I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.
I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.
Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.
I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.
The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?
Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.
“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.