Summary Quick Facts
Alien species creation is the entry point for "soft sciences" like anthropology and sociology. As fiction is ultimately about emotional resonance, alien species are the canvas a writer (or exo-archeologist or exo-sociologist) uses to contrast with human cultures, and give characters interesting people to talk to. There are several "tiers" of alien species, ranging from Exaggerated Human Cultural Trope Aliens, all the way to fully realized alien societies and cultures.
The first alien species in SF that protagonists communicated with were thinly veiled "savages and sages" tropes, dating back to Edgar Rice Burroughs's novels of Pellucidar and Barsoom. E.E. "Doc" Smith carried many of these tropes forward in the Skylark series, and eventually the Lensman series. In the earliest tradition, aliens are nearly always "people in need of a Western White Man" to lead them. They might be amazingly technologically advanced, they might be some decadent elder civilization overcome with sloth and ennui, but they were always in need of the Bold Dashing Earthman to get them out of their cultural decline and to aid the hero in things. In this, they are direct inheritors of the Penny Dreadful pulp tradition and stories of Darkest Africa from the 19th Century.
John W. Campbell, the original editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and the editor who discovered many of the Golden Age authors (Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, and several others), reputedly challenged his authors to "Make something that thinks as well as a man, but different." Some authors (Stanley G. Weinbaum, and to a lesser extent, van Vogt) made their reputations from doing this during the span from the 1930s through the 1950s. Later authors, like Larry Niven, refined the techniques of their predecessors by making one or two aspects of biology determine what makes an alien species different from humans, and altering how they think, often with a "motivational difference" that catches a human point-of-view character by surprise. While the "New Wave" of science fiction in the late 1960s and through the 1970s de-emphasized engineering as a driver for stories in many markets, it made focusing on sociology, psychology, and gender role examination as legitimate areas of exploration in "serious" science fiction. David Brin's Uplift series may be the high point of "John W. Campbell"-style aliens.
A sea change in alien portrayals came with C.J. Cherryh, whose earliest books covered alien species in contrast with human cultures, then had a diversion through her all-human Alliance-Union setting, and then the Novels of the Compact, starting with the Pride of Chanur. A high school Latin teacher who was well read in history, mythology, anthropology and sociology, and a determined researcher, Cherryh's aliens were well realized enough on a sociological and psychological level that she could write entire series of novels totally from an alien's point of view. Other writers have built on the foundation that Cherryh laid.
Types of Fictional Aliens
In modern SF, intelligent aliens tend to fit one of three "tiers" of complexity: Television aliens, biologically deterministic aliens, and sociologically complex aliens.
Aliens for television are generally constrained to humanoid bipeds with lines of spoken dialog that miraculously translate to English. These limitations are driven by audience accessibility, and make it easier to hire actors. Motion capture technology may greatly expand what can be portrayed on screen. Television aliens are sometimes called "bumpy forehead" aliens or "latex aliens", depending on how much prosthetic costuming is needed. If much thought has been put into what makes them "alien," it's a human characteristic carried to an extreme: Klingons are the Honorable Warrior Race, Vulcans are Stoics, Narns are Oppressed Rebels about to re-enact a cycle of vengeance, the Centauri are stand-ins for decadent Romans, and so on. While some details are Clearly Different (most often hinted at with sexual reproductions, with Vulcan pon farr, Narns being marsupials, and Centauri males having six penes...), the television alien culture has obvious human analogs, usually to highlight the Virtues of Human Culture by contrast. Many television aliens (and quite a few Bad Guy Aliens in novels) are obvious ports of human cultures. The original Klingons in Star Trek were stand-ins for an authoritarian empire. They became pseudo-Samurai by the TNG era, and one of Worf's character arcs over the series involved the reconciliation of what his childhood painted as Klingon culture, and the actual reality of dealing with Klingons.
Writers should be careful of their own biases and cultural tropes when using "ported human culture dialed up" as a template for aliens. For example, the original portrayal of Star Trek's Ferengi were exaggerated capitalists who contrasted with the peaceful utopian post-replicator technology of the Federation; between that and several unfortunate choices in prosthetics, the Ferengi started out as an overt port of anti-Semitic tropes; they were eventually rehabilitated in later series. Similarly, most Honorable Warrior Race aliens have dark skin in Western media and in anime, because it's a way to quickly code the aliens as "savage barbarians" or "formidable opponents" with minimal explanation to the audience, and without granting them cultural parity or equivalency.
Biologically derived aliens range from the aliens of the Lensman series (where aliens range from "humans with odd skin colors" to creatures that live at liquid helium temperatures), the Slan of A.E. van Vogt, and most of Larry Niven's Known Space aliens. Nearly all of these aliens have different behaviors driven by some biological trait, that grew out of the environment they evolved in. This can be a (Lensman series) Rigellian sense-of-perception arising from their homeworld with an opaque atmosphere, to Niven's Kzinti being obligate carnivores (and aggressive) and his Puppeteers being herbivores and obligate cowards. Niven's later alien species, like the Moties and the Fthip through to Niven's later alien species like the Moties and the Fithp.
While "bumpy forehead aliens" are largely limited to television and film, biologically derived aliens show up in games and written SF. Both are used to highlight and contrast aspects of human societies. Even with biologically driven aliens, there is often an unspoken bias, using the cultural changes driven by biology as evidence that the aliens are hampered by their biology. The process of making a biologically derived alien starts by looking into some of the odder corners of terrestrial biology, and templating off their reproductive strategies, what they eat, or how they contest for territory. The advantage (for the SF writer) is that it's a lot easier to research an alien species based off of a translation of a terrestrial animal type than it is to come up with an entire alien culture! Again, Brin's Uplift books, along with Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought books are good examples of this, and most of Gannon's Caine Riordan universe aliens are from this tradition. (Because house cats are common pets, and clearly interface with humans on something approaching their own terms, there are more cat-like aliens in SF than you can shake a stick at!)
Sociologically complex intelligent aliens are made by an iterative process, and if your book is going to be about aliens, putting more work into your aliens at the beginning will pay off later.
Sociologically Complex Aliens
Making sociologically complex intelligent aliens requires asking questions and taking notes. There are three techniques that work well in tandem to make well-realized aliens, ones that are more versatile and interesting than The Honorable Warrior Race aliens, or the Declining Elder Species Aliens and similar. These techniques are the Seven Sociological Questions (which also brush onto biology) and the Three Ripple Rule, and social adaptations to overcome things that weren't limits from the environment they involved in, but are when society becomes more complex.
The Seven Sociological Questions
Ask yourself what things are true about the aliens you're creating, working from this list:
- The physical environment the species evolved in, and how that shapes the environments they seek out.
- How they bear their young, how the young are raised, and how instinct and nurturing interact in raising the young, and on cultural transmission to younger generations.
- The way the species conducts spatial and living space planning, including how personal and family dwellings are arranged, with distances between buildings, how family groups do (or don't) live together, hunting territories, agricultural areas, and animal husbandry if practiced. This also covers using architecture for ceremonial purposes and showing status.
- What the species eats, the relative difficulty of getting enough calories per day, what methods are used to obtain and prepare food, how food is stored, and cultural practices and taboos for food preparation and consumption.
- The mechanisms and processes used for recording new discoveries, transmitting and sharing new discoveries, and how this is used to reinforce prejudices, tribal identity and culture.
- How the species views death, mourning, dying and handling of family members who won't live out a season, including beliefs (or non-belief!) in an afterlife.
- How does the species think about thinking, self-definition and identity, and conceptualizations of the universe they inhabit.
There are no 'right' answers to these questions, but the more thoroughly you interrogate these concepts, the more different you can make your aliens. Having two or three of these questions give "different from human" answers will make aliens distinct.
Many of these questions have had different answers for humans in different cultures, and at different points in time. For example, many of Earth's late Neolithic sites, such as Gobeki Tepli and Stonehenge, were not permanent residences. They appear to have been pilgrimage sites used only at certain times, much like the Kaaba of the Grand Mosque of Medina is today.
The Three Ripple Rule
The Three Ripple Rule holds that any technology that makes transportation, commerce, entertainment or communications easier will have consequences unforseen by its inventors or the people who promulgate it. The typical example from Western cultures is that anyone could've predicted the automobile, and several people did. The combination of the automobile and movies led to drive-in theaters. The combination of automobiles, movies and drive in theaters led to a sweeping change in sexual mores, which terrified local political structures and sparked the sexual revolution a decade later.
This makes the automobile the change, the first ripple was drive through theaters, the second ripple was more privacy for teenagers and young adults out of the home, and the third ripple is the dawn of female birth control and the sexual revolution. A good resource for thinking about the Three Ripple Rule is the television series by James Burke from the late 1970s called Connections. Burke mostly focuses on technology, but covers a bit of sociology here. He did a similar series for the BBC called The Day The Universe Changed.
When you answer the Seven Sociological Questions, look for ripple effects that follow through from the answers you make.
For example, human females are constantly in estrous, and much of the daunting history of maternal risks in childbirth comes from the fact that the human pelvis can just barely accommodate the diameter of a newborn baby's skull as it's squeezed out the birth canal. Remaining in estrous constantly makes the risks inherent in a "just barely works" birthing mechanism less likely to result in the collapse of the species at a genetic bottleneck or climate disaster. Much of human society's historically awful treatment of women as chattel derives from this, as does the peculiar obsessions humans have with sex.
Let's contrast this with a species that lays and broods eggs, with females only going into estrous at certain times of the year. In a wide range of species, estrous can be triggered by diet, or from environmental cues like the length of day. The first ripple is that a birth control or artificially triggering estrous might happen much earlier in a society's development. The second ripple to consider is that unlike humans, who think regularly about sex from puberty to late middle age, sex and reproduction might be a seasonal. They may completely lack the concept of romance novels and might lack erotic fiction entirely as a culture. The third ripple is more speculative: In terrestrial species with mating seasons, the competition for mates is intense, which might be disruptive in a larger, more interconnected society. There may be cultural behaviors put in place to act as escape valves, or there may be constant competition for status that leads to proximity to females, or rituals for joining families or clans. They would certainly consider the human near constant obsession with sexual signaling to be odd by comparison.
Similarly, an alien species with different childhood development patterns (and a larger load of instincts) may have parenting styles that humans find appalling, with resulting differences in spiritual beliefs.
Social Adaptation To Compensate For Instincts
Instincts are a shorthand imposed by evolutionary adaptation to keep members of a species alive long enough to raise children. In human societies, we have a solid instinct to seek out sugar, salt and fats in foods, because in the environment we evolved in, sugars and fats were signs of high caloric density foods, and eating a lot of them when they were available would allow you to put on the weight needed to get through the next famine. Now that we've made foods that fit those cravings *exceptionally* cheap and greatly reduced how often famines occur, the Western diet has well documented health effects. When looking at your alien species, look for instincts that don't quite fit a technological civilization.
Modern opposition to family planning in Western cultures is an example of counter-reactions to social adaptations. Many of the arguments against family planning boil down to control of women, derived from unquestioned assumptions about the need for larger families and the role of women in raising children. Cherryh's Chanur novels have similar unquestioned assumptions about the role of males in an alien society, and are particularly subtle because it's shown with an unquestioned leap of logic without intervening steps being explained, shown through the thoughts a point of view character who encounters a male in an unexpected place and sees his presence only as an unwelcome complication.
A useful point of differentiation when making alien species is a disputed sociological concept called Dunbar's Number. On average, a human being can keep track of 100 to 150 distinct relationships, in varying degrees of closeness (about 20 close friends, about 70 to 100 intermediate friends, and 30 to 50 second order relationships, based on "friends of friends." Humans have remarkably high Dunbar's numbers; our closest genetic cousins, bonobos, have Dunbar's numbers that seem to cap out at 50 to 70 members. Even so, a lot of human society can be looked at in terms of 'how do we circumvent the limits of Dunbar's Number?" In parts of the world where tribal and clan loyalties run paramount, you can see how Dunbar's Number shapes society, as the mechanisms that Westerners assume always work...don't. For example, it's not that Afghans are materially more corrupt than Westerners; it's that their cultural incentives don't give them many reasons to think beyond the group of 100 to 150 people that they have relationships with, many of whom are tied by familial bonds. This makes perfect sense in situations of periodic scarcity; it also makes trusting in the law and police departments to do their job rather than favor family members seem like incredible naivete...
What other mechanisms are there to compensate for lower Dunbar's numbers? What does a society where individuals with a higher Dunbar's number look like? In most Earthly societies, people who can maintain larger social networks gain wealth and status. How does that work for your alien species? What does that look like? What do higher status members of your society do that others cannot, or are not permitted to do?