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The concept of "Exotic Culture" and the necessity of a new world
A personal point of view on the necessity of a new culture in fiction
"A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away", "Pandora", "Dune", "Middle Earth". All quite different worlds compared to ours, but every single character (Alien or not) have the common factor of human conflict (which is one of the fundamental cogs of a story). But why we need new worlds? You may say that is the will of the writer, or just a cool feature, because the story of a character is what really matters. That's true. But why create, for example, a indigenous culture of 2 meter high blue aliens living in a moon far away from Earth since you have a plethora of these cultures here on Earth (Na'vi people - Avatar)?
Well, maybe one fruitful way to an author decide if he/she needs a new world is to verify if there are "Exotic Culture scenes" on his/her story.The Na'vi people are exotic, Watto of Tatooine or Yoda are quite exotic, Hobbits are Exotic and so on... But again, there's many "Exotic Cultures" here on Earth. The thing is, are the considered exotic cultures of Earth really exotic? I mean, they are exotic compared to what?
An African Tribe are exotic compared to a every-day life of a average city X of Ocidental World? Most people would say aloud: "yes". But if you apply a reference change, an person from African tribe Y would probably say the same about the people of city X. So which culture is really exotic X or Y? If you say that is the city X, you are pre-stablishing a "true" culture, which of course do not exist; if you insist without any solid arguments you may reach the edges of things like racism.
Now, the problem is then to say what is exotic or not. Maybe the creation of a new world and culture (based on Earth but without saying anything related to a particular culture) solves the problem of a "Exotic Culture", because now in this new world you can compare all our Terrestrial experience (culture) with something true different (because isn't a human feature), true "exotic".
My question is based on my ignorance about the necessity of a new world. So, beyond genre, why sometimes (mostly in sci-fi and fantasy) we need new worlds to tell about human conflict?
The new cultures stimulate the imagination. The problems are new, the ways of solving problems are new, what the culture allows is new. Perhaps the technology is new, or so old that we cannot use elements of real-life technology that would solve the problem instantly. Maybe there are no guns, maybe there is no steel or weapons.
Solving the same problems in present-day America just gets boring. It is not a great place for heroes and lethal villains; the Hunger Games movies require ruthless overlords willing to kill children, and a culture that finds this fun entertainment, without being primitive but extremely high-tech. That is a combination you will not find on Earth.
New settings add both restrictions and freedoms to our characters options, new dangers we don't face in present-day, and force the reader to puzzle out a premise (or follow along as the MC does) of new rules and tools. It is an adventure, like an actual trip to someplace you have never been. Also like that, it is an escape from the present-day world. It stimulates the imagination in ways no description of the present-day world can, because the present-day world is so familiar, and the fantasy world is not familiar at all; a great deal of new stuff working by new rules exists in the fantasy world.
Reading (or consuming) fiction is an escape from your everyday world. Making it unfamiliar facilitates that feeling of an adventure, it stimulates the imagination.
Moving from the left side of your living room to the right side is not an escape, or an adventure.
The stories themselves tend to have a large human emotional element, but that is to make them relatable. Setting is more like a character in a story, in that it can restrain or aid the MC or villain. In some stories, the setting IS the "villain", in The Martian the setting is what the MC has to conquer to return to his normal life.
We invent exotic cultures and new worlds as settings to change the rules for the MC and make her problem interesting, we want the reader to feel the adventure of navigating life in a new place with different rules.
A writer's job is assisting the reader's imagination. In a way, what readers are buying IS our imagination, putting together a plausible world with new rules, like Harry Potter, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Mad Max, or Zombieland, or Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings. They want an adventure. The easiest way to create an adventure is to create a new and exotic place to visit and absorb.
I would say there's a couple reasons to create a world.
"Wonder" as a point of interest
As you mentioned, the genre is one reason. Something that appeals to readers of Sci-fi and Fantasy is being introduced to something new that inspires awe. (Think space stations the size of the moon or secret societies of wizards)
The writing podcast Writing Excuses covered this concept well here: https://writingexcuses.com/2016/02/07/11-06-the-element-of-wonder/
Abstracting an issue
When writing about an issue (politics, social issues, or plain ol' human condition) it can helpful to abstract the situation by using a completely different setting. When writers use a familiar setting, they are working with all the societal symbols and baggage that comes with it.
For example, it would be difficult to write a fictional story about a politician in a familiar setting without also evoking a gut reaction from your readers. Even if that story doesn't use the context of modern politics, the readers will still automatically apply the context to everything you write. So creating a new world is a strategy to distance the readers from the issue by forcing them to evaluate everything with fresh eyes.
I believe Writing Excuses also talks about this in their podcasts on writing Issue: https://writingexcuses.com/2016/11/27/11-48-elemental-issue-qa-with-dongwon-song/
Distaste for research
I lied! There's a 3rd reason to build a world. Sometimes a writer wants a setting reminiscent of a real time/place, but can't be bothered to get every location/date/figure 100% accurate. In times like these, it can be liberating to say "this is an alternate history 1800's" so you only have to sweat the details you enjoy writing about.
(This can also open a can of worms with regards to cultural appropriation, but that's another topic)
A story is like a scientific experiment. You have to isolate the subject of study from outside influences in order to focus on its properties. Setting is the main tool that novelists use to achieve this isolation.
For example, the country house mystery is a simple device from cutting off a group of characters from the outside world so as to create an environment in which a killer, a sleuth, and a bunch of red herrings can operate with the intervention of a forensics team and a lot of yellow tape.
Stories set in small towns in the wild west serve much the same function, but with a different set of mores and tools.
Many stories are set at sea for similar reasons.
Many stories are set in the past in order to force characters to confront situation that would be handled by the authorities today, or made moot by technology.
But all such settings still include a significant base of ordinary human society, mores, and means. For some stories, isolation from this base is necessary also, and this is where fantasy and sci fi come in. They allow you to create a more radically changed set of rules for your characters to work under so that you can isolate some specific aspect of their behavior.
Of course, there is a significant portion of the audience that just likes stories about horses or cowboys or rocket ships. If you write for them you may subvert conventions by creating worlds that are normal except for the presence of horses or rocket ships. Rather than create an abnormal world in order to isolate and study one aspect of the human experience, these stories take the reader's favorite plaything and locate it in the ordinary world to tell an ordinary story with their plaything added.
So, when it comes to creating exotic worlds to locate stories in, it is done for one of two reasons: Either to create a setting that isolates some part of the human experience for study, or to indulge the taste for the exotic in some part of the reading public.
A have long and unpopular theory about the evolution of acceptable story formats. If all human life originated in Africa and you believe the two tribes theory, then the rest is logical. The tribe moving north (Caucasians) were inherently nomadic in nature. Global dispersion upholds this theory. The tribe that remained (Africans) preferred the trusted security of home.
Written story-telling is largely of Caucasian origin. Subsequently, a culture based on a nomadic tribe will be regularly encroaching on the territory of others. Here we see the major components of 'story': journey, conflict. Tribalism dictates: people like us are good - the others are bad.
We are not that creative when it comes to creating exotic worlds. More often than not we subconsciously attempt to place (stereotypical) familiar tribes in a new environment. (Albeit) with the same outcome.
In fantasy and sci-fi, people like us rule. We are normal.
We cannot relate to unfamiliar characterisations. Subsequently, even if we examine a successful franchise such as Star Trek we find the same ugly truths. Let's be politicly incorrect . . . Historically, African-Americans are portrayed as intellectually inferior, physically superior, and violent - sounds like a Klingon to me. And how about those weak, money grabbings Jews? Or should I say Ferengi? The jury's out whether those Romulans are really Russians but rest assured - they are not to be trusted.
We are not that creative.
An honest writer can examine his strange new world and reveal the extend of his own bigotry and prejudice.