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Building An Alien Society From The Ground Up: ArmadilloCon 2003 panel

Participants: Carol Berg (Moderator), Deborah Chester, Jane Lindskold, Elizabeth Moon, Cary Osbourne, Vernor Vinge

Topic, according to the convention program: A major challenge to science fiction writers is creating believable aliens. Our panelists will give insight into their own creative processes in tackling this task.

Where do they start building an alien society? (Do they answer questionaires about alien societies? :-) What do SF writers fail to consider when they are creating alien societies? What are the ways writers can communicate their alien cultures to their readers, without doing an info dump?

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2003 can be found in my photo gallery.

Carol Berg opens the discussion by asking participants where do they start building an alien society? Do they base it on a human society, existing history? How do they develop their ideas as they work? For example, do they write background papers for their work? Do they answer questionaires about alien societies?

Elizabeth Moon starts by thinking about the sensory input of the alien race she's creating. She has an autistic child and she knows how the sensory processing of autistic people differs with that of normal people. She looks for things that are strikingly different from other aliens she's seen. [Laughter in the audience.] She thinks along the lines of: if their faces are shaped in a certain way, what sounds would they make? Can humans learn to speak their language? What if by some mutation they all became much smarter than their parents? How would they communicate?

Cary Osbourne bases the cultures she's creating on ancient cultures, which already seem alien to us today.

Deborah Chester's novel "Alien Chronicles" didn't have any human characters at all. Because of the plot, a pet-slave owner relationship, the closest thing she came to is her relationship with her dog. That's all she had to base the relationship between the princess and the protagonist on.

Jane Lindskold thinks of economics when creating an alien society. She starts by thinking of issues like these: if people have swords, where do they get the iron? What do they trade it for?

She also doesn't like monocultures where all individuals have been stamped with the same template. For example, she says, Tolkien's Elves must be learning-disabled: they've lived thousands of years and haven't learned or done very much!

Vernor Vinge wants his alien characters to be attractive, since most readers like to be intrigued by characters. So he has to cheat a little: if he likes his characters, they may not be so alien.

In some cases, certain characteristics of a race accentuates what they are doing, e.g. makes what they are doing more noble, because it is untypical for their race.

He does a lot of deep background research, which, he admits, means lying around reading magazines. (Laughter in the audience.) Shamefully, he says, a lot of his work is ad-hoc. He stops after developing a barely sufficient background for an alien world. He envies people who take this activity so far as to paint globes of alien worlds.

Vernor Vinge and Elizabeth Moon

Vernor Vinge and Elizabeth Moon

Carol Berg remarks that often alien cultures lack diversity like we have on earth, for example, the entire alien planet speaks one language. She asks, what else SF writers fail to consider when they are creating alien societies?

Jane Lindskold: They fail to think like an alien. Same thing happens when 6000 years in the future, the book characters still watch the same movies as we do today, play the same sports, listen to the same music, for example, Beatles. We must take human evolution into account. Humans far enough in the future will become alien. It is unlikely that they'll be reading Shakespeare because they will have become alien to Shakespeare.

Elizabeth Moon's background is biology, and as such, she wants her alien cultures be motivated by biology. They must have some of the same drives as us, e.g. eat and reproduce. But beyond that, we should not ascribe contemporary human motivations to them. That, in her opinion, is a common mistake in SF.

Deborah Chester. Aliens must act consistently alien.

Cary Osbourne. If they are too alien, it's hard to relate to them. But if you have a human protagonist who was supposed to understand the alien society, then the more alien they are, the better.

Elizabeth Moon. Kristine Smith's creatures are very alien, although humanoid. You expect them to act human, and they don't.

Vernor Vinge. An easy way to make aliens to appear more alien than usual in SF is make them not good with English. Heinlein did it to the Martians in Red Planet. They communicate through interpreter.

Vernor Vinge goes on to talk about the 0-coordinate approach. (Here is how I understood it, not sure if it's correct. -- E.) If you are "translating" the aliens' speech, and they come from a "well-understood", "mainstream" place, like hobbits from Shire, translate their language into a familiar dialect of English. If they come from, let's say, 1000 miles to the East, shift it into a different dialect of English.

Vernor Vinge and Elizabeth Moon

Again, Vernor Vinge and Elizabeth Moon

Jane Lindskold had a mainland Chinese classmate in graduate school. One day they were walking about in campus, and they saw a wedding ceremony. This was the first American wedding that the Chinese girl saw. As the bride stepped out of the limo, the Chinese girl lifted her hands to her face in frightened surprise: the bride was wearing all white, and in China that's the color of death. Intellectually, the Chinese girl, who was very smart, understood that this was a Western wedding custom, but emotionally, it was an equivalent of seeing a bride arriving to the wedding in a casket.

Carol Berg asks: what are the ways we can communicate our alien cultures to our readers, without doing an info dump?

Jane Lindskold likes to do split points of view. Show the same action from both the human and the alien points of view, and show that they aren't matching.

Elizabeth Moon likes to show different details in the action. An alien character should react to situation in ways humans wouldn't. She suggests to use different vocabulary for physical things, for example, when describing how they move.

Jane Lindskold. You'll get a very interesting alien if you write an alien who doens't use hands and can't talk.

Vernor Vinge. In the beginning of a novel it's important not to overwhelm the reader. Start by introducing things that are interesting and engaging, slowly revealing that it's not a human. Then progress to a revealing scene where it suddenly turns out that they are giant amoebas! (Vinge employed similar tactics in "Deepness in the Sky" when introducing the spider race.)

Carol Berg. Dinner parties are very revealing, as well as the habits of alien creatures go.

A comment from the audience. I can imagine that The Beatles will still be around 6000 years from now, given that we listen to, for example, Renaissance music.

Jane Lindskold: Yes, but they won't be the pop culture that everyone listens to.

Returning to the topic of how to best show aliens' alienness, Elizabeth Moon observes that C.J.Cherryh's "Hunter of Worlds" was so alien that she couldn't read it. It was very difficult to read. Sarah Zettel describes a very interesting contact between humans and aliens. Humans make assumptions about aliens and miss something that's so obvious to aliens they don't bother to explain it.

A question from the audience. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about alien syntax and grammar?

Deborah Chester: I used to, but I got smarter. I don't want to spend so much effort on minute detail.

Carol Berg admits that consistency of dictionary is good, but she doesn't go further in pursuit of perfection in the detail. It is good enough if the language indicates psychological differences between humans and aliens.

Elizabeth Moon mentions her own novel "Remnant Population" as an example of a book that went deeply into alien linguistics as aliens were trying to learn human language.

Carol Berg asks the panelists: What is each of their particular way to bring richness to the culture, to bring depth to the alien society?

Cary Osbourne gets inspiration from martial arts, which she's been practicing for many years, and the philosophies behind them.

Deborah Chester examines the values of an individual character, and asks herself, are they his/her/its own, or are they imposed by the society the character lives in?

Vernor Vinge. "Hybridization of local interests with things that are very strange can generate very much novelty." He looks at art and asks what the ecology of that world may be like?

Elizabeth Moon likes to include entertainment: do they dance, make music, draw? As well as religion. Similarities and differences between their art forms and ours enrich the story.

Jane Lindskold mentions same things as Elizabeth Moon, but adds lies. What are this culture's lies? What is it fooling itself about?