This series is intended to help writers brainstorm the elements that go into creating convincing aliens*. It can also be applied to creating convincing nonhuman fantasy creatures, artificial intelligences, and so on.
My science fiction novel, Absence of Blade, is set in a universe where humans are only one of many intelligent species, who maintain an uneasy coexistence in a complex web of interstellar relations. I pushed the creative envelope by making the lead characters members of a nonhuman species, the Osk, and narrating large sections of the novel through their eyes. To do so effectively, I had to create characters with relatable emotions and inner lives who were nonetheless distinctly alien.
Part 2: Culture and Society
Once you’ve built a convincing biology and ecological niche for your alien species*, it’s time to think about culture. Of course, many nonhuman animals are social, and some, such as tool-using primates and hive-building insects, could be said to have a material culture. However, human culture and society is distinguished by its complexity and variety, which has allowed us to successfully–maybe too successfully–exploit many ecological niches.
Along with material alterations to our environment such as agriculture, industry, and the arts, culture also encompasses things such as written and spoken language, social structures, and religion. If your alien species possesses human-level intelligence or greater, it would likely have cultural expression as well.
What is culture? At its most basic level, it’s communication. Culture allows ideas and knowledge to be transmitted across distances and across time. The first thing to consider in building an alien culture is the way your species communicates: do they have spoken language? Perhaps they communicate by transmitting patterns of light, radar, or sonar, or through sign language. The kind of culture your alien species develops will be shaped by its primary mode of communication: for instance, a species that communicates using pulses of light might develop a highly complex visual language, but have no concept of spoken language (and be puzzled by humans who keep making nonsense sounds at them).
Another element to consider is your species’ social structure: are they social or territorial? Do they form family groups or are they usually solitary? Is there a concept of genders, and is it one we would recognize? Is there a concept of the individual, and how is this defined?
Like communication, your species’ social behaviors and concept of the self will be influenced by their biology to some degree. For example, in A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge creates a very convincing hive mind in the tynes, caninelike aliens for whom individuals are made up of several distinct bodies that communicate with each other via scents and ultrasonic sound.
The hive nature of their consciousness affects every aspect of their self-conception: when bodies die, new members can be added, which affects the entire system’s sense of self. Furthermore, intelligence is shared between bodies. Various members possess different skills and aptitudes, including the ability to speak, with some segments being nonverbal.
Having defined from the outside what type of alien society this is, it’s equally important to look at epistemology, the culture’s conception of itself and its place in the universe. Try for a moment to imagine yourself as a member of this culture: what is its place in the world? Does the culture have a religion or philosophy, or maybe several competing ones? How do these belief systems influence the species’ other areas of knowledge, including science and technology?
In his Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer has created a convincing alien civilization in the Quintaglios, who evolved from Earth dinosaurs which aliens transported to a distant world millions of years ago. The Quintaglio planet orbits a gas giant and has a single large continent, Land, with the rest covered by ocean. It’s also tidally locked, meaning the same side of the planet always faces the gas giant. Their ideas about the nature of their world is shaped by its geography and planetary system: Quintaglios consider the gas giant, which is only visible from the other side of the world, to be the face of God, and make religious pilgrimages to see it.
What Not to Do: The Monolithic Alien Culture
Depending on the scope of your story this may or may not be doable, but if it’s possible, do not make the alien culture a monolith. I’ve read stories by otherwise very creative authors that make the mistake of presenting all members of an alien species as belonging to one culture, and it always detracts from the story’s verisimilitude. Like our biosphere, human cultures are stunningly diverse. Unless it makes sense for your aliens to be culturally homogeneous–they only live on a tiny portion of their world, they’re a hive mind, etc–it’s a good idea to at least gesture toward the existence of multiple cultures and regional differences, even if fleshing them out is beyond the scope of your narrative. At minimum, you’ll be creating a more lived-in world that better captures your reader’s interest; at best, you’ll have potential background material you can spin off into more stories!
Fictional alien species are rarely alone in their universe. In Part 3, Interstellar Relations, I’ll look at how to establish your species’ role on the galactic stage.
*I use the term “convincing aliens” rather than “realistic aliens” because at present humans have never made contact with an alien species. It’s disingenuous to comment on what a realistic alien would be like, biologically or socially. However, for the purpose of writing fiction, we can make certain assumptions about the beings that might evolve from a given ecological niche that provide a foundation for creating a convincing nonhuman ontology.