Cultural Integration in Fantasy and Sci-fi

30 Sep

What do sushi, craft beer, Christmas, body piercing, and Bollywood dancing all have in common. They are cultural integrations. Any time two cultures come together, whether for trade, war, or accident, there will be some form of conflict.This is good for the story line. However, there will also be some form of integration, whether it’s food, entertainment, religion, clothing, naming, or art. This can enhance the depth of the setting. Let’s use sushi as an example.

Japanese culture comes to the United States

Japanese culture comes to the United States

Sushi has been around, in Japan, since the early 1800’s. In 1966, a gentleman by the name of Noritoshi Kanai along with a Jewish business partner, Harry Wolff, opened Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles. Initially successful with Japanese businessmen, they then introduced it to their American colleagues to the ‘new’ cuisine. Soon after, sushi bars began to pop up in both New York and Chicago. Now, you can find sushi bars throughout the U.S.

Christmas vs. Yuletide

Christmas vs. Yuletide

Easter vs Various Fertility Festivals

Easter vs Various Fertility Festivals

Another example is the way the ancient Romans aligned religious holy days with pagan festivals in an effort to pacify and convert the conquered Peoples to Roman beliefs.

Keep in mind that the most frequently integrated pieces of a culture were ideas/beliefs, things that could be easily carried, or things created from raw materials common to both cultures. So, the genres of Fantasy and Sci-fi are the perfect vehicles to play and experiment with this type of cultural integration. First of all, the author already has strange cultures to develop. Why not add a few cultural integrations and connect these strange cultures in a real way.

Food and drink are the easiest by far. Just add a race or place-name and your there. E.g. Fae wine, Romulan rum, French fries, hot springs water. Clothing is a bit more subtle in that the fabric can be placed from somewhere else or perhaps the cut of the clothing. E.g. Italian cut suit, Chinese silk, or Western wear blue jeans. Some things will take some explanation as to the origin and for the integration, like sushi or chocolate. This can be tricky as the author needs to balance need for information against the dreaded info dump.

The bottom line is this. Cultural integration happens wherever two or more cultures bump into each other. The exchange of ideas and information enriches the affected cultures, though not always equally. Fantasy and Sci-fi authors who fail to incorporate these cultural integrations, short-change their world, the story, and ultimately the reader.

So, as I sit back in my Adirondack chair, wearing polar fleece, western denim jeans and Navajo boot moccasins, drinking Russian vodka and Sprite soda, nibbling on Klingon krinkles and Wisconsin cheddar cheese, I will contemplate how best to incorporate a group of intoxicated faeries into a Plains Indian Eagle Dance.


Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Other Strangeness, Thoughts on Writing


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4 responses to “Cultural Integration in Fantasy and Sci-fi

  1. Matthew Wright

    September 30, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Great post – I’ve always been fascinated with the way elements of one culture can be absorbed and re-framed by the values of another. A few years ago I wrote a book on the way British military technology was acculturated by New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people in the early nineteenth century – I discovered that it couldn’t be considered in isolation but was part of a much wider phenomenon involving a collision between Maori and the Industrial Revolution, as brought to them by Britain. The curious part was the way that selected aspects of the new ‘alien’ culture were elevated – something we see time and again around the world every time cultures collide.

    The problem I had with this effort was that this is a sensitive issue in New Zealand and I accidentally triggered yet another barrage of public worth-denial from the more pretentious elements of an academic community who seem to forget that I pay their salaries to compete with my freelance stuff but who apparently own the field, and over whose toes I stepped (yet again) writing this one…

    …and as you point out, a fantasy story would be a wonderful laboratory for exploring the whole concept! It’s an excellent genre of itself and – of course – a sitter for this sort of thing.

  2. Dennis Langley

    October 1, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Thanks. I think that ‘elevating an alien culture’ is not always a good thing. I agree that it happens often, but I don’t always see a real benefit. Just because one culture uses ‘primitive’ methods, does not mean they are unhappy or even want the upgrades. Hence the conflict that usually arises. It is amazing how much of what we take for granted in our everyday lives can be traced directly to another culture. The last sentence in my post was just a small example.

  3. 4amWriter

    October 1, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks for making me think today, Dennis. And here I thought I’d be getting off easy. I guess I never really considered the fact that food like sushi and clothes like western jeans are a result of cultures bumping into each other. It’s fascinating really. Fantasy and sci fi are perfect opportunities to experiment with cultural integration.

    • Dennis Langley

      October 1, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      Always glad to help someone stretch their mind. We live in the Great Melting Pot. It really is kind of cool to see how it all fits together.


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