Monday, August 18, 2008

(Alien) Culture Club

One of the fun parts of writing science fiction romance--for me--is the invention of the not me, not here, not now, not as we know it sections of the book. It's the chance to move beyond stereotypes (or invent new ones), to move beyond the expected (and invent new expectations). And throw my characters' conflicts in the middle of that.

I think that's why I tend to gravitate away from the "aliens on Earth" stories (except for The Down Home Zombie Blues which is the ubiquitous exception that proves the ubiquitous rule...). I don't want readers to automatically filter in Judeo-Christian ethics or feminist principles or the "Sin City" label for a locale with slot machines...unless I choose to create that in the story. I don't want my characters pre-typecast as "Southern Belle" or "California Surfer Dude." I want my readers to meet my characters on the level of interaction: derive who they are from what they say and do.

Granted, I know it fairly impossible to have readers leave all preconceived notions at the airlock. But I think most SF/SFR readers at least make the attempt.

In return, I endeavor to bring them into a culture not quite like their own. That isn't to say, however, that the basic human emotions of greed, jealousy, love, hate, desire, hope and fear are left out. Rather, I use them as a building block for my characters' cultures.

A lot of my stories have a military setting or military main characters (and no, regretfully, I never served my country and yes, it is something I very much regret. But my American middle to upper class culture of the mid 1970s, a young girl just didn't do that. If I had my life to do over, I would.) I've done a fair amount of research on women in the military as well as law enforcement procedures (and law enforcement is considered para-military). But I try not to assume that our current military would be like the military my characters experience.

For one thing, women have served in the military scenarios I create for a lot longer than they have here on this planet, as of 2008. Gender bias doesn't exist. But in Gabriel's Ghost, Shades of Dark and the upcoming (Feb. '09) Hope's Folly, there is species-bias. There is still an us-not-them emotion reaction.

I don't include that blindly. My cats have an us-not-them reaction to the neighbor's dogs. The ducks in my yard in Florida (now a bullseye for a storm, evidently) have an us-not-them reaction to the hawks that live in woods (prey-predator, also). I think us-not-them is something deeply ingrained in many species--not just humans. So it's a factor I factor in when creating my alien cultures. (I would also love to create a culture void of us-not-them, just for the experience.)

I also consider religion and spiritual belief systems when I build my cultures. Working with the us-not-them basis, there is the human desire to have assistance from something bigger and better when them comes after us. There is the human desire to wonder, to question. I think there is a human desire, a quest for faith--even if that faith is that there is nothing out there to help me, so I'd best find what I need within myself.
It's still a faith.

But with faith there often again arises an us-not-them as we can see from the religious wars on our own planet.

Which brings up the point that all the elements that go into creating a culture intertwine.
Species affects spirituality which effects educational systems which affects economic systems which impacts on political systems which affects military structure which impacts protecting us from the them of other species.

I had a great deal of fun with this in Shades of Dark, specifically with the character of Del: Regarth Serian Cordell Delkavra, a Stolorth prince and one helluva interesting character. If Del is anything, he is someone who is trapped by his culture and--much to Sully's and Chaz's consternation--it's not a culture they know well. There are a lot of miscues and miscommunications, many of which Del uses to his advantage. He knows their human culture much better than they know his.

As Admiral Philip Guthrie warns Chaz: “Chaz, he won’t have a choice. It is part of what a Kyi is, what a Kyi does when he or she reaches certain levels of power. Understand that to Regarth, he’s not asking for anything unusual or wrong. It’s his culture. It’s a practice steeped in tradition that goes back centuries.”

As much as Shades is an galactic space opera adventure story, as much as it's a love story, it's also an exploration of a culture in which there are no clear guidelines and no easy answers. Workign with the Stolorth culture and specifically the clan dynamics of the Kyi-Ragkirils allowed me to turn "good" and "bad", "friend" and "foe" on its ear.

Of course, I could have done a similar issue set on our planet. Middle Eastern cultures differ in many aspects from Western cultures. Hasidic Jews have different belief systems and rituals from Southern Baptists. But had I set a similar story here, with a Muslim protagonist and a Southern Baptist antagonist (for example), I could be sure readers would be brining a clean slate and open mind to the story.

Writing it as SFR, I could. Or at least, the chances of readers leaving their personal prejudices at the airlock were greater. And so, therefore, was the chance of them really experiencing The Story which, in Shades, is a twist and turning of us-not-them.

It was something Del understood well: Loyalties can shift in the blink of an eye, my friend. Never forget that.

Loyalties can and do shift--especially in the vast and varied cultures found in science fiction romance.



  1. Anonymous4:23 PM EDT

    You bring up one of the strong points of science fiction. When you create a different culture, a different species, the reader does not have existing prejudices to bring to the understanding of the story. And there is always the possibility, however remote, that the reader will then take a fresh look at his prejudices.


  2. Wonderful exposition of one of the main purposes of speculative fiction! I must admit, however, that I usually prefer the "alien on Earth" scenario -- or the "Terran among aliens" scenario. I suppose I like to have at least one character from a familiar background to provide an "anchor." In Jacqueline's HOUSE OF ZEOR, we don't at first realize that Gens are (inside) as different from Ancients (us) as Simes are. Hugh, the viewpoint character, seems at first to be "like us," so as we learn about Sime culture through his eyes, he serves as the reader's surrogate within the story.