Writing Science Fiction–Human and Non-human Universes

Good fiction takes the reader into worlds that can differ either a little or a lot from our own, but in ways that allow for a seamless transition. Creating fictional backdrops that don’t jar the reader’s sense of credulity is far harder than it might seem, however. For that reason writers tend to stick with constructs that are easiest for them to develop. In science fiction it seems to me these constructs potentially fall into one of three categories–all human universes, ones where humans and aliens mix, or all alien ones. I’ve given the pros and cons of each type considerable thought recently as I prepare to make my entry into the world of writing. I thought I’d share my thoughts this week, as well as pointing out some examples of each type of universe.

One of the two most prevalent settings for sci-fi is the all-human universe, and such giants as Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Elison, and many others have put much of their effort into exploring this domain. I include most humanoid alien and robot sci-fi universes in this category because they are merely human societies populated by beings with variations in body characteristics. Very early science fiction used the all-human setting almost exclusively, reflecting the explosion of technology at the time that provided plenty of opportunities for speculation without having to develop an alternative society (for example, think Jules Verne). And that’s one of the key pros of the all-human universe:  the basic societal structure is already something known by the reader, and it doesn’t need to be created from scratch. Minor variations to fit the story are common, but the underlying society is one where most readers would feel relatively comfortable fitting in. Even Galactic-wide human civilizations (like Asimov’s Foundation, based on the fall of the Roman Empire) are what we already know writ large.

However, that very familiarity is also proves something of a constraint on an all-human universe. If the author goes TOO far from the baseline he runs the risk of the framework becoming unbelievable, and pulling the reader from the focus of the story. By the same token, characters and their interactions also need to be plausible in order to avoid distracting the reader. And in the very large majority of good science fiction stories set in all-human universes, the authors manage to avoid these distractions (allowing for unpredictable reactions to entirely new stimuli). It galls me (and always will) when someone claims “science fiction isn’t REALLY literature.” The ability to build a believable society with plausible people WHILE introducing new technology or science makes science fiction just as compelling as literature as Beowulf or MacBeth, and the human-only universe at once both an easy and difficult setting for writers of science fiction.

Almost as prevalent as the all-human universe is one comprised of both humans and aliens. Ignoring early pulp fiction (where monstrous aliens were always tearing the dresses off buxom women), the first widely acknowledged mixed universe science fiction was the Lensman series by E.E. “Doc” Smith. Heinlein (e.g. Methuselah’s Children and Have Space Suit, Will Travel) and Asimov (e.g. “Green Patches” and The Gods Themselves ) also made forays into this domain.  But to me Larry Niven’s Puppeteers is perhaps one of the most intriguing and substantial alien societies that interact with humans. As a setting for science fiction the mixed-universe approach retains the advantage of a familiar touchstone (the human side) for the author to use in his story framework. It also opens the door to the creation of a society without the constraint of necessarily being a plausible extension of human society. The author is free to build his own worlds. That in turn gives rise to all sorts of possible conflicts/plots not possible in an all-human universe. It also, should the author choose, permits an examination of controversial societal concepts in a more benign environment than if they were inserted into a fictional human society.

This very flexibility can also be become a challenge for the author. He or she loses the shared background with the readers, and so has to build a new set of shared knowledge within the story. Having an alien scratch his chin (or something equivalent) and setting off a riot requires an underlying “why” to be established–and done so unobtrusively. It takes a particular talent to be able to describe an alien world/society without getting so bogged down in description that it pulls the reader from the flow of the story. Further, because so much of the alien world/society may differ, the author must be sure to remain internally consistent. So while science fiction that incorporates both humans and aliens can explore many more storylines than a human-only basis, it can also be much more difficult to write while maintaining story flow. There is also the danger of overusing a particular type of alien society (and thereby losing the novelty and opportunities for new plots that are a strength of the mixed universe), as seems to be the case in broadcast science fiction as my friend Winter is Coming so aptly points out in his recent blog post on Falling Skies. Overall, a mixed human-alien setting gives an author much more freedom to be creative and fresh; however, it also comes with more potential pitfalls that can derail the story.

A final potential science fiction setting is a universe populated only by aliens. Such a backdrop would provide the author with a blank canvass, as it were, to create a complete framework from scratch; to explore even the most far out concepts without the burden of making them believable in human space. Such a framework would have the same issues with setting a common background with the reader and maintaining internal consistency. However, it could perhaps allot more time for the author to describe the worlds/societies without compromising the pace of the story than possible in the mixed universe construct.

Its biggest potential problem, though, would be in the lack of any common background. Without the touchstone of humans and human society the author would have to give the reader something to latch onto, to care about, early on or risk having their work cast aside after a chapter or two. And that may be why I can’t think of any science fiction that is purely alien in nature. Asimov builds one internally in Part 2 of The Gods Themselves (the world of energy beings), but even then the book ties them back to a human universe. One wonders if writers in highly restrictive settings (e.g., the former Eastern Bloc countries), where anything even hinting at shortfalls in their particular society might be cause for “reeducation”, might use such a backdrop to subtly make their points.

So there you have it: my assessment of the pros and cons of different human/alien combinations as the framework for writing a good science fiction story, and some examples of each. Going through this thought process has given me an even deeper appreciation for how well the good science fiction writers, past and present, execute their craft. And because this post started as a personal thought process for my own foray into writing science fiction, I’d appreciate any insights readers of this piece care to leave.

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