I’m working on the sequel to my book Between Stars. In the sequel I’m introducing more aliens, and in larger numbers than in the first book. This means I have to give a lot more thought to the home worlds of my aliens, their characteristics as a species, and their cultures. It’s fun, but also pretty daunting.
At my real-life job, we’ve been talking a lot about cultural responsiveness. New Zealand is a multi-cultural nation, and as a teacher I need to be aware of, and respond to the different cultures of the students I teach. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what being culturally responsive means. It can be quite confronting at times, to challenge your own beliefs, values, and assumptions.
People are multi-layered and complex. We identify with our cultural heritage, but at the same time, we are individuals. I don’t want my alien characters to be one-dimensional. So it’s a challenge to develop species characteristics, but also create unique, individual characters within their ethnic frameworks.
Fortunately, there are many fantastic examples of aliens in my favourite sci-fi movies and television programmes. My all-time favourite is, of course, Star Trek, and no-one does extra-terrestrials as well as the creators of the Star Trek aliens. Michael Westmore is a creative genius.
It’s difficult to pick favourites, but here are a few of mine:
Quark, the Ferengi in Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, has provided many hilarious moments of comedy, due to the wonderful duality of his character. On the outside, he’s a tough Ferengi businessman, truly dedicated to the laws of his culture, but frustrated by the many twists of fate that thwart his opportunistic schemes. On the inside, he’s a bit of a softy, though he tries hard not to be, and he’ll never admit it, or allow anyone to see. I particularly love Quark’s comments about humans. He gives a new perspective on war and conflict in this discussion about the price of peace with a Vulcan weapons dealer.
I love the formality of speech used by many aliens. Mr Tuvok in Star Trek, Voyager, refers to de ja vu: “Perhaps you are experiencing a paradoxical, state-dependent, associative phenomena.” I tried to memorise this. I want to come out with it at an appropriate time.
In Star Gate SG1, Teal’c assures a wounded Jack O’Neill that he will stay by his side, saying: “Undomesticated equines could not remove me.” In another episode he speaks of a water pistol as a weapon with “superior range and fire power”.
The relationships between characters alien to one another are not only entertaining, but often they provide spotlights shining on our own human interactions, and help us see ordinary things from a different perspective. Mr Spock and Doctor McCoy in the Star Trek Original Series, entertained us with their constant opposition between logic and emotion. Doctor Bashir and Garak in Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, had many deep and philosophical discussions. One of my favourites was when Doctor Bashir told Garak the tale of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Garak’s interpretation of the moral is a classic and memorable moment.
Even our language doesn’t escape examination in Star Trek, The Next Generation’s episode about Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, where the aliens speak in metaphors. I still marvel at how this episode shows that language and culture are deeply entwined.
My favourite movie moment of all comes from the movie Starman, starring Jeff Bridges. The alien Starman explains to Jenny that she will have a baby, and that the baby will know everything he knows, and will become a teacher. Jenny responds with a look of amazement, gratitude and wonder. I find this moment inspiring. Not just because of its poignant beauty and joy for a woman who thought she would be childless, but also because it seems to say that a teacher is something of great value to the world. And, as a teacher, I appreciate that.
I know I have my work cut out for me if I want to write characters as deep and meaningful as the ones who have inspired me. But I will try. Now I hear Yoda, “There is no try…Do, or do not.”
Then I must do.