Depicting Alien History
Previous entries in the Depiction Series can be found listed here:
The best way to depict Alien (non-human) anything is to use a pattern that has appeared in human history -- and preferably reappeared cyclically.
Long, broad, historical trends are very hard to see by studying history.
It is hard to trace the connections among events occurring centuries apart in different parts of the world, and different parts of culture.
Here is an example from the History of Government that is easy to use, easy for your reader to comprehend, and potentially easy to write.
There is a theory (lauded in science fiction circles) that all species of non-human peoples will have forms of government derived from their sexuality.
So study Earth's biology, and pattern your Aliens on one of our species reproductive proclivities. Then figure what sort of governments (through the arc of thousands of years of history) that your Aliens have invented and used -- and to what effect.
Use a pattern you can find in human history (and pre-history) based on human biology.
Well, you probably don't want to muddy your picture with all of human biology, so focus on one aspect.
In Part 19 of this series on Depicting ...
...we discussed testosterone and its role in the insane, incessant, furious, and unreasonable addiction to Winning. The surge of testosterone caused by defeating and humiliating a foe is actually addictive -- addictive in the sense that with each successive win, it takes a bigger win next time to get the same euphoric effect.
Testosterone is a drug that produces a high that is absolutely addictive.
It has an obverse. Losing a battle produces a lack of testosterone and consequent listless misery, knuckling under, surrender, and lack of desire to fight.
Being married with children tames human males, lowering and evening out the testosterone spikes (or so current research indicates -- maybe that's not true, but for the purposes of fictional worldbuilding, it is a good model).
Apparently, according to a set of studies (that I find poorly designed and not aimed at the real problem),
just "having sex" doesn't affect a human's determination to win, though these 4 studies (all on men) don't measure addiction to the "high" of being a winner. They were after athletic performance, (speed, strength, endurance) not the addiction effect of winning which all the participants would have in full force.
Remember, we are looking to design an Alien that your human readers can comprehend without effort.
When looking for a model, a pattern, to use for your fictional aliens, you don't need to find the real scientific truth of a matter, but rather what the major portion of your target audience believes is the truth of the matter. Your objective is to sell them entertainment, not teach them science.
In the process of luring your readers into your fictional universe, you may awaken a thirst for actual science education.
That is what Robert A. Heinlein did so very well, and many other writers followed suit. But one generation's scientific truth is the next generation's superstitious nonsense, so just start with what your readers think is true, and extrapolate something unthinkable from that. It is the mental process of extrapolation that is entertaining -- not the content of the facts.
Sketch Of Human History
So looking at human history as various forms of government conducting wars, winning and losing, and the subsequent behaviors of the winning and losing cultures, make yourself a chart or graph that depicts the swing from absolute Totalitarianism to Anarchy and back again.
Go back to, say, the world depicted in Clan of the Cave Bear
-- alone and having to make everything you need to survive all by yourself from scratch, the concept "wealth" takes on a primal meaning.
We discussed what an Alien Romance Novel Writer can learn from Clan of the Cave Bear in Part 17 of this series on Depiction.
Work up the "Tribal Structure" ladder, just as you see today in "failed states" where "militia" take over. Look at how Libya has fallen apart.
For our fictional purposes, Wikipedia is a superior source because it represents what most of your readers think is true. You can "set the record straight" in your novel, but you must start with what they think is true to suspend disbelief.
There was a dictatorship, strong-man style (kill the opposition and plow the bodies under in unmarked graves), and now there are militias, and a rising power of better organized but very vicious jihadists forcing their standards on other people at penalty of death.
Same sort of thing happened decades ago in the Balkans. It happens exactly like that wherever you have a "failed state." Humans organize behind a strong protector who will fight other humans and bring home food.
So go back to Biblical Times, and Egypt and Babylon -- there arose governments based on the divine right of Kings. Pharoah was considered a living god.
So operational government "authority" was legitimized by a supernatural mantle.
Through the Middle Ages The Church essentially Ruled, with the first born sons inheriting land and station, and the extra and spare sons going into the Church where the real wealth and power resided.
Kings fought and grabbed Rule. All the places that have left us records had governments run by a King or Emperor (Queen etc). The secret to longevity as a Country was centralization of power.
By divine right, Kings owned all the land, and basically owned the very people -- sometimes people owned other people (slaves). There was a hierarchy that governed, and the only way to change anything was to overthrow the ones in Power.
The Kings who were better at winning wars got control of larger territories, and usually the bigger ones survived and prospered better. Think of the Roman Empire. Of course it fell apart eventually.
The same kind of agglutination went on in China -- today's China is an amalgam of many old Empires which were composed of an amalgam of Kingdoms.
An Emperor is a King of Kings -- who graciously lets the Kings he conquers stay in power and run their little Kingdoms and pay taxes to the Empire.
In the enormous Roman Empire, we saw the application of the ideas we first found among the Ancient Greeks (which may have arisen previously, but we don't have a record of that) -- the very word Democracy is Hellenistic.
So comes democracy, and the half-assed overthrow of Kings creating the Constitutional Monarchy model -- then the USA and France shook off even that semblance of Monarch and handed the reins of government to ordinary citizens.
Then came decades of fighting over "who" has the "right" to vote. (well, we're still fighting over that).
Meanwhile, the Natural Aristocrats among humans, being mortally offended by the Rule of the RiffRaff, have systematically and patiently (and oh, so aristocratically refined and politely) worked to re-structure the Republic/Democracy model back into Rule From The Throne By Your Betters.
So in the 20th Century we saw the rise of Socialism, Communism, Stalin-ism, Progressivism and other isms all focused on the arduous task of centralizing control of every facet of life. Kings of old had the power of life and death, directly, by the fact of holding the throne. Today's Kings hold the power of life and death by controlling the resources the peasants need to keep breathing, electricity, air conditioning, refrigeration, medical care, medicine (controlling what you may or may not have access to according to whether they deem it effective), transportation, import/export permissions, regulations on water, on building reservoirs, on transporting crude oil, on banking, on social networking, and no doubt soon (as Robert A. Heinlein predicted) a tax on breathable air.
All of these regulations come from the Executive Branch, and all the local Laws must conform to Law created at one central building in Washington D.C. or in New York at the U.N. -- gathered and centralized decision making is efficient, but requires a "one size fits all" solution to every problem.
With all the decision making centralized, decision makers are then in a position to sell (for campaign contributions or other convoluted methods of payment) exceptions to the various rules, regulations and laws. Exemptions have become the new coin of the realm, just as the Kings of old handed out Favors, and the Popes handed out Indulgences. So a handful of people who know best get to pick the winners. (keep your eye on the testosterone addiction effect.)
End Sketch of Human History
This is just a thumbnail sketch of human historical epochs. For your purposes, you may take the same historical (and pre-historical) records of Earth and arrange them into a different narrative.
Your Alien History will have that same shape, but entirely different content. It may also have a different "period" -- a different length of the sine wave of the back and forth between individual independence and self-sufficiency and absolute monarchy.
Now remember all the philosophical works you've read on War and Human Nature -- how we are just Great Apes and our international wars are just like tribes of Apes fighting. How humans establish a pecking order just like most animals that live in groups. This model of human history assumes we are just animals, no Soul or God involved, and any god references are just superstitious balderdash.
Ask yourself is War a product of human sexuality? Is war the inevitable outcome of testosterone addiction?
Do your aliens have a sexual hormone that they become addicted to, and how does that hormone come to flood their systems?
How do your aliens behave under the influence of that hormone? How does that hormone driven behavior contribute to their individual and species survival?
Then derive a kind of governmental structure that mirrors human structures (pecking order to warfare included), but is rooted in their addiction to their hormone.
Here, again from Wikipedia, is a list of the areas of life that Government must centralize to regain Kingship and absolute sovereignty over the RiffRaff, so nobody can survive without permission. It is quite a comprehensive list, and if you cover all these areas within the narrative of your story, you will generate impenetrable expository lumps. Determine how your aliens handle all these areas, but Depict in Show Don't Tell only the ones thematically germane to your specific story.
------quote from Wikipedia-----
Free Enterprise into 'X'
On pages 95 and 96 of The Road We Are Traveling, under the heading of "Free Enterprise into 'X'", Chase listed 18 characteristics of political economy that he had observed among Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain between 1913 and 1942. Chase labeled this phenomenon "... something called 'X'". Characteristics include the following:
A strong, centralized government.
An executive arm growing at the expense of the legislative and judicial arms.
The control of banking, credit and security exchanges by the government.
The underwriting of employment by the government, either through armaments or public works.
The underwriting of social security by the government – old-age pensions, mothers' pensions, unemployment insurance, and the like.
The underwriting of food, housing, and medical care, by the government.
The use of deficit spending to finance these underwritings.
The abandonment of gold in favor of managed currencies.
The control of foreign trade by the government.
The control of natural resources.
The control of energy sources.
The control of transportation.
The control of agricultural production.
The control of labor organizations.
The enlistment of young men and women in youth corps devoted to health, discipline,community service and ideologies consistent with those of the authorities.
Heavy taxation, with special emphasis on the estates and incomes of the rich.
Control of industry without ownership.
State control of communications and propaganda.
-------------end quote from Wikipedia--------------
Stuart Chase, the fellow who compiled that comprehensive list of areas of human endeavor, is the originator of the concept called, in American Politics, The New Deal, and was Advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the 1960s, Chase lent his support to the Johnson administration's Great Society policies.
Some of the centralized government functions on that list will translate easily to your Aliens -- natural resources, energy sources, agriculture (provided they eat plants or animals), maybe trade and transportation.
Robert A. Heinlein's (1907-1988 -- contemporary of Stuart Chase) teleporting "doors" would serve to undermine centralized government functions as traumatically as the internet has been undermining the governments so stable during the 20th century. You know how ISIS (among others) has been using the Internet to convince young, testosterone driven, males that black is white and up is down, murder is holy. So transportation and communication have both been used. What other government function might a human-generated technological innovation undermine among your Aliens?
What historical figure among your Aliens contributed such foundational philosophical works on the form and function of government? Give that Alien a name and a nickname, and title some works of his/hers/its that you can quote. What technology do your Alien rebels discover, invent, or buy from humans, that lets them overthrow that centralized control?
Never tell your readers about that secret hormone -- show them the results, and the consequences when human testosterone clashes with alien hormones.
The only thing I can see that your readers would find relevant, but is not on Stuart Chase's list, is centralized government control of reproduction -- and that, too, has been done in science fiction. Still, with today's advances in gene editing, there is much more story potential.
What if your Alien Rebels found a well preserved corpse of their species as it used to be before a centralized government forcibly mandated alteration of their genome? What would happen, for example, to humanity if we altered the gene(s) responsible for testosterone addiction? Suppose the alteration didn't work quite as expected, and three or four generations later we have humans who are ultra-sensitive and even more prone to testosterone addiction (which addiction causes the win at all costs, and win and win again and again syndrome).
All our most popular movies, one action scene after another mass destruction scene, all superhero win-win-win oh-do-it-again-because-it-feels-so-good formula movies sell all over the world. You don't need to do a good translation of the sparse dialogue because the story isn't about what the characters say or think, but just about destroying and winning.
What do your aliens do instead? What are their most popular films about - historically and "now" as well as the way "now" distorts their history via film and other arts?
Depict their culture with quotes of their famous philosophers and one-liners from their most well known movies.