More aliens!

Sometimes, I think, science fiction authors have a better idea of potential alien complexity than do biologists. Here’s an essay by Tim Pratt on alien worldbuilding that does a good job of addressing a common problem.

I knew my series needed aliens, just like it needed mysterious ancient technological artifacts, space pirates, snarky computers, and cool spaceships. Turning to the task of creating aliens right after I’d put together my (mostly) human crew made me hyperaware of the issue of culture. One thing that bothers me in some science fiction (more often cinematic and televisual than written, but often there, too) is alien monocultures. Unless you’re talking about the Borg or Cybermen or other sorts of hive-minds, it never made sense to me to have an entire species of aliens with a single culture. How many thousands of cultures are there on Earth, after all, and how many subcultures within those cultures? From differences in music, religion, recreation, art, literature, food, philosophy, sexual preferences—cultures and subcultures get so wonderfully and weirdly granular. And yet, so often when our fictional humans encounter aliens, they discover the whole species consists of noble warriors or aloof philosophers or sadistic experimenters or ruthless capitalists. Where are the pacifist Klingons who run sustainable free-range krada ranches? Where are the Wookies who like to shave their entire bodies and refuse to celebrate Life Day because it’s gone too corporate? The Volus philanthropists? The punk rock Vulcans? Sure, sometimes there’s a plot point involving some rogue weirdo outlier, but in any alien species there should plausibly be whole communities, whole cities, whole religions or sects or affinity groups, who march to the beat of a different Kintarrian Death Drum.

Yeah! Diversity is important. I think I’m going to have to grab a copy of his series.


  1. euclide says

    the problem is the same for planets

    each weak, the heros visit a new planet
    And they are categorized.
    There’s the ice planet
    The desert planet
    The forest planet

    And they only spent a few days or even hours and find the interesting spot on said planet immediately.

  2. brett says

    I’ve added that to my reading list. It sounds like he’s done some really interesting stuff with the “Liars” for world-building, and of course I agree wholeheartedly with the quoted segment above about alien monocultures.

    At least with the planets, some of them are possible. Ice and Desert planets are possible, although they wouldn’t be particularly habitable and definitely wouldn’t look like Tunisia or southern California. Forest planets should be almost impossible, though.

  3. Ian says

    One hundred percent agree, except that I’m pretty sure Star Trek IV gave us evidence that punk rock Vulcans were seen as non-essential and shut down when if they got aggressive.

  4. Matthew Hermes says

    I think the best Star Trek did with this was the Cardassians. They were basically just human people living under a fascist government that had ruled for centuries. They had scientists, artists, soldiers, moralists, spies, evil murdering generals and tyrants, a bizarre kangaroo court system which nevertheless made a perverted sort of sense, useless civilian government rubberstampers who every once in a blue moon actually managed to restrain the military establishment, apologists for colonialism and genocide, denouncers of colonialism and genocide, brave revolutionaries, cowardly hypocritical quasi-dissidents, and one (1) alcoholic beverage… okay, maybe the last one wasn’t a good example.

  5. Callinectes says

    Sometimes this is intentional, a consequence of being space-faring members on an interplanetary community for millennia. The proposal is that easy travel and communication leads to cultural homogeneity on homeworlds, while colony worlds experience a sort of cultural founder effect.

    I don’t know if it really works like that, but in cases where it is intentional rather than laziness, exploring such ideas is in the spirit of science fiction. Of course, in works like Star Trek alien races are overtly used as allegories for foreign cultures.

  6. says

    When aliens are shown as having more than one culture it’s often simply so some parallel with Earth can be shown. For example in the original Battlestar Galactica the Colonials encounter the planet Terra. Terra is split between the democratic Nationalists and the authoritarian Eastern Alliance, which are pretty obviously stand-ins for NATO and the Warsaw Pact, although the fact the Eastern Alliance men have German sounding names like Leiter and Krebbs also invokes the Nazis as well.(Alliance citizens we see have names like Brenda Maxwell and Michael Fowler.)

  7. Matthew Hermes says

    Also, in sci-fi that’s motivated to explore different forms of alien life besides the classic “rubber-forehead human”, the aliens end up having a monoculture because the whole point of their biological characteristics was to make a social point about human life in the first place. For example, in the 1990’s YA book series Animorphs, the aliens all function in various ways to interrogate the ways that adult society lies to children and feeds them comforting fairy tales without preparing them for the real challenges that they will face in life. The Yeerks – slugs that crawl into your ear and take control of your brain – are the various abusive human institutions that hide monstrous realities behind charming and sociable facades, the Andalites – telepathic centaur people with magical powers – are the knights in shining armor who slowly expose themselves as violent imperialists who cause all the problems they claim to save you from, the Hork-Bajir – giant “stupid” lizardmen who are really problematic allegories for indigenous people – are the people you automatically underestimate and condescend towards which with shocking quickness leads you to start committing terrible crimes against them, and the Taxxons – giant worms whose existence is the torment of perpetual starvation – serve to remind you that your comfort and safety are largely due to blind luck and you could lose them in an instant; the universe can be brutal and horrifying to sentient creatures for no reason at all.

  8. jimzy says

    If aliens are anything like Earth fauna, they probably shed dead skin cells, pheromones, and other metabolism byproducts. How likely would a human go into anaphylaxis? Alien food would probably be lethal.

  9. Callinectes says

    Mass Effect had two races and their associated biospheres that used dextrorotatory amino acids rather than levorotatory amino acids. Any multispecies endeavour that featured multiracial chirality (and one of those dextro-species was one of the major players in the galaxy, so was ubiquitous) had to strictly partition all catering. Eating the wrong food would at best provide no nutritional value and at worst be a major medical incident.

    And while they didn’t go into detail, I’m pretty sure the recycling of organic waste and sewage on spacecraft and stations, or even worlds hosting multiple species, was a quiet nightmare.

  10. nikolai says

    Well, that assumes that the point of creating an alien race for a science fiction series is to create a convincing alien race, which I kind of doubt. But even if we ignore that, we can see homogenizing influences on human cultures as transportation and communication become more and more efficient. Do you think a case can be made that starfaring races will tend towards monoculturalism, since commanding that level of technological prowess implies that planet-wide transportation and communication have become ubiquitous and trivial?

  11. Petal to the Medal says

    Tim Pratt makes a very good point about the unrealistic uniformity of most fictional alien cultures. Here’s a related issue that I have with most sci-fi, especially movies: Why are monarchy & feudalism so ubiquitous? Does it really make sense that cultures that have mastered intergalactic space travel would be governed by emperors & feudal aristocracies of the kind that have disappeared or become powerless museum pieces on earth, as science & technology have revolutionized the way we live?

  12. Mark Dowd says

    I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called, but I read a book way back in my teens/pre-teens that had aliens in it. One alien commented that the swamps here reminded him of home. The naive protagonist asked him if he lived on a swamp planet. The alien answered “Do you live on a swamp planet?”

    Mind. Blown.

    I remember literally nothing else about the story except that short exchange.

  13. busterggi says

    Yes, whatever happened to the diversity that Burroughs gave his Martians? Tharks, Red Martians, White Martians, Yellow Martians – each with their own culture. Apparently imagination peaked early for alien creation.

  14. moarscienceplz says

    Like pretty much any discussion of art, there is no “right” answer, but I think Tim Pratt is being mostly too literal. In Star Trek, and many other serialized SF universes, the Milky Way (or whatever region of space that is emcompassed) is merely a metaphorical planet Earth, so each alien “planet” is simply the subculture that that episode’s author wanted to deal with that one time.
    Sure, if you only want your SF to be escapist porn, you might be more pleased with a planet that felt Earth-sized, just like you might be more pleased with an actual porn story where one of the fifteen sex partners pauses the sexy funtimes to go load the washing machine because he needs clean clothes for work tomorrow, but is that all you want your reading experience to be, a sorta real-feeling, but actually unbelievable fairy tale? OR, do you want SF that may be superficially unrealistic, but metaphorically is an expose of something close to your own experience but which you have never examined before, e.g., Star Trek TOS The Cloud Minders?