Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens (Part IV)

This is the first part in a series. Follow the links for the different parts: IIIIII,

Now THATS flavor- what sort of creatures do you suppose built that?

Hello again, and welcome to the another installment of Science Fiction Problems! Today I will be completing my series on how to write aliens for your science fiction. I hope my tips and tricks have been helpful so far (just thinking through all this has helped me a lot), and today I’ll be covering something that can really make or break the believability and consistency of your world- technology! If the level or flavor of your aliens’ tech doesn’t match up with the setting you’ve so carefully crafted, it won’t matter how much work you put into it- your readers will still be scratching their heads.

When dealing with secondary worlds filled with cultures foreign to our own experience, it is important to give each group noticeable distinctions so that they will be meaningfully separate in your reader’s mind. This applies across the board from fantasy to science fiction, but it is especially important with alien cultures when they are physically different because the audience will expect those traits to carry through. If the only meaningful variable between species in your world is physical appearance, your characters might as well all be human. We’ve already covered physical and social variety, but an essential extension of those aspects is the technological style and level of development.

Technological Differences as Related to Culture:

Stop me if youve heard this one: A space ship crashes in the desert…

Think about our own world’s ancient cultures for a minute- did any one of them make the exact same type of sword? Even if you’re not familiar with the differences between a rapier and a saber, everyone knows the difference between a samurai’s katana and an English knight’s longsword. These sort of distinctions cross into every other aspect of technology in a culture, from the materials they use to the homes build.

Many of these distinctions become trivial or ceremonial once civilizations begin to mix (especially in an age of global, instant communications), but they are still apparent and visible. Using such stylistic differences between your own created cultures can have the same effect, making them feel different at a fundamental level, and matches nicely with what your audience expects from creatures who look and act differently. Everything your aliens make and build, whether they are intentionally artistic or not, will reflect what they value as a culture.

Mixing Levels of Technology:

How would a stone-age warrior adapt to a space-age alien intruder?

The very first question you need to ask yourself about the technology of your alien society is: to what level have they currently developed? It is

perfectly permissible (and often done, where appropriate) to have hyper-advanced, space-faring cyborgs rubbing elbows with primitive, spear-wielding tribesmen within a single story universe, and in some cases they may even be on the same level of power (depending on how fantastic the story is…). Obviously, stone-age cavemen aren’t much of a match against forcefields and laser guns (or even so much as a simple firearm), but the point is that you are free to vary up the technological levels of your aliens as a means of differentiation, for practically any reason you want, as long as it makes sense and fits within the context of your story. Certain levels are easier to mix than others, but as long as you make sure that the relationships would reasonably work out should such an arrangement occur in  real life, you’re free to go as far with this as you dare.

So, here are a few questions you can ask yourself while deciding how to balance your aliens’ technology:

  • What do they value?Is it strength? Wealth? Art? Religion? Intellect? Look at your cultures- what level of progress could such a society reasonably reach by the time of your story? War can be a nice propellant for technological progress, but some war-like cultures spend so much time killing each other that they never got further than a stone hammer and a deer-hide tunic.

    For ideas for high-tech weapons, look at prototypes like this spacey G11 Assault Rifle
  • What do they have available to them? Is the planet or land they live on rich or sparse of natural resources? It doesn’t matter how smart your aliens are, if they live on a giant rock and subsist on farming mushrooms, they won’t ever develop spaceflight, or even advance as far as our ancient cultures did. If there is a normal or rich supply of things like metal and oil available, the culture could reasonably see rates of growth similar to or far surpassing that which we have seen in our own history.
  • Do they have help? On earth, not everyone had to figure out gunpowder before they could have guns. Trade along natural routes have brought such advances across the globe, helping several cultures advance as they build on what they learn from others. By this reasoning, even a recently stone-age culture could be taught to build and fly space-ships, and after some time would begin to build on the technology as their own. This would be easier depending on how much technical knowledge the culture first has to absorb, but assuming they are intelligent and motivated enough, your aliens can advance well beyond their normal means if they have someone else showing them the ropes.

Artistic Flair and Practicality:

Once you’ve decided how advanced your aliens are, its time to add in the little details. Depending on what the respective alien culture values, certain considerations will be made when they are designing their technology, beyond the basic questions above. Aesthetics, ergonomics, and economics all factor into the design process, affecting everything from colors to shapes.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to fill out how your aliens would design their creations:

About as silly of an idea for aliens as the original source, if you as me
  • What is their philosophy? Are they artistic? Free thinkers? Depending on this answer, designers might have much more freedom to express themselves in their medium. If convention and tradition are stalwartly observed, then there should be very little variation between designs, and a great degree of standardization. They may also favor organic shapes and curving, sculpted structures if they are artistic, whereas they might prefer boxy, efficient shapes if they think little of appearances.
  • What fits your aliens’ physiology? Obvious design concerns would be the size and shape of the intended user, but there are many other ergonomic considerations, like the shape of the alien’s hands (tentacles, claws, etc.), the way they bear burdens, and how they relax their bodies. Humans have 5-fingered hands, typically carry heavy loads on our backs or shoulders, and lie or sit when relaxing- therefore our weapons, tools, backpacks, chairs, and beds are designed accordingly.
  • How do they spend their time? Are they consumers itching for entertainment, or single-minded conquerers who spend all their time working? Do they build things for other aliens with different needs, desires, and ergonomics?

These are only a few of many questions you could ask yourself while thinking up differences between different aliens’ technology, but the important thing to remember is that in the end it’s all about impressions: make your tech fit the culture and body you’ve already built, taking care that every decision has a well-thought-out reason for it.

Well, that’s all for now! I think I’m more or less finished with this, but I always think that. I hope these tidbits have been helpful to your writing process as much as it’s helped mine! Next week I’ll start into an all-new topic, lending my aide to struggling science fiction writers everywhere (to the best of my ability, at least). Until then, where have you seen the differences between aliens presented through their technology? Let me know in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens (Part IV)

    1. Thank you! I do my best, and I know everyone else here does too. It probably helps in my case that many of these things are new to me as well- I learn a lot with every post I write!

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