'Cultural Encoding' by Gillian Polack


Story Matrices is out April 5, 2022. Pre-orders will open February 22, 2022.

Order online on our website or in all the usual places.

Watch the YouTube Launch here, from March 24, 2022.


You can read the first part of this series, Cultural Baggage, here.


"I delivered a talk in 2016. I called it, “Extending our worlds: how worldbuilding communicates cultural interpretations.” That talk was described as:

Speculative fiction writers often draw on their own cultures or challenge them to create the world for a novel. Gillian Polack explores some of the methods by which writer use this knowledge, from creating new worlds to subtly changing our own.


It was the very first time I talked in public about a research project I’ve wanted to do for many years. I’m now halfway through that project. My new book, Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy is the halfway point, where I am sufficiently advanced to be able to talk about it in detail. At its heart is that fiction writers (all fiction writers) build worlds for their novels. The choices we make in that world building incorporate an astonishing amount of information about the writer and communicate it to readers. Story is important. Sharing stories help us to find people like us.


What we read can expand our world or shrink it. Cultural encoding can help us understand why we’re uncomfortable reading a specific writer’s work, or why we’re not and ought to be. Understanding the world of the novel, in fact, helps us understand who we are. It helps us see what narratives we share and to discover why we share them and why others are most certainly not shared.


Between the pandemic and the book being released, I’m taking a moment to consider how my work has changed my own fiction. I don’t know how my questions appear in my final novels, but even before I begin research, I now askmyself “Is this what I really want when I build this world for this particular novel?”


I have always asked myself “Why I other;” why I don’t have characters from this or that background. Now I have techniques for checking to see what roles my characters play, what background they have, and what diaculture they have in common with me. Instead of looking at myself to see who I other in my fiction, I ask myself who I include. The diaculture analysis is the critical one. It means I can move away from thinking in terms of privilege or oppression and focus on the characters themselves.


If I write a novel about privilege or oppression, of course those elements come into play, but one of the things I noticed about myself as a writer was that I classified some people according to popular views of their ethnic/religious background regardless of the novel’s theme. The diacultural analysis enables me to see who has links with whom, and forces me to move away from stereotyping.


Writing Story Matrices taught me a great deal about how we world build and how we think as writers and also how we read. I’ve opened some very interesting doors and am looking forward to the places they lead to."


About Gillian Polack:


Dr Gillian Polack is a Jewish-Australian science fiction and fantasy writer, researcher and editor and is the winner of the 2020 A Bertram Chandler Award. Her 2019 novel The Year of the Fruit Cake won the 2020 Ditmar for best novel and was shortlisted for best SF novel in the Aurealis Awards. She wrote the first Australian Jewish fantasy novel (The Wizardry of Jewish Women).


Gillian is a Medievalist/ethnohistorian, currently working on how novels transmit culture. Her work on how writers use history in their fiction (History and Fiction) was shortlisted for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review.

Discover Gillian's blog here, and follow her on Twitter, @GillianPolack.


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