Science & Space

Making a Different World With Taboos

Technology, by itself, will not make your world feel alien. We live in a world where technology changes every day, waking up to new technology is normal, to make a world feel alien you need more.

The first thing you could do would be to get rid of a taboo. However be careful to understand both the logical and emotional reasons for the taboo existing before you do this. Taboos have far reaching consequences, make sure to not just change the surface level effects.

For example, the nudity taboo. One of the consequences of getting rid of it could be that our standards of beauty might change because we no longer can present a front that is anything but honest. I might be tempted to have this stem from a belief that honestly is important. If that was the case makeup could be seen the same way.

The next, as you might have guessed, is adding a taboo. This would be more tricky because you have to invent the reason for the taboo to exist, plot backwards from there to make it logical then plot forward for all the effects it would have .

In a classic by Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, one of the major plot points is that the only way to know that someone is not controlled by an alien is to see them naked. To wear clothing (more then a set of VERY short shorts) is to ask for a bullet to the head from a vigilante. Trying to talk congress into this goes about as well as you would think it would.

Even after the aliens are beaten this could not change because even if the US is clear, the rest of the world is not.

If you were to write a book set 100 years after the end of that book I would expect to see profound changes.

Human Aliens

One thing that was much more common in the fifties then it is today, at least in books, is what I call human aliens. These are aliens that look and act human to a degree that they could easily pass as one.

In TV and movies this is done for practical reasons, even Babylon 5 did it. Any number of good stories would not work if every alien was so different that it took years to understand them, and years longer to have a real conversation.

To that end if you do use it there really are only two ways to have it make any sense.

First, convergent evolution. This means that if you have two planets with the same conditions, and both develop intelligent life, they would look and act the same.

From a current science point of view, this just does not work. It would require EVERYTHING about us to be forced that way by evolution. There are just too many things that could have gone any number of ways. For example, do we really need five toes? Why not six? If aliens on a very earthlike planet also had five that would mean there was a strong evolutionary reason for exactly five.

That said the storyteller in me does like the idea, it means you can find aliens that might as well be human on the other side of the galaxy.

I would note that you should not make any two races EXACTLY the same, have at least some difference between them, even if it’s just skin or hair color.

Second is a common origin.

This one has less use by far, and is generally the center of a book, rather then being background info inside it.

This could mean that humans did not come from earth or that humans left earth before and we lost all of our technologies and had to start over.

To be honestly, neither of the above holds much water scientifically. It would take a VERY long time for the signs of a space faring society to be removed from a planet, like well past what it would take to make those technologies again.

If we did not come from earth you would almost have to have earth’s whole biosphere (maybe even including fossils) be transplanted too.

A much better way, at least in keeping with what we know scientifically, would be to have a third party involved. Meaning someone came to many planets and nudged life in the same direction, making it look like evolution. Or maybe they took humans from earth and planted them elsewhere, if it happened before written history then we would not know.

What You NEED to Know About Science

One thing that people think about science fiction is that you have to be an expert in engineering and physics to write it. You don’t, you just need to know where the stoplights are are.

By stoplights I mean things you can’t do, or if you do you must do with forethought.

As for the laws of physics there are really only a handful you need to be wary off. This is not saying you can’t violate them, but if you do it will have a big impact on your setting and you should think about it.

The first of course is faster then light travel. I will say that technically are a few ways around this that do not violate the laws of physics, but they tend to require exotic matter (matter with negative mass) or something equally unlikely.

Also be aware that you would be hard pressed to find a way to go faster then light in the real universe that would not also work as a time machine.

The second of course is time travel. Violating causality is probably the first or second thing most scientists would say if you asked them for a list of impossible things. No plot element causes more problems, for the love of god if you use this think it out.

The third is conservation of energy and momentum. Also known as not getting something for nothing. If something is being powered, where does it get the power? If something is moving what pushed it?

You don’t have to do math but if you have a machine doing something think about the kind of power it uses and what that means. If you have a ship move half the speed of light that takes a lot of power, it does not matter what kind of drive system it uses.

Lastly try not to go against the grain of science. By this I mean make your fake science SOUND like real science. Science in its most basic form will be the same in a thousand years as it is now, the thought processes will be the same because we will still be studying the same thing (the universe).

Making an Alien Setting Feel Human

One trap you can fall into when placing your character in a setting is making creatures and settings so alien that they are unrelateable.

The first and most often given advise is for you to give your character problems that are familiar. While good advise this is not the only thing you can do. If you’re are going to do it however, the easiest way is to stick to the basics, food, water shelter, saving a loved one, basic primal urges that everyone has.

Once your story progresses you can and should expand, but make sure before you do that that your reader cares about your character.

You could also show that he acts very human, that he makes mistakes. Basically show that he thinks like a human, maybe contrast it with someone or something that does not.

Lastly you can do the opposite, make the reader hate the enemy of your character and root for your character just because he is the enemy of the bad guy.

This CAN work, but its hard to pull this off. And for the love of god give your character at least one or two good qualities.