BUT MY WORLD IS COMPLETELY TOTALITARIAN — or how to create real worlds

Okay, so now you have real characters, you need to put them in real worlds.  A lot of this is questioning your assumptions.

We all know about questioning your PHYSICAL assumptions. If you don’t know about it, please go and read about the geological past of the Earth.  There might be such a thing as “tropical planet” — in the real warm cycles, most of the earth was sort of warm, and the colder areas were temperate — but the Earth has never been a ball of ice, while inhabitted by humans.  There will always be warmer zones.  Water planets… I don’t know.  I suppose doable, but again, in general, no world is the same thing all over.  Remember that.

Which brings us to the important part: no world is the same thing all over.

And here I must confess The Brave and The Free (which I’ll really finish this year) is set in a totalitarian Earth, but since most humans have gone to space, the POPULATION of that Earth is about that of a small European country.  Maybe ten million.

The fact is that 1984 was never very believable.  If you want to imagine how not, drop JUST ONE individualist and resourceful character in there, and watch it shatter.  It only works because the main character is a depressive like the author, and all the other characters are reflections.

This was the biggest flaw with the “one world governments” of the golden age.  They had no clue how different other cultures were.  They THOUGHT they’d remade Japan and Germany and could do it to everyone.  (It wasn’t as advertised after all.)

So, first check for characters.  Remember if you have a whole world, you’ll have cultures and people who are nothing like yours and you.  Then examine it for “it’s all the same thing.”  Heinlein did this well in If This Goes On, in which Mexico — MEXICO — is a haven of freedom, even as the US loses its mind.  At that, I think he was too… optimistic? Pessimistic? about the US being all the same thing.  It’s never that way, and there would be regions were deviationists were the majority.

Look, the USSR was UNDONE by typewriters.  Not even photocopiers.  Typewriters.  Anything with more tech than that, will have trouble with the “wholly totalitarian” unless there’s a biological or cultural reason.  (China tends more towards the totalitarian than anywhere in the west, because of long and brutal history and the culture that shaped itself to it.)

If you absolutely must have totalitarianism over an ENTIRE area, please make it short time or give us extraordinary reasons for it.

Okay.  I need more coffee.

Next week: hanging a lantern on it.


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31 responses to “BUT MY WORLD IS COMPLETELY TOTALITARIAN — or how to create real worlds

  1. Sara the Red

    I love Star Wars, I really do. (it’s such a fun sandbox.) But the single-ecosystem trope of Star Wars drives me INSANE. And this is me, with my art degree, and little more than a nodding acquaintance with biology.

    Single-culture aliens in scifi–be it movies, books, or games–also drive me nuts. I appreciate when they attempt to hand out a plausible reason for why this is so, but it rarely works. (Babylon 5 did better than many, in this respect, but it was still a big suspension-of-disbelief pill to swallow.) I mean, I know *why* it happens–it’s easier to write a planet-of-hats than to sit down and come up with a detailed socio-economic-biological history of an alien species, and heaven knows I’m guilty of it myself…but still! 😀

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      I can see “Single-culture aliens” resulting from one major culture on the alien home-world conquering and holding control for a long period of time prior to the aliens reaching the stars.

      But even there, there would develop “sub-cultures” over time & distance.

      Note, one of my alien species thinks of themselves as a “single culture” but are basically three separate cultures that aren’t violently at war.

      • Might happen with relatively small populations. Most of early Star Trek seemed to have alien cultures which mostly had about one city, if that, on their planet, or a few small villages or whatever, and the rest was presumably wilderness since no mention was ever made of the weirdoes on the other side of the sea or forest or mountain range. So a bit more believable, I guess (unless you start thinking about issues like inbreeding, most of those populations seemed way too small to stay healthy for very long).

        Star Wars on the other hand – they do have planets covered with one city and so on. And the hopping from one planet to another in what seems like mere hours, if that, is thoroughly annoying, makes the universe seem very constricted, to the point where I almost start getting somewhat claustrophobic (I am, somewhat, but that requires something like a space I’d have to crawl in and I am normally perfectly okay in places like larger caves or elevators or whatever).

        At least the very first movie seemed to give a tad more space to its world and worlds, Tatooine almost seemed like a planet instead somebody’s back yard (if you forget the implausibility of a livable planet that is all just desert, with no excuses as to where the oxygen and so on come from. Okay, Dune of course, but I think that story at least had some of those excuses given) and travel from there to destroyed Alderaan at least seemed to take a few hours, or maybe even day or two. But anything after that… ugh. And I loved the first trilogy.

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          At least Trek has the Vulcans/Romulans who are one species with two cultures. They really should do that more often. I suppose it’s easier for the writers and production, though.

          • The novels actually expand a bit better on those. There are actually multiple cultures in the Klingon and Romulan empires, but because the general ones you tend to have interactions with are the powerful Military or Political branches of government, you don’t get much chance to see or interact with the farmers or scientists or musicians. One would imagine that the ‘It’s a good day to die’ mindset doesn’t really hold that much water with the nonmilitary folk.

        • That’s one thing that Firefly got very, very right. It was a complex solar system, not a galaxy—the actual system is a trinary star system (and geeks have figured out the orbital mechanics of everything!) with two principle stars that give warmth and a third—the Blue Sun—that is just another gravity well. Add in the “dozens of planets and hundreds of moons” and terraforming and the only real gripes are the consistent gravity and lighting. (And how that affects plants, but c’mon, you can’t ask too much of a TV Western.)

    • Driving cross-country, I was struck by all the things that were the same vs the minor differences. But North America is basically colonized, with the cultures of major players winnowing down to one with additions and mixes. The result was that over a distance greater than the length of Europe, it wasn’t very “alien.” But if you drive that same distance in Europe, you’ll find not only a different culture, but a different dominate language.

      So if a planet is colonized, I have no problem with what is essentially slight variations on a monoculture. The homeworld, though, would probably be like the Old World, with all sorts of cultures and languages.

  2. Ah Ha! Found it. The physical worldbuilding blog: https://madgeniusclub.com/2016/02/19/world-building-for-science-fiction/

    Cultures are harder. They can get so very odd. But on the other hand, fast global travel and communications can hide a whole lot of differences behind a facade of . . . dominant culture.

    I’m just back from Taiwan, and I have to say that Taipei wasn’t nearly as foreign as I expected. Somewhere around 90% of the signs had an English version below the Chinese. The cars were all familiar models, the subways were more complex than the BART I loved when I worked in San Francisco, but easily learned. MacDonalds were common and popular, 7-11’s everywhere . . . and then just as you feel right at home your son hauls you through dark nighttime streets in a poor part of town . . . and you feel perfectly safe.

    And the local park is bustling, with people walking their dogs and tai chi classes. At night. Not a cop in sight. Then he says “try this” and you’re eating grass jelly. The fine arts college has a huge stone carving division of the art department. You just keep tripping over stuff you don’t expect. And that’s in a very westernized part of the world.

    Drop me someplace even more remote from western influence and I would have to look to find the “foreign.” Even different historical periods in the West would have different mindsets, different expectations.

    Without the global communications, worlds will be especially variable. I shudder to think how I would have ever found my way around the subway without the English subtitles and announcements in four languages.

    • Congrats on a successful trip.

      Your experience in Taipei pretty well mirrors mine (and ditto for Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong – though HK is even easier for English speakers).

      I had no more trouble getting around any of them than I did when I visited Serbia a few years back (signs in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets) – that is, I can’t read signs using Cyrillic lettering any more than I can the Asian languages. But there’s enough familiar (and enough written in the Latin alphabet) that it’s easy to cope.

      Mind you, most mainland Chinese cities are at least a bit less familiar. But even so, it’s generally do-able.

      • TRX

        I once had a decent beginner’s grip on Japanese, at least the katakana and basic hiragana. But for some reason the Cyrillic alphabet stops me cold. For that matter, so do the various Germanic Fraktur fonts…

        • Robin Munn

          Best guess is because it’s too similar to the alphabet you know. Katakana and hiragana are completely different, so it’s just a matter of learning that (for example) の is pronounced “no”, and so on. There’s a whole set of new symbols to learn, but there’s no brain retraining involved.

          But with the Cyrillic alphabet, some letters are familiar — the one that looks like M is pronounced like English M, and the one that looks like T is pronounced like English T. But that lures you into thinking that all the familiar letters are pronounced like the Latin letters they look like, which is wrong. The Cyrillic letter that looks like Latin H is pronounced like N, the one that looks like Latin P is pronounced like a trilled R, and the one that looks like Latin C is pronounced like S. And when you hit those, your brain goes, “Wait, what? Error — cheese not found. Redo from start.”

          So I’m not surprised that the Cyrillic alphabet would be harder to learn than Japanese.

          • Robin Munn

            That second sentence should have been “… are completely different from the English alphabet.” Hope it was clear nonetheless.

    • *laughing* I remember my OJT in South Korea; the Incheon area had signs in English, Japanese and Korean; but the only way we were able to do any communication was a weird mix of Japanese and English. That was years ago though; so hopefully they’ve gotten better.

  3. The fact is that 1984 was never very believable. If you want to imagine how not, drop JUST ONE individualist and resourceful character in there, and watch it shatter.

    There were resourceful individualists in Russia in 1917, and at all times thereafter. Nothing was shattered until 1991, except the skulls of the individualists. (Bullets tend to have that effect.)

    Remember, the bulk of 1984 was not science fiction, but straight reportage. When the book was circulated via samizdat behind the Iron Curtain, thousands of readers had the exact same reaction: ‘How did Orwell know?’

    The part that was not reportage was partly a warning (yes, this can happen here if you let it), and partly a satire on the then popular ideas of James Burnham. It was Burnham who predicted that the world would be divided up into three ‘managerial’ (i.e. totalitarian) super-states; though he kept changing his mind about which three countries would serve as the nuclei. When the Axis powers seemed to be winning World War II, he bet on the U.S.A., Germany, and Japan. By 1944 he had switched to the U.S.A., Russia, and China.

    Nobody at that time was predicting that the Western powers would voluntarily abandon their colonial possessions and throw half of the world’s population upon the tender mercies of their local kleptocrats. Orwell wrote that ‘independence’ in the modern world meant the ability to mass-produce aeroplanes, and that (as of 1944) there were only five genuinely independent powers in the world. You can hardly blame him for assuming that those five powers would hold on to the territories under their rule.

    • Joe in PNG

      The Soviet Union was pretty much the reign of Tsar Alexander III turned up to 11. The Russians were, in a strange way, comfortable with tyranny, like a gal who keeps hooking up with abusive men.

  4. Writing totalitarian states: just ask “What would Hillary do?”

  5. Albert

    For a totalitarian world, it probably needs to be a low-population backwater.

    Assuming FTL(which I hear doesn’t even get counted as your unicorn, most of the time), and given that the opportunity cost of raising children _well_ will rise as technology makes skilled labor more and more valuable, we can assume slow population growth.

    If we posit security locks on technology that can defeat quantum decryption, then backwaters can develop when a small group on a settled planet holds all the licenses for fabbing technology.

  6. (Raising hand to the Professora…) Is it not possible, however, that the only part of the culture that your characters are interacting with are the totalitarians and those comfortable with the situation?

    • Yes, of course. But you might want to give a hint things are different elsewhere, even if your character doesn’t believe it.

      • Question: Doesn’t the very things we associate with totalitarian governments indicate that not everyone is happy and the efforts at control isn’t completely successful?

        Fiction-wise, since stories depend on conflict, doesn’t that mean there has to be some element of resistance in a fictional totalitarian government?

        I’ve had one totalitarian government story that wasn’t obviously totalitarian until you thought about what was required to set up the character’s predicament. There was mention of a resistance group that the characters never meet, but only to produce the situation in the story.

        Here’s a nasty thought: A totalitarian government completely run by the bureaucrats. They deliberately trigger periodic revolts, and sometimes a complete overthrow of rulers, but since they’re not high level, they survive these changes with only some short term inconvenience. The malcontents do not trouble them in the least, since they have perpetual jobs regardless of who’s in power.

        Less nasty thought: A situation where resources are really cut to the bone and they turn to totalitarianism as a survival mechanism. This would be in a hostile environment, where even air is in short supply. Here there’s the idea that everyone must “know their place” for the survival of all. My guess is there wouldn’t need to be a secret police: the people would enforce it themselves out of the conviction that if they didn’t, they all would die.

        • Felix J. Torres

          Survivors of a crash landing on a hostile world.
          Or of a “just far enough” supernova. 😉
          Wrath of Kahn comes to mind.

      • Hmmm. Cogitating. Okay, I actually have put in that the totalitarians do have internal opposition – but it comes a fair bit later, only after the control is beginning to slip a bit.

        Thing is, in fully totalitarian governments, you have to search for the contrarians. And have some luck in finding them, since the ones that stay alive stay well under the radar.

        Actually, even in far more liberal governments, especially for outsiders. I’m thinking of the DC Beltway – I would be willing to bet that just about every member of the Diplomatic Corps was telling their home office that “Of course, Hillary Clinton is going to win. That is the way things work here in the USA.”

  7. It’s interesting to consider Weber’s Safehold series here. In his case, the planet started out with everyone being mindwashed, there’s a ruling church backed with significant force to keep everyone on track, and still… people have managed to break free and create various cultures. Oh, the 1000 year old independent wizard doesn’t hurt, but… by and large, even with this forced unity, things have broken down. Wouldn’t be much of a story without the rebellion, of course, but…