How the Other Half Lives, Part 3: Culture
Copyright 2014 David Belt.
Welcome to part three of this series on Xenofiction, stories told from the point of view of something other than human. I have assumed a task of telling a story from birth to death of a unique non-human species. In doing so, I have undertaken a much greater feat than I once believed. And now I am passing on some of what I have learned. This week’s topic covers the unimaginably variable subject of culture.
At this point, our non-human species has been born into the world and started experiencing the world through its unique senses. Another aspect of life that greatly affects our childhood development is the culture which disposes our primary education. Our culture determines how we speak, eat, dress, and behave.
Any sentient species must have some means of communication, even if it not verbal speech. The species I have created develops telepathic communication before it even hatches from its egg, but verbal communication skills come much later in life. The t’ca from C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels have a language with a matrix-grammar rather than a linear grammar.
Feeding is genetically encoded on every living creature. Through the senses discussed in part two of this series, creatures can determine on their own what constitutes food, but a sentient species would no doubt develop a nutritional precept of some kind. Some foods maybe selected based on cultural guidance, rather than nutritional value. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, the Cullen family of vampires are called vegan, because they only drink animal blood, rather than human blood.
I was eating lunch with some of my shipmates the other day, when the question was asked, “How come aliens in movies are always naked?” which I thought was a brilliant question. It stands to reason that a sentient species advanced enough to develop interstellar travel, at some point would have gone through some form of fashion development. Even if clothing was not needed for protection from the elements, do they have no concept of fashion or modesty or individuality? Human technology has developed to the level that we do not require clothing most of the time, but we continue wear clothes because it is part of our culture. Has this non-human culture developed so differently that clothing of some kind is not worn?
Behavior is the single most defining trait of one’s culture. The most basic concepts of right and wrong are taught or omitted by cultural upbringing. Worldwar by Harry Turtledove is a fantastic comparison of human and alien cultures as his alien race lands on earth at the height of World War II.
The quintessential question of nature vs. nurture is asked again and again in literary prose with no true defining answer. Why do we do the things we do?
Of this truth I am certain: of all the creatures on earth, only man is truly evil.
Evil requires only one thing to exist: sentient thought. Any sentient species will have to battle its own demons through a cultural structure of some kind, and not all will adhere to that structure, either by chance or by choice there will be cultural outcasts that do not behave in accordance to what is deemed “right.” In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” an adaptation of Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates, Klaatu’s race deems humankind is evil and must be eradicated for the sake of preserving the Earth.
For my part, I have a clutch of twelve eggs from different parents raised by a single guardian. While their cultural bias will be uniform, each will have their own evils to engage or embrace.
One of the scenarios discussed in part one of this series was a story that began “A boy finds a strange egg in the woods.” In this scenario, the unique species is born into a culture other than its native one. How do such alien cultures effect the development of the offspring? How would it compare to one from its natural culture? How well would it be able to integrate into its natural culture? Would it even want to?
Diversity is the spice of life, so don’t let your non-human species become perfect clones of one another (even if they are clones). Establish your cultural norms, then allow your creations to exercise a bit of individuality, and they will be all the better for it.
Next week I’ll be wrapping up this four course meal of Xenofiction with a study on the lifecycles of these fascinating new creations.