Adventures in Worldbuilding: How to Ruin it All…


If you’re going to create a science fiction world, you cannot snatch up a random ancient culture and toss it into a universe in which interstellar travel is relatively widespread, servant robots are efficient and plentiful, and so on. If you want something like slavery to exist in such a world, you have to have a damn good reason for it beyond “they just don’t like them.” You have to adapt such things to technology. Otherwise, you’re completely ignoring the impact technology has on the development of culture.

This is not the same as taking an analogue of a European medieval culture and inserting it into a fantasy world (unless, of course, you have a lot of magic and have made no effort to demonstrate how magic changes the cultures of a medieval society). There are at least reasonable assumptions one can make about early technological developments in human cultures. But it does not work in a science fiction universe as a cultural standard.

This is one of the few things that will make me toss a book across the room: when your world makes no sense.

Mashing together ancient cultures with advanced future worlds simply does not work. No matter how hard you cram an eagle into a pig, you will not come out with a flying pig.

Sadly, a lot of people try to do this, and their books suffer as a result, because the moment I stop and say, “This doesn’t make any sense,” is the moment when I’ve been pulled out of the story. It won’t be easy to go back after that.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Worldbuilding: How to Ruin it All…

  1. But slavery exists in the most modern, technologically advanced civilisations we have on Earth. What makes you think that this will be radically different in the future?

    Let's say an alien race comes along, takes pity on us, and decides to uplift us in one area. Oh, let's say, energy efficiency. Suddenly all forms of energy production we have are ten times as powerful.

    What happens? Well, based on historical precedent, a whole lot of chaos, some readjustment, a shift in power bases, and then we continue on pretttttty much as we have been. People have all this free time! And energy! What do they do with it? Keep growing! Keep exploring!

    As we move towards the future, the areas we explore become orders of magnitude larger, smaller, and infinitely more complex. That doesn't mean that we don't try heuristics that have been embedded in us since ancient times.

  2. A) I'm talking traditional slavery, not wage slavery or modern derivations of slave labor. The most modern, technologically advanced civs, therefore, do not have slaves in the traditional sense of the term.

    B) Because technology changes our relationship to capital, to people, to consumption, and so on. In my scenario, technology has made labor literally valueless, because robots can essentially do it all. And yet, this world owns slaves in the same sense that the European Empires of the last 3 or 4 centuries did: as labor. That was the principle value of slavery at the time. All else was secondary. Slaves built the colonies. They tilled the fields. They provided for Empire.

    But in my scenario, there is nothing for the slaves to provide. They are slaves being put to work, but there's no rationale for it. It simply doesn't make sense as a world. People don't enslave other people for no reason. There is always a reason.

    Now for your scenario:
    If limitless energy is made possible (let's take the aliens out just for the sake of making this not reliant on a sudden intrusion), then you're talking about a cultural development that will see class systems collapse and reform, new interactions with environment, self, others, etc. If slavery exists in this scenario, it needs to exist for a very compelling reason, but not for some old time reason (labor).

    Does that make sense? Or am I rambling nonsense?

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