I have to admit I was inspired the moment I read the title of Anassa Rhenisch’s SIMF post in November, Nonconformist Aliens Wanted. If you haven’t yet read this great post, I encourage you to do so. She advocates for the creation of aliens that don’t follow the most common physiological patterns of humanoid, insectoid, feline, robot and reptilian.
I entirely agree, but I think her argument can be carried further. All too often the creative cultures constructed for aliens are human-style cultures with systematic alterations made for a particular diet (carnivorous, herbivorous, etc). In fact, there is a wealth of information available now on the characteristics and behavior of animal species – even ones which are relatively well-known – and this information is a rich, largely untapped resource for the design of truly divergent cultures.
Take metabolism, for example. Humans metabolically have the ability to keep working for long periods of time. This makes sense given our size, our warm-bloodedness, etc. We have our ebb moments, which are ideal for siesta time.
So how might aliens differ in measures of metabolism? Well, if you look at tiny mammals like mice, they tend to maintain very high energy levels for short periods of time, and then flop down for a rest, and then go back at it. Cats also have incredibly high intensity sometimes, but sleep a lot. Some animals have stamina for hours, and some don’t. Thus, if you’re extrapolating culture for an alien based on a particular body plan, metabolism will have an enormous influence on the way they organize their daily time. Energy levels will translate into work patterns, and also into such cultural details as furniture – perhaps, whether your people keep couches handy to sleep on when they’re taking a break from work.
Take a look, too, at the social behaviors and patterns of the species that inspire you. You know that bees are divided into workers, drones, and queen (and you’ve probably seen this used with aliens) – but have you heard how raccoon mothers often live apart in order to protect their offspring, and how young male raccoons will live together in groups of up to four individuals? How might that translate into homes, cities, and a larger cultural pattern? Have you seen a shrew mother taking her babies out to forage for food, each one biting on to the tail in front of him so they look like a miniature train (The Life of Mammals)? What kind of behavior might that turn into for an intelligent alien species?
Once you’ve researched a species thoroughly both in physiology and social behavior, you’ll have a solid basis for an alternate culture and you can grow it from there – not just into artifacts and activities, but into the metaphors your aliens use to understand their lives. Culture comes with ways to make sense of our drives and desires, ways to understand right and wrong, ways to categorize the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s evident in our thought, even if it doesn’t actually limit the way we think.
Of course, not every element of an alien culture needs to be linked directly to physiology (this happens a lot in fiction, which I think is unfortunate). Culture develops its own internal logic, as we can clearly see from the vast variety of human cultures that exist in spite of our relative physiological uniformity. However, a castle that is built on perfectly flat ground will come out one way, and one built across a river, or against a hill, will come out quite differently. So take those different laws of physiology and those patterns of animal behavior, and see if you can turn them into general principles within your culture. See if they can be extrapolated across contexts – whether the danger of some particular location gets turned into a general fear of locations resembling it, or whether stories grow up around a particular physiological limitation that affect behaviors across the board for this society.
By all means, strive for originality in your alien physiologies. Then, take it further, into the fundamental behavioral drives from which cultures arise. In this way, I believe you’ll arrive at some fascinating non-conformists.