Pretty much this except the athenosphere is giant dragons and the volcanoes are full of zombies.
Seriously. Come to my talk. I might actually say those words.
We all know the writers who do this well. Frank Herbert gave us summaries of galactic economies compressed into two paragraphs so dense we barely noticed them. Ben Bova wrote almost a dozen novels about the same fundamentalist regime and how different groups of people overcame the problems it caused (while also discovering space whales in Jupiter. Love.). Larry Niven's Mad Puppeteers had a society based on putting the most cowardly individual in charge of everything and also planets that moved like spaceships, and he made it make sense. And let's not even get started on Tolkein's grasp of fictional history.
There's good reason that the best Spec-Fic writers are usually highly educated and always extremely well-read. In addition to knowing a thing or two about science, language, and psychology, odds are they've read at least one book on sociology. And if not one book, then at least an essay called The Promise, by C. Wright Mills, (highly recommend link to click, by the way) which essentially pushed the 'reset' button on the entire school of thought while also making basic sociology accessible to anyone with the ability to tell the difference between public issues and private troubles.
Here's the five most important lessons I think that spec-fic writers need to take from the essay.
1. Your reader cannot understand the experiences of your characters, or gauge their fates, unless they can place your character firmly in the setting.
I found a lot of helpful queues in the essay by, instead of reading it as being a person trying to understand their own situation, changing it so it was about a reader trying to understand a fictional experience in a fictional world. Here's the original quote:
The first fruit of this imagination -- and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it -- is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of all those individuals in his circumstances.What Mills means is that one can only understand one's problems if one is aware of other people in his same situation and what part of society that situation exists in. Context, essentially. If the Orcs are raiding the border towns of the Kingdom, and this stops the farmers in the towns from exporting food, then your character will find himself one of many suffering economic hardship because food is rare and expensive. But at least your character isn't in the border towns getting killed by Orcs, right? Does your character feel himself lucky or unlucky in this situation? Do your readers agree with that? Or do your readers think you character is kind of a jerk for lamenting that he can't supersize his mead while elsewhere people are dying?
Your readers will only be able to judge your character's specific situation if they know the larger situation taking place around him.
2. The world around us has issues. These public issues cause personal troubles. These are different things.
One of the major cruxes of the essay is the difference between issues and troubles. Issues are problems that the world has. Troubles are problems than individual has. Issues cause troubles, but troubles do not cause issues.
The fact that the Orcs are raiding the border towns causes a lot of issues. Food production is down, so food is scarce and expensive, causing common people to eat like poor people and poor people to starve. This is an issue. The fact that there apparently isn't a military force in place to stop this from happening is also an issue. A resident of the border towns barricading himself inside his home while twenty Orcs lob lances at his windows is experiencing troubles. If someone in a safer city gets harassed by military recruiters that want him to go help with the Orc problem, then he also has troubles. Obviously one is more troubled than the other.
"The nerve of that ghastly man suggesting we should do something about the Orcs!
We are so deeply troubled by his behavior, and the price of this fancy mead."
The point is that even though these two people's troubles aren't at all equitable, they're both being caused by the same issue, and by giving your readers a good angle on that you're letting them decide for themselves who to pity. You don't need to tell your readers that the mead-obsessed layabout who refuses to help with the Orcs is a jerk. They can tell that on their own.
Tolkein was a master of this. We all knew the overarching issue was Sauron's looming darkness, and we got to see the differing troubles that it caused for the Hobbits (none), the Elves (little bit), and the Humans (literally all going to die). The Elves also knew that the humans were getting screwed and, just like Meady McLazyjerk, didn't want to do anything. As readers, we knew that was just unconscionable, and we knew the Elves knew it too, and it pissed us off. We were mad at the Elves. So when Frodo, a hobbit, stepped in and told everyone to just shut up and let him deal with the darn ring, we loved him for it. We felt angry at the elves, then we felt happy about Frodo.
If you make your readers feel, you win. Especially if you don't tell them what to feel. Show them the issues, then the troubles, then let them feel on their own.
3. Addressing troubles does not fix issues.
C. Wright Mills presents a number of examples of the interactions between issues and troubles: a soldier trying to survive a war, a married couple trying to preserve their relationship, a rich man using a helicopter and a house in the country to avoid the urban sprawl. The tragedy common in each of these is that solving a trouble does not solve an issue. And we want it to.
Let's take Lord of the Rings as an example again. Remember that the issue is that Sauron is there; his mere existence if the problem. And he causes one trouble after another. Ringwraithes, warg riders, the battle of Helms Deep, Pelenor Fields, Morgul blades: these are all troubles, and no matter how many troubles we solve, the issue just sits there in Mordor sending more and more troubles at as. No matter how many Orcs Aragorn kills, armies he recruits or ancient powers he awakens, the only thing he can fix is is the troubles. He can't affect the issue. The only person who can do that is Frodo, and Frodo is far, far outside of Aragorn's circle of influence for most of the story. Aragorn is helpless.
4. Your characters do not understand lesson number three.
But until the end of the world, Aragorn is going to try. He's not a sociologist. He doesn't understand that he can't fix the issue by solving the troubles. And your readers, especially if they're American, probably don't understand that either. Intellectually, of course, Aragorn understands that Frodo is the only one who can straight up kill Sauron. But, seriously, how many Orcs can there be in Mordor? How many does he have to kill in order to get a break?
Your reader is going to be asking this question. The battle of Helms Deep was a big deal, and surviving that was no small feet. It was a significant trouble. But what's on the other side? Preparations for Pelenor Fields, which ends up being an even bigger trouble. That's not fair, and the readers know that, and they feel that, and they want Aragorn to kick the next trouble's butt extra hard. Maybe if he does twice as good a job at fixing the next trouble, he'll finally make a dent in the issue.
"Hurry! Maybe if we win this battle extra fast and super hard the war will just be over!"
5. A reader, presented with a full image of the issues and how/why they are causing troubles for your characters, will honestly understand the conflict of your story.
Care of Mills:
To be aware of the idea of social structure and to use it with sensibility is to be capable of tracing such linkages among a great variety of milieux. To be able to do that is to possess the sociological imagination.
A lot of the time, spec-fic loses its readers in the strangeness or otherness of the setting. We get so lost in scientific details or the movements of our fictional Orc armies that we actually confuse the reader when we're trying to make them understand. But let's not forget that the core of our story is the conflict, and the core of all conflicts in a society, fictional or real, large or small, is caused by the relationship between the issues and the troubles. If we get those two things right, then the rest is just details.
Finally, my absolute favorite quote from the essay:
The sociological imagination is the most fruitful form of this self-consciousness. By its use men whose mentalities have swept only a series of limited orbits often come to feel as if suddenly awakened in a house with which they had only supposed themselves to be familiar. Correctly or incorrectly, they often come to feel that they can now provide themselves with adequate summations, cohesive arguments, comprehensive orientations. Older decisions that once appeared sound now seem to them products of a mind unaccountably dense. Their capacity for astonishment is made lively again.
Don't you want your your readers to have a lively capacity to be astonished by your writing?
Mills. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.