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Why the best aliens are just a little bit human

Sci-fi author Becky Chambers explains how to build a better alien and how to imagine hopeful futures.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Becky Chambers is one of the few authors whose every book I gobble up greedily.

The sci-fi writer launched her career in 2012 by raising money on Kickstarter, meant to buy herself the time to focus on finishing her first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. which she eventually self-published in 2014.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is defined by grounded hopefulness and top-notch space opera pastiche — it captures so many of the reasons I love Star Trek without actually having anything to do with Star Trek — and it soon found a cult fan base. That fan base has grown considerably as Chambers has published three novels set in the same universe as Planet, as well as two unrelated novellas. (The republished edition of Planet and her subsequent books have been published by major sci-fi publishing houses.)

The Wayfarers series is Chambers’s most famous work to date. It even won the Hugo Award, one of the most prestigious sci-fi prizes, for best series in 2019. It centers on a future version of humanity that has found its way into something called the Galactic Commons, a sort of United Nations for the galaxy.

Humans are one of the newer species in the GC, and we’re not particularly beloved. For one thing, other species apparently think we smell bad, a tiny joke Chambers uses to needle the arbitrariness of prejudice. (We smell how we smell, other alien species!) Each of the four novels centers on a different location and set of characters, though some characters with starring roles in one book recur as supporting characters in another.

One major quality that sets Chambers’s work apart is her skill with creating alien species. They’re just alien enough to be unfamiliar but just familiar enough to be approachable. And though Chambers doesn’t have formal science training, both her mother (an astrobiologist) and her wife (an anthropologist) do. The scientific stew that Chambers has been steeped in heavily influences how she thinks about alien cultures and planets.

Perhaps the most compelling quality of Chambers’s books, though, is that they are hopeful without being saccharine. They take place in a future where humanity figured its shit out eventually, but we still destroyed the Earth via climate change. That blend of sorrowful past and more optimistic present is intentional, Chambers says. “Hope cannot exist without pain, without trauma, without scary stuff,” she told me. “It’s the act of believing there’s something better on the other side of this.”

Chambers took some time out of a busy 2021 — both the final Wayfarers book (The Galaxy, and the Ground Within) and her new novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built, which kicks off a new series about a monk and a robot, came out this summer — to talk to me about creating aliens who are just human enough and imagining a hopeful future where utopia nonetheless remains just out of reach.

How to design an alien species

You’re really good at designing non-human species. They’re just recognizable enough for us to be like, “Oh, I understand the emotions and the intellect going on here,” but also just alien enough for us to be like, “That’s really different.”

One of my favorite things to do on any project is invent aliens. I always start with the caveat of: We have to have a point of entry. We have to be able to relate to them on some human level. Do the aliens in Wayfarers resemble anything like what I think actual extraterrestrial life is like? No, of course not. But you have to be able to emotionally connect with them. And I don’t know that we could [immediately do that] with other species out there in the universe that exists.

A photo of Becky Chambers in a forest
Becky Chambers.
Tor Publishing

But from there, we’re gonna get weird. I start with biology first. I look at the physicality. I look at how they are different from us. I always start with a particular trait. For example, the Aeluons, one of the big alien species in Wayfarers, communicate through the chromatophore patches on their cheeks. That starts with a real-world inspiration — squid and octopus.

I take that and blow it up to a civilization level. If color is your primary mode of communication, how does that affect your art? How does that affect your architecture, the way you dress, the sorts of technology you have? And how do you relate to other species, especially if they have different ideas about what color means or just use it as a decoration? There’s a million questions you can ask with just that one element. Everything else comes from there.

The intersections of those cultures are so important to your books. On our planet, we all come from different sets of shared assumptions. Even within a single country, there are many different ideas about how the world functions. How do you go about expanding that diversity of culture and the interactions between those cultures to a galactic scale?

I switch between point-of-view characters so often. None of the books have a single voice. So I spend a lot of time thinking about a character’s biases, what things about other species are weird to them. The things that are obvious to one species are not obvious to another.

My wife and I are an international couple. She’s from Iceland. We go back and forth all the time. And so much of dealing with that is navigating those differences. As a society, we tend to focus on big, political differences, but in my personal life, it’s these very small things. What do you have for breakfast? Do we find the same things funny? An argument might start where no one was actually mad. There was just a misunderstanding that was lost in communication. Those things are such an intrinsic part of my experience that it feels very natural to me to code them as alien interactions instead.

How to undergird your new alien species with just enough science

Your mom is an astrobiology educator, and your wife is an anthropologist. What have you picked up from them that has leached its way into your work? I realize I am basically asking you, “What have you picked up from being alive?”

The cover of Becky Chambers’s first book features large type, alongside a small spaceship and planet.
The cover of Chambers’s debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.
Harper Voyager

Do we have six hours?

From my mom, it would be seeing the beauty in the infinite diversity of evolution, of being able to look at things that are slimy and squeaky and weird. I have a deep affinity for creepy-crawlies, and that comes from my mom. She taught me to see the beauty in things that are different from us. Scientific literacy was a big thing in my upbringing. Even if I wasn’t going to be a scientist, she wanted me to be able to understand it and approach the world that way.

My wife’s background is in historical linguistics, the study of figuring out how people moved around and interacted with each other through analyzing how words changed. She made me think about language in a way I never really considered. Language as a concept holds a reflection of our own values in society and the ways that we perceive the world. Our interactions change the way we speak. That has bled into my work, because so much about what I write about is those sorts of exchanges and the ways that we change by just being around each other, even for a very short time.

On the astrobiology front, there’s this Neil deGrasse Tyson tweet — I’m annoyed by myself for bringing this up already — that calls out Hollywood for having aliens that aren’t different enough from species here on Earth. I feel like, by definition, if we can’t imagine it, we can’t imagine it.

But in your books and in, say, the movie Arrival, it can be a truly alien species, but humans comprehend it through a lens we’re familiar with — a reptile or a cephalopod or a crustacean. We see that in the world, too. We constantly try to relate to people who aren’t like us through the terms and customs we’re used to, which sometimes causes offense and sometimes builds bridges. How do you think about defining something truly alien?

Trying to imagine the unimaginable completely ignores the needs of storytelling. The type of aliens you create hugely depends on what the point of the story is. A story centers a particular feeling and experience. It’s not there to paint the universe as it exists. It’s impressionism. It’s there to elicit an emotional response. At the end of the day, while I’m trying to paint worlds that feel real, I’m telling a story. The needs of that come first.

I was very careful about what sorts of bodies I give to particular characters. In the first Wayfarers book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first alien we meet isn’t that different in a lot of ways. She’s bipedal. She has hands and a face. She can talk to you. Her cultural customs are very different, but we can look at her and compare her to a reptile, something that’s instantly relatable. That was very intentional, because the minute you walked on the ship and met her, she would give the reader a sense of safety and comfort.

Whereas in the last book, [The Galaxy, and the Ground Within], there’s a character who’s a giant lobster centaur man. He’s a lovely person, but his species does elicit a feeling of, “What the hell is that?!” There’s a barrier to entry there.

A lot of choice goes into what I need a character to be and how far I’m going to push the alienness of them. How uncomfortable do I want this experience to be for the reader, and why? But in my novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate [which focuses on a scientific expedition from Earth visiting planets teeming with unintelligent life], there aren’t civilization-level species. Everything is weird and animal and not well understood. We’re just taking pictures of it and trying to figure out what it is. That’s a very different type of story.

How to build a fictional artificial intelligence

Okay, extend that to artificial intelligences, to robots, which in your books grew out of humanity but also need to be different from us.

They are a different category, because they spring from us. I often have the same set of core ideas, which is that if they’re something we made, they would follow a logic we would understand because we wrote the code. Regardless of whether we understand why they gained sentience, we built them for a purpose, and they evolved out of that purpose.

We don’t understand what intelligence or consciousness is. We have it, but we can’t define what it is or why it exists. There are a bazillion books and theories on the topic, but we’re just barely beginning to scratch the surface, and I’m not sure we have the capability to understand those things. I think if a machine wakes up, we’re not going to understand why any more than we understand why we woke up and can perceive the world as we do. I take the human baseline and expand upon it. They do think in ways we don’t understand, because we don’t know how they got there.

I really don’t like the assumption that emotion and logic are opposing forces that are incompatible with each other, where you have androids that cannot do emotions and have a binary code approach to the universe. You often get stories about how a robot begins to feel things and they’re not able to handle it. I feel like that’s so wrong. We have both. We have logic and emotion, and they serve different purposes. They’re both important. Emotion does not taint logic, and logic does not cut you off to the ability to feel things. They’re two sides of the same coin, an intrinsic part of being aware.

How to examine what’s human about the alien

Your work so often uses alien species to examine other ways of being human. There’s a species in the Wayfarers series, for instance, where child-rearing is a specific job, and once you have your child, you turn the baby over to the child-rearers. How do you use aliens to illuminate different ways we could think about being human?

One of the great strengths of science fiction is we’re never actually talking about the alien or the other. We’re never talking about the future, either. We’re talking about ourselves, and we’re talking about right now. Going into a science fiction story is a radically vulnerable act because you’re opening yourself up to whatever it is that the writer thinks about how the world works. “I’m going to leave everything else behind. Show me a world that works differently.” You can’t help but bring along baggage, but you do turn yourself into a bit of a blank slate when you walk into sci-fi.

It’s somewhat like traveling to a different country or learning a different language. Any sort of cultural exchange in the real world shifts your perspective on your self. If you start reading about families with different structures and different notions of parenthood in a sci-fi story, it inevitably makes you think about your own ideas about what those things are, your own template of how the world works. And that’s true regardless of whether you look at it and go, “Ooh, that’s cool,” or if you go, “That makes me really uncomfortable.”

In fact, those moments of discomfort can be really valuable! I personally like to look at those moments where I go, “Yuck!” Then I look at where that is coming from. Is that coming from a cultural taboo or a physical difference? Is that knee-jerk thing I’m feeling good or not? There is something very reflective about engaging with things outside of yourself. That makes sci-fi an incredibly valuable tool for being able to pick apart your own biases.

How to imagine a hopeful future that doesn’t ignore what’s hard about being alive

A painted banner reads, “No profit on the planet. We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”
Protesters attend the Global March for Climate Justice in Milan, Italy, in early October 2021.
Elena Di Vincenzo/Archivio Elena Di Vincenzo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

There’s a real trend lately toward escapism and positive stories. I don’t want to judge people for that, but darker stuff tends to scratch my itch. You write really positive stories, though, and I love your work. And I think the thing you do is you write positive stories in worlds where reality is still full of darkness and hard things. And yet the beings in your books are kind to each other, and that feels beautiful amid the darkness and hardship. How do you think about balancing those two tones?

I always preface this by saying: I think that dark is important. Sad stories, tragedies — it’s important that we tell those, both because it’s a matter of personal choice what sort of story you feel like engaging with on a particular day but also because we need cautionary tales. We need to be able to work through our own trauma and our own pain, and sometimes, the best way to do that is just to confront it head-on.

But if the only sorts of futures you tell stories about are dark or scary or dystopian, it can start to breed nihilism after a while. It makes you afraid of the future. Hopeful futures need to exist as a counterpoint. So a big part of why I write is to be the other side of the scale.

In terms of how to balance it within a story itself, it’s important to note that hope doesn’t mean that there’s a happy ending, necessarily, or that everything works out fine. Hope is something you foster in your darkest moments. Hope cannot exist without pain, without trauma, without scary stuff. It’s the act of believing there is something better on the other side of this. Even though I embrace kindness and compassion and cooperation in my stories, bad stuff still happens, because bad stuff happens in the world. The only way you can really talk about hope is to show the bad stuff happening. But then you show what comes after: people healing, people helping each other.

To me, that is more comforting than when everything is sugar-coated, when everything works and everything’s great. We do need escapist comfort food from time to time. But the most comforting stories for me are ones in which something went wrong, but things got better. People got through it not just through their own strength but because of the people propping them up.

Yeah, early in the pandemic last year, this study got passed around that said, contrary to so much post-apocalyptic storytelling, in a crisis, humans help each other. In the wasteland, there would be terrible sociopaths, but the people who survived would most likely band together in small communities. In most of your books, humans made the planet uninhabitable for themselves, but then they figured out a way to keep going. Then the people who kept going built these new social mores around cooperation.

So tell me, Becky Chambers: Do you think the world is doomed, but humanity might be able to pull through?

I don’t think the world is doomed, but we’re in a precarious place right now. We are a social, cooperative species. In 2020, we all had to be alone, yet we found ways to help each other anyway. We need each other. There is no survival for us if we don’t lean on each other.

If we’re going to survive and make sure we’re living in an ecosystem that can support us, the only way forward is to get past the idea that we’re all in it alone. The only way we are going to overcome the challenges we face on a global scale is if we swallow some humble pie and say, “I’m not the main character of this story. I am one of billions of side characters, and there is no main character. All we can do is help each other.” I do not see a future for humanity where we haven’t learned that lesson.


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