Hey world builders! Welcome back!
Look, I’m not going to lie, I’ve been dying to write this very post since I first started this little segment on the blog. You see, today we’re talking about institution building, and there is nothing I love more than designing and fleshing out the institutions of my world!
Let’s start off with a simple definition of what I mean by institution – any organization founded for a religious, educational, professional, or social purpose.
We can’t cover everything in just one post, so I’m focusing on the political aspect in this post. (In another lifetime, I must have been a bureaucrat because I really get a kick out of coming up with the red tape my character’s are going to have to cut through!)
Whether we like it or not, political institutions form the much of the foundation in our society today. But even in tribal times, humans formed cohorts to maintain stability and control in their societies. While they might not exactly mirror the institutions we see around us today, we can still find plenty of evidence for their existence and the reasons they created them remain the same. In the early days of humanity, these institutions were closely bound by ties of kinship and religious beliefs. (In our modern political systems, institutions like the ones formed through a kinship system, patterns of familial ties etc. don’t function very smoothly.)
When it comes to political institutions, they’re pretty much established to exert authority and control. There’s no point mincing words on that subject really. It’s the motivations behind institutions however, that determines whether or not authority and control are negative or positive elements in your narrative and your world.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ve chosen two of my favourite examples from fiction. The Republic of Gilead, from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
Republic of Gilead
I haven’t actually seen how the Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted for the screen, but the book is definitely up there with my favourites. Margaret Atwood’s authoritarian and theocratic institutions jumped off the page at me when I first read them as a seventeen year old high school student.
Gilead is a strict class-based system with a clear hierarchy where every citizen is supposed to fulfill a certain societal function. The story is narrated by a Handmaid, a woman who is tasked with the bearing of new children for the Gilead republic. Pretty early on the reader discovered this is a society where women are considered second-class citizens, and forbidden from earning money, having possessions and even reading or writing. The sole exception to this are the Aunts, the highest-ranking women in Gilead society, responsible for overseeing the training and indoctrination of Handmaids, overseeing births and presiding over women’s executions.
Gilead is run by The Commanders of the Faithful. A group of high ranking men, but aside from the Commanders of the Faithful, the Aunts and the Handmaids, are countless other class groups within the society. I won’t mention them all, but some examples include The Eyes, who serve as Gilead’s secret police. and all the way at the bottom of Gilead society exist the Marthas, lesbians or other deviant women, and the general male population, who are basically little more than slaves forced to perform arduous manual labor disposing of chemical waste and other hazardous materials until they die.
The Republic of Gilead is an oppressive and scary place, and nothing illustrates this more so than their executions. Known as ‘Salvagings’, any kind of crime or offense against the state in Gilead is basically punishable by death. When a man is the perpetrator, the women of the society are encouraged to literally bite, kick, scratch and beat the man to death. Atwood’s description of one of the Salvaging’s is perhaps one of the books most confronting scenes. Handmaids usually receive death by hanging, and again, the punishment is a public spectacle where other handmaids are given the rope to hang the offender with. This idea of shared punishment is a great (and terrifying) example of how institutions can continue to hold power through manufacturing collective fear and rage.
The United Federation of Planets
I think I’d be really remiss if I didn’t include Gene Roddenberry’s brain child. The United Federation of Planets is for all intents and purposes, the United Nations in space and presents a really great example of how you can utilize what we understand about our modern institutions and mix them with the right flavour to create something realistic and believable.
Let’s break down the way the Federation works real quick;
All planetary governments who are members of the Federation retained their own political systems and cultural traditions. The UFP is a representative republic, and it basically serves as a semi-autonomous central authority, which conducts all of its business and creates all of its polices according to the Utopian principles of liberty, equality and human/alien rights. The goal of the Federation is peaceful cooperation in the exploration of space and sharing knowledge with member planets.
There’s no doubt that Roddenberry drew on the UN for inspiration to create the UFP. Much like the United Nations, there are plenty of regulatory bodies within the Federation who deal with different political and social portfolios. The Federation has an executive branch and a cabinet, as well as bodies like the Department of Temporal Investigations, The Bureau of Planetary Treaties, the Science Bureau and even a Standard Measurements Bureau! Detail is the bread and butter of the Star Trek Universe and this detail is perhaps one of the reasons I always find myself coming back to the UFP to try and imagine how a large, autonomous collective might rule benevolently.
Star Trek fans will know that the ST Universe also provides a great example of how a malevolent autonomous collective might rule. Assimilation, not cooperation, is the goal of the universe’s biggest bads – The Borg, who serve as a perfect foil to the Federation, basically representing the polar opposite of the political spectrum.
The Best Starting Point for World Builders (IMHO)
The most important question to ask yourself before you start building the institutions for you world, is what kind of power you want them to have. How does their authority and control manifest? And what does that mean for your narrative? Answering these questions will help you move forward, both in terms of real world examples you can look to for inspiration and to help you begin to establish what other types of institutions would exist alongside that political system.
That’s it for this fortnight folks.
We’ll be revisiting institutions again in the near future, and looking at some other institutional elements we can incorporate into our worlds to give them a sense of realism. But, like every other aspect of world building, it’s big!
Until then, happy world building!