one side black.
We do it because there is no other way to do it, at least that we will accept.
However just because we do it that way does not mean that is the way it always will have to be done. And of course even if our way is the best way that does not mean that someone in the future will or will not get it wrong.

Even from nations that could trace themselves to us there are several reasons the idea of adulthood would change.
The basic idea of people having to be younger or older to be adults is something that even in far future sci-fi you rarely see, which is a shame. Not to say that every reason it would change would be good of course.

The most obvious reason is that more work is needed to keep things running and the life expectancy is lower. If a society is on the verge of starvation they might not be able to afford to keep people who are physically and mentally capable of helping from doing so.
In a sci-fi setting this could mean anything from farming to crawling along the inner hull dragging wires behind you.
What if you lived on an asteroid and had to be self-sufficient? It could easily take almost all the manpower of everyone just to stay alive. On earth a great many things are provided for free: lack of radiation, air, gravity to name a few. If you had to fight to get all of those, and everyone had to pull some shifts getting dosed with radiation they might not often live past 35.
What might it be like to dock and encounter a sixteen year old cargo master who is directing people a few years younger then him to move cargo around?
It might be easy to have it set up with a few assholes in charge but it needant be that way. You could have them even proud of what they have done and what they are building. How would sixteen year old act if they were considered adults and had been for years? If they were trusted with the lives of others and trusted others with their lives?

One of the practical reasons for adulthood being 20ish is education, it takes until 18 or so to get through high school in the US, and can take four years or longer to get a collage degree.
A large part of the reason for this is because it is regimented, for the most part everyone goes through it at the same pace. This leads to inefficiencies. Ones that might not exist in the future.
One example would be if you had a computer that taught people with the skill and efficiency of a twenty four hour tutor who was an expert on everything. How fast might you progress? Could you have people five years ahead of where they would be now? If so how would that effect when they are considered adults?
One almost cliche answer is to download knowledge into peoples heads, after all a very large amount of what doctors and lawyers do in school is memorize. If you did not have to do that how fast might you be able to start working?
What would you do if you were sixteen and had all the education you needed to do your job? Would you be happy just sitting around or would you want to go out and start your adult life?

Teenage rebellion and outbursts are commonly a source of problems, and while most of the attempts to deal with it impose restrictions, what if a people did the opposite? What if they decided that you were given any adults rights you wanted but you had to earn them?
What if there were exit tests as the sole arbiter of exiting high school, tests that you had a right to take at any time.
Maybe even requiring people to hold a job for so long.
This of course could turn very bad, imagine if people set out with the best intentions and placed tests to become adults in the eyes of the law, each stage granting you more rights and responsibilities.
What if it were undermined, made harder and harder to the point of impossibility. What kind of problems would that cause? Would you have a de facto caste system spring up almost over the course of a generation? People who can’t pass a test so they can’t own property or travel freely?