Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Aliens

15:14 Sun 07 Aug 2011. Updated: 18:19 17 Sep 2011
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FTL travel, and the “big universe” aspect of space opera, mean that if a setting includes alien life, humans are likely to encounter it. Its presence or absence does a great deal to shape the setting, both in terms of power dynamics and politics and in terms of how it feels.

Note that I’m not considering the question of whether or not it’s more “realistic” for a setting to contain aliens or not, as the question of our being alone in the universe is both too large for this post and not one I want to try to answer satisfactorily before starting to write this particular space opera piece.

Some of the options for alien life in science fiction settings include:

  • A highly populated universe, in which humans are new and relatively weak (e.g. David Brin’s Uplift series).
  • A highly populated universe, in which humans are a mid-to-high level race in a continuum (e.g. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series).
  • A less populated universe, in which humans are one of a handful of races (e.g. Larry Niven’s Ringworld series).
  • A low-population universe where humans appear to be currently alone but there’s evidence of ancient (apparently) dead aliens (e.g. Frederick Pohl’s Heechee series).
  • A low-population universe with scattered sentient life throughout the galaxy, where humans are the first to expand significantly (can’t think of a great example of this, but I’m sure there are many)
  • A high-population universe with a highly integrated society in which humans are one, possibly insignificant, race among many (The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be the best example of this).
  • A universe in which there’s alien life, but humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy (e.g. Dune).
  • A universe in which there’s no life apart from what originated on Earth (e.g. Firefly).
  • A universe in which there’s no intelligent alien life, but there are alien-like beings created by humans (e.g. Battlestar Galactica).

In all cases above, “the universe” refers to the area relevant to the setting, and not to the entire universe per se.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between having and not having aliens in the setting is the presence or lack of something for humans to compare themselves against. As well as actual aliens, robots, AIs, and even “evolved” or “adapted” humans can all serve this purpose in science fiction: a not-us serving to help define what human means.

Without them, the setting’s questions are closer to “what are humans like amidst high technology”, “what are humans like at really big scales of civilization”, “will humans reconstruct the same social structures among the stars or make new ones”, “how much of ‘human nature’ is set by local conditions”, and so on.

With aliens those questions apply also, but humanity’s standing with regards to aliens is always present. Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, makes a big deal out of how humans are “special” (conversations with Q are perhaps the most blatant examples). Peter Watts’ Blindsight exposes deep questions about the nature of human consciousness by comparison with its aliens. In Babylon 5 much is made of humanity’s status as a “rising race”, and again humans are portrayed as special in terms of their spirit, although to a lesser extent than in Star Trek.

Where humans aren’t portrayed as special in some way, this is often coupled with a sense of hopelessness or decay. It’s probably fair to say that in a crowded universe where humans are merely one starfaring species among many and don’t have special status, there’s an increased sense of meaninglessness, or perhaps an increased sense that humanity’s lack of a special place is the source of some dissatisfaction. Just one more species among many—possibly a countless many—is a tough position for humans to accept, given the importance of narrative to humanity and the tendency to center narratives around the story of humanity. That position is one of the key struts of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy setting, and is used to underline the absurdity of human existence, all the vast tracts of human history and achievement distilled down to “mostly harmless”.

The absence of aliens, on the other hand, and the loneliness of an unpopulated galaxy, lead to a much more human-centric setting. There are only humans, and their endeavors represent the only known actions of intelligent life, perhaps an early phase of ultimately spreading to a galactic (or intergalactic) scale, but also with the possibility of dying out given any number of possible wrong turns.

At the same time, the sense of those settings is similar to “business as usual”—humans progress and expand their reach, this progress having been extrapolated into space.

Another issue is that of “escape”: with no aliens, and no large viable other human civilizations (effectively “aliens” for my purposes here), then there is no real escape for the denizens—or rather, that escape is out into the vast emptiness of uninhabited space, and to escape out there requires a lot of resources; it’s not somewhere a person can run to. There are peripheries, and these are similar in some ways to the American West in its “Wild West” phase, but also different. If there were aliens, they would give a different kind of escape, or a different kind of fencing: the difference between being fenced in by barriers created by other civilizations, versus being fenced in by the great emptiness all around human space.

Related to this, a lack of aliens underscores both the emptiness and vastness of space; their absence raises the question of whether humans are truly alone in all of space, which in turn reminds us of just how ridiculously large the universe is.

My setting will lack aliens, and will involve the latter kind of fencing, as well as peripheries that are contested in some way, and a dominant central civilization that presents itself as the only option for civilization. No aliens will mitigate the sense that the future is entirely in human hands, or the despair that may come from predicting what that future will be like.

One Response to “Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Aliens”

  1. Jeff Fry Says:

    Great post! This whole series is wonderful; it’s interesting to see how you catalog your options and then choose between them. I would trade 5 short daily posts for one post like this any week.

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