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Interesting article on Non-Human Races

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Hainted, Oct 5, 2014.

  1. Hainted

    Hainted Sage

    It's a scientific discussion of alien life, and how to understand their society we would have to understand their biology, but it makes for interesting reading. I've said before that a lot of Fantasy Races are like Star trek aliens, just Humans with funny ears or strange foreheads, and not really "Other". I know that they have to be relatable to the reader, but a quick read of this might help your "Podcashiers" or whatever Non-Human race be more Non-Human, and less Peter Dinklage in Spock Ears.

    To Learn How Aliens Think, We Must First Learn About Their Biology
  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Dolphins capacity for language is pretty fascinating. Through the use of clicks, rather than having words to represent concepts, they can create a kind of "sonar picture" and transmit that to other dolphins.
    I read this one sci-fi comic where "Dolphin" was a spoken language (which is terribly unrealistic). The Dolphin word for water was "itikti". Which also means stability, life, time, space and god. Apparently, the difference is in how the speaker moves while saying it - what with sonar and all.
    And then there's octopi intelligence which is so inhuman that it's hard to measure.

    What I'm getting at is that you don't need to sit around wondering what "non-human" intelligence is or how the Other thinks. There's examples of that stuff already on Earth.

    However, if you want other races to have a meaningful relationship with humans (both humans in the story and the readers themselves), two-way, mutual communication is necessary. In this case, I think it'd be okay to have Peter Dinklage in Spock ears.
    On one end of the spectrum, you have Spock while on the other end you have Azathoth. Both are good in their respective stories.
  3. Hainted

    Hainted Sage

    The point I'm trying to make, and I hope people take from the article, is that a race biologically different from Humans are going to have different values, a different outlook, and a different society. I feel that by just saying "They're Centaurs, but Vikings" you can miss out on a lot of potential stories, and character interaction.

    Take cats for example. Cats communicate with each other non-verbally. The only times a cat vocalizes is when it interacts with non-cats, like their owners, because we don't understand all the meanings behind body positioning, tail motion, etc....

    Extrapolate that into a Humanoid Cat race that can communicate the same way, and you've got a character that can lie straight to your face, while informing his buddies where all your valuables are.
    Mythopoet likes this.
  4. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

    Read some of Hal Clement's books - such as 'Mission of Gravity' - old school science fiction and he specialized in non-human life forms and their biology. Vastly overlooked nowadays but they are classics.
  5. Scalvi

    Scalvi Scribe

    I feel like diving into biology is way too...exhaustive(?) for most books. Nor, do I think, it is all that important as a starting point. I start with a real-world equivalent for culture but, like shrink wrap, it usually conforms to how the race is.
  6. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    It probably depends on how closely related your sentient non-humans are to humans. Conventional elves and orcs share so much of their anatomy in common with humans that I would classify them as fellow hominins in the same sense as Neanderthals, Denisovans, or Homo erectus. In their case, some degree of cognitive and cultural overlap with our species would be expected. As for races that aren't the least bit humanoid at all (say, Velociraptors with Jurassic Park intelligence), those might certainly present some fascinating divergences in culture from humanity as the OP suggested.
    Vvashjr likes this.
  7. Hainted

    Hainted Sage

    It doesn't have to be exhaustive, it's just taking a moment to realize the impact of biological differences. A race with perfect night-vision is probably not going to have lanterns or develop the light bulb. A race that lives half the amount of time Humans do will have different priorities for how they spend their time. Thick armored skin? probably not a lot of emphasis on clothes and fashion. Underwater race? Don't have stairs. Shared Racial Memory? probably not a lot of emphasis on the individual.

    Take Centaurs. If you've ever been around a horse you know how massive they can be. Add a Human sized torso on top of that, and they are huge beings. Now look around your living space, and try to imagine a Clydesdale trying to use your bathroom.

    I'm not expecting a sprawling treatise on biology for a race, but if you're creating a winged race with cat heads who communicate solely through complex whistling, and you describe the society as Antebellum South absolutely, without any difference but names of stuff......
    It just knocks me right out of the setting.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    One example I like is the dog society created by Vernor Vinge in A Fire Upon the Deep. He doesn't try to be exhaustive, he simply took pack behavior and extrapolated from there. And he was smart enough to let us experience through the eyes of humans.

    One of the risks of creating a genuinely alien culture is that it will be, well, alien. It won't make sense. I have some experience with this because I teach history. While medieval people are humans, they had values that my students find very difficult to comprehend. As a result, the students wind up judging rather than understanding.

    As writers, we have the peculiar challenge of creating a culture that is different while at the same time having the characters' action make sense in human terms. See Vernor Vinge, supra.
  9. Scalvi

    Scalvi Scribe

    Ah, I misunderstood. I take that sort of characterization for granted. I didn't think it would take any sort of advice to make it so that things just made sense. It might sound a bit condescending but I don't think a concept like that needs an entire article to express.
  10. Hainted

    Hainted Sage

    I'm not pointing fingers or naming names, but sometimes the things we don't always think are necessary are usually the things people need reminding about the most. I've seen several promising things destroyed by people not considering something I believed to be a no-brainer.
    Mythopoet likes this.
  11. Zāl Dastān

    Zāl Dastān Dreamer

    So very true.

    Thanks for the link, OP. Very interesting!
  12. Vendzzz

    Vendzzz Acolyte

    I have a race if dog humanoid people and have done extensive research on the nature of pack animals to portray them accurately
  13. Surad

    Surad Minstrel

    You just gave me an idea for my race of humanoid cat people... interesting.

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