It’s #SpaceOperaWeek, but Where are the Aliens?

So, Tor.com decided that this week is Space Opera Week (#SpaceOperaWeek on Twitter), though thus far it seems that I and a few other fellow members of the #PulpRevolution have been dominating the hashtag, though that may be unsurprising, as Tor is using contributors who aren’t fans of the genre. Jon Del Arroz, author of the extremely well-reviewed Star Realms: Rescue Run, has a good post about that here.

As for me, I’m going to discuss something more personally relevant to me, the type of article I would’ve liked to see on Tor.com. As the title of this post might’ve given away, I’m going to talk about aliens.

Now, most of my experience with space opera, admittedly, is in the more visual mediums of film, television, and video games rather than books, though I have read a number of space opera books in recent years, including Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep, and, more recently, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy–which brings me to Star Wars, in many respects the space opera most know and enjoy.

I still remember watching Star Wars, and to a lesser extent, Star Trek (which despite trying not to be, was often not too far off (and the new, J. J. Abrams films are most certainly space opera), and being awed by the wide variety of aliens on the screen. Since then, in all of my favorite space opera universes, including the Mass Effect franchise, the Starcraft franchise, and of course, Star Wars, the non-human characters have always been my favorites, and the ones I wanted to spend the most time with, from Tassadar and Artanis to Tali and Garrus to Plo Koon and Ahsoka Tano, among many others. However, even in these space opera universes where aliens are plentiful and diverse (and I’ll be getting back to that hot-button word in a bit), something always bugged me. Humans. Humans are always the center of attention, the main characters, and in many stories, the most important species.

Of course, I understand one of the reasons why that is. We’re human, of course, and we like writing about ourselves, plus it fits in with the “write what you know” idea–not one I like very much. Looking at Tor.com’s list of recommended space opera universes, I’m seeing humans everywhere, often with an inordinate focus on Earth (though I’m sure that at least a number of these do feature alien characters–just not viewpoint characters. And while this is not necessarily a bad thing, and in no way makes books with a human focus bad, it feels strange to me to limit ourselves in this way in a genre defined by exploring the unknown and being creative. Is it really because the natural impulse is to write humans, and most just go with that? Or do people not want to spend the time to create alien species the reader can sympathize with? It’s certainly not a simple thing, and there is a fine line between a character being suitably alien while remaining relatable, but, again, in this epic, expansive genre where we aren’t binding ourselves to what we know as “science-fact” in our universe, why have I not seen this?

In an age where many people (wrongly) hail “diversity” as one of the most important qualities of a work of fiction, why do they not similarly complain about the lack of species diversity in sci-fi (and fantasy as well)? It really isn’t that hard, but I suppose to most people, diversity begins and ends with humans–specifically modern day Earth humans.

It was partially this frustration of mine that prompted me to not include humans at all in the universe that I have created, starting with my debut novel A Greater Duty. Not only are there no human viewpoint characters, but there are no humans at all! After all, it isn’t the Milky Way galaxy, so why should there be? Of course, there are, out of the more than a dozen species I created, some that are quite close to humans in many aspects, and for narrative reasons (and because I am human, and all my inspirations on this world are of human origin–though all ultimately stems from G-d, of course–they are human enough to identify with.)

I believe that more people than it would seem crave these types of characters, and are looking to either find or create stories with them. For reference, the most visited page on my website, garnering even more views than the Home page, is my post on writing non-human characters from back in 2013, and it has received more views every year.

It’s something I hope to write more about in the future, and tomorrow, I will be discussing non-human characters with Brian Niemeier on his Geek Gab: On the Books podcast.

In the meantime, you can pick up my debut novel, A Greater Duty, which features an entirely non-human cast, over on Amazon.

6 thoughts on “It’s #SpaceOperaWeek, but Where are the Aliens?

  1. “diversity begins and ends with humans”
    It’s not even that expansive. It’s almost completely based on skin color; a simple, ideally irrelevant human characteristic. Tor.com is a joke, and it’s nice to see articles like this that have some good thought to them.

    Aliens can be tricky, but I think it’s worth the effort to get them involved as POV characters. It’s a time-honored approach to let characters make comments on the “human condition” as aliens try to handle humans and human ideas. Of course, if you don’t have *any* humans, that’s a new bag of tricks, but still interesting, I think.

    The main strength of fiction for me is to ask those “what if” questions and posit situations that I am *not* familiar with. An alien mindset can be valuable in that regard.

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  4. I assume you’ve read some of Cherryh’s oeuvre? While her viewpoint characters are mostly humans/humanoids, much of her work is intensely focused on aliens. She’s also a damn good author.

  5. The challenge of writing distinctive non-human characters as focal points of the story is that there is less room for them to be distinct from each other. Each alien needs to have it’s distinctive attribute, otherwise it would just be a human with a funny prosthetic forehead. However the need to establish and write within those distinctive alien attributes limits the range of characteristics that the alien can have.

    Take Babylon 5 for example: there can be good Koth and bad Koth, but you can’t have good Koth, bad Koth, and non-mysterious Koth because mysteriousness is one of the key Vorlon attributes. Likewise, the range of available Shadow and Centauri characters is severely limited. If it has a more subtle understanding of psychology than “what do you want” it wouldn’t have the attributes that make shadows shadows. If there were Centauri characters who had no connection to politics, they wouldn’t be recognizable as Centauri.

    In contrast, human characters are much more flexible because the entire range of human experience and characteristics are open to them. You can have the ancient mystic act like Koth, the slightly more approachable monk act like Delenn or Lenient, a proud warrior act like one of the narn characters, and a corrupt politician act like the Centauri and no one will bat an eye because we are familiar with all of these types from purely human history, stories, and tropes. Make an alien species that diverse and it was loses its alienness.

    I think that’s why most space operas limit themselves to a few alien characters of each type. As long as only a few are on screen, we can see what makes them different from humans. Put a bunch of them on screen and like Marvel’s Asgardians, they’re just humans with special powers.

    Fantasy suffers from the same issue but sometimes writes around it by positing a single culture for the demihuman/aliens which is usually base off an exaggerated version of a human culture. It can work well as it does with Dragon Age’s dwarves for example but it collapses if you want to have other types of dwarves that don’t share that culture. Then what is dwarvishness except for a collection of stat modifiers and special abilities?

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