I recently listened to a presentation about world-building in science fiction and fantasy by SFF author J.M. Frey (she has the best world-building tool/questionnaire I’ve ever seen. It fills me with equal parts admiration and shame!) It got me to noticing what a wide gap there is between hastily-written space operas or Tolkien wannabees and the great works from authors like Frank Herbert, Larry Niven and others. Obviously not all science fiction and fantasy is about describing a really alien culture—after all, a lot of SF especially is meant as allegory, holding our own society up to a mirror. When the Planet of the Apes movies explore the subject of racism, it wouldn’t serve that theme to make the ape society radically different from our own. But when fiction is meant to stretch our minds, it’s almost mandatory that the setting be full of novelty. Right?
How many high fantasy stories have you read whose characters wear armour, wield swords, and drink beer in roadside taverns? If it’s meant to be an alternate history or parallel Earth, OK. But a true fantasy world or alien planet? What if steel was never forged in that world? Most likely they wouldn’t use edged weapons because blades of rock and wood dull too quickly. Their armour would be more like thick padding to protect against hits from wooden staffs or hurled projectiles. Or maybe they use some kind of complex chemo-hormonal negotiation to solve conflicts instead of fighting! Without scythes they might never have harvested grain in quantities large enough to ferment into a drink. Heck, who says these people even developed a taste for fermented juices? What would their social structure look like then? What would replace the smoky tavern with grizzled patrons glaring suspiciously at every stranger who darkens the door? Something interesting, I’ll bet.
How many space stories have you read where the aliens use money, trade sex for favours or currency, eat together in social gatherings, and have elected councils or hereditary oligarchies for government? Religions, workforce structures, and family trees that are just off-kilter versions of our own with a made-up name? Yes, when your primary aim is to roll out an action plot or explore a significant moral issue, these things can be shortcuts that keep the tale from becoming too confusing or bloated, but do they create an immersive reading experience so compelling that it’s unforgettable?
My point is that, if you’re going to present a truly non-human society—alien or magical—it’s a cop-out to fill it with direct equivalents to the familiar elements of our world, even thinly-veiled ones. There must be lots of different ways a species can address the necessities of life other than the paths humans chose, and exploring those is challenging and fun for both author and reader.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye is still one of my favourite depictions of an authentically alien species, in fact the “Moties” include an impressive number of specialized subspecies, too. In Dragon’s Egg Robert L. Forward presents the Cheela, aliens that flow along the magnetic fields on the surface of a neutron star. The Oankali of Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy stand out in my memory for their creatively-developed sexual and social relationships. But there are many great depictions of non-human cultures out there. Their alienness doesn’t keep us from relating to the characters, nor does it handicap the presentation of “universal” themes (by definition). What it does do is enrich the reading experience, and I expect it also goes a long way toward reducing our natural xenophobia—our resistance to the “other”. That’s not only a good thing if we ever are visited by aliens, but it could sure help our own world run a little smoother here and now!
If this sounds suspiciously like a lecture to my future self, you’re right. I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing, and this is one of them.
Obviously there’s a balancing act that has to be performed. If the reader has to expend too much mental energy trying to keep track of all of the different names, class structures, sexes, languages, forms of exchange etc., they may well give up on the exercise as not worth the effort. And if the invented threads of your tapestry aren’t logical and consistent, they’re distractions at the very least—at worst, they can cause the whole credibility of the story to unravel.
But let’s never forget that the stories we love have a rich heritage of broadening the mind. And there’s a reason we call SFF the literature of the imagination.