Would I Lie to You? Creating Alien Cultures

When I decided to make the leap from writing contemporary fantasy to writing a space opera series with my book The Wrong Stars, I spent a lot of time thinking about the elements of the genre I love most and wanted to explore. I adore the snark and smarts of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, the oddball grandeur of Cordwainer Smith, the wild freewheeling of Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them, the bizarre grunginess of M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, the human intrigue of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, the creepy bleakness of Peter Watts’s Blindsight, but also I play a ton of Mass Effect and I grew up with Star Wars and the Alien franchise and Edmond Hamilton’s Star Wolf and Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat. Any space opera I wrote was going to include big ideas and literary ambition, yes, but with an engine of pulpy fun beneath it all. Of all the big ideas that can drive space opera (politics, military battles, first contact, big dumb objects, big smart objects) the one that interested me the most was the clash of cultures: outsiders discovering worlds that challenge their expectations, wildly disparate characters forced to cooperate, and the discovery of common ground in uncommon circumstances.

I knew I wanted to write about a ragtag crew of characters with a lot of built-in personality conflicts, but also an atmosphere of mutual respect and affection. I wanted diversity of experience, gender identities, and worldview. I thought a lot about what the cultures of humans spread out through the solar system (and colony worlds throughout the galaxy) might look like, with a particular eye for peculiar edge cases. There would be rugged frontierspeople, corporate robber barons, and zealots of various sorts. Before long I’d devised a 23rd-century spaceship crew making a living on the ragged edge of our solar system, including a cyborg with a penchant for self-improvement, an adherent of an ecstatic mystery religion, the victims/benefactors of alien emergency trauma medicine, a hypercompetent divorcee with control issues, a 21st-century biologist thawed from cryo-sleep, and an artificial intelligence based on the template of a human mind (with all the attendant psychological baggage). I had a marvelous time working out the crew’s backgrounds and figuring out how their various origins would affect their psychology and interactions…

And then I started thinking about aliens.

I knew my series needed aliens, just like it needed mysterious ancient technological artifacts, space pirates, snarky computers, and cool spaceships. Turning to the task of creating aliens right after I’d put together my (mostly) human crew made me hyperaware of the issue of culture. One thing that bothers me in some science fiction (more often cinematic and televisual than written, but often there, too) is alien monocultures. Unless you’re talking about the Borg or Cybermen or other sorts of hive-minds, it never made sense to me to have an entire species of aliens with a single culture. How many thousands of cultures are there on Earth, after all, and how many subcultures within those cultures? From differences in music, religion, recreation, art, literature, food, philosophy, sexual preferences—cultures and subcultures get so wonderfully and weirdly granular. And yet, so often when our fictional humans encounter aliens, they discover the whole species consists of noble warriors or aloof philosophers or sadistic experimenters or ruthless capitalists. Where are the pacifist Klingons who run sustainable free-range krada ranches? Where are the Wookies who like to shave their entire bodies and refuse to celebrate Life Day because it’s gone too corporate? The Volus philanthropists? The punk rock Vulcans? Sure, sometimes there’s a plot point involving some rogue weirdo outlier, but in any alien species there should plausibly be whole communities, whole cities, whole religions or sects or affinity groups, who march to the beat of a different Kintarrian Death Drum.

I didn’t want to have an alien monoculture… but I see why writers do it that way. It’s hard enough to create an alien race without accounting for their ten thousand cultural variants too. Trying to cover a halfway plausible range of cultures would be unwieldy, impractical, and would serve as a distraction to readers anyway. Still, I wanted to address my annoyance, so I thought: wouldn’t it be funny if my aliens were defined by their very lack of a single culture? If, indeed, they had a culture of inconsistency, mutual exclusion, contradiction, and self-invention?

That’s how the Liars were born. That’s not what my aliens call themselves—they call themselves thousands of different things—but it’s what humans call them, eventually. The first Liars that humans encountered appeared outside Earth in a small fleet of ships and promised humanity the opportunity to join a galactic commonwealth of intelligent aliens, to solve all our problems with their technological prowess, and to open the galaxy to us… if we’d give them Venus to set up a little outpost on. The aliens started trading with humans, offered some genuinely world-altering tech, and if some of the things they gave us didn’t quite work as advertised, and if some of their story seemed inconsistent or unbelievable, well, people chalked it up to interspecies miscommunications.

Then those aliens vanished into the Venusian clouds, having made a lot of promises that didn’t materialize, and not long after, another group—recognizably the same species, but calling themselves by a different name—arrived, and when we asked them about the galactic confederation, the newcomers said the first aliens we’d talked to were liars. The galaxy wasn’t a place of peace and fellowship, it was a nightmare realm of endless battle, with scores of species clashing for supremacy. We were victims of alien con artists, the new aliens said, but they’d brought the truth, and if we knew what was good for us, we’d join their faction and accept their protection from the army of ravenous alien grasshoppers bent on stripping our planet of all its natural resources. Securing that protection would hardly cost us anything—we weren’t really using Mercury for anything anyway, right?

Before we could come to grips with that revelation, another ship arrived, and those aliens said the first two groups couldn’t be trusted, and we should align ourselves with them, because we’d need their help to stop a cosmic horror that was switching off the stars like lamps. Incidentally, they liked the look of some of Jupiter’s moons, and they only wanted four or five of them in exchange for helping us set up a force-field to protect Earth from extermination…

By this point humans were getting wary, and over the following centuries, they encountered thousands of bands of Liars, and none of their stories added up or could be reconciled. The aliens weren’t merely con artists, deceiving us for personal gain—every group had a different story about their origins, their goals, and the nature of the universe too. Every time the Liars claimed to have an ancestral homeworld and humans took a look, we found uninhabitable rocks where their species couldn’t have evolved, or sometimes no planet at all. Despite that, the Liars became valuable trading partners, with technology far in advance of anything on Earth, including wormhole generators that opened the galaxy to colonization—people just had to be really careful to make sure the things the Liars were offering for trade worked as they claimed, and never pay in advance.

From a story perspective the Liars were fun, and funny, and rich in possibilities for an ongoing series: some bands of Liars are secretive, some are flamboyant, some are hostile, some are incomprehensible, some are friendly, some are way too friendly, and so on. But the Liars felt a little bit frothy and ridiculous, too, and while I love pulp, I like pulp with underlying substance, so I started to think seriously about what would produce a species dedicated to such radical acts of self-invention and mythologizing. 

Things really clicked for me when my friend Amanda, who’s in grad school at Stanford studying systemic racial bias, invited me to see writer Nalo Hopkinson speak to a small group of students. We ate some great Caribbean food, and then Nalo (who is a wonderful person as well as being a literary genius) talked about her upcoming novel Blackheart Man. It’s not even remotely a space opera—it’s set in a fantastical alternate world that resembles the 18th-century Caribbean—but a lot of what she said about world-building, developing the cultures in the book, and the power of stories and storytelling in people’s lives, resonated strongly with me.

I kept talking with my friend afterward, walking around campus and having one of those endless and wide-ranging discussions that took Nalo’s discussion as a jumping-off point for musings about the power of narrative to inform culture and give life meaning. Every culture, and most subcultures, have their sacred stories, creation myths, and foundational narratives, after all: the stories that tell you not just who you are, but why you are the way you are, and why you should value the things your people do. Whether it’s the revelation of a god, the example set by a culture hero, or the crucible of shared trauma that bound your people together in a specific way, the stories we tell about ourselves can shape our whole worldviews.

When my friend Amanda started talking about diaspora cultures—people who left or lost or were forced from their homelands—and the stories they tell about themselves, something clicked for me: that was the real secret of the Liars. Without going too deeply into spoiler territory, I’ll say that the Liars lost their home world and their own culture(s) a long time ago, in a traumatic and definitive way, and splintered into a diaspora of separate groups that retained only fragments of their original identities and histories, if that. As they spread out through space and tried to create new lives for themselves and their families/tribes/bands, they were rootless and without purpose. But insofar as one can generalize about a species, Liars are smart and creative creatures, tinkerers, and improvisers, playful explorers who love discovering new things—kind of like humans. (Or otters. Or octopuses, which the Liars vaguely resemble, if octopuses liked to graft on extra limbs or cybernetic implants sometimes.)

With an absence of any foundational myths passed down through the generations, with no sacred stories of their own, the Liars developed a culture of self-invention (and reinvention), telling themselves new stories about themselves: some saw themselves as refugees, some warriors, some pioneers, some pirates, some protectors, some missionaries for faiths they invented yesterday—there’s even a sect of Liars who practice radical honesty, or at least claim to.

That’s what cultures and subcultures are for, after all: they tell us who we are, and who we could be, and provide a framework to give our lives meaning. I write stories for a living, so I’m deeply invested in the idea that storytelling can change the world, change how we feel about ourselves, and show us new paths we can follow—on a cultural as well as an individual level. You can’t do anything if you can’t imagine it first. You can’t be anything unless you can tell yourself a story about becoming it.

That’s how my frothy silly idea about pathologically lying space squid became something rather more substantive, and provided a rich vein of thematic material I can mine throughout the series—and that’s why I dedicated The Wrong Stars to Amanda, because she revealed a way for me to make a joke into something serious and meaningful. With luck, it will mean something to my readers, too.

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of over 20 novels, most recently space opera The Wrong Stars, first in the Axiom series. His short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and other nice places. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He’s a senior editor at Locus magazine, and lives in Berkeley, California, with his family. Every month he writes a new story for his Patreon supporters at patreon.com/timpratt.

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