Science Fiction and Monocultures
This article originally appeared on the author’s Blogspot in February 2017 and reprinted in the May/June 2017 issue.
Despite my constant fantasy gaming, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for science fiction. A lot of it stems from watching and reading about Star Trek as a kid, and from there, I’ve read different science fiction books. However, there has always been something I was never a fan of in sci fi. Monocultures. Mostly found in space operas, it tends to take an alien race and oversimplify them to a couple of traits. Klingons are the honorable warrior race. Vulcans are the logical scientist race. Romulans are super imperialistic and machiavellian. Ferengi are space merchants. And so on.
In a way, it simplifies the races for the viewer to be able to understand and makes it easier to differentiate between them. And when you have 5+ alien species in your universe, it can be tiring to consistently add different factions and nations for every single alien race. However, I’ve always felt a disconnect in monolithic world governments with a single culture. I feels like it pigeonholes an alien group into a certain niche and can make it difficult or even jarring to add differing characteristics to someone of the same race. Try imagining a pacifist Klingon. It’s a bit weird. It also doesn’t feel very realistic. If you look at humanity, there are so many different governments and idiosyncrasies between different nations that it can be weird just to have everyone on one planet the same.
In the game I'm going to run with Stars Without Number, I am endeavoring to have at least three factions for each alien race to give the races more depth and complexity. This will make first contact and continued diplomacy more nuanced with the players. Here is how I want to do the different cultures. Much of it is inspired by rudimentary knowledge of politics as well as the video game Stellaris, a grand strategy sci fi game which I have really enjoyed. Since this blog is talking about politics, I’d like to stress that nothing down below is meant to push any agenda or offend anyone of a particular political bloc. This is just for entertainment purposes only.
Nature and Nurture
Since I’m working with aliens, the first thing I start with is their biology. Making aliens mean you can really go crazy with how their biology works. Looking at Earth creatures is a great way to make some truly alien-feeling sophonts. How do your aliens eat? Are they carnivores, herbivores or omnivores? How do they reproduce? Are they like humans, with XY chromosomes? Is it something more akin to asexual reproduction, or something like parthenogenesis? Can their genders shift, like some amphibians? Do they have more than four limbs, or multiple eyes? Maybe they have alternate ways of certain biological functions, like using antennae for smell and hearing, or spiracles down their sides for breathing, or organs that can sense bioelectricity. How are their family units set up? Or communities? These are all good questions to ask yourself when developing an alien race for your setting. What I generally do is pick an animal and do some light research on their biology. Then, I use that to extrapolate how a society of sapient creatures of that biology would function.
Of course, biology is only part of the equation here. A creature’s surroundings play a huge part in their cultural ethics. Terrain and climate are two of the largest factors in this. If their surroundings are harsh with terrible weather, you can bet that their communities would be smaller and more insular. They may be nomadic, moving to better areas. They could also be raiders, attacking other civilizations that have more resources to supply their own tribes. Aliens living in arable land would be able to support larger cities and boast walls and armies to protect them from raids. Religion and culture can be affected by one’s surroundings. A nation of peoples that live in pastures and steppes may revere a god of the great sky, while those living in mountainous areas would venerate the peaks themselves as gods. People living along the oceans would have festivals celebrating fish caught, or those living on pastures would have harvest festivals come autumn. Just look at Earth cultures to see different cultures and try and work them with the biology of the creature.
Surroundings don’t just include the terrain and climate. Look at the people and animals that your race has around it. Are their neighbors fairly friendly, or is there a sort of rivalry going on? Is warfare endemic or more structured? What about the animals? Are there any animals that the race hate and fear? Or hunt and revere? Or keep as pets or livestock? The relationships with other creatures can go a long way to making your aliens feel real.
Ethics are the core principles and beliefs of the alien race. Whenever I describe a government, settlement, or faction, I like to use a set of ethic tags to describe the organization. I find that doing so can organize and show what the different ethics are for a group of people or aliens. I have a set of seven categories, each with two opposite tags to describe a group of sapient creatures. They are purposefully vague to incorporate a variety of sub-ethics under one tag. Just remember that there is a wide spectrum of beliefs that could fit under one tag. They are inspired by the ethics of Stellaris, with some more added or renamed for more clarity and depth.
- This category is how well a group of aliens deals with outsiders and foreign ideas. An insular group tends to not trust outsiders and will shun beliefs that are different from their own. Some are friendly but want outsiders to assimilate into their beliefs to maintain a tightly-knit community. Others can be cruel and petty and will drive deviants out by force if necessary. A cosmopolitan group has a wide variety of cultures and differing beliefs are simply a way of life. Most places tend to be large cities or trade hubs that see different aliens. While there is a general integration and acceptance of different peoples, sometimes cultural friction can happen between two or more groups. This can make it hard to let go of old grudges.
- This is the category on how a species may prefer to be ruled. Some may want a more decisive rule by a singular autocracy or a group of elite oligarchs. Others may prefer a bottom-up democratic or anarchist rule where everyone has a say. Some may want the government to intervene and regulate things, while others want the bureaucracy to stay out of their way of life.
- This is how much religion and spiritualism affects the every day lives of an alien. Spiritual aliens may place an importance on religion and worship in their personal lives, or perhaps they make it more of a part of the government and culture (like a theocracy). Secular aliens may simply have some spiritual beliefs but leave it in private, keeping it away from their public lives and society. Others may believe spirituality to be harmful to the individual and to society and will outright shun religion.
- This is how aliens approach warfare and peace. Militaristic aliens may be imperialistic hawks that wish to spread their control over other countries for their resources. Or, they may instead be more casual with warfare as a good option against enemies, but remain relatively peaceful with allies. Pacifists tend more towards diplomatic solutions, but may still have a good military for defensive wars only, or may only engage in wars of liberation. On the extreme end, they may simply eschew a military, both formal or paramilitary, and instead focus on peaceful and diplomatic solutions.
- This is how sophonts view themselves as a part of a whole. Collectivists see themselves as a cog in the machine, or their society as a sum of its parts. Many can focus on the greater good and can vary in limited individual freedoms (or outright ban them). Individualists place an importance on individual rights and abilities. They see it as something to be celebrated and use individual talents to better the community. They can vary on altruism to their peers, or simply focus on their own goals and happiness (sometimes at the expense of others).
- This is how aliens view themselves in the Great Game of interstate diplomacy. Isolationist species want to be left alone. They generally do a policy of unilateralism, keeping a safe distance even from their allies. Some may simply close their borders to some or all trade and immigration. Expansionists keep up with the political scene and remain big players in it. Some may expand via more diplomatic and economic means, saving military action for proxy wars. Others may go full military imperialist, ruling over entire planets.
- This is how much importance a race places on material things and wealth. An ascetic race of aliens believe that life is fleeting and ‘stuff’ isn’t as important as people. Many eschew material goods for a lifestyle of self-improvement, or for community bonding. Materialists love their wealth and living the good life. Many see wealth as a way of improving living standards and technology for the betterment of their society. Some may also have a love of seemingly trite things, like lifestyles of celebrities.
From these ethics, you can start building a culture based on them. How would a race of spiritual materialists work out? Or militaristic isolationists? Mix and match two or more of them and try and build how a culture would form around those tenets.
Once you get ethics, you can look at the styles of government. I use the Wikipedia listing here to look at what could fit for a race. Governments vary a great deal, so it’s hard to really categorize them. Below is a super simplified list for the sake of RPGs, not for actual political discourse. Generally I look at the following categories (again, credit to Stellaris for this):
- Who rules the state:
- This is probably the first question I ask. Is it a rule by an elite class of people (aristocracy), or ruled by a singular group or person (despotism)?
- Who empowers the leader:
- This is the second question. Who empowers the mantle of leadership for a state? Is is a democracy, where the leader is elected? Is it authoritarian, where the leader claims the title through might? Is it oligarchic, where a select group of people choose to run things?
- The power structure:
- How is power distributed? Is it a highly centralized unitary state, a more open federation, a decentralized confederation, or a casual alliance of like-minded states? Maybe they are fragmented nation-states in a never-ending cold war. Is it a republic, where political matters are public, or are legislative and executive matters private?
- How the state handle certain processes:
- There are categories that a civilization has under control. Things like economics, social issues, class stratification, foreign and domestic policies, citizenship, immigration and emigration, military and security, law enforcement, jobs, resources, and means of production are all good examples of what a state needs to handle. Using the ethics from above, you can figure much of this out.
- Control of the state:
- How much authority does the state have over the above processes? Is it anarchy, where the authority is light and comes directly from the people? A minarchy with minimal control? A lighter, more libertarian touch? Is is more centralized like a unitary state, or more decentralized like a federation or confederation? Is it authoritarian, where the people have few individual freedoms, or totalitarian, where the government have full control of every aspect of their peoples’ lives? Does the government only handle matters of security and defense, or do they also control economics and social policies?
- Relations with other:
- No state exists in a vacuum. What do other governments think about your alien race? Are they seen as true friends, allies of convenience, or enemies? What do your alien government’s own people think of their masters? Do they see them as a benevolent force, or a coercive and malevolent entity?
Those are the questions I ask myself when building an alien society. When making governments, it’s always good to have conflict that can add story ideas for your adventure. One thing I stress for making a believable government that is foreign to one’s beliefs is to try and look up both the positive and negative aspects of it, then apply it. It’s really easy to insert your own political bias when coming up with a group. Remember that these are aliens with their own way of thinking. Of course, if you want your aliens to be the bad guys, or you are just tired of politics in general, then you can certainly simplify their government. Sometimes you just want to topple an evil military dictatorship and free their people. That’s fine for an adventure I feel.
Of course, even with everything above, there are always bound to be those that do not conform to ethics based on anything from above. Just by looking at humans, there is a huge variety of cultures, sub-cultures, governments, ethics, philosophies, and communities. This is where making an alien species can get really hard. Generally, after I’ve done the above, I then treat sub-cultures as a sort of spectrum of the above beliefs. For example, if I’ve made a race of aliens that lived in colonies not unlike ants, I would have them tend to more autocratic or oligarchic societies. This represents their collective community ruled by a queen or a group of breeding drones. However, I could have sub cultures and factions that want to enact change. Maybe they desire less authoritative rule and want a more republic government with individual freedoms. Or alternatively, maybe they want to centralize their government more to an autocratic rule with a focus on the greater good and stratification. Some may want a less insular society while others demand to remain isolationists. Really, I’ll take the above ethics and see how I can fit the opposite with a society. So if a culture is more secular, I try and see what would make some more spiritual while sticking to several of the factors that made their culture who they are.
That’s my thought process when I’m fleshing out alien races. While it seems like a lot to do, once you get used to it, it’s a fairly intuitive process. Everything leads to the next, and the more that you detail your creatures, the more life you truly breath into them. In the future, I want to show and example or two that puts this method into practice.