Worldbuilding: Cultural Perception Filters

My current worldbulding/research read is “Spice: The History of a Temptation” by Jack Turner.  It’s a fascinating look at how the search for spices drove European exploration, as most of what we consider “spices” come from India and the Orient.  (This may also be a factor in why most Asian civilizations, while as technologically advanced as Europe, were not as interested in exploration: they already had the spices Europe was seeking out.) 

But something that captured my attention was this bit regarding Vasco de Gama’s first voyage to India:

In his report to the king, de Gama painted a somewhat distorted picture.  Even now he was convinced that Hinduism was a heretical form of Christianity. After two months in the country, he seems to have concluded that the unmistakable polytheism of Hinduism was some sort of misconceived Trinity.

This fascinates me.  The idea that de Gama was so focused on Christianity being the only true faith that he couldn’t even comprehend a culture having a truly different belief system is rather eye-opening.  I think this is an element I’ve not quite incorporated into my worldbuilding, at least not entirely.

I mean, I have plenty of examples of one culture seeing something another culture does, and thinking, “Well, that’s ridiculous” or “That’s heresy!”– but it’s another thing to be so deep in one’s own blinders that they literally do not understand what the other culture does.  And that’s a great tool to use, be it in fantasy or sf.

A great example is in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead.  It begins with a group of aliens doing something to a human being that is unspeakably horrific.  It’s more than murder, it’s purely gruesome.  But we find out later in the book, from their perspective, they were doing a great honor, and makes perfect sense given their biology.  They just didn’t get that it works differently for us.  Nor does our way for them.  Card does interesting things with the ideas of “hierarchy of foreignness“, definitely worth checking out. 

I’ve got a busy week, and indeed the rest of the year, ahead of me.  So off into the word mines I go.

One comment

  1. A patina of foreign thinking gives a definite feeling a verisimilitude to science fiction but it’s hard, and if it realistically conveys the foreignness of another culture it can be extremely hard to read. SF prose still usually has a tone of post-Enlightenment, natural-science-aware, somewhat class-ignoring non-religiousness. I find that really understanding people with truly foreign viewpoints (like da Gama) hurts my head if I’m paying attention. It often seems that when this is done in commercial fiction, it’s just the insertion of an odd idea or analogy here and there to tip off the reader “hey, this is a person with different ideas about things”, but to do it to a realistic extent would be difficult for most readers to follow, and extremely difficult for writers to do. _Aztec_ by Gary Jennings is a great book and maybe my favorite work of historical fiction, but I bet a fifteenth century Aztec wouldn’t be nearly so accessible were we to meet him in person.

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