In real life, monoculture is an agricultural term used to describe farms that grow only one type of crop. It is also known as “monocrop”. It is a negative term used to describe farms that produce only one type of crop every year. It has a profoundly negative impact on the soil because it does nothing to replenish the nutrients in the soil and over time the land becomes less productive, perhaps even fallow. In science fiction, it has come to describe a lack of diversity in “alien” species. Often, when aliens are portrayed in television shows and films, there is one phenotype that represents the entire species.
As an example: Despite Star Trek eventually opening up Vulcans to different ethnicities, and more recently Romulans, the vast majority of alien species have not done this. Cardassians, Ferengi, and even the Klingons, still remain a monoculture.
The first (or perhaps the loudest) people to point this out, oddly, were the white science fiction fans who insisted on some sort of realism when it came to the biology of alien planets. These fans glossed over the fact that these monocultures are a direct reflection of human cultures as they perceive themselves. Until fairly recently there was little to no representation in science fiction. Most of it was built on settler-colonial tropes and the myth of rugged individualism.
The construction of alien races in the Golden Age and even recent science fiction makes heavy, if not exclusive, use of monocultures in their world-building. While I am reluctant to attribute this to some deliberate attempt to erase other cultures, the argument could be made for a type of white supremacy as the culprit. White supremacy, especially in the arts, isn’t necessarily about book burning or genocidal campaigns. However, those things made the constant and unthinking centering of whiteness possible.
Science fiction has always been and remains white-centered. In constructing worlds and alien cultures, white authors have infused dynamics that rely exclusively on their own perceptions of self. If you live in a Eurocentric world and are not accustomed to making space or giving consideration to other cultures, why would you create alien cultures that do that? What we have, as a result, is a series of monocultures interacting with one another.
It has been argued that “aliens” in these stories are just surrogates for Black and People of Color anyway. Which further illustrates my point. The superimposition of monocultures on alien races is really a logical growth from a similar dynamic in the Eurocentric perception of other nationalities here on Earth. I use the word “nationality” very deliberately here. When you look at most countries, most of them contain more than one ethnicity within their national borders. And there is this tendency among people (not just white) to reduce people to a national identity that was created for them by a state.
Something else I felt was particularly unrealistic was the alien reaction to a perceived human monoculture. In most cases, it is simply never mentioned and the narrator/author moves through the story as if this is not an issue. Scientifically, a race like the Vulcans would be highly skeptical of a spacefaring monoculture. You could almost understand, but not forgive, how authors of the Golden Age might have been confined to this paradigm. Though it seems bizarre that people whose job it is to dream of the future, might imagine there would be other races traveling to distant galaxies beside them.
Why are monocultures bad? I have a few theories about this and some of them are only vaguely scientific. I am not a biologist or a xenobiologist. I assume that not unlike Earth, most species evolve with their environment. Earth is inside what we call the “habitable” zone. But that zone is actually quite broad, and Earth happens to be ideal for the proliferation of diverse life forms.
In the extreme, you would have a planet that would either be much hotter, much colder but, still capable of supporting life. There might be less diversity, particularly among the “dominant” species, or it may be less obvious. Even tidally locked planets, which would likely have a narrow band of habitability, might still create more than one variant of dominant species. As an example, some species might inhabit the dayside of a tidally locked planet, and some might occupy areas at its prime meridian or the night side. Those three climes would likely produce variation in phenotypical traits as well as vastly different cultures.
Monocultures aren’t realistic. It is unlikely that any species from a planet capable of supporting life would be represented by a single phenotype. Even among the feral-type aliens in films (Alien, Tomorrow War) incapable of reason and out to eat humans, there would be variations of that species based upon varying climes. Just as there are here on Earth.
Another reason monocultures are bad is genetics. Diversity increases adaptivity. There is simply no way humanity would survive space travel and eventual colonization of other planets without diversity. The first pandemic would wipe out a population that lacked it. It has been shown here on Earth and there is no reason to expect it to change. In addition to resistance to disease vectors, diversity is a great way to prevent stagnation and eventual extinction in gene pools.
Before we talk about some ways to redress these issues in our writing, let’s talk about taxonomy. I like the word “monoculture” but perhaps it’s a misnomer. Since, as lovers of science, we have to make the distinction between culture and ethnicity “culture” seems wrong. On the other hand, mono-ethnic feels a little forced and other life forms may not have a similar understanding of biological understanding. I feel like “monospecies” meets the standard of technical specificity while remaining generic enough to make your point to the arthropods of Gliese 667.
Continuing to treat science fiction as though others don’t exist is antithetical to the genre. More importantly, there are thousands of opportunities to make richer and more complex worlds when we don’t continue to make Europeans the default in our stories or we don’t exclude 84% of the world’s population from stories that take place on a global or interstellar scale. There are unlimited possibilities when it comes to moral, or political stressors that can be injected into a plot.
There are people who will moan about the idea of creating respectful and accurate portrayals of non-white races. Writing is work. Up until now, people could just jot down any idea that appeared to have an original twist to it without considering how it might affect other people. Treating the idea of having to research and let people from other communities read and offer substantive criticism on how it can be improved, as excessive is insane. No writer is above research. And simply the limit of science fiction is one’s imagination, does not absolve one of the need to do actual research. For all those sci-fi bros that hem and haw online about the lack of realism in books and films, there is an incredible lack of positive representation among Black and Brown folks.
Let’s also be clear about what is meant by representation. Putting a few people in key, but supporting roles, in stories or shows is not representation. “Blade Runner 2049” had a Black character in a bit part and smatterings of POC throughout the film. The bulk of that story takes place in Los Angeles, and L.A. county is 51 percent Latinx as of the 2020 census. You would never know this by Villineuve’s portrayal of L.A. in the film. This is true of a lot of science fiction content. You would never know that any Black or POC existed simply by watching people in the background just existing. What we frequently see in shows is tokenism, not representation.
Modern stories have no reason not to do away with Eurocentric monocultures. It is scientifically unsound and socially unacceptable. And we should demand better from author’s whose works we enjoy, or simply stop reading them.