You Can Hardly Have A Space Opera Without Aliens
Okay, it is possible. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation features humans only. But a mainstay of the genre has long been the appearance of strange alien races, some far more advanced than humans. They were in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, in Buck Rogers, and of course in Star Wars and most of the major space operas on TV, such as Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Farscape.
Part of any adventure story has long been visiting the strange, the foreign, and the exotic. From Allan Quatermain to Tarzan to John Carter to Luke Skywalker, the adventurer has found himself surrounded by those unlike himself. Aliens provide that exoticism and sense of a far bigger universe.
So, How Do We Design Aliens?
Coming up with exotic-looking aliens is the easy part. If you look at the Alien Races page, you’ll find descriptions of a number of wildly different morphologies. The limits lie in the author’s imagination. And this can be found throughout the genre, too. Lensman featured aliens ranging from amphibious Nevians to barrel-shaped, blind Rigelians. A lot of TV space opera has gone with Star Trek‘s Rubber Forehead Aliens, but Farscape in particular had some particularly exotic shapes.
Sometimes, an animal or insect can provide some inspiration. Variations on aliens from other stories can also work, as long as they aren’t obvious copies. They have to seem alien, too. A glorified fairy-tale talking animal could pull the reader out of the story.
Coming up with culture and mindset is where things get more interesting.
Alien Societies and Modes of Thought
A lot of people will pontificate about how aliens will never think anything like us. This is usually offered with a certainty that seems a bit misplaced, since we have a sample size of precisely one (humanity). Sure, human thought can vary pretty wildly in some cases, but the degree to which some people insist aliens will be different would be considered “insanity” in humans.
The Unity Wars is going to be approaching aliens a bit more like John Ringo describes, in the introduction to Live Free or Die:
“This is not a book for people who love the ‘other.’ There are no ‘original’ concepts of how otherworldly aliens would be. One of the nice things about Schlock is that aliens are just people. Not particularly good or bad, not particularly great or menial, not particularly otherworldly. Just people. As are Howard’s humans. They haven’t changed themselves into something unrecognizable. They’re just people doing their jobs. (In the case of Tagon’s Toughs, killing beings and breaking things for as much money as they can squeeze.) And in this book and the others that I hope follow, that’s what you’re going to get. People being people and aliens being not so much different.”
But Shouldn’t Aliens Be Alien?
There are a couple of points here. One, we’re positing aliens that can communicate with humans. For communication to happen, there has to be some kind of common ground. So, they can’t be so unfathomably different that just talking to one threatens your average human with insanity. We might come away from a conversation with a North Korean thinking that they are insane. But I doubt that their indoctrination would necessarily threaten our sanity. We can still communicate, to some extent, provided either we speak Korean, they speak English, or we have an interpreter.
The second point is this: Some things are going to be universal. Some of the same people positing functionally insane aliens still insist that mathematics is a universal language. Logic is logic. Math is math. A species that insists that black is white, because they are “alien,” isn’t going to get off the surface of their planet. If the aliens reason, which they would have to, then they are going to come to some of the same conclusions that human thinkers have.
The aliens in The Unity Wars are thinking, rational beings. Which means, not unlike the aliens in Star Wars or Lensman, they are people. Differently-shaped people, with different language and history, but still people.
No Alien Monocultures
Since the aliens are people, then the probability that they are going to be the sort of mono-cultural archetypes that they often appear to be in some other science fiction goes away. There will be no single personality for any particular alien race. (Think, “All Klingons are honorable warriors.” No dice.) Most of them will have many different factions and cultures, and even will mix with factions and cultures of other races. It’s the way humans have behaved for centuries, and can be expected of other thinking beings, as well.
So, don’t be surprised when you find planets and groups made up of several wildly different alien races. Alliances ebb and flow, and sometimes ideas are more powerful than biological affinities.
There might even be some exploration of the metaphysical elements of this, as the stories unfold, too.
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