Designing Alien Cultures Part 2

In this post's installment, we have the second in the series on Designing Alien Cultures.  This one is by the Eden Paradox Series' author, Barry Kirwan.  Barry is a talented author who writes suspenseful sci-fi thrillers.  I highly recommend reading his books if you're a fan of fast paced, addictive science fiction.  You can get more information on Barry and his books from his website.

I'm privileged to have Barry Kirwan as a guest, so without further delay, here is his take on-

Creating alien cultures

First, thanks to Mike Formichelli for inviting me to do this guest blog on creating alien cultures. I’m going to do most of the blog by ‘show don’t tell’, i.e. with excerpts of alien cultures, and a few simple ‘rules’ I use myself when introducing and then deepening alien species. It’s quite a long blog (apologies to the temporally-challenged), but then appreciating a culture can’t be done summarily, as it is more like walking in drizzling rain: after a while you realise you are wet through…

A description of what an alien looks like, or the planet they live on, is not sufficient to convey their culture. All too often on television shows and films, aliens are ‘humaniform’ anyway, and have similar value structures to our own. We can identify with them, sure, but hang on, aren’t they supposed to be alien? Worse, we can even predict what they are going to do, which is not the desired outcome, particularly in science fiction, which ideally gives our minds and imaginations a workout.

If you’ve seen the recent film Prometheus (the ‘prequel’ to the Alien films) at least the life-forms who bioengineer the alien (I’m going to call them the Engineers, for clarity’s sake), though humaniform, definitely have a different culture to our own, and a different value structure. The first fifteen minutes of this film are brilliant, and again near the end (I won’t put in a ‘spoiler’), though the rest became predictable for me. However, if the sequel heads to the Engineers’ home planet, then it could get really interesting. 

The approach I take in my books and stories is to link the environment to the alien’s behaviour in that environment, and to give the alien species some history, then put them in a tight spot and see how they react. We learn about our own culture(s) through stories of events, and how people behave when confronted by difficulties, so I figure it can be the same with science fiction and aliens.

Here are five rules I use for creating an alien species and culture:

  1. Describe the aliens, but not in too much detail – let the reader’s mind fill in the rest. If you’re writing ‘multi-protagonist’ (as I do), let different point-of-view characters see the aliens in slightly different ways, or focus on different details, or have different reactions to them.
  2. Describe or refer to the aliens’ home world, their origin, their history, their function (what they do), their value structure (what matters to them). BUT:
  3. Don’t give it all in one go (a so-called ‘info-dump’). Let the reader learn gradually, like peeling away the layers of an onion. That’s how we naturally learn culture, and also incidentally how we get to know people and make friends. This is how to make your aliens more ‘memorable’.
  4. Put the aliens in a difficult position and then show how they behave.
  5. Never fully explain their behaviour, keep them alien. If you ever go live in a foreign country, as I have several times, people don’t explain why ‘it’s done like that here’, because for them it’s natural. So, do the same in your science fiction, and as long as it’s not completely incomprehensible, it can actually give more ‘authenticity’ to your depiction of alien culture [see references at end of blog for some writers who do this extremely well].

One of the main species in my Eden Paradox series is the nomadic Q’Roth, a warrior species which is best described as a three metre locust with serrated, thorned legs and seriously bad attitude. Their home planet is only viewed once, briefly, in the second book Eden’s Trial, where it is realised that they pretty much gutted their own planet millennia ago in some kind of (never-explained) accident. In the first book they are portrayed as principally evil, but by the third book they are more nuanced; they have a code, and are impressive fighters, even though they are losing that battle against an inter-galactic invading force. One of the humans who swore vengeance on them in the first book (The Eden Paradox) ends up reluctantly saluting their bravery when they sacrifice three battleships and a thousand warriors to save him and one of their masters.

Here’s an example from the forthcoming third book Eden’s Revenge of an exchange between one of the human characters and a race known as the Mannekhi, who do actually resemble humans (there is a reason for this…), except for their eyes. Because they look like us, I have to make them seem different, which I do via their history and their abrasive and sometimes ruthlessly violent behaviour. The protagonist in this section is a human called Kilaney, who was genetically re-engineered against his will to become a Q’Roth warrior for a time, during which he fought many space battles with the Mannekhi in the ongoing war. Now he looks human again, and has taken over a Mannekhi ship, and needs the crew’s help to save the human race, but the Mannekhi captain and crew are not fooled by his appearance. A Mannekhi female, Tessia, is the first to realise what he is, though not yet who he is:

Tessia withdrew her face from an enclosure screen, and gave Kilaney a long hard look. “He’s a hybrid. Human and Q’Roth.” One of the armed men’s pistol arm went rigid. “I wouldn’t do that, Tolbar,” she said. “He’s injected us all with a Kelleran bloodworm. He has the mother.”
            Kilaney shrugged. “I found them in your Medlab. I’d heard about them, though never seen them up close before. Pesky little critters. Is it true what they say about them?” He knew damned well, as the Mannekhi used them on prisoners, but he wanted to hear the captain say it, to acknowledge the status quo.
            The captain folded his arms. “You die, we die. You hurt, we hurt. You’re still in my chair.” 
          Kilaney got up, gesturing to the seat. As the captain took it, Kilaney added, “You have a good crew, captain.”
            The captain looked taller now, sitting in the command chair. “What is your name?” he asked.       
            “Does it really matter?” Kilaney didn’t want to give them his Q’Roth name, they might well have heard of Q’Tor, and decide that bloodworms or no bloodworms, he had to die.
            The captain spoke while he called up holos showing the Esperian system they were heading towards. “For Mannekhi, names are everything. Our lineage matters deeply to us. I am Xenic, of the clan of Karanashak, wardens of the twelve jewel planets of our Eastern sector for fifteen hundred generations. I am the first of my line to be captain, all my ancestors were traders, many of them in the Orrat, the resistance, thirty-three of them put to death at the hands of our patrons. I know all their names. If you ask any of my crew, you will hear similar heritage.” His pure black eyes bore down on Kilaney. “As I said, names are important to us. When your entire race is born into servitude, history becomes your lifeline. Our progeny will know our names, and we will live on through them. We are a proud people, and are not afraid to die. So, tell me, what is your name, your heritage.”    
            Kilaney felt stung. He’d slaughtered so many Mannekhi in space battles, yet had never met one before. He drew in a breath. “My name is Bill Kilaney, I was a general back on Earth, our only planet, destroyed by the Q’Roth.” He hesitated. He’d never told anyone the rest, except his wife Sarah back on Earth. But he spat it out. “My father was a petty thief who deserted my mother and I when I was still a child. I found out later he died in a bar fight. My mother, in desperation to feed me, became a prostitute, and at first cared for me, but the drugs she took to cope with what she did stole her from me, piece by piece, until she died in a fire in a cheap motel. I had one lucky break serving as a grunt during the War, when I took a knife missile in the gut intended for a Colonel, and still managed to rip the assassin’s throat out with my bare hands.” He looked down at his fingers. There had been so much anger at that time. “Life turned around after that, and the Colonel promoted me fast through the ranks, even if he didn’t make it through the war himself. My ancestors … I know little of them, the rest of the family shunned me, more so after I became a General.” He stared at the floor, then looked directly at the captain, Xenic. “I’m still a soldier. I have nothing else. I have no children, my wife is dead. I have to say I envy you your ancestry. All I have lies on the planet Esperia, and I am here, you are here, to protect them.”
            “Protect them from what, exactly?”
            Xenic’s lieutenant, Silas, spoke up. “From a Q’Roth destroyer.”
            Kilaney looked over to the Nav officer, then back to the captain. This was worse than he’d anticipated. “It is indeed your chair. I could not operate this ship on my own, certainly not in a battle. The Q’Roth are your sworn enemy, and –”
            Xenic held up a hand. “What was your Q’Roth designation?”
            Kilaney chewed his lip, then answered in a quiet voice. “Q’Tor.”
            Tessia’s eyes widened. She quit her station, stormed up to him, and with speed and power that surprised him, punched his jaw. Kilaney stood and took the force of the blow, while all of the crew except the captain gasped at the shared pain. The girl herself grunted with some satisfaction, and walked back to her station, nursing her jaw.
            The captain spoke, as the rest of his crew stroked their chins gingerly. “Thank you, Tessia.” He stood. “Silas, you have the bridge. Kilaney – that is what we will call you, or else we will all have very short lives – walk with me.”

So, now you know something about the Mannekhi, right? But you don’t really know them yet… Let’s dig just a little deeper. Here’s a different tack, same species in a later chapter, using a ‘story within a story’ frame (we naturally learn culture through stories), where Kilaney hears about a dark ritual during every Mannekhi child’s upbringing:

Fentra scorned the captain’s suggestion. “You can’t be serious? They’re just legends we tell our children after the Slapping.”
            Kilaney had no idea what ‘the Slapping’ was. Fentra decided to fill him in, her voice like a cold steel blade cutting through flesh. “We Mannekhi are born into servitude. When any Mannekhi child reaches four, the age we consider them responsible decision-makers, they go with their parents to the local Municipal Hall where others gather in front of one of our sponsor races’ Ambassadors. The Ambassador asks the child to do something.” She looked sideways, clearly remembering what it was for her. Kilaney felt sorry for Fentra already.
“For example,” she continued, “to stab my brother’s hand with a knife and make him bleed.” She straightened up. “The child refuses, of course, and then the parents, first the father, then the mother, slap the child across the face. Hard. Most children do not cry out, Kilaney, Q’Tor, whoever you are. It is their parents who weep, later. Some people never –” her voice cracked, she cleared her throat “– never have children, just to avoid this scarring event that keeps us forever in our place.”
Kilaney thought about it, could imagine how it would be one of a number of acts to break the spirit. Despite himself, he began to count up all the Mannekhi ships he had destroyed in the past ten years, calculating how many had been killed under his command.   

The above excerpt can allow the reader to ‘sympathise’ with the Mannekhi condition, (even if they are not that likeable when humanity first comes across them earlier in the book), but we could not truly imagine what it would be like to be them, having been enslaved and humiliated for thousands of generations, so they remain alien.

At the end of the day, what I try to do with my alien species is let the reader know them a little (enough to satisfy the ‘plot’), but also realise that there is much they do not know. That way, aliens remain alien.

To see how grandmasters do it, read Larry Niven’s Ringworld, any of David Brin’s earlier work (e.g. Startide Rising; the Uplift Wars), Stephen Baxter’s Timelike Infinity, and more recently Embassytown by China Mieville, which is not easy to get into, but is awesome at depicting a truly alien culture – he takes the epithet ‘resist the urge to explain’ to its limit, and gets away with it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his aliens…

Aside from the Eden Paradox books (The Eden Paradox, Eden’s Trial and Eden’s Revenge – the first two available on Amazon / Barnes & Noble, the third due out in December 2012), there are free stories which focus on alien cultures on in particular ‘Diplomatic solution’ and ‘The Sylvian Gambit’.
There are also other blogs on the website on what makes a good alien character, especially this one:

About the Author:  (Taken from Barry Kirwan's Author Page)

I was born in Farnborough, England, where I used to watch the fast-jet Red Arrows practice low-flying stunts. I fell in love first with science, then science fiction, reading the greats such as Asimov and Clarke. I then studied Psychology and majored in Human Reliability Assessment, which predicts accidents and how to avoid them, and ever since I've applied this approach to nuclear plants, offshore oil & gas platforms, and air traffic safety. But my passion for the past few years is writing science fiction, with a psychological angle, trying to figure out where we (humanity) are headed, and how different aliens could be, not just in looks, but in the way they think and communicate. This is what I explore in my Eden Trilogy, and also in my short stories, which are available free on my website I don't expect to sell a million books, just hope to get a few people excited by some of the ideas, worlds and characters I've created, and reflect about it all afterwards.


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