Island culture usually takes one of two really basic forms:

  1. small, loose knit, widely distributed populations with a unifying shared culture across a large number of small islands. Polynesia for example.

  2. denser populations on larger landmasses that border continents and share/copy the dominant continental culture. Like in Feudal Japan, or Medieval England.

Now it strikes me that in a large interstellar society planets resemble islands in terms of their population relative to the total population of the civilisation they're part of and the way they're strung out over large travel distances. So assuming that that is roughly right I have two questions, does it follow that:

  1. the overall culture of an interstellar society will resemble a Polynesian type set up? A root cultural and linguistic heritage is recognisable but with large local variations.


  1. small, but independent, colonies in the same system as heavily populated worlds will resemble Japan or England in borrowing a large percentage of their cultural trappings from the dominant neighbouring population?

Or are planets simply too large to be able to make any generalisations on this scale?

Couple of extra details to help things along, we're talking about a single species spread across an arbitrary number of worlds, there's no FTL communications and while there is FTL travel it's non-instantaneous so interstellar travel times are still usually on the order of years but travel is reasonably regular, trade is generally limited to the very rare and pure data resources.

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    $\begingroup$ It's a decent hypothesis. In my opinion it would largely depend on a) how long travel between planets takes and b) how planets are settled and connected. If settlers on the planet start out from the start with the internet and all, culture will be somewhat more homogenous than Earth's, although there will still be differences. And between planets, travel time is more relevant than absolute distance in terms of how humans react to it. $\endgroup$
    – Pahlavan
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 Good point, I've added what I feel are the relevant details given the question and your comment, please ask me for anything specific you feel you need. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ If there is no FTL, or FTL takes years, forget about monoculture. Each colony will be diverging into its own culture. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Sep 12, 2017 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ Just a thought if you go with an island theme, you could use an "island hopper" system to ferry supplies and people: gmbhome.com/micro05/Islandhop.htm $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2017 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ Arthur C Clarke suggested interstellar colonization would be similar to the Polynesian expansion into the Pacific. In Profiles of the Future (1962) IIRC. This is further proof that great minds think alike. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Sep 13, 2017 at 1:34

4 Answers 4


Both your examples are basically counterexamples, as there is no single culture on earth from which you can generalise to the planet as a whole.

The polynesian type of cultural set up will be the most plausible one for far apart planets with little to no interaction on a daily basis, as you have no FTL communication and travel times are still large.

Even with constant interaction and large enough population migration as in your Britain, Japan examples the cultures diverged from the originating and inspiring cultures and formed their own setting given enough time. Australia and the USA are a good example of a culture emerging in a rather small time frame based on settlers from a mostly similar cultural background and yet developing its divergence from the British/European 'mother culture'.

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    $\begingroup$ I hadn't really thought of that, American culture is so omnipresent thinking of it in terms of colonial divergence is a little foreign but you're quite right and I'm a Kiwi so Australia and Culture aren't words I'd normally think to see put in the same sentence. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ Wait, you are claiming that the Western British Empire is culturally significantly distinct from the Eastern British Empire? I mean; I'd believe you maybe on small scales under a microscope. But not to any large extent. The structure of Empire has changed (and the word itself has fallen out of fashion), but the underlying culture seems to have undergone only modest drift. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Sep 12, 2017 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ The tendency for divergence is already becoming tangible when comparing people's mentality, their distinct way of thinking and behaving and not just clothing or food which have become equally mixed and diverse in many parts of the world and thus become more similar due to assimilation. $\endgroup$
    – Alex2006
    Sep 12, 2017 at 20:45

/Can we extrapolate from island culture to planetary culture?/

Yes! Especially for a work of fiction. That is a great way to build a world. It will give you a framework around which to design your cultures.

Please: you do not have to rub in the reader's face "See! This is like Polynesia! Get it?" - because the people who did not get it will still not get it. You can drop hints. The people who do get it when reading your fiction will think it is extra cool. Even the people who do not fully see what you are doing will feel things ring true, because aspects of what you write will resonate with things in the real world.

People who read your work as 7th graders and do not understand that aspect will later see things in the real world that remind them of your work. Then they will post requests on the SF stack exchange asking for help tracking down the book where the worlds were set up like islands.

  • $\begingroup$ While this answers the question I don't feel it does so in a useful way, I can do anything in a work of fiction, that's why it's fun also why it's fiction, I'm looking for a reasonable model not a justification for a chosen model, I don't need one of those. I don't even need to, and probably won't, include the model in anything I may write in the setting. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 13, 2017 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, I don't think this does answer the question. Only the title to the question can be answered yes/no. The question itself requires an explanation: is it (1), (1+2), (2), or does it not even work? Only one of those four options can be an answer to the question. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 14, 2017 at 0:04

The same way you cannot make generalizations about the cultures on Earth you will not be able to make generalizations about the cultures of a colonized planet.

We have one example of humans occupying a planet.

On it there are somewhere on the order of 7,000 languages that have been cataloged. This strongly implies that colonizing a planet isn't sufficient to establish a monoculture.

  • $\begingroup$ While I see your point does it hold up in light of founder effect when the founders share a single cultural heritage? $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash They will start culturally diverging as soon as they have a second settlement. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ Okay so would the end result then depend on how heavily colonised world's were in the first wave? Could you instill a monoculture by putting enough people in all at once. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Assuming you had a monoculture to start with you would have a monoculture for less than one generation. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Sep 12, 2017 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Okay that prompts me to ask this then. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2017 at 17:42

I think you are making too many fundamental assumptions:

  • There is nothing to support the concept that species within the community can even physically communicate in the same tongue. That alone would initially hamper cultural adoptions.

  • You are right that the different islands will have different beliefs but are mistaken that a big island will directly adopt a bigger islands beliefs. Just because you believe in the all powerful spaghetti monster doesn't mean I will.

  • Beliefs and outlooks are often times shaped by physical and environmental factors. If one specie hunts for its food it might believe in an animal spirit that provides food versus a sentient plant organism that would inevitably be sun worshipers.

I believe you would see adoption in cultures where they had similar beliefs. If your god sounds like my god and we were separated by isolating distance, that would bolster my belief in my god be real and therefore would happily iron out any minute differences.

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    $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 12, 2017 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Yes it does, though in fairness I generalized aspects of culture to simplify the system by using religion as a target subset. All I was trying to point out was that distance and size has no direct bearing on cultural homogenization. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Sep 12, 2017 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ [from review] This looks okay to me; the OP mentions specifically that their generalizations may be all wet; and anon supplies other specific reasons (I mean other than the one the OP provided) that the premise of the question is flawed. I agree. If Aliens began some sort of trade with Earth (non-conquering aliens, and not wildly more powerful than us), I see no reason to think we would adopt their language or religion; and no reason to think we would even unify our OWN languages and religion. Extensive American trade with China is no reason to change religion or language of either country. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Sep 12, 2017 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Amadeus What aliens? $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2017 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash: Just an example; if you have 100% humans think of "aliens" in the sense of foreign humans from another country, like European explorers opening trade with China. 500 years later they still don't share a religion, language or culture. In 5000 years, we still have separate European, Arabic, and Asian cultures (at least). Island chains were likely populated by a slow spread of ONE culture with frequent interactions by large % of the populations; and they still diverge due to isolation. IMO divergence is the constant tendency homogeneity of early colonists was just the starting point. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Sep 12, 2017 at 17:52

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