I’m currently finishing up Kameron Hurley’s different take on science fantasy, “The Mirror Empire.” One of the most noteworthy elements of the novel is the way in which Hurley creates social structures for societies that differ from the traditional European-fantasy. I won’t spoil any of them (and she creates multiple different societal structures), but it does make for great inspiration for our own settings.
So how do we use different societal structures as the basis for a setting? The first task is to decide what scale our societal structure applies. There are very few globally applicable societal structures, but some patterns repeat themselves in many cultures. In our own world, the concept of monogamous marriage is common for example. Let me be clear, I’m not saying it’s a universal absolute. Rather, it is the most common construction in societies on our planet now. Generally speaking, societal structures should have a reason for occurring and this is where the setting really develops. In the case of our world, monogamous marriage is still common largely for reasons based around religion and tradition. Again, this wasn’t always the case and doesn’t have to be the case today – it’s just a point of reference. These religions and traditions can be expanded – what about them reinforces monogamy? Why is it advantageous for them? Traditions and religions rarely develop strong rules without some self-reinforcing benefit for (refer to Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” for more on this).
So what are some sample twists on societal structures that we can develop for our own settings?
Expanded Genderqueer – Many societies recognize multiple genders beyond the standard male/female dichotomy (man Asian societies have historically recognized transgender as a third gender), but what if this were taken even further? What if other characteristics were applied and considered to differentiate gender? Maybe these factors have a biological factor. Maybe not. One example might be a society that has a pacifist/aggressiveness modifier to gender with accompanying stereotypes.
Alternative Family Structures – For most societies on Earth, biological family structures are the primary foundation for communities (although this is less true in modernity). What about playing with this concept and defining family structures based more on bonds of affection? Members of family groups routinely move from one family to another based on their feelings of affection, changing often throughout puberty and less often as they age. This is a great example of a structure that could be propagated due to religious doctrine.
Non-Biology Based Child Rearing – This is an idea that’s been explored in numerous bits of fiction, but it’s always fun to revisit. In this model, children are raised by some group other than the biological parents. Perhaps there’s an appointed caste that raises children. Perhaps there’s some form of institutional structure responsible for the rearing of children.
The genre used can heavily influence the tenor these societal structures can take. Futuristic transhumanist games practically beg different societal structures. In fact, it wouldn’t be particularly transhuman if societal structures were still bound to traditions 1,000’s of years old. In my opinion, playing with societal structures in European fantasy-based genres can be far more rewarding.