How many concrete alternatives to our world can you imagine? Not just “people live in trees,” or “gravity is different.” I’m talking shifts at the foundations of society and social structure. How well do you think you could render such a thing?
Ursula LeGuin can do it. I’ll be the first to admit she hasn’t done it in every novel she’s written (skip The Dispossessed, it’s just the USSR and America in space). But in these stories, she nails it. She creates worlds where a piece of culture, of society is different, and then she starts playing around with real people. Flawed people, difficult, cowardly, brave, interesting people.
A world where people change genders when they “go into heat.” What sort of family life would one have?
A planet where men were almost wiped out in prehistory, and are viewed as precious commodities who have to be protected in segregated spaces. What relationships would that bring between brother and sister? Lovers? Friends?
If marriage involved four people, in an intricate set of relationships, semi-arranged, but with genuine love? What owuld people do?
A planet where, instead of pressure from every angle to be extroverted, there was a strong bias towards introversion. Discovery of the self and self-reflection as far more important than the cultivation of relationships. A culture in which going to someone’s home is a violation of their all-important privacy.
A society of people who started like us, but have been on a ship for generations, bound for a planet to settle. What would they be like, living in that ship for all time.