Guest Post – Building Fantastic Cultures: Beyond Dwarves and Elves, by Kameron Hurley

The Kameron Hurley Juggernaut (sorry, blog tour) continues with a stop here today! I’m pretty excited to be playing host to a double-Hugo-award-winning writer, so I’m just going to shut up and turn things over to her. Enjoy!

Mirror Empire

Building Fantastic Cultures: Beyond Dwarves and Elves

So, let’s talk about fantasy cultures.

Your pale pseudo-Scottish dwarves, your alabaster pseudo-English elves, your milky American humans, your inky black orcs… hm. What could those be based on?

Wait. Back up.

What are we talking about, again?

When I talk about creating fantastic cultures, I’m not talking about cultures in the Tolkien sense. Tolkien-esque has become the shorthand for “traditional fantasy” and “traditional fantasy races,” which is a shame. Instead of opening up the boundlessness of the fantastic, we’ve found ourselves further and further constrained by the idea that our humans must be pseudo-medieval early English types (always suspiciously pale, for an island with a port city as busy as London), with Elves and Dwarves playing similarly monolithic roles.

And though a lot of grimdark work has removed these mythic pseudo-races from their pantheon, what we’ve ended up with, largely, is more of the same: the same fantasy medieval town, not a real medieval town, but our imaginary Hollywood image of one, complete with men huffing off into the woods after beasts, and women hanging out laundry and getting married off without consent, a world where men are men and women are whores and wives. The same tired vision of a world that exists only in fragments, a piece of a larger whole, a few scattered pieces meant to represent all humanity has to offer.

How dull.

When I sat down to construct the cultures in my novel The Mirror Empire, I wanted to reimagine these cultures from the ground up. I knew early on I wanted to avoid the elves and dwarves and creatures and beasts trap. It’s too easy to make lazy assumptions based on those templates. Xerox a society of dwarves long enough and all you have is some fuzzy semblance of something made up by someone else; the edges get worn off. Worse, when you serve people a culture they think they’ve seen before: when you say, these are the elves, or these are “the Asians” (!) or “the Russians” or “the random nomadic desert tribes” you end up creating nothing new at all. It’s just your take on the already fantastic notion that you have in your head about who these massively diverse cultures and continents of cultures are in real life and appropriating them. Putting on some lipstick and moving a couple letters around in the names and giving everyone magic isn’t exactly creating anything new and different.

So I started with my first people, the Dhai, and the basics: I wanted an egalitarian society, and decided that would mean that their naming schemes don’t have any gendered name differences. You’d never be able to tell the gender of a person based on their name, which was a good thing, because they have five genders and I suspected that would get super confusing. They also self-selected their own gender, the way it should be, instead of having it decided for them by the wider society. That meant you could change your pronouns any time you wanted, once you reached the age of consent. I also wanted to normalize a practice that most cultures found revolting, so decided they practiced ritualized cannibalism – they ate their dead – but were otherwise vegetarian. Because why not? Most important to me was figuring out how a culture would work that was entirely consent based. Being egalitarian, without a really firm hierarchical structures (their hereditary ruler is more of a religious and political figure, someone who resolves disputes, than a true central authority tyrant), a consent culture would work. They were a people who had once been enslaved, and in creating a culture of absolute consent, where every individual had absolute control of their own humanity, had become vitally important to them. Forcing another to one’s will, abusing another, was the gravest of crimes, and would result in exile. Being pacifists, this was the worst punishment they could manage.

Now I took all these beliefs and I looked at how it would affect everything: how the cities were conceived of and laid out. The approach to religion, which centered on heavenly bodies in the sky, and considered them embodiments of the gods. These beliefs also affected how magic users were treated and trained, and how commerce worked. It turns out that the most radical thing I could do was create a true egalitarian consent based culture and see where that took them.

This choice affected every single interaction throughout the whole book. There was no more pulling or grabbing or tugging at someone’s arm. No more pushing and shoving. The physical bullying behavior that’s so normalized in our own society became hugely abnormal there, and I found that just writing about it changed how “normal” I thought this behavior was, too. By imagining a world where it was different, I could believe it was possible that we could be different, too.

The societies in my book are many, varied, diverse. There’s a violent matriarchy, a brutal empiric monarchy with three genders, and a warring, clan-based group of societies that you only get a glimmer of here, which will be dealt with more in the second book. And just wait until the third, with the genderless oligarchy. Fun times.

I’m asked often why I create societies that are so different, and the answer is, why not? I’d rather ask why it is folks who purport to write fantasy – fantasy! As in, the stuff we can just make up whatever we want – so much the same. We pretend to deal with real social issues and concerns in fantasy by putting those stories into the hands of fantastic beasts that are little more than cardboard stand-ins for ourselves. Why make the differences only cosmetic? If you want to explore all the possibilities fantasy has to offer, you must look beyond what you’ve seen repeated over and over and over again to exhaustion.

If we have this great, grand, fantastic sandbox, why don’t we play in it properly, instead of just perpetuating the worst of what came before?

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The Mirror Empire (Book 1 of the Worldbreaker Saga) is out now, and you can read my review here. Many thanks to Kameron for her post! Go and read her book.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post – Building Fantastic Cultures: Beyond Dwarves and Elves, by Kameron Hurley

  1. “If we have this great, grand, fantastic sandbox, why don’t we play in it properly, instead of just perpetuating the worst of what came before?”

    The stupid answer I see is “Tradition” and a hidebound fidelity to Tolkien and his direct descendants. I prefer when my Elves and Dwarves are different…or they are eschewed altogether for more interesting ideas.

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