Alien Natures

Aliens from "The Motley Star"

Aliens from "The Motley Star" - l to r: Szan, a jikreh; Bellesirip, a dipamovdian; Kleehu, a pyskie.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the whole tendency in SF/fantasy to have really narrow races, eg the warrior race (Klingons), the merchant race (Ferengi), the pacifist race. The all-wise elves or the absolute evil orcs.

But at the same time, I suppose there are broad generalizations that can be made about a group of people. Even across cultural groups (where there are further generalizations to be made, and of course, blown apart), there are things that seem to be “human nature.” Tendencies to be social (but within limits, with empathy only for a limited number), tribal, territorial, curious, inventive, some limited foreplanning skills, aggressive, preferring to “engineer” their environment (water in the way? build a bridge or a boat). (Any other “human nature” traits you can think of?)

So with it always in the forefront of my mind that there’s going to be broad diversity even within these generalizations and always those who break the rule, I do hesitantly want to make some decisions about my alien races’ natures. I’m still really leery of doing that whole “these are the cunning merchant race” thing, but surely there are aspects of their environments that would affect them almost as a whole, and approaches that would be dominant across that race. I want to make sure these are not moral/judgement things, as that’s not the issue here.

I’m also inclined to believe that there are going to be commonalities across all the races in this universe because we might have a lot of difficulty relating to races outside of certain parameters, and I’m not sure (perhaps I’m being too narrow?) how they might become space-faring, trading parters/allies/enemies or otherwise peoples we might relate to if they don’t share certain traits.

For instance:

Being social animals– would advanced tech require social behaviors? Would language? It seems like all the races would have to have at least some degree of shared/social tendencies to a) develop the level of technology required for space travel; b) have a language we could learn, if not speak, and translate. On the other hand–what about a race that came across technology and was smart enough to use it? Does advanced tool creation require social behavior? Does advanced tool USE, the smarts to use a tool, require that?

Being tool users–races that have spaceships, weapons, things we might want to trade– that seems like that’s going to incline them to be tool users themselves.

What other traits might there be that would help two alien races actually interact, understand each other, and eventually, possibly, get along?

In the world of The Motley Star, I’ve already got a group of beings that share some of these traits and a few additional ones (bipedal, dextrous forelimbs, bilaterally symmetrical, have a general upright, head-body-limbs configuration). Dubbed the “Sister Races” by one of the member races, there are even some theories/scientific studies that imply they share more than parallel development. There are also some races in the universe not of the Sister Races that they do get along with–both of them are more “client races”–they do not necessarily create/innovate themselves, but given the tech, they understand and adapt to it or adapt it to themselves.

What about you? What do you think about as you create races? Have you had to explore some of these issues yourself? Have you ever run into problematic things, or found yourself uneasily categorizing some species as “The Super Smart Scientific Race?”

(Truthfully, I’d be curious to read more on this subject, if anyone has suggestions for books. I’m sure there are interesting views.)


edit: Don’t miss Justine Graykin’s further thoughts on this topic!

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  1. Marcy

     /  August 18, 2011

    I found that Mary Doria Russell’s aliens in The Sparrow were really well developed in terms of hierarchies, parallel developments and individualization.
    I feel that you can have a “warrior” race, perhaps as long as you have individuals within those groups that exhibit complicated and complex behavior.

    Or, maybe just not say “race”; instead use culture, or peoples. The word “race” itself tends to be a closed off term and lends itself to stereotypical thinking.

    • Thank you so much for the recommendation! I will have to look up “The Sparrow.”

      I definitely believe that no matter what generalizations can be made about the race (or species) there will always be huge variation. Generalizations are just that, broad strokes. Individuals are always individuals. (Well, unless the whole race is one singular… well, okay, that could get really complicated, though I’ve seen it done interestingly…) So I will be sure to take care that my alien characters are not all cookie-cutter, interchangeable beings.

      Thanks so much for responding!

  2. A lot to react to here. First of all, what you do with your race depends on what your purpose is with your work. Much of what Start Trek did (and many SF writers in general) is use the story as a kind of allegory to comment on humanity. Obvious cultural exaggerations like the Ferengi are a means to show up the ugliness of our own acquisitive, greedy, competitive economic system. Then, having made the point, the caricature is used to raise issues of what happens to those who do not conform to the system (feminist Ferengi for example). Yes, the race must be made believable and consistent in order for the story to work, but building off of hard science is not the primary purpose of the story.

    However, if you are more interested in exploring what hard science would generate for possibilities in alien races, then you focus on what current theories on the nature of intelligence and evolution have to say on the subject. (Forgive me here, I can’t summon up authors and titles, having read so much and neglected to take notes.) There is a conjecture that the very nature of social interaction demands complex cognitive skills, and it is no coincidence that the species manifesting evidence of the greatest intelligence are all social. Of course, that’s just on our world. Could one envision a different evolutionary scenario in which some other factor drives the evolution of complex intelligence? Most likely.

    Does complex intelligence necessarily lead to technology? Of course not. Consider whales. The universe may be burgeoning with highly developed intelligent races who never have and never will take to the stars.

    Must we necessarily have commonalities with alien races, even presuming they are social and tool-using? Good question. In my own first contact story I use a device used by others, namely that mathematics is a necessary common denominator in any race that has applied its reason to science and technology. But I wonder if even that is merely possible and not necessary.

    The bottom line is that we have lots of theories and speculations, but no real clue what basic life on other worlds might be like, let alone intelligent life. Not even the tiniest scrap of exobiotic DNA (or its equivalent) has come to us. So, in any case, we reason out of ignorance, as they did in past centuries, building great, decaying civilizations on Mars on the evidence of (non-existent) canals, and populating Venus with swamps and dinosaurs because of its cloud cover, through which we could see nothing at all.

    • That’s a very very good point, about the races being used as allegory/commentary on humanity.

      There *are* elements of my story that are just human interactions/conflicts cast with alien characters. I do touch on a person of one species growing up among another species and the disconnect that causes on her, which IS drawn from my own human experience. But at the same time, I am not sure I want every race to be a stand-in for some aspect of humanity. That’s a good thing to think about. Thank you.

      I’ve read a lot of bits and pieces, here and there, theorizing on the nature of intelligence/evolution, but I definitely want to learn more. I don’t think my story is about just exploring all the wild and crazy variations of life that could be out there–but I do want some of that richness. I don’t want to get trapped into thinking just along human lines, human intelligence. (I suspect I’ll end up doing it just because I’m not that clever, but I want to do my best to try and think out of the box, as it were). I think I will definitely do more research on this front. If you do remember any of the good books on the topic later on, I’d love pointers.

      “Does complex intelligence necessarily lead to technology? Of course not. Consider whales. The universe may be burgeoning with highly developed intelligent races who never have and never will take to the stars.”

      Totally agree here.

      “In my own first contact story I use a device used by others, namely that mathematics is a necessary common denominator in any race that has applied its reason to science and technology. But I wonder if even that is merely possible and not necessary.”

      I’ve always wondered about that myself. It reminds me of the challenges that have been made about the traditional IQ tests, or even the tests given to animals as “awareness of self.”

      Unrelated to the story, that sort of thing makes me wonder if we’d even recognize extraterrestrial life if we saw it. We’re all looking for life like ourselves. I think that’s part of why I’m allowing myself humanoid races (well, aside from the fact that for this story, if they weren’t humanoid to at least a degree, it would not function as a story).

      But that would be something fascinate to explore in a future story.

      Thank you so much for your comment. You’ve given me so much to think about.

  3. This is a great topic, and with your permission, I’d like to recycle it on my own website. I’d cite this posting as the inspiration for it and link to it. Is this all right with you?

    • Absolutely, please do! Let me know when your post/page is up and I’d love to link back? Thanks!

  4. I tend to think of skill in social interaction in terms of individual development rather than the development of technology by the group as a whole. For instance, human babies can’t survive without a lot of nurturing for a very long time, and this fact has a huge impact on our cultures. The term “family” means different groupings in different contexts, but every culture must have institutions that enable babies & children to be cared for and socialized until they can take care of themselves. What if a “race” (or culture or species) were more like insects that are self-sufficient at birth or hatching? (Think of Charlotte’s spider babies in EB White’s classic children’s story, Charlotte’s Web.) A “race” of intelligent insect-like (or reptile-like or even non-human mammal-like) beings might develop and/or use technology, but their ways of interacting would be much different from ours. (Charlotte’s offspring probably wouldn’t talk about “nurturing the inner child” — or egg!!) Even in human cultures, different ways of expressing interest in another being, hospitality, or a willingness to negotiate can lead to disastrous misunderstandings. This could happen in sci-fi fiction even between two groups with high levels of social interaction.

    • Oh, that’s a brilliant angle, and one I hadn’t considered. But it’s a good point. Several species are born pretty much able to fend for themselves. Even if they band together for other purposes — like a school of fish — that would affect a lot of their mindset I’d think.

      One area where the aliens and humans in my story are already prone to misunderstand each other are their methods of emoting. Jikreh happiness/laughter looks awfully aggressive to a human, and a friend and I joked that probably kicked off their interactions in a bad way.

      Thank you so much for your comment! I will definitely have to consider childhood/upbringing in this!

  5. I like to consider the basis of a race’s technology. Humans have a lot of thrust technology because that’s our most primitive type of power; ie thrusting a spear, bashing a rock, throwing something. So, levers, thrust, pistons blah blah.

    A race of, say, octopi may have tech more based on chroma (as they can change colour) or that they have no rigid skeleton, or maybe tech is dependent on water pressure or the slow application of force.

    Plant-based races may control tech through chemicals, patterns, light intensity and patterns… They likely wouldn’t think ‘thrust’ like most humanoid races.They may also cultivate ‘helper’ races they control via chemicals or some sort of synergestic relationship.

    I really dislike painting an entire race with what I consider to be… more of a regional or personal trait. Star Trek really bothered me because I found it unbelievable that an ENTIRE PLANET had as much diversity as a small, isolated country.

    Heck, the USA has more regional diversity than all of Vulcan.

    • I’ve definitely tried to think of some of that, but maybe not as thoroughly as I should! For instance, one race has no “eyes” per se, is more tactile and scent and other-senses based, and the interfaces it needs are scent and touch based.

      Also one of the races is totally a ‘helper’ race! Hee. But I like your extension of it even to the patterns of say, “thrust” or other actions. That’s something I’m not sure I would have thought of. Thank you.

      Yeah, I really think that Justine above had a point about Star Trek races being allegorical for human stereotypes. I really want to avoid that kind of broad-brush, single-personality-trait for one race/species thing. I respect that people will SAY stuff like that–eg. All Americans are Greedy–and while there may be an element of truth to the fact that our culture/society raises money to a curious level, at the same time, there’s a wild variation of how people respond to that belief in their own ways, and clearly, not all Americans are greedy.

      Also, as you mentioned–painting a WHOLE planet with a single culture seems so weird and wrong. Which is why I tried to just think of what’s so-called “human nature” — elements that might be defined by our evolutionary and biological aspects — instead of culture.

  6. The alien species in my settings tend to be diverse. Often there are at least two subcultures visible, or some other kind of contrast. Their salient traits usually derive from their environment. There is frequently some kind of big difference between them and humans, physiologically or culturally or both. I like stories where that stuff influences the plot. The latest example involves several different types of sentient algae in a conflict with humans over water rights.

    • Ooh, that sounds like a great premise!

      In my story, there are definitely frictions but as of right now, based mostly on political/trade things–*some* element of basic species priority/cultural cue misunderstanding, but perhaps not as much as there should be.

      I definitely try to think what kind of environment the species was derived from. I know in a way I’m sort of just deriving variations of earth-possible creatures, so I’m trying to not think so limited. I may be stuck with it for this novel, but it’s really educational for the future to hear what everyone else is doing!

      Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Some other factors I’ve considered for imaginary species are: – nocturnal vs. diurnal. (Does one species sleep during the day and stay awake at night like vampires? Do they share space with a species that sleeps at night? How does that work?) This could be related to sensitivity to light, something that already differentiates humans with different amounts of pigment in their skin.
    – “heat” as a necessary condition for mating! (There is some fantasy erotica featuring humanoid beings that go into heat regularly — if female — or react to a female in “heat” – if male.) Consider what dating/courtship would look like for a species with that kind of sexuality.
    – gender fluidity (as it actually exists among snails, slugs, some fish) — when the group has an imbalance of males/females, some can change gender. Ursula Leguin dealt with this in The Left Hand of Darkness, but there are other possible approaches to it.

    • All great things to consider! I have considered gender fluidity–in at least one species they have developed technology to change gender if they wish, and also have both neuter and gynandromorph individuals…

      Also what about a species that doesn’t sleep at all? Is sleep necessary for life? Do bacterium sleep? Are there complex species that don’t sleep/merely catnap?

  8. Robert Sawyer in his excellent Neanderthal Parallax series touches on the differences in mating/sexual practices in a group of hominids keenly attuned to sense of smell, and hence “heat”. They handle it in a very civilized and intelligent way. And although Neanderthals are not aliens, but close cousins to humans, it just points up the weakness of constructing “alien” races that are pretty much human except for a couple key features or traits. Read up a bit on the behavioral differences among primates, then mammals. If there can be variations so broad in species which share a high percentage of brain structure and DNA, how radically, unimaginably different would a being be that shares none of it?

    Again, it depends on whether you are writing for the sake of the story or the science.

  1. Alien-ating « Justine Graykin

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