Building new cultures from scratch is a cornerstone of speculative fiction. From the fictional nations of high fantasy, to the interstellar empires of space opera, to the shadow kiths of urban fantasy, we authors are always crafting new societies to thrill and amaze. But for every well-thought-out and realistic culture, there are a dozen more that seem like they were built by throwing darts at a wall of setting ideas. Let’s look at six of them!
1. Nimbus III: Star Trek V
It is almost universally acknowledged that the fifth Star Trek film is terrible. In fact, this movie is what cemented the rule of odd-numbered Trek films being bad. The villain’s motivation is nonsense, the characters are inconsistent, there’s no payoff at the end, and our heroes pass the same deck multiple times when climbing up a turbolift. It’s not a great movie is what I’m saying.
In the midst of all that, we often forget where the film starts. That would be Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. From some painfully contrived exposition, we learn that Nimbus III was meant to be a joint colonization effort of the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans: a project to promote goodwill among the three powers. Then we’re told that the project was a complete failure. That’s not really a surprise, since Nimbus III appears to be a desert world with nothing in the way of resources or prospects.
Next, we’re told that the powers that be had “conned” the “dregs of the galaxy” into settling on the planet, and then these great powers immediately forget about it. I have questions.
- Why did they choose this planet? The Star Trek universe is absolutely teeming with habitable planets, most of them lush and verdant. Maybe this was the only planet close to all three space countries, but that seems unlikely given how the Enterprise stumbles on a new class M planet each week.
- If Nimbus III was somehow the only available planet, why did they get the “dregs of the galaxy” to settle it? Star Trek has shown us that the Federation is absolutely teeming with people eager for the challenge of colonization. That alone should have been enough, even if the Romulans and Klingons had none of their own people to contribute.
- For that matter, what does “dregs of the galaxy” mean? I think the film is invoking the British Empire’s tradition of using prisoners as colonists, but that punishment was specifically used to get around the death penalty, which we can assume the benevolent Federation doesn’t have. What’s more, the British expected economic returns from their penal colonies, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Nimbus III. It’s also possible that “dregs of the galaxy” just means poor people, which would be pretty awful and classist, but that doesn’t make sense either. Even the darkest Trek stories all say that the Federation lacks that kind of abject poverty.
The only possible explanation for this abysmal planet is total incompetence on the three governments’ parts, but that also has problems. We know the Federation at least takes diplomacy seriously and would try to make the project work, alone if necessary. With the Federation’s advanced technology, even a half-hearted effort would yield something better than the impoverished shantytown the film shows us.
It’s unclear if Star Trek V is trying to make some kind of commentary with Nimbus III, since the plot quickly moves on and never looks back. It seems like the planet’s only purpose is to provide a desert backdrop for the messiah-like antagonist so he could seem more like a Christ figure. Never mind that the province of Judea in the final century BCE was a bustling, cosmopolitan place, nothing like the barren Nimbus III.
2. The Deep Ones: Winter Tide
We first met the Deep Ones back in the 1930s, when HP Lovecraft used them in a number of stories, most notably The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Back then, the Deep Ones were entirely evil fish-people, playing into a number of problematic tropes that painted anyone considered other as dangerous. Then, in 2017, Ruthanna Emrys subverted Lovecraft by portraying the Deep Ones as victims of bigotry and state violence. The resulting novel, Winter Tide, is a great story, but it does leave the Deep Ones* in a somewhat confusing position.
In Emrys’s story, Innsmouth is a spawning ground for the Deep Ones. They can only reproduce in the first stage of their life, when they mostly resemble standard humans. As Deep Ones get older, they eventually develop into a more aquatic form, though they retain the ability to walk and breath air. At this point, the newly transformed Deep One goes to join their great civilization beneath the sea. They also stop aging and can live forever if they don’t die through violence or accident, so that’s nice.
Winter Tide’s plot takes place in the aftermath of Innsmouth being destroyed by a U.S. government raid, which is where the cracks start to show. First, why is there only one spawning ground? The Deep Ones have known that humans were a threat for centuries at least, and if the spawning ground is destroyed, they have no way to replace it. That seems like the sort of thing you’d keep a spare around for.
Another question: Why is Innsmouth so poorly defended? Government forces seem to sweep in without any resistance. Remember, the Deep Ones already knew that humans were a threat. In fact, they moved the spawning ground to Innsmouth specifically because humans were getting too close to the old location. You’d think they’d have at least some kind of plan in place if that happened again. Maybe put the spawning ground on an island where humans couldn’t get at it? I’m just throwing out ideas here.
Most pressing of all, why didn’t the other Deep Ones try to do anything once the spawning ground was attacked? They have a mighty undersea civilization, with both large quantities of gold and powerful magic. Why not just offer the U.S. government cash to go away? And if America wasn’t interested, they could have approached one of the other global powers with the same offer. This might not have automatically gotten the spawning grounds returned and its residents freed, but it at least seems worth trying.
There are two possible explanations, but neither of them work. First, it might be that the aquatic Deep Ones don’t care about their land-bound kin, but the story quickly shows us how untrue that is. Second, the Deep Ones might be so concerned with maintaining their secrecy that they won’t risk acting.
That second option seems more plausible, but it falls apart under examination. First, the U.S. government already knows about the Deep Ones at this point. We also find out that the aquatic Deep Ones killed several American soldiers investigating what happened to Innsmouth – hardly something that contributes to secrecy.
But most damningly, the Deep Ones have had no reason to stay secret until just before the book starts. In the 20th century, humans have submarines and depth charges that might pose a threat to the Deep Ones in their home turf. I say “might” because we have no idea how strong the Deep Ones are, though we do know their magic includes weather control. But up until a few decades earlier, humans had no way to attack underwater targets, meaning the Deep Ones would reign supreme in any conflict. Rather than let their spawning grounds be under constant threat, they could have been the world’s watery overlords.*
This is the crux of Winter Tide’s worldbuilding problem. The Deep Ones are meant to be both a powerless minority and a vast aquatic empire at the same time. They cannot be both of those things. They’re also a clear parallel for internment during WWII, but they don’t have the same context. Not only was the Empire of Japan actively at war with the USA, giving it very little bargaining power, but it didn’t care one way or the other what happened to Japanese Americans. Neither of those things are true for the Deep Ones.
3. The Drow: Forgotten Realms
It’s time to talk about D&D’s dark elves, who you might remember as Drizzt’s mean family. Literally nothing about the Drow makes sense, starting with their skin color. They have dark skin and bleached hair despite living in a completely sunlight-free environment. The explanation is magic, of course, which is going to be a recurring theme with the Drow. In actuality, this is a silly and somewhat racist concept where darkness equals bad so of course the evil elves need to have dark skin. Claiming “Lolth did it” doesn’t make the idea a good one.
Edit: Drow Evolutionary Theory
This wasn’t the main point of the article, but there seems to be some confusion about how evolutionary pressures might work in regards to the Drow, so I thought I’d clarify a few things. There’s a reason the official explanation is “magic,” because trying to explain this scientifically is ridiculous.
First, let’s make the already major assumption that the Drow have lived in the Underdark long enough for selective pressure to have an effect on the population. This would have to be a really long time considering how long an elven generation is, but D&D time scales are super hazy, so it’s technically possible that the Drow have been down there for the vast stretches of time required, even as their culture (and the culture of everyone else) remains static.
Next, we have to ask the question: does progressively darker skin provide a selective advantage by making Drow less likely to die in battle? No. With how easy magical light is to produce, plus most Underdark creatures having darkvision, the Drow environment is at most like a modern American city at night.
Camouflage works by matching the colors of whatever is around you. The Drow do not live in a black world. They’re surrounded by rock that can be a whole range of colors, but is mostly brown. So if there was elective pressure toward camo skin, it would be toward brown, not black. This is the same reason actual camouflage is almost never black, though of course there are always exceptions like our good friend the black panther.
However, that pressure doesn’t exist anyway since the Drow do not fight naked. They wear clothes and armor which cover most of their bodies, except for maybe the fan service dominatrix armor worn by their sexy straw matriarchs, which I think we can safely discount. And we know the Drow have always worn armor because the world of D&D is static.
Incidentally, this is the same reason that the Drow’s white hair is unlikely to be selected against. Even though it would be fairly easy to see, the Drow would almost certainly hide their hair under helmets, making it a moot point.
Of course, it’s still technically possible for Drow-style coloration to arise from natural processes. Most things are technically possible if you allow for enough random mutations. But there would be no selective pressure for it.
But let’s put the Drow’s skin color aside for a moment and focus on their culture instead. First, they are both a straw matriarchy and a sexy matriarchy. That means Drow women are constantly oppressing Drow men and are also naked while they do it. Not only is this incredibly sexist, but it doesn’t even make sense in-universe.
As with everything else about the Drow, their matriarchal practices are explained by claiming Lolth made it happen. She gave the Drow women power, so they oppressed the men. Presumably, Lolth also made the women want to oppress their men because she’s evil like that. Already this explanation fails because the Forgotten Realms setting is full of gods. You can get power from any of them, so all the men would have to do is pray to any god besides Lolth and they’d be on even footing.
A secondary problem comes from the rules of D&D itself. For the most part, Lolth’s blessing comes in the form of levels in cleric, and while clerics can hold their own, they’re hardly unbeatable. In most editions of the game, wizards and other spellcasters are just as good. And since anyone can become a wizard, Drow men could easily get their own magic power without even turning to religion.
Next, we get to the idea of Drow being an “evil society,” where everyone is constantly on the verge of betraying everyone else. Empathy, love, and loyalty are all considered weaknesses among the dark elves. You hardly need an explanation of why this doesn’t work, but I’m going to write one anyway.
First, the Drow are supposed to be a powerful force, a threat to their fellow Underdark dwellers and the surface folk alike. There’s no way that would work if the Drow were in a constant state of betraying each other. Operations against an external foe will always require some level of risk, and no Drow would be willing or able to take that risk. The only way you could get close to this in real life is with an empire that has no serious external enemies, so all the conflict is focused within. The Drow clearly have a host of enemies to deal with.
But it gets worse! It turns out there are in fact good Drow, or at least less evil Drow who can presumably stay loyal to each other for more than two seconds. They worship gods other than Lolth, so they aren’t obliged to constantly betray each other. That’s such a huge advantage that they should have completely taken over by now. The Lolth worshippers would crumble because they’d never be able to put up a united front. They’d constantly have to protect themselves from their own side.
As a final tidbit, did you know that in some sources, the Drow are also supposed to have been selectively bred for beauty and intelligence? I didn’t, but you find out all kinds of things reading D&D wikis. This is a little thing called eugenics, and it does not work that way. There’s simply no way to breed for abstract traits like beauty and intelligence. We know this because aristocratic families have been trying for centuries, and all they managed to do was spread hemophilia around Europe.
4. Sargas 4: The Orville
In the sixth episode of Seth MacFarlane’s self-insert Star Trek fanfiction, we leave behind the mediocre Family Guy humor and take on something serious. Okay, the mediocre Family Guy humor is still there, but this is one of the show’s many attempts to talk about something important: cyber mobs and online dogpiling. Unfortunately, this is still The Orville, so approximately zero thought seems to have been given to the episode’s worldbuilding.
Our story starts on Sargas 4, a world that’s nearly identical to the early 21st-century United States, which is great news for the show’s budget. There’s just one problem: the entire planet operates on a Reddit-style voting system. It’s unclear what getting upvotes does, but too many downvotes means you’re arrested, and potentially given brain damage as punishment.
On the one hand, bringing Reddit into real life does sound like a dystopia, but also, how can that possibly work? I have so many questions, starting with how this system was instituted. For all the noise this episode makes about mob justice, the downvote system still depends on the state to arrest offenders and administer punishment. So this system was intentionally put in place by the government.
This is already straining believability, since I can’t think of any politician who would willingly make it easier for the masses to hurt them. Politicians tend to fall squarely on the rich-and-powerful side of the spectrum, and there’s nothing that group of people hates more than being accountable to us plebs.
Then the episode explains more about this system, and it gets even weirder. It seems like there’s only one crime, which is getting a million downvotes, and one punishment, the brain damage that happens when you hit 10 million downvotes. How does this society handle parking tickets and vandalism? What about murder? If there are no laws regarding those things, how can Sargas 4 possibly look anything like the modern-day United States? Maybe there are regular police and courts too, but it’s hard to see a traditional justice system operating alongside the downvote lynch mobs.
Then there’s the question of how many people would actually participate in such a system. Currently, there are only two YouTube videos with over 10 million dislikes; Reddit tops out at 600,000. By that metric, the threshold for punishment would almost never be reached, and our heroes would have nothing to worry about.
In contrast to the real world, The Orville asks us to believe that the people of Sargas 4 are not only far more engaged but also far more bloodthirsty. It’s difficult to test this hypothesis, but since even the most vicious cyber mobs in real life don’t reach anything close to 10 million, I’m not inclined to accept it. But even if we do, that just opens more problems. How does the head of Sargas 4’s IRS survive tax season? Why is the world not full of brain-damaged politicians who broke their election promises?
For that matter, if it’s so easy to stir up a 10-million-strong mob, where are all the people turning this system to their own gain? Are there no demagogues with an ax to grind, no extremist who would love to whip up hatred against their enemies? The only thing more unlikely than this downvote system is that no one has subverted it yet.
Of course, Sargas 4 exists to send a message, not to be an internally consistent society. But what is that message, exactly? Charitably, we could say MacFarlane wanted to draw attention to the very real problem of mass cyberbullying. You might recognize this as the thing that happens to marginalized people when they criticize video games. But with such a clumsy setup, it sounds more like The Orville is complaining about how the rich and powerful are sometimes held the slightest bit accountable for their actions by angry followers on social media.
5. The Airbenders: Avatar
Look, I love Avatar, you love Avatar, we all love Avatar. It is known. And outside of the occasional goof,* the show’s worldbuilding is really good. The countries and cities we see are clearly well thought out, with cultures that reflect both their mundane circumstances and the inclusion of bending, Avatar’s rational magic system. Unfortunately, there’s one exception: the airbenders.
First there’s the issue of their name. Sometimes they’re called Air Monks,* which makes sense given that they’re clearly monks who live in temples. But they’re also called Air Nomads, which makes far less sense. The word nomad suggests people who move around rather than having a fixed home. But the airbenders do have a fixed home: their temples. They might travel between those temples; however, not only is there little evidence of that, but they still wouldn’t be nomads. You might as well call every rich person with two homes a nomad.
But far more pressing than name issues is a question I never thought I’d ask: Where do airbender babies come from? With every other nation, we can assume they get made the old-fashioned way, but it’s more complicated for these fun-loving airbison riders.
Even though airbenders are never stated to be celibate, they have all the trappings of celibacy. They’re completely sex-segregated,* and their aesthetics are based on monastic Buddhist orders, most of whom are celibate in real life. This matches Aang’s origin story: a group of airbenders find him with his unnamed biological parents who certainly don’t seem to be either benders or temple dwellers.
In this scenario, the most logical explanation is that there’s some other population that has the babies, and when those babies demonstrate airbending talent, they’re sent to the temples for training. This could even explain the name confusion. The Air Nomads are the larger population who move around from place to place, and the Air Monks (and Nuns) are the dedicated benders who live in fixed temples. That’s it – we’ve solved the problem, right?
Not so fast! There’s a major problem with this theory: Sozen’s genocide. If the Air Nomads don’t live at the four temples, there’s no way Sozen could have wiped them out with one attack. It’s already straining belief that he could have gotten them all even if every single one of them called the temples home. Surely a handful would have been away on vacation? If we include a second population of airbenders, the show’s backstory gets even less credible.
The other possibility is that despite appearances, the monks and nuns we see at the temples are not actually celibate, and they do in fact make babies the old-fashioned way. It’s unclear how any type of courtship would work since impregnators and gestators rarely if ever see each other, and this raises even more questions about who Aang’s biological parents are, but this still seems to be the official answer.
Saying the airbenders aren’t celibate after all does make it easier to explain why they were all at the temples for Sozen’s attack, but it raises another question: What do they do with non-bender babies? It seems pretty clear you need to be an airbender to live at one of these temples,* and in all Aang’s flashbacks, we never meet anyone who isn’t a bender.
One possibility is they give all non-bending children away for adoption, but that is quite dark and makes the airbenders out to be pretty heartless, especially since it often takes years for bending talent to manifest. And if we accept this idea, it creates a new problem: there would still be airbenders around. We’ve seen from Katara that bending can skip generations, so if there are a bunch of people in the world descended from airbenders, some of them would have manifested after Sozen’s genocide. They might have been killed in the Fire Nation, but they’d be relatively safe in the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes.
According to Avatar’s wiki, the official answer is that all babies born to airbenders are also airbenders because the monks and nuns are so much more “spiritual” than anyone else. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. Think about it: if spirituality made bending more likely, every nation would be building abbeys 24/7. Bending is just too powerful to pass that up.
6. The Aiel: The Wheel of Time
Naturally, I’ve saved the best (worst) for last. The Aiel are a culture of mysterious desert dwellers who are absolutely the best at fighting and who support the chosen-one protagonist for vague reasons having mostly to do with destiny. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Dune did the same thing with the Fremen back in 1965. But we’re not here to talk about originality, so what is it that makes the Aiel unrealistic? A lot, it turns out.
We start with their fighting prowess. Over and over again, the Aiel are described as being absurdly good at fighting. They can easily defeat multiple combatants at once, even the vaunted Borderlanders who spend most of their time fighting unnatural monstrosities created by this world’s version of Satan. The book then acts like that kind of personal prowess would obviously extend to large battles, which is why Aiel armies are unstoppable even when heavily outnumbered.
Right away, we have a lot to unpack. First, personal combat prowess is not directly linked to battlefield success. Victory in mass combat has a lot of factors, some of the most important being coordination, discipline, and equipment. When the Byzantine Empire reconquered Italy, their victory wasn’t due to individual soldiers being more skilled than their Gothic opponents. The Byzantines prevailed because they had better organization and equipment. Second, there’s only so good an individual person can be at fighting. Even the very best fighter can only defend from so many directions at once before physics gets in the way.
Third, why would the Aiel be so much better at fighting than everyone else? The books imply it’s because they have to survive in the desert, but surviving in the desert doesn’t actually make you good at fighting; it makes you good at surviving in the desert. The Aiel fight among themselves, of course, but so does everyone else in Randland.*
Next, we have to look at how the Aiel fight, and it somehow makes even less sense. The Aiel don’t seem to have any armor, nor any horses. Every Aiel warrior carries short spears and a small bow. This means the entire Aiel army is made up of light infantry skirmishers. To be fair, such skirmishers absolutely have their uses. They’re great for scouting, harassing enemy formations, and guerrilla warfare.
One thing they can’t do is stand up to heavily armored enemies in a pitched battle. For an example of what happens when they try, look at the battles during Rome’s conquest of Britain. The Roman soldiers were nearly invincible, and they handily defeated their enemy even when heavily outnumbered. The Britains simply didn’t have the infrastructure to produce heavy armor, and they were at such a disadvantage that they avoided open battle whenever possible.
Infantry skirmishers also do badly against cavalry. The skirmishers can’t run away, nor do they have the reach weapons or heavy bows needed to stop a mounted charge. In case you were wondering, the Aiel’s enemies all use a combination of heavily armored infantry and powerful cavalry. The books have the Aiel win anyway because they’re just that good.
Once you get past how the Aiel are so good at fighting, you have to ask another question: How are there so many of them? The Aiel are often described as an unstoppable horde with seemingly endless numbers, but they live in a barren desert. How can they possibly have enough food to support a large population like that? What’s more, their main drink is apparently made from corn. So, they somehow have enough water in their barren desert to grow vast fields of corn, so much so that they have plenty left over for making booze.
There is nothing in real history like the Aiel. The closest is probably the Rashidun Caliphate* in the 7th-century CE. This empire did originate in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely desert. The key word is “largely.” The peninsula also had plenty of population centers like the cities of Mecca and Medina. The Rashiduns were also particularly successful because their two greatest enemies, the Byzantine and Persian Empires, were exhausted from a long and brutal war against each other. After their initial successes, the Rashiduns shrewdly incorporated conquered peoples into their armies, which gave them some staying power.
The Aiel don’t have any context like that. They’re just unbelievably good at fighting, even when they should be easily defeated. They’re written that way so the protagonist can get even more candy when they swear loyalty to him. Not only is this unrealistic, but it’s not even a good plot point. The Wheel of Time’s protagonist is incredibly powerful all on his own. Giving him an army of unbeatable desert warriors just makes it seem impossible for him to fail.
Building a culture from scratch is hard. There are an infinite number of details to nail down, and no author is going to do that job perfectly. That’s why it’s so important to focus your energy where it really matters. If your story is about the silk trade, make sure you build a robust and consistent silk industry for your setting. If your story is about space battles, pay special attention to the physics of interstellar travel. Readers may not notice inconsistencies that stay in the background, but they’ll certainly notice if you try to hang your plot on a broken part of the setting.
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