Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens (Part II)

This is the first part in a series. Follow the links for the different parts: IIIIIV

Welcome back for another Science Fiction Problems! This week I’ll be continuing my series on writing aliens, helping you come up with a society for the creatures you designed last week. While some of the problems are linked to considerations of last week’s post, there are still many new challenges involved in creating unique and interesting alien cultures beyond the creatures’ survival equipment. But first, I’d like to talk about one thing you should avoid:

Monocultures: Writing Aliens the Lazy Way

Star Trek tended to fall back on Monocultures from the very beginning…

We’ve all seen them, in mainstream science fiction, in movies, in TV shows (lookin’ at you, Star Trek), and practically anywhere aliens are involved. Somehow, by the time the story’s intrepid explorers come across the alien planet, not only are the inhabitants far more advanced technologically and socially, but they seem to have unified into one big amorphous mega-culture, with seemingly no differences or variations to shake it all up. Apparently Earth is the only planet where the people can’t just get along.

These are Monocultures- singular, clean and unvaried societies that do not change across the entirety of a population. There is exactly one way to greet a stranger, one religion to speak of (perhaps two If the story revolves around warring factions), and one type of 6-foot blue-skinned intelligent life-form on the whole planet. It doesn’t have to be peaceful and utopian, as this is just as common with warring worlds, and is not dependant on technology. These cultures often feel tired and one-dimensional, and somehow inherently unrealistic.

The reason these simply don’t feel right is because intelligent beings, no matter how cohesive and unified (if they have individual personality and will), are not going to be exactly the same in any large sample, let alone across the entire race. Groups of individuals will inevitably develop different languages as they split and migrate, developing different foods, clothing, and customs as different resources are available geographically, and different biological adaptations, depending on the species’ genetic flexibility. We see this in our world, and there is no reason to think that it would not occur in another, at least in varying degrees.

This is not all to say that you must intricately detail every movement of every group of every people group of your alien world (although your understanding of it would inevitably profit from this exercise), but there at least needs to be an implication in your story that there is in fact diversity so that it allows for differences.

Keeping this problem in mind, here are some questions to think through when you are devising your own cultures:

Culture as an Extension of Biology

Certainly NOT “culture as an extension of biology” in this case-

Many animals in nature have plumage or colorful bodies to attract mates, and various other anatomical aspects that affect their social behavior. Evolutionary theory typically takes this and applies it to Human society, drawing comparison between our own seemingly instinctively-developed social structures and how they relate to our development and cultural environments across cultures. In writing a culture for your aliens, you can think likewise for practical results:

  • If your aliens are huge and burly, is physical strength important in their society? (Do they value it above all, or is it simply a matter of personal pride? Is it reserved for those who actually need physical strength, or is it integral to everything your aliens do in normal life?
  • What is considered beautiful in this culture? Are the aliens particularly vain about appearances, or is it only a certain part of their population, perhaps the aristocratic classes or particular cultures of the world?
  • Is there anything about the alien’s unusual appearance that defines a part of their society? Look back on all of the decisions you made about the aliens’ biology- what sort of behaviors might have developed as a part of survival instincts that would have come from life in the world you have created for them?

Metaphysical Considerations:

Aside from the aliens’ appearance and external features, the alien cultures would be heavily affected by the nature of the individual’s person and place in the world:

  • Are the aliens of individual minds? Do they share a will across many people and share thoughts and personalities as in a kind of telepathy or hive-mind?
  • Are they particularly individualistic, or are they a sort of group-oriented creature, like a wolf or grazing animal?
  • Are they more intellectually or physically oriented? Do they tend towards philosophical motivations or simple survival or vices?
  • Do the  aliens perceive the world any differently than we do? (Do they not have eyes, for instance, or maybe only perceive vibrations? Do they not hear, and only rely on sight? These aspects would affect the culture’s value systems, and dictate a lot of how their customs and behaviorisms work.

Analogous Aspects From our Own World

Speaking of “Analogy”, Avatar is pretty much just the story of Pocahontas. Seriously, it’s almost a 1:1 correspondence.

You can ask questions like these to get a start on your cultures, but you can only get so far on evolution-based approaches if you want a deep and complex world for your characters to live in. The next line of consideration deals with ideas within our own culture, which you can naturally extrapolate into other non-human worlds. Readers will naturally assume that certain common problems will be similarly faced in an alien society, and so expect to see them answered, or otherwise explained away. Here are some considerations that we also deal with in our own lives:

  • Are they geared toward religion, natural science, or some combination of both? Do they regard beliefs as some small part of their past, or a definitive aspect of their being? How much of the population believes in this same way? Is it more or less across the board, or are there divisions?
  • How do the aliens deal with war? Are their militaries keen and brutal, or careful and surgical? Is their military service based on volunteer, or do they all have a mandatory term of service? Do they value life? What distinction do they make between civilians and militants?
  • How do the aliens deal with crime and justice? Are criminals innocent until proven guilty, and given other similar rights as American Law? Feel free to base this on systems in our own world, but don’t make any distinct culture’s too close to the real world, or else readers will begin to draw comparisons.
  • What does the overall social structure look like? Are there many kingdoms among different people groups? Are they tribal (regardless of technological advancement)? Democratic? Oligarchic?  Theocratic?
  • Avoid the Monoculture trap, but if you do want to create a more or less homogeneous culture, have a reason for it! Was there a conquest that stamped out opposing thought? Was there some huge political movement that overwhelmed the competing ideas? Drastic, important changes in the world’s history would have to be involved for a planet to contain mostly the same beliefs or customs across a population.

These are only a small sampling of the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as you design your alien culture, and the important thing to remember is that while you only truly need to develop what you actually intend to present to your readers, a deeper understanding of your world’s intricate parts will drastically affect the overall believability of your world, and benefit your writing. Again, keep questioning your ideas and keep your hand off the cliché shelf, and you will eventually come up with something very unique and interesting to work with.

Alright, that’s enough for now! Next week I’ll get into designing a believable ecology for your world, and then I’ll cap this all off with a discussion of differentiating technologies across different races.

Until then, what are some interesting alien cultures you’ve come across? Let me know in the comments below!


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on April 6, 2011, in Cliches, Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, Star Trek, Story, Universes, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thanks Erik, this discussion has bee very insightful. It has really got me thinking about the Manu, Arn and the Nasukhan. If I want to do more with that short story I am really going to have to do some serious thinking. So thanks for giving me more work to do! :o)

    • erikthereddest

      You’re welcome! Yes, it is more work, but it is necessary if you want your aliens to feel believable- otherwise they might as well just be the typical Little Green Men in flying saucers.

  2. Great advice Erik!

    I found the T’chin of the T’Chin confederation in Hilari Bell’s “A Matter of Profit” to be a really interesting culture.

  3. Excellent post, well thought out.

    One minor point: In Star Trek, earth is also a monoculture by the 23rd century. There were two reasons for this, one ideological and one practical. Roddenberry believed that we would naturally evolve toward a one-world government in the interests of peace, and that “advanced” cultures across the galaxy would also tend to do so by the time they became space-faring. This was naive, for the reason you pointed out. But practically, if you are writing a weekly show and going to a new planet every episode, you just don’t have time to develop a more complicated society every week. When the show stayed around longer than anyone expected and had further incarnations, to their credit they did complicate things a bit. Turns out the Klingons have at least three factions (House of Gowron vs. House of Duras vs. Renegades), the Romulans have a Vulcan Reunification movement, etc. If we spent time there, we would probably notice even more diversity. Realistically, ANY human culture might look amazingly the same to an alien race, compared to themselves, until they got to know us better.

    • erikthereddest

      You’re absolutely right about Star Trek- certainly a weekly show cannot hope to create the kind of complexity in their written worlds that we can see in books and big-budget films, and that is understandable. However, the trouble comes when people begin to emulate TV shows such as these even when not constrained by the same limitations, creating artificial standards that they rarely question. It soon became acceptable for Monocultures to be not only prevalent but practically standard, and that just leads to very boring and 1-dimensional worlds. So, as much as with very many of my other discussions, Star Trek is once again partially except from the standards, but we can learn a lot by looking at why these kinds of shortcuts work for them, but don’t for us.

    • I also think there’s some real validity to the idea that as technologies advance, culture will tend to homoginize. It’s certainly happened on Earth in the past, and is only advancing today. Think of the various tribes of Europe before Rome came, and the differences they had, and then comare that to the Middle Ages. The same land, the same environments, the same peoples (mostly), but now much more homoginized in culture, partially due to Rome and it’s conquest, but also largely due to the advent of more regular trade and communication. Now advance that to the modern age. Cultural tabboos, social mores, even units of measurement are leaching across social boundaries as those societies become more interconnected by trade and (especially today) communication. Now image a world like Larry Niven’s vision of future Earth, where teleporters are reality and in common use. You can commute from the US to Australia every morning for work. Vacations anywhere are just a matter of booking a room. If government globalizes, then you can expect laws (and thus most social standards) to shift similarly, and even language. I’d be more interested in seeing the planets more developed. (ok, desert planets may work, but a whole planet that’s just jungle? Are there no oceans?) Perhaps if the race is only recently reaching this globalized stage, or if environmental diferences result in cultural impacts (people in the North dress differently than those in the South, and for good reason), there may be different cultures, but if they’re part of a pan-galactic civilization, a few thousand miles aren’t likely to mean much.

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