Inexplicable Cultural Ties
"The "Parallel Worlds" concept is the key to the STAR TREK format. It means simply that our stories deal with plant and animal life, plus people, quite similar to that on Earth. Social evolution will also have interesting points of similarity with ours."
While distant planets in fiction are typically different from Earth in many ways (see for example Planet of Hats
, Genericist Government
, Single-Biome Planet
), they also exhibit astounding cultural similarities: aliens tend to speak English
in the idiom of a 21st-century speaker of English
, their written language, numerals and methods of time measurement are conveniently identical to Earth standards or can be easily converted. You might even spot European cars or Vancouver landmarks
. Women will have Latin-sounding names ending in -a
, wear their hair long and their heels high. Expect to come across proper names imported from Earth.
These Inexplicable Cultural Ties are caused by the fact that Most Writers Are Human
and can reasonably expect you, the viewer or reader, to be human as well. Hence, some cultural similarities might be considered Acceptable Breaks from Reality
(like a Translation Convention
) or result from a limited budget. Others might strike you as avoidable mistakes
by the creators of the fictional work.
This trope comes in vastly varying degrees. Sometimes it's just a tiny detail that catches the viewer's eye, maybe a building in the background you recognize from Real Life
or a visibly branded over-the-counter prop. On the other side of the scale, the alien planet will exhibit so many implausible similarities with Earth that your Willing Suspension of Disbelief
is shattered almost instantly. Extreme cases lead to Space Romans
. Also, the similarities might be Hidden in Plain Sight
, like a combination of social conventions that are inconspicuous precisely because they are so Earth-like but whose exact re-enactment on a distant planet is completely illogical. As this is an Omnipresent Trope
for Science Fiction
, you might have become desensitized to it. And don't expect the characters on screen to spot Inexplicable Cultural Ties for you - odds are they're crazy Functional Genre Savvy
. Instead, consult your fridge
It's difficult to avert this trope completely in live action settings for budget reasons alone, although good writing can help to pull it off. Actually, as the above quote from the original Star Trek
pitch shows, use of this trope used to be a selling point to make live action Science Fiction
feasible for the small screen and pull some Aesops
in a Like Reality Unless Noted
setting. Since then, this trope has lost some credibility due to the rise of harder science fiction
and better production values and techniques conspiring to change viewer's expectations. It is something of an Undead Horse Trope
, though. Of course, the whole trope is conveniently avoided in case of Aliens Steal Cable
or Absent Aliens
Though Animated Adaptations
and Comic Book Adaptations
have the potential to shift a hitherto live-action franchise towards visually more alien settings, they still need good writing and design to avoid this trope. Conversely, Live-Action Adaptations
of animated works or comic books are likely to introduce more Inexplicable Cultural Ties to a fictional world.
Cultural counterpart to the evolutionary Human Aliens
and All Planets Are Earth-Like
, which refers to planetary properties.
This being an Omnipresent Trope
of Science Fiction
, please only mention examples where it is played with
or employed in a notable way.
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Anime & Manga
- Exaggerated by Space Adventure Cobra: The Animation, which starts with a story where Cobra eventually has to get into planet Galon, which has been isolated for 1000 years, and stop it from crashing into the sun. 1000 years notwithstanding, it has the same language, same architecture, names like Garcia, dark alleys with brick walls, earthlike clothes including hats with brims and jackets for the crooks, earthlike bars, and English writing everywhere.
- Lampshaded In Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire. The expository encyclopedia explains that every species has some kind of Ninja and nobody knows why.
Films — Animated
Films — Live-Action
- Star Wars
- Inexplicable Cultural Ties is often played with in the blatantly Meaningful Names some characters are given, one of the worst offenders being Separatist general Whorm Loathsom. Sith names like Maul and Bane apply, too. The implication is that these names just happen to be meaningful in English or Latin by chance, while the in-universe language "Basic" just appears to be English on account of a Translation Convention.
- Likewise, different accents and dialects of English are used to distinguish characters' affiliation, background or species to the point that a British actor in The Empire Strikes Back was given an American accent in post to conform to the Rebel-American, Empire-British pattern. In universe it is explained that British accents are from the core worlds, while the Rebels generally game from the outer rim.
- Averted by Orwellian Retcon in a A New Hope where the Death Star's English tractor beam controls have been translated into Aurebesh for the current release.
- Often played straight in classic Science Fiction novels and short stories, where Like Reality Unless Noted is in effect, for example in Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. Old advice on writing science fiction usually encourages this; it might seem more exotic for alien characters to say "The podnaug is chatnik forgs away, we'll take the whekk", but that's just going to break the reader's immersion as they have to pore over your glossary. As you're translating the rest of the words anyway, you'd be better off just writing "The airport is fifty miles away, we'll take the car."
- Philip Jose Farmer's Dayworld books have a minor example of this: he writes in the foreword that the future world depicted has universally adopted the metric system and the twenty-four hour clock, but Imperial measures and 12-hour time are used for the convenience of the (American) reader.
- Deconstructed in Ursula K. Le Guin's novelette The Pathways of Desire, where more and more suspicious resemblances to American stereotyped notions of "primitive" tribes turn up in the Human Aliens' culture. In the end the adolescent fantasies of a boy back on Earth turn out to have created the entire planet.
- One of the footnotes in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy mentions that every intelligent species independently came up with a drink whose name sounds like "Gin and Tonic". Of course the drinks themselves vary widely, from water served slightly above room temperature to being able to kill a cow at two hundred paces.
- Consciously invoked, then explicated, in The Lord of the Rings. Samwise Gamgee's name is deliberately chosen to remind the reader of a working-class Englishman, but in Appendix F Tolkien tells us that it's just a translation. Sam's real name is Banazīr Galbasi.
- Star Trek
- The original Star Trek is very aware of this trope (as evidenced by the opening quote) but plays it straight most of time. The episode "Bread and Circuses" actually handwaves it, citing something called "Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planet Development", an alternative title for this trope.
- Interestingly, two episodes feature what had been somewhat extreme cases of this... until the subtle differences to Earth ran head-long into apocalypse, leaving society devastated and the cultural similarities somewhat hidden to the casual observer: "Miri" (seems to have been very much like Earth, even physically, but developed a life-prolongation project that went disastrously wrong, leaving kids and teenagers as the only survivors) and "The Omega Glory" (There was a bacteriological war between two factions. The descendants of one are called Kohms, the other are Yangs — and the Yangs maintain garbled versions of the United States Pledge of Allegiance and Constitution).
- There's also a notable aversion with "Patterns of Force," where a planet identical to Nazi Germany down to even using the word itself is discovered to be the work of a rogue human.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation has the episode "Who Watches the Watchers", who would be an excellent example of this trope... except the Mintakans aren't inexplicable human-like, they're inexplicably Vulcan-like. Given their comments in that episode and the above mentioned handwave, the cultural ties evidently aren't quite so inexplicable to 23rd and 24th century Federation science as it would seem to us 20th and 21st century viewers.
- Whereas by the time of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the cultural assimilation of the Federation has become so great that even the Ferengi on a space station owned by a non-federation government quote Human literature with some frequency, especially Quark, and the Trill, aside from some very central differences due to their biology, seem culturally human to an almost egregious extent.
- All over the place in the new Battlestar Galactica. Even though it's handwaved by repeatedly stating that all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again, the similarities are glaring, with the skyline of Vancouver, vintage Earth dresses, cars and army trucks, a Classical Mythology identical to our own, the latin alphabet, Western names, Bob Dylan... and all of this supposedly repeating itself 150,000 years later down to the details on our Earth without any explanation whatsoever.
- Mostly averted on Babylon 5: the various Rubber-Forehead Aliens' home worlds are usually pretty alien, especially Minbar, and the aliens have distinctly alien cultures.
- The Centauri, however, qualify as pre-revolutionary absolutist space Frenchmen. Well, they dress like Bourbon Frenchmen. They behave like Renaissance Italians and/or Early Imperial Romans.
- The hat of the Minbari is tradition, and much of their behavior could be compared to a somewhat idealized (discounting that whole Kill All Humans thing, of course) version of several human cultures. It is their architecture that is alien rather then their culture.
- Lampshaded when G'Kar mentions that, with no explanation that he has ever been able to determine, every sentient race in the galaxy has, apparently independently, come up with a dish that looks, smells, and tastes identical to what the Narn call "breen" and humans call "Swedish meatballs". He says that if he could discover the reason behind this, he would likely know a great deal more about how the universe works. He's right, if he means that he would know that he's in a television show written by someone who felt like giving a Shout-Out to The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and its nigh-identical gag with gin and tonic.note
- Justified in the Stargate Verse by means of an Ancient Astronauts premise.
- Although rather less justified when you consider that the Goa'uld had been thrown off Earth some time during ancient Egyptian times, yet many planets had cultures from much later times on Earth even though the humans transplanted there could not have actually been from those cultures. Similarly, the Ancients, and planets they had influenced, were generally portrayed as similar to Roman, Greek and Arthurian cultures which only existed long after they had disappeared.
- Doctor Who oftens references many very different and alien worlds, but the ones we usually see seem pretty Earth-like, mostly due to budget reasons. Particularly of note is the Doctor's home world of Gallifrey, and the species seen in "Voyage of the Damned"; for a group coming to visit Earth's "strange and foreign culture" they certainly seemed like the British upper class.
- In Homestuck, the troll civilization of the planet Alternia displays a staggering similarity to ours, notably in culture—they even have the same TV shows and a Will Smith. Justified, however, in that our universe (and thus Earth) were actually created by trolls, implying that the similarities are a result of humanity having vague memories of their makers' civilization and replicating them.