Did you miss me? I left ConCarolinas and headed into the North Carolina mountains for a writers’ retreat. Barely had cell signal on my phone. Absolutely no computer internet access. It was wonderful and terrible. One of my biggest sources of anxiety was missing my daily blog posts. I wrote them anyway, so they’re just being posted on a slight delay…
I must start with a correction to my previous post – the hazards of writing at 2am.
My first Saturday panel was “Creating Alien Societies”, with Allen Wold, Davey Beauchamp, JF Lewis, Paula Jordan, Stephen Antczak, and Stuart Jaffe. I came in about 15 minutes late, and they were in the middle of a great discussion about basing an alien culture on something you know, then turning it sideways. For instance, if you really know a lot about dog behavior, and you’re familiar with Japanese culture, you could create an alien dog-like race, with a Japanese-like culture. It will ring true to your readers who know anything about either, because of subtle details you’ll include based on reality.
Notable exceptions to this “rule” (or guideline) are Jack Vance and Stanislav Lem, who were capable of creating wholly incomprehensible alien cultures and making them work. I wanted to ask about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, but the moment passed too quickly for my not-fully-caffeinated brain.
There was some complaint about the homogeneous cultures on all Star Trek planets – and a nod to Star Wars for getting that right. Allen pointed out that you, as the author, don’t have to *include* details on all of the cultures on your created planet, but *you* should know about them, and that underlying knowledge will be felt by the reader. Let the reader do the work! “Bleed off the edges” of your map, like Tolkien did in Middle Earth. Tolkien had a very different approach – different cultures clashed and cooperated in a very richly realized worldview.
Doing Impressionism with your words (!) Leaving an impression requires being very specific with the details you include so the reader will fill in the rest. Firefly “Remembrance Day” episode – when Mal and Zoe pick a fight every year on this anniversary. It says so much without telling all the details. Lolita’s bitten-back fingernails identify her as a very young girl (well, perhaps for those who do not bite their nails…)
Great audience question: If you’re not a linguist, how do you handle alien languages? Common tropes include: universal translator, babel fish, ignore it, show some polyglot (watch videos or go spend some time in an area where this happens – London, New York, Miami, Boston).
You need about 400 words of an original language in order to provide enough structure and basic elements for readers to get anything out of it, such as place name meanings.
Gamers want *all* the details to build and play their games! Much more than required for fiction reading.
If you take an alien out of their own environment (land on Earth, for instance), you don’t have to describe all of their culture, history, geography, etc. Only enough to explain that individual alien. Great conflict/contrast if you then introduce another of that alien race – see how they’re different.
You still need internal consistency. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun feels like he’s making it up as he goes along.
You don’t have to describe every single aspect of a new world. Allen describes an Edgar Allen Poe story that begins with 30 pages of setting, then says “We’ll meet the characters another time.” Don’t do that.
Sometimes stories are written based on current understandings, and that can change over time. Hal Clements wrote stories based on the moons of Jupiter – Cal Tech students did research and proved he got it all wrong. Refer back to Joe Haldeman’s thoughts on research: “It’s just a story!”
Science fiction is becoming “science faction” – don’t judge the classics of the past by science known today. A story well told is no less well told because our knowledge of the science changes. A good story includes character, plot, and a good problem to solve.
But don’t waste details either. Harry Harrison made a big deal that the Stainless Steel Rat was born on a heavy planet (Jupiter), but never *used* that (to have him be super strong, for instance).
Star Trek’s “Devil in the Dark” episode with the Horta was one of their best, truly alien beings, and how the miners failed to understand.
Star Trek put an SF sheen on a lot of then-current social issues, like sexism and racism, which couldn’t be discussed or explored in “realistic” fiction shows of the day.
Dr Who did aliens very well, especially early on, such as communicating with the ant creatures.
Allen Steele’s Coyote, perhaps some of best SF in past 20 years. He’s a journalist by training, and the language reflects that. Not for everyone.
Julie Czerneda’s Species Imperative provides *great* detail on her alien species
You don’t have to be an expert, but you’ll be well served to do *some* research. Poul Anderson describes an alien species with eye stalks high on the forehead, which wouldn’t serve them well as prey or predators—a lack of basic animal physiology that jerks the reader out of their willing suspension of disbelief.
Alien societies don’t have to be animal based. Could be energy or mechanical. Gregory Benford uses all three!
You can include (or not) historical perspective of the aliens vis a vis your humans. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light – the aliens are so far advanced, they seem like gods. (Arthur C. Clarke’s wonderful quote: Any science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.”)
Jules Verne was a gentlemen’s scientist, while HG Wells was a fabulist – opposite ends of the spectrum.
Great audience question about writing alien perspective in 1st or 3rd person. Readers read stories because we relate to the characters in some way (with or against, for instance). However you choose to write about your aliens, you have to help the reader find some connection. Make sure*you* understand them well enough, and that will carry through to the reader. If you use 1st person POV, you can’t explain a lot of things up front, because the character won’t be thinking that way.
Absolutely avoid the “info dump” of “As you know…”! Don’t say this. Ever.
I already wrote in my previous post about the Magical Words Live Action Slush Readings on Saturday. Next up, the Magical Words “Beginnings” Seminar…
Robert Sequoia, Bequest
June word count