Needing aliens

November 10, 2017

Cover art for Paranoid Boyd #2 by Black Malcerta

When I decided to make the leap from writing contemporary fantasy to writing a space opera series with my book The Wrong Stars, I spent a lot of time thinking about the elements of the genre I love most and wanted to explore…I started thinking about aliens.

I knew my series needed aliens, just like it needed mysterious ancient technological artifacts, space pirates, snarky computers, and cool spaceships. Turning to the task of creating aliens right after I’d put together my (mostly) human crew made me hyperaware of the issue of culture. One thing that bothers me in some science fiction (more often cinematic and televisual than written, but often there, too) is alien monocultures. Unless you’re talking about the Borg or Cybermen or other sorts of hive-minds, it never made sense to me to have an entire species of aliens with a single culture. How many thousands of cultures are there on Earth, after all, and how many subcultures within those cultures? From differences in music, religion, recreation, art, literature, food, philosophy, sexual preferences — cultures and subcultures get so wonderfully and weirdly granular. And yet, so often when our fictional humans encounter aliens, they discover the whole species consists of noble warriors or aloof philosophers or sadistic experimenters or ruthless capitalists. Where are the pacifist Klingons who run sustainable free-range krada ranches? Where are the Wookies who like to shave their entire bodies and refuse to celebrate Life Day because it’s gone too corporate? The Volus philanthropists? The punk rock Vulcans? Sure, sometimes there’s a plot point involving some rogue weirdo outlier, but in any alien species there should plausibly be whole communities, whole cities, whole religions or sects or affinity groups, who march to the beat of a different Kintarrian Death Drum.

I didn’t want to have an alien monoculture…but I see why writers do it that way. It’s hard enough to create an alien race without accounting for their ten thousand cultural variants too. Trying to cover a halfway plausible range of cultures would be unwieldy, impractical, and would serve as a distraction to readers anyway. Still, I wanted to address my annoyance, so I thought: wouldn’t it be funny if my aliens were defined by their very lack of a single culture? If, indeed, they had a culture of inconsistency, mutual exclusion, contradiction, and self-invention?

That’s how the Liars were born. That’s not what my aliens call themselves – they call themselves thousands of different things – but it’s what humans call them, eventually.

Tim Pratt
Would I Lie to You? Creating Alien Cultures