Writing Excuses 8.49: Hard Social Science Fiction with Joel Shepherd

Joel Shepherd joined Brandon, Mary, and Howard before a live audience at GenCon Indy to talk about writing hard science fiction where the science in question is social science. He’s studied international relations, interned on Capitol Hill, and is working a PhD in the field. His books reflect this background.

If hard science fiction is an exploration of what is technically, physically possible given a set of circumstances, hard social science fiction is no different. Further than that, however, good research in the social sciences will allow an author to build complex and realistic plots, stories in which character motivations go much further than picking a side.


Pick two people on the same side of a conflict, but give them completely different motivations for fighting on that side.

Crossover: Cassandra Kresnov Book 1, by Joel Sheperd, narrated by Dina Pearlman

15 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.49: Hard Social Science Fiction with Joel Shepherd”

  1. I took Anthropology (majoring in it). Also took Ethnic studies and sociology classes.

    The Science of soft Science Fiction is actually the study of how humans thinks and react to their environment–wherever that may be. That includes each other and artificial things they may or may not build.

    A few things I would cautions people against:
    1. Making a religion at random without thinking about how it interacts with the social ruling system.
    A centralized government is more likely to have a monotheistic main core than a forager/Band society. Monotheistic is centralized. The dominant religion often follows the structure of the government. (Religion is justification for the ruling system.)

    2. People have this idea that the world will have only one subsistence/ruling system. For example, everyone on the planet has a feudal system with a King on it. This is unlikely, unless in the case of an empire, but even then… We used to have all of the subsistence systems until the last of the Kung! land was “sold”. Why are the people in the mountains agricultural? Jared Diamond on this.

    3. That a religion is more good or more bad and is independent of how people think and react to government and their surroundings even when they don’t participate in it.
    I’m kinda tired of the concept that if people “worship” their ancestors, they must be evilz. Or if they are polytheistic, then they must be “backwards.” Or if people don’t have the “dead is evil and should stay dead” attitude, something is “wrong” with them. The people within that religion won’t think so. And the real people who have such religions don’t think so. And it does permeate culture in ways you wouldn’t seem to see, including Judeo Christian religions making things binary. Such as “Man” v. “Woman” Light v. Dark. “Good v. Evil” and so on. It’s worth it to read the Raw and the Cooked by Levi Strauss for this.

    4. Language is independent of culture.
    Language is created by humans. Language is a part of culture. Language also has usage rules they don’t teach in language courses which are completely cultural, though writers preach them all the time. (No repetition is a cultural rule). The fact that grammar rules from the invading/winning country wins is a cultural thing. Lexicon is fine, but you can get away with a lot more in cultural usage AND keep it in English.

    5. People living in the forests conquering a bunch of people in the field, such that they are a superior society. *cough* Economics and culture and geography rolled up into one.
    Jared Diamond?

    6. That people eat mysterious plants when they travel…
    Humans most likely followed coastlines, ate fish of only one is really poisonous to eat and seaweed, of only a handful are mildly poisonous, but it’s nutritious, otherwise they followed herds. And people usually don’t take a big bite of an unknown substance, they nibble.

    7. And my biggest pet peeve. Trade. The idea that if one has ships and one has horses or just feet, that goods can’t travel across great distances. Please fix this! There has been consistent trade and travel before there were homo sapiens sapiens. That’s before boats. Before domestication of horses. Homo Erectus was traveling from Africa into China. Just because we get overnight shipment, does not mean waiting 3 months from Japan to India stunted all trade, especially across latitudes. Trade Winds? Monsoons? Gulf Streams? Jet streams? (OK geography). Trade is also often the grease of the economy and can dictate a lot of political and socio-economic problems for empires who often become dependent for goods. It’s a good bit of grease for your plot. Or think about the oil crisis in modern times where countries are literally holding it hostage.

    In true hard core social science no one is more right than the other person. They just believe opposing things and have different ways of getting there. (Magneto and Professor X anyone?) There is no more advanced or less advanced. There are just a group of humans trying to make sense of the gray and colors by separating them and giving them names because the truth is that the real world is chaos, but humans want order. Culture, society, artifice, history, learning, etc give them that sense. And morals cut through those things because morals are how we relate not only to ourselves, but also the world and other human beings. The way we choose to do that is not superior to anyone elses. We all have to deal somehow. (And that was not a religious statement of any kind.)

  2. WE Gang – one of the great things I love about your cast, to which I’ve been a listener since the beginning, is that you always bring on rockin’ guests. Another great one here.
    @Rachel – great comment. Thank you. I know that a lot of fans out there cringe when many of those aspects aren’t done well. I’m personally mostly interested in the story. The good news is that there’s no one out there who’s an expert on everything. I would say the masses of Sci-Fi and Fantasy read because they’re interested in possibilities (no matter how small) of things like, space flight, aliens, monsters, magick, and all that. I, like most, want it to be as real as possible; I want to live there, but I’m also not knowledgeable worth anything regarding economics. So, if the author makes an economic statement or rule, I’m just gonna figure he/she knows what he/she’s talking about and go with it. It’s the smoke and mirrors stuff we always go over. Thanks for the post.

  3. This reminds me so much of Ghost in the Shell! I’m definitely going to read Mr. Sheperd’s book

  4. I think this might be the most postmodern episodes that the WE crew has ever done.

    Although Shepherd had a hard time coming up with concrete “social science” concepts to use in writing, his postmodern perspective actually hints at a fairly large one: the idea of paradigms and paradigm shift (first discussed by Thomas Kuhn in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”). There are alive today adherents to the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern perspectives: each of them would view the interactions of people within society in a fundamentally different way. As writers, then, we can play around with the basic paradigms of characters and put that into conflict. Indeed, we can even postulate future paradigm shifts, or resurrect old paradigms.

    The Mistborn Series is interesting in this regard: the sense of history of the people within the world seems to be akin to the medieval paradigm (they viewed history and human development as a sort of flat line, with everything staying the same over time). That’s a logical reaction to having a god rule you. But what sort of societal tensions has that created between the Final Empire days and the Alloy of Law era? Are there still adherents to the old paradigm? Has Marasi listened to one too many professors discuss the various merits of Empirism and PostEmpirism, and how has that influenced her intellectual development? Indeed, how would the paradigm shift influence the tension between the educated and uneducated?

    Okay, I might be more interested in this topic than most people would be (comes from having a graduate degree in History myself, I’d wager), but I think you get the point. There are still concrete tools one can use to develop stories from the humanities (and social sciences).

  5. Rachel – interesting and informative for the most part, but I think you’re going a little too far by saying “no one is more right than the other person.” Hitler was, unfortunately, a person with a great deal of influence over the society of Germany after World War I. While his reneging on the Treaty of Versailles payments was a positive thing and gave Germany a chance to recover economically, that’s about the only thing one can say about him that’s good.

    It’s kinda hard to defend genocide on an ethical standpoint. (Of all the real and fictional attempts I’ve heard of, the one you gave as an example, Magneto, comes closest, but there are some major flaws in his reasoning, which are largely due to his somewhat damaged perspective on human nature due to his backstory as a victim of Hitler’s genocide.) Having reasons one can emphasize with doesn’t make them necessarily right.

    The bigger concern there is that, in a realistic society, there is no paramount of ethical purity. It’s not “everyone’s right from their perspective” so much as the Christian parable about sinners throwing stones. There are no good guys – there are people looking out for their interests. Occasionally, there’s someone who really is trying to help, and sometimes the people being helped actually want the help, but selfishness usually trumps altruism.

  6. So what if your writing social science fiction where politics is even the point? I mean personally I don’t even care about politics, I consider it to be a farse. So I just don’t even approach it in fiction.

    I personally care more about the implication of smaller scope issues, like school students cheating on school tests, or one where you don’t have to be a PHD in order to be able to get the speculative element. (People never question fairies as fantasy, yet will question hologram computers as science fiction. And no, I don’t care about how they work.)

  7. Sarah, I take this podcast sort of along the lines as the ones on getting guns right, or economics, etc. As a writer, the more we know about a topic the more realistic it will be. That makes for a better story: even if the readers don’t pick up on the specifics, they still enjoy it more.

  8. Hi All,
    Long time listener, first time commenter. I wanted to know about social science fiction in the context of feudalistic society. I was hoping to do something in the vein of Kevin J Anderson’s “Seven Suns” series. Is this something that is ok to try or is this something I should avoid?
    Looking forward to many more casts!

  9. @Rashkavar.

    I hear what you’re saying, but that’s not the approach I’m talking about. Yes, Hitler performed genocide… as did other people before and after him (Turkish government??), but the thing is when you short hand without showing why, you do a disserviuce to the story–this is what it means to not treat one as superior to the other.

    For Hitler, for example, you can show the state of Germany at that point in time. Show the history of invading Mongols, the view of Gypsies and the long history of Jews lending money in Europe. Show the poverty and the paranoia of a plummeting economy from the First World War. Also show Hitler, as a human who never really got to have recognition for what he really loved.

    If you just underscore the whole country as EVILZ rather than show what led up to it, (as if Germany were fiction) then you do serious harm to both the story and it’s not a fair shake.

    For example, some authors will short hand cannibalism as a demonstration that the character/country is evil. But then, they don’t ever explore why and what circumstances makes those people perform cannibalism and usually the form they choose doesn’t happen in real life, or was never hypothesized that way. Short handing on that level throws it out of the philosophy of Social Sciences. You should strive to understand WHY before standing as judge and executioner, especially as the writer, rather than preaching. Understand what made it that way and under what circumstances it came to be that way. Rather than painting it with a large brush stroke, think and examine.

    So for a story, it usually is something like, Female takes down paternalistic society, but then you just get preaching about evil rather than examining how the society came to be that way, how it’s run, and usually a flat view where everyone except the protagonists feel that exact same way.

    Or cannibalism–someone is going to reform the entire society and tell how evil it is, but we don’t see why, how it works, and something bordering more realistic. (Usually done as part of ritual and very few actually eat the flesh…)

    Does that make more sense? It’s not only more fair to try to let go of ethnocentric views, but I think in the long run it makes for a stronger story when you’re willing to give all viewpoints a fair shake rather than say, “Oh it’s Hitler… just believe me because he does these evil things.” From his viewpoint what he did was not evil. And for the time you’re in his head, you need to find those justifications as a writer, especially writing social science fiction.

  10. Look, I love WE, I love the cast, but this might have been the least helpful episode of the many many podcasts WE has produced over the years. Joel’s answer to Mary’s question regarding how listeners can incorporate social sciences into their writing was TERRIBLE.

    “you either see the conflict or you don’t”


    Sad that a published author with an education in the field could have been so inarticulate and unhelpful in his advice. He could have discussed the Marxist dialectics or any number of other theories in ways that might have been applicable to writing a story with lots of conflict.

    I have a degree in Political Science, this episode made me want to bang my head against brick wall.

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