I am very excited to welcome the lovely Juliette Wade to the library. She just had a third story published in Analog: At Cross Purposes (just look at that awesome picture), and she's here to share some insights with those of us interested in creating alien societies. I hope you are all taking notes.
Using Animal Species As Inspiration For An Alien Culture
Many thanks to Jaleh for inviting me to do this post!
I'm sure many of you are familiar with the idea of using the physiology of Earth animals as inspiration for creating aliens. Catlike aliens have been done by Larry Niven and by Anne McCaffrey, for example, not to mention James Cameron! I've seen doglike aliens, and grasshopper-like aliens, and many different physical models. These models typically come along with a different kind of cuisine that fits the animal's diet - often raw meat in the case of carnivores!
Since I write about aliens a lot, I've discovered that many people have an immediate reaction against using animal models. They figure it's been done before, or that even though the aliens look like other species, they act far too much like humans.
This is sometimes true. However, if an alien species looks animal and acts human, that's usually because the animal model hasn't been pursued deeply enough. An animal model can give you a lot more than simply physiology and diet. If you really dive into your research about a particular species, you can find more information to inspire you in the areas of social structure, culture and behavior.
In order to show how this works, I thought I'd give a few examples from the animal-like aliens I've created.
In my Analog 2008 story, "Let the Word Take Me," the Gariniki were based on geckos. I wanted them to be cold-blooded, and I wanted to see if I could make that have consequences for culture. An individual traveling the desert therefore took along "sun armor" to protect herself, rather than looking for rocks to hide under (they are a bit big for that!). A leather coat with air holes in it, covered with white feathers, would be a culture-based way for an individual to protect herself from overheating. And it looked nice, too!
Wolf language, wolf architecture?
In my Analog 2009 story, "Cold Words," the Aurrel were based on wolves. Wolves operate on a social model with strict rankings within the pack, so the culture of the Aurrel elaborated on this. Their language had different dialects for those claiming a dominant social position (Cold words) and those accepting a lesser social position (Warm words). Their language was also presumed to have evolved in a hunting context, where messages to other wolves on the run would have to be preceded by attention-getting barks - and I structured my English rendering of their language to reflect this. When dogs meet, they sniff out one another's intentions, often with very active confrontational behavior (whether or not they are friends), so in each home I put an entry room called the "confronting room" which would be essentially unfurnished to allow space for such greetings and potential fights. I also made the door into the "den rooms" of the house have slots, so that occupants of the house could smell who had come to visit.
My current Analog story, "At Cross Purposes" (out now!), has an alien species, the Cochee-coco, based on river otters. I wanted these guys to have technology better than the humans in the story, but also to have technology very much unlike ours. I figured it would be too human-like to have otters sitting in chairs with keypads in front of them to control a ship... so I went back to otter physiology and behavior. A high metabolism means lots of frenetic activity for short periods, followed by intervals of rest and eating. Furthermore, a species accustomed to snatching fish underwater would easily re-adapt this to other purposes. So I had the bridge contain resting couches where otters could take breaks and sleep between their short shifts; I gave it an adjoining water-room full of fish for snacking and keeping up energy. And I had the ship's controls be three-dimensional, tactile holograms that swam by and could be grabbed (like fish) and manipulated by the individuals in charge.
This is just a small taste of the opportunities for culture that you might find in an animal species. If you're setting out to create an alien culture from an animal model, here are some steps I recommend.
1. Begin with physiology. Change it.
Take the basic animal appearance and make sure to modify it in systematic, obvious ways so that it's clear not all of the assumptions associated with the animal species can be imported without question.
2. Make a list of interesting physiological traits.
What you consider interesting is up to you. Metabolism might give you inspiration; so may diet and digestion. The physiology of the mouth is full of possibilities for alien language phonology. If the species has super-sensitive hands (as raccoons do), or excellent eyesight, make a note of it.
3. Make a list of interesting behavioral traits. Separate those that influence individual behavior from those that inform community behavior.
The body language typical of the animal species can give you a lot to work with when you have individuals talking and expressing their emotions. You can also find information that will help you create a larger society and its features, such as information about where and how breeding happens, or how many individuals typically live together, how much mixing there is of the sexes, etc.
4. Once you've compiled the animal features and behaviors that interest you, extrapolate.
Think about clothing and what its use might be. Think about what kinds of houses your people would live in, and how they would be structured. What do their special senses allow them to achieve that might not be possible for humans? How would small details of animal physiology be relevant to manners and other forms of cultural behavior?
5. Check the integrity of your system.
This is an important step to keep your animal features from taking you in twenty different directions and creating chaos. Just as animal behaviors intertwine and create a whole, so should the behaviors, activities and artifacts you create. Cultural systems interconnect in a myriad ways, and one behavior leads to or relates to another in a systematic way that makes sense to the individual and to the group as a whole.
I hope these thoughts give you some ideas for your own projects. Have fun!
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise in linguistics and anthropology, Juliette. It really shines in your stories and articles. Those of you who don't already have her on your blogroll or in your bookmarks are really missing out even if you don't write SF. Check out her personal blog and her writing blog. I've been following TalkToYoUniverse since shortly after I started this blog. She frequently amazes me with some sort of insight that I can apply to my own writing.
"Let the Word Take Me" in Analog Magazine, July/August 2008
"Cold Words" a novelette in Analog Magazine, October 2009
"The Eminence's Match" Eight Against Reality anthology, July 2010 (see my review)
"At Cross Purposes" in Analog Magazine, January/February 2011 issue, in stores now