I am a proponent of the Snipers in the Belfries Rule; if you want readers to notice your belfries, put snipers in them because nothing is real to the reader unless it’s part of a conflict, either an arena, an objective or a player.
I’m working on a Space Opera at the moment, so I’m wondering how this applies to aliens.
The thing about aliens is that once you’ve invented them, they hold true for your entire setting. So aliens need to be interesting, not just because they want to eat your characters for “cultural reasons”, but also in their own right.
We can immediately relegate two alien design approaches to the supplementary list:
- Alien vs Tropes, aka “Subverting and Challenging Tropes” is a great literary sport, but if readers aren’t familiar with the tropes, then it’s a bit like having an argument using a hands free mobile phone. Your one-sided discourse may just be confusing and annoying. Or – figuratively not seeing the phone – the reader may just assume you are nuts.
- Alien vs Environment, in other words designing aliens by extrapolation has the advantage of being Hard SF. However, to be interesting long-term, aliens need more to them than clever world building.
Neither of these two approaches tackle the main point of aliens; that they are alien as in not human.
I think that the most fruitful conflicts to dwell on all relate to Alien vs Human — at a cultural level (as in “Tell of this thing you humans call love, captain”) rather than a military one (“Die human scum!”), that is.
Of course, as soon as we talk about an alien culture, we risk pinging the TV Trope “Planet of the Hats”: “Everybody is a robot, or a gangster, or a Proud Warrior Race Guy, or an over-the-top actor, or wearing a Nice Hat.” The argument is that humans have many cultures, therefore it is preposterous to expect an alien race to be mono-cultural.
However, from the point of view of aliens, Earth is also a Planet of the Hats! Had they come here in 1200BC, it would have been The Planet of the Priest Kings. Shortly afterward, it would have been The Planet of the Parasitic Aristocrats. Then, from the AD400s perhaps, the Planet of the Warrior Aristocrats, before being back to the Parasitic Aristocrats. Some time in the AD1800s, we became the Planet of the Politicians.
Still worse, were aliens to take the long view, I can think of several ways they would regard us:
- The Planet of the Parasitic Aristocrats – we almost always have a class system, whether generated by force or votes, and though there is often a sense of reciprocity/nobless oblige, from the outside it’s pretty clear who lives in the big houses.
- The Planet of the Professional Soldiers – sure, sometimes there’s rhetoric about warrior prowess and honour, and sometimes – like now – the cultural gate keepers (The Parasitic Aristocrats?) prefer to pretend we don’t have a military, and certainly don’t want to pay for it. However, the reality is that throughout history most developed cultures have a caste of professional soldiers who, when it comes to actual warfare, behave with discipline and cohesion regardless of the individualistic banter.
- The Planet of the Merchants – A past of nuanced gift exchange not withstanding (see Debt), trade carries on regardless of the “real history” around it. All the way through the 100 Years War and the Wars of the Roses, the merchants of Bristol explored and traded. Moreover, trade, or at least traders, drove a lot of wars and foreign expansion. Aliens would look at the empires of the 19th century and see them as primarily economic.
- Planet of the [Erk?] – Aliens may also get the wrong end of the stick. For example, they could see us as the “Planet of the Matriarchy” on the grounds that men traditionally are the ones who fight for territory and go down mines while the women sit home and enjoy the benefits. Or perhaps we are the “Planet of the Symbiotes”, given our propensity for keeping pets.
Call this Aliens as Mirror. It can provide amusing character interactions, but also drive the galactic politics. For example, it could be a problem if aliens just see us as just soldiers or merchants, or if egalitarian aliens regard our politicians as members of a parasitic aristocratic caste.
Beyond that, we have more implicit challenges to our culture. There are three really obvious ways to do this:
- Aliens as Satire: They represent an exaggerated version of an aspect of our culture. We have a political caste. Perhaps they have a political species. (“Vote for a Lizard or the wrong lizard will get in.”) This can be funny, but it can also call into questions our assumptions.
- Aliens as Time Travellers: They represent a defunct human culture done in the space age. We once had warriors. Perhaps they ARE warriors. The main challenge is either to our romantic assumptions — warriors seem cool until they raid your homestead– or sense of cultural superiority – we’ve moved beyond warrior culture, but my god these men can fight.
- Aliens as Thought Experiments: What if some aspect of human society were different? How would we function? This calls into question our sense of what is significant. For example, Dunbar’s Number for humans is around 200, meaning our brains can cope with groups of that size and still have some kind of relationship with everybody in it. This explains why about or just under 200 is so common as a military unit size. What, though, if this were different?
All of the above, of course, reduce the aliens to Hat Wearers. However, that’s OK as long as we bear in mind that (a) variation and flat denials lie behind the big picture, and (b) the aliens will be loudly accusing US of wearing a collective hat while their society is of course nuanced and complex…
If you find this kind of thinking useful, buy yourself a copy of my Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (UK, Epub).