Writing science fiction can be an abstract artform. You create (discover?) unknown civilizations, cultures, and religions, and populate them with new species speaking alien languages and holding values distant from Earth as their homeworlds. Technologies must be sci-fi friendly. Faster Than Light travel (if it exists in the Universe you are imagining), teleportation, particle beam weaponry, and molecular super-gadgets, the latter to dispense food or whatever else your crew needs. (See: “replicators,” thank you, Gene Roddenberry.) Medicine potent enough to cure a rainy day, as McCoy tells Kirk in TOS.
People sometimes ask sci-fi writers where they get their ideas. A better question might be, “How does a terrestrial lifeform like you take any of this seriously? You will live and die without leaving the only planet known to have evolved living organisms. Sci-fi? It’s all over the rainbow, sans Munchkins.”
Well, not really a whole world, just a chunk of space rock. (See photo.) You can tell this is a meteorite by its leading edge, smoothed by superheating as it burned its way through the atmosphere. It’s also lightly magnetic, another sign.
When I hold that space-born arrowhead in the palm of my hand, I recall that there really are other worlds out there. Even if this rock was never a part of a planet but floated in the void since the dawn of forever, it tells me, “Behold! Solid ground exists beyond earth. You hold a piece of it in hand. I traveled through the ages to strike land in a new world. Your descendants will bend the space-time continuum and voyage to worlds yet impossible to imagine. So play with the possibilities. Keep the dream alive. Other worlds exist. Write about them, now!”
The rock is my inspiration, a taste of reality in a world of fiction.
Reviewers and informal correspondents often remark about the array of alien races, planets, cultures and religions encountered in the main Star Lawyers series and its prequel spinoff, Star Lawyers Origins. Readers often comment positively on the multi-cultural spacefaring society I envision for the 32nd century. The complexity is usually well received, but one wag lodged an exasperated complaint that there was too much diversity!
Hello? A future where vast numbers of Earth’s people originate from non-European ancestry is not only likely, it’s already here. Currently, 75% of the human race lives on two continents: Asia (60%) and Africa (15%).
But let’s tie Donald Trump’s knickers in a knot and think about the untold trillions of undocumented aliens who live somewhere, out there.
I have had fun creating an even more complex picture of humanoid and non-humanoid star nations, species, races. (Using the word species and race interchangeably, rather than the limited and basically useless designation of “race” among our one-species human culture.) Here are some of the major players in 32nd century galactic civilization.
“The majority of alien lifeforms differ wildly from the children of Earth. Insectoid Yegosians and reptilian Saurians. Sentient creatures with hard shells and multiple limbs but no head. Others looked like big luffa sponges with a few dozen garden hoses drooping off the moist membranes. There were brainy birds, intelligent vapor clouds who solidified to grasp tools or prey, and assorted races of sentient beings whose form and function defied human language to describe them without sounding nightmarish or just plain silly…
“(However) some humanoid aliens—Meklavites, Parvians, Quirt-Thymeans and others—were similar enough to Terrans to allow sexual—albeit not reproductive—compatibility… In some humanoids, the DNA double helix twisted left, instead of its “normal” right-handed form. But structural similarities abounded among bipedal humanoids. It was a maddening question.
“Then Wolfgang Ziegler offered an elegant, simple solution. In his twenty-fourth century work, Humanoid Efficiency, Ziegler theorized that, since there are a finite number of ways a creature can solve its evolutionary problems, similarities are bound to occur.”
So, let’s run with Ziegler’s similarities. Here’s a sampler of four humanoid races whose political and social goals either align with humans or present no current threat in the 32nd century of Tyler Matthews.
Suryadivans – warm-blooded humanoid marsupial-amphibians with large, expressive head-fins. Not sexually compatible with H-sapiens. (Sorry, Captain Kirk. Neither are the green, plant-evolved, bipedal Kolovite women.) The Suryadivan Sacred Protectorate is the location for most of the action in Jump Gate Omega and Forbidden Sanctuary (Star LawyersBooks 1 & 2).
Quirt-Thymeans – Mr. Blue (A.K.A., Indigo, Prince Zenna) is a member of the humanoid race who founded the ancient Quirt-Thymean Empire. Although they are a single species, Thymeans are purple, Quirts blue. QTs are physically and sexually compatible with humans, albeit with short, doggy ears. Some scientists believe Quirts and humans might even be able to interbreed, with a little bio-tinkering. Mr. Blue frequently drives Tyler batty with his misreading of Terran metaphors and his indirect, high context way of communicating.
Meklavites –humanoid species, biologically compatible with Terrans. The Meklavite Union is a female-dominated oligarchical state in which women rule and men are subordinate. Mek women of means may form a Stable, essentially a harem, with as many husbands as they can financially support. This widespread practice of polygamy creates shortages of men, which means large numbers of middle-class women will never marry or have children. The major religion of the multi-planet, Meklavite Union is best described as witchcraft, with presiding witches and covens at ascending levels of the society.
Parvians – the Parvian Republic is home to the most compatible humanoid species yet encountered. (Until Book 5 – The Stellar Light Conspiracy, launching in May-June) Parvians have a well-earned reputation for ferocity among spacefaring civilizations. However, they are not expansionist and use their naval strength to keep the peace. As Noah Matthews says in Book 5, my work-in-progress, “Parves don’t start fights. They finish them.” They are loyal friends and merciless foes. Physically they are slightly smaller than the average Terran and well-proportioned, with multi-hued complexions, deep brown to pale beige, Afro-black to Norse blonde hair. Their species is known for its affability, zest for life, and for visiting devastation on anyone foolhardy enough to attack them. The common, cross-cultural watchword for dealing with citizens of the Republic: “Don’t fuck with the Parves.”
What mysterious gifts are people hiding within them?
Passing people in the street, I sometimes wonder—as a writer and student of humanity—what mysterious gifts are people hiding within them?
True, people carry burdens and sorrows, sometimes almost beyond bearing, and there are real villains loose in the world, who choose to harm others for reasons beyond our current understandings. But if there are secret evil doers, surely the other kind of person—the secret good-doer, the person of kindness and appreciation for life. I suspect these folks are way more typical.
A true story from Southeast Asia takes this thought to a deeper level
Nobody knew how long the stucco Buddha had sat in the courtyard outside one of the Temples. In Thailand there are many, many Buddhas . All over Asia, for that matter. This particular Buddha had sat outside the grounds of a Wat, or Temple for so many years that people didn’t know where it came from. He was covered in clay stucco, about 15 feet (4.5 m) tall, the fairly typical image of Buddha sitting in the lotus position, eyes open, with a little half-smile on his face.
The stucco Buddha withstood Thailand’s political and social changes and weathered monsoon rains for generation after generation. In modern times, foreign visitors frequently posed beside the sacred image. Sometimes they overstepped the bounds—put hats on his head, or threw an arm around the good old Buddha like he was their good ‘ol buddy, culturally insensitive acts that can get a tourist arrested in some countries. Kids left candy wrappers in his lap. Other people brought flower and fruit offerings to the Buddha, or just paused to meditate before the image of Gautama Siddhartha, the Enlightened One.
And the Buddha kept smiling, as though guarding some deep secret, right in the midst of life.
Then the city of Bangkok decided to build a highway
Then the city of Bangkok decided to build a highway right through the courtyard where the Buddha sat. The Enlightened One got an eviction notice. The government was actually quite accommodating and offered heavy-lift equipment to move the stucco Buddha indoors.
The monks realized this would be good for the statue, too. Inside the Wat the Buddha could be venerated by the faithful and photographed by tourists in a more controlled way. After all, even though it was poorly constructed, the Buddha was centuries old and deserved to retire with dignity.
When the government crane began hoisting the stucco Buddha, the massive statue began to crack. To make matters worse, rain started to fall on the split stone. The head monk temporarily halted the project and ordered the workers to lower the Buddha to the ground and throw a canvas tarp over the big idol.
The workers went home and once more the Buddha sat alone in the rain outside the Temple, conspicuously hidden under a weatherproof shroud.
Something shining in the light beam
Sometime in the night the head monk decided to check on whether the cracked statue had deteriorated in the rain. He focused a flashlight under the tarp to see how dry it was. When the beam touched the crack a tiny glimmer radiated back at him. Removing the tarp, the monk examined the crack and found there definitely was something shining in the light beam.
So, he fetched a hammer and chisel and tapped at the stucco, which crumbled away, revealing more gleaming surface. After hours of work in the darkness, the dawn rose over a sight which had not been seen for nearly three centuries: a solid gold, 15-foot Buddhaweighing 5.5 tons.
The Buddha was cast from the gold
Scholars later suggested that Thai monks in the fifteenth century smelted gold to cast the Buddha. Three hundred years later another generation of monks desperately wanted to protect their beloved golden idol from an invading Burmese army. They secretly coated their divine treasure with clay in order to disguise it.
Apparently, they did their work too well. After the monks all died in that eighteenth century invasion, nobody knew what had happened to the golden Buddha… or had a clue about the true identity of this rather ordinary mud-stucco model in the now-deserted monastery. Later, when Bangkok was built, the statue was moved into the city and left outside a deserted temple. And the solid gold Buddha had been hiding in plain sight ever since.
How many people hide great, deep, incredible gifts under a rather ordinary coating of flesh and bone?
Now the question I sometimes myself ask is this: How many people do you pass on the street every day who are, in reality, solid Gold Buddha’s in disguise? How many people hide great, deep, incredible gifts under a rather ordinary coating of flesh and bone?
I encourage all my sci-fi writer friends (and their readers) to think about alien cultures and human beings through this lens.
“Raise the Jolly Roger, an’ go to FTL,me hearties!”
Yeah, pirates in the movies are campy, stereotyped, and ridiculous. But will real space outlaws be out there some day, laying in wait for fat ships to board?
The word for today:“Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs!”
(Teaching point from retired professor: Nobody spoke like that, except a few dozen Hollywood buccaneers in the 1950s.)
Professional Space Bandits
My introduction to professional space bandits was the low-budget, “comic science fiction” motion picture, The Ice Pirates (1980).The opening scenes were provocative enough to make me eager for the plot to develop. Buccaneers in space ships, attacking ice freighters to steal the most valuable resource in the galaxy, dihydrogen oxide, a.k.a., water. Back in the 80s, most scientists thought water was a rare commodity, and our big blue marble, with three-fifths of its surface covered by oceans, marked a stunning exception to the rule. So, yeah. Steal the ice, It’s rare and hella valuable.
Ice is not rare
Except its not. In our solar system alone, outer planet gas giants have several large, cold moons orbiting them with vast amounts of water under the permanently frozen surface. “It is estimated that Europa has an outer layer of water around 100 km (62 mi) thick; a part frozen as its crust, and a part as a liquid ocean underneath the ice.” That would give Jupiter’s moon three times more water than all the oceans on earth combined.”And Saturn’s moon, Titan, plus even poor, demoted Pluto may have hidden oceans below. Turns out, water is plentiful throughout the Cosmos. There are vast clouds of it in distant galaxies.
Okay…that’s quibbling. The point is, the Ice Pirates concept quickly got shanghaied by terrible screenplay writing, which deteriorated from a potentially good story to a badly plotted farce that Mel Brooks would’ve rejected as neither funny nor adventurous.
Piracy in the Modern Era
The idea of piracy in a modern world resurfaced after the murderous, for-profit attacks on shipping by Somalian gunmen, called pirates by modern media. We say, “No! They are bad guys, not Johnny Depp trying to get drunk and/or laid and keep his captaincy against hordes of un-dead…” But despite its popularity, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise presents another series of farces that might’ve been better as a real buccaneering story with comic overtones but without the botched attempts at fantasy. And it never touches the criminal aspects of piracy and its toll on the innocent.
Pirates—true pirates—were not loveable rogues like Jack Sparrow. They were generally far worse than the thugs who board unarmed merchant ships off the horn of Africa to seize cargo and take prisoners for ransom; and they often acted despicably toward their captives.
I just finished reading Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Piratesby Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. The Barbary Coast War in the opening decades of the 19th century happened because European powers were paying off North African privateers sailing under the authority of local rulers and attacking, enslaving, and robbing every nation who was not meeting their demands for annual tribute.
The USA was a new country and couldn’t afford the extortion, and when sailors and civilians were imprisoned in slave labor camps for years while the new democracy figured out what to do, the pirates kept up their reign of terror. Finally, peace-loving Thomas Jefferson was so fed up with the attacks on civilian shipping he bludgeoned the Congress to fund new ships and sent a small flotilla into the Mediterranean. The US Marine Corps Hymn celebrates their achievement in a single line of the opening stanza, “To the shores of Tripoli…”
Actual corsairs, not the Hollywood fantasy creatures, came in two basic types, which had nothing to do with how they treated prisoners.
Privateers sailed with the blessings of some recognizable government, which chartered their maritime adventures against adversary nations and often allowed them to rape women passengers, pillage and plunder the ships, and enslave anyone on the vessel. They also took the captured ships as prizes of war, to be sold or converted into more attack ships.
Pirates (a.k.a., buccaneers) were beholden to no one but themselves. They often had complex societies with codes of behavior and ruling councils. Believe it or not, they usually functioned democratically. This was because anybody who didn’t agree with the group decisions could (and did) jump ship and rejoin ordinary life, subject to recognition by non-pirates who promptly tried and hanged them when discovered. They were not happy-go-lucky, Captain Jack Sparrow-types. Nor were they forced to a life of piracy by tyrannous governments. They were rapacious, murdering thieves and were treated accordingly when apprehended by legitimate authorities.1
Piracy in the Future
So, assuming humans discover how to travel Faster Than Light and set up colony worlds and commerce with alien civilizations, will we find pirates or privateers lurking out there, awaiting a good payday by waylaying lightly defended merchant ships?
Of course not, some might say, it could never happen. When we go to the stars, people will be more enlightened, better self-disciplined, and disinterested in personal profit.
Unfortunately, humanity has proven to be remarkably resistant to peaceful ways. When inner city youth gangs defend their territory and earn profits through drug sales, armed robbery, and other extra-legal means, are they responding to the ancient drive within our species to “dominate or be dominated” as the motto of the old Parvian Republic says? (Star Lawyers, Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons, work in progress).
Pirates have plagued shipping on Earth since before the days of Julius Caesar. As a boy, Caesar was captured and held for ransom by Mediterranean pirates. The brigands were amused when young Julius told them that, when he was free, he would return and wipe them out to the last man. They weren’t laughing when he came back with a fleet and kept his promise.
While there were solitary corsairs, many organized themselves into groups whose efficiency at plunder fell somewhere between street gangs and the mafia. Their driving force wasn’t cruelty—although they often plied their trade with brutality and utter disregard for the well-being of their captives. It was personal profit. When the well-known bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he infamously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Won’t the same be true when convoys carrying goods or passengers between star systems present an appealing target for men (or women) with fast ships and few scruples?
I assume the space pirates scenario is at least plausible, because it supports the main storyline in Star Lawyers – Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons. (Work in progress. Release target: Oct-Nov., 2018.) While writing the book, I am trying to create memorable characters with a bit of the “Avast ye scurvy dogs!” attitude without using those silly, stereotypical words. And I’m struggling to understand how organize gangs of thieves—like the Somalian pirates—view the world in which they ply their trade.
They do it because they’re bad people
It’s too easy to say, “They do it because they’re bad people.” Nobody is born a bad person, but some of us choose behaviors which can be objectively described as anti-social, even while participating in a sociopathic subculture (gangs, pirate crews, jihadists, the KKK) which is far from the mainstream and harmful to innocent bystanders. The question of what makes someone do “bad” things has yet to find a satisfactory answer. My books wrestle with the gray areas and even the “good guys” do things which result in harm to others.
I’ve never wanted to harm another person. I specifically volunteered to fly Medical Evacuation helicopters in Vietnam to avoid being the agent of death. Yet, when I was shot down on the Laotian border in 1971, I found myself on the Ho Chi Minh trail with a .38 revolver as my only weapon. There were several moments when I thought the “enemy” was coming and I pulled the pistol and realized, unlike Gandhi, I could kill in the “right” circumstances Fortunately, I never had to fire, and the American soldiers whose wounded I was trying to extract protected my crew and me until we could climb to a landing zone and get picked up by another Medevac helicopter.
The human family is full of heroes and predators
There are people who would never shoot, even to save their lives. And there are people who kill to gain wealth or personal power. The human family is full of heroes and predators. It is this mixed, contradictory consciousness we will one day take to the stars.
I am not certain there will be vast wars among alien races in which humans will find themselves targets and shooters. But I am certain that all the complex factors at play throughout our history on this planet will travel with us into the Cosmos. And I suspect other sentient races share this struggle between the angels and devils in their consciousness. It’s the price of free will.
So, dodge the pirates, touch down upon alien worlds, go forth among new species, and expect to be surprised. And remember to lock your parked starship.
 The lone exception might be French hunters living on the tiny Caribbean island of Tortuga in the 1630s. The Spanish drove most French forces from the area and tried to evict the French-speaking Tortuga settlers by systematically killing off the island’s game animals. The settlers resorted to piracy to make a living.
A few thoughts about an alien culture you know quite well… your kids and their music!
Free of Prejudice… but…
Today’s young people are remarkably free of prejudice, with one ominous exception: All kids—regardless of race, color, creed, religious preference, or sexual orientation—are rabid music bigots. Rap, Hip-hop, Grunge, Thrash Metal, Pop, C&W, Rock, or Punk, they’re all tooting for the home team and booing for the infidels beyond the true music community.
Do you doubt? Mention Country music to an R&B fan. You’ll deserve the torrent of verbal abuse you’re sure to suffer for such foolhardiness. Metalheads gag at Rap; Hip-Hop lovers tremble at the first notes of a Rock ballad; Country Rock’ers sneer at Salsa. The intolerance is universal and borders on self-righteousness.
Music bigotry, a fascinating cultural trait
As a former public schoolteacher who loves working with teenagers, I always found their musical zealotry a fascinating cultural trait. Kids, who never raised an eyebrow when I described the nuclear holocaust their generation narrowly avoided, become incensed when I put The Nashville Network on the classroom television. Other kids—the Garth Brooks crowd—grew sullen when I switched to BET or MTV.
The generational divide
However, a few years into my teaching career at a Middle School in Georgia, I found a way to unite them in a musical cause. While my students were writing essays or taking tests, I played my music: Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi. At first, they didn’t believe their ears. “Nobody listens to this kind of music!” their eyes told me. One young man put his forehead on the desk and moaned softly.
I decided some instruction was in order. “This was the popular music of the day,” I said as James Galway piped selections from The Magic Flute. Their eyes told me they didn’t believe it. So, I jumped forward two centuries and switched to ragtime. Scott Joplin’s ”Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” then other old favorites like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Tiger Rag.”
I hopped decades again. Big bands. Swing. Jitterbug. “This was wildly popular among young people, but their parents hated it.” My students sat up as Harry James’ orchestra wailed “Two O’clock Jump,” which I told them was recorded March 6, 1939. Their original assignment forgotten, my 13-year-old audience tapped their toes in time with Jimmy Dorsey’s “Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps.” Soon, Cab Calloway had them swinging to “Minnie the Moocher,” and the Andrews Sisters almost bounced them out of their seats with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
When the class was over and I stopped the music, there were groans—of disappointment! A rap-loving student raised his hand. “Yo, Mr. Shepherd. Did the parents of kids way back then really hate this old junk?” Laughter.
“Completely,” I said. “But that always happens. You should have heard what my mother’s generation called Elvis.” More laughter.
“Why, Mr. Shepherd?” the student said. “I mean, this music—no offense—it’s totally whacked, you know, but harmless.”
“It’s a rule of the Universe,” I explained. “Every generation selects its music specifically to offend the previous generation. It’s one of the few weapons you have.”
As they marched from my classroom, I heard somebody humming a few bars of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I smiled, but didn’t say what I was really thinking: These gangsta-rapping, head-banging, country-rocking kids have a terrible price to pay at the hands of the next generation.
If there’s any justice in the Cosmos, their kids will love Mozart.