Checking Your Biases In Your World-Building

November 17, 2020

On a recent episode of Star Trek: Discovery, Captain Saru admonished Admiral Vance that the Discovery crew should be kept together. He did so by sharing the analogy of how Giotto’s use of three-point perspective helped lift the “world” from the Dark Ages and usher in the Renaissance. Never mind that, even now, most historians no longer consider Europe’s Middle Ages to be the Dark Ages. The fact that Saru characterized them as Earth’s Dark Ages and Renaissance betrays a clear bias on behalf of the show’s writers.

It was jarring to hear his character say something like that, especially considering that he’s a Kelpien from the planet Kaminar, and presumably would’ve only studied Earth’s history in Starfleet. It was also jarring when you think about the lengths the show has gone to in showing a more diverse, far less pale version of the future than we see in a lot of visual sci-fi entertainment.

It would’ve been a simple script change for Saru to talk about Europe’s Dark Ages instead of attributing them to the entire planet. It would’ve shown a less Euro-centric bias. Because, during the Dark Ages, the rest of the world was doing fine. China, India, the Islamic Empire, the Mayan Empire, and other large-scale civilizations were experiencing veritable golden ages while Europe was supposedly languishing. It’s those types of little details that can poke a plot-sized hole into an otherwise thoughtful attempt at world-building.

World-building in speculative fiction and fantasy is an excellent opportunity to examine your own biases. From Tolkienesque fantasy worlds to galaxy-spanning future civilizations, speculative fiction already has a prevalent, euro-centric bias. It’s familiar in its pervasiveness. When you’re creating a future world, think about your assumptions about how things ended up that way. If you’re developing a fantasy world, think about the real-world concepts you’re carrying over to it. Be open-minded about it. Suppose you base your future civilization on what’s happening today. In that case, your society will likely have strong Chinese and South Asian influences, given China and India’s strong tech-sectors and existing space programs. But also be mindful to avoid appropriative pitfalls, like Firefly’s heavily Chinese-influenced future, which included characters casually swearing in Mandarin, that somehow didn’t seem to have any major characters of Chinese descent.

Don’t be afraid to be different. Just because the European Middle Age societies were feudal, monotheistic patriarchies, doesn’t mean your fantasy world has to be the same way. Just because the US was the first nation to send people to the moon doesn’t mean they’ll be the first to establish a moonbase. But check your biases. Are your aliens, orcs, goblins, and trolls just stand-ins for non-white people? Are all of your space pioneers men, when recent research shows that women are generally better suited for space travel? Does your future egalitarian space empire still only have straight, white, cisgender characters?

There are a wealth of possibilities when it comes to world-building in speculative fiction and fantasy. Don’t limit yourself to just what’s familiar. And, if you include historical references in your far-future space odyssey, please do a little research first.