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The Implausibility of Popular Sci-Fi Aliens - Part Two

Alien Civilisations

In the last article we looked at the boring and implausible biology of sci fi aliens. Now we will take a look at the equally boring and implausible civilisations these aliens have created.

How alien societies and civilisations are portrayed in popular sci-fi is generally flawed. Many of them are far too analogous to past and present societies here on earth to be believable.

The most egregious being the Centaurai from Babylon 5. Everything about their society, from the clothes, armour, social structure, status signifiers, art, architecture etc. are all highly reminiscent of the aristocracy of 18th century Europe. Indeed, the Centaurai themselves would be indistinguishable from humans after a simple haircut. It is highly unlikely that an alien civilisation would be so recognisable.

A mad Emperor who thinks himself a God. Caligula would be proud. Video by Living flame

Most popular sci-fi alien civilisations consist of a single world or empire spanning government, which are racially and culturally homogeneous. ‘All Klingons are warlike’, ‘all Vulcans are logical’, etc.

It is rarely shown how populations can alter over time to produce distinct identities, dialects, beliefs, fashions and political systems. It is also rare to depict a race that has multiple independent separate nations.

‘The Expanse’ does this well, depicting the three main groups of humans; Earthers, Martians, and the people of the belt all having separate governments, social structures, dialects etc. It also shows how the different environments affects the populations within them.

Martians have evolved to survive in lower oxygen environments, similar to present-day high-altitude Sherpas, whilst the ‘belters’ have become taller but brittle boned, due to a lifetime in Zero G. The Martian’s environment has arguably given them an advantage in some ways, whereas the belters have become weaker, unable to stand unsupported in Earth’s gravity. It is perhaps worth noting that The Expanse started as a series of novels.

See the guy in the tank at 02:24? He is a belter on earth. He needs the buoyancy of water to survive earth’s gravity. Video by IGN

Most alien species in popular sci-fi are shown as having near identical IQs and methods of cognition. With the exception of rarely encountered superbeings such as the ‘Q’, no species is shown as possessing a higher or lower base IQ than any other. This is perhaps to avoid any allegations of racism. Civilisations can be depicted as being more advanced due to being older, or due to obtaining advanced technology from a third party, but it appears suggesting that some species are simply more intelligent than others is verboten. Scientifically this is unlikely. If aliens exist, it is reasonable to assume some may be less intelligent than humans, where as some might be more so.

The mainstream sci-fi assumption that all alien species are intellectually equal has given rise to another sci-fi trope, the ‘advanced but stagnating aliens.’ Here we see a species that is highly technologically advanced due to being very old, but who’s technological advancement has stalled. This is almost always used as a plot device to give the plucky young upstart humans, who are technologically primitive in comparison, but who are advancing quickly, a chance to catch up and become a ‘player’ on the galactic stage. This is exemplified by Stargate SG1.

Based on what we have seen with our own technological development over the last 200 years, this too seems unlikely. Advances in technology result in the rate of technological progress increasing in a positive feedback loop, with the singularity reached relatively quickly. In all likelihood, a species that is more advanced will stay more advanced, as their rate of technological advancement will increase, thus making the technological gap ever wider.

Explanations for this stagnation are rarely given. One notable exception being ‘The Race’ from Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series. Their stagnation is due to extreme conservatism. They fear change, and so avoid it unless necessary. For example, when they first invented television, they allowed a small isolated population to experience it for several generations. Only after several generations had past with no ill effects did they allow TV to be rolled out to the masses. This hyper-conservatism is linked to their environment. Their world is geologically and climatically stable and flat. There are no mountain ranges or oceans, just a few small seas. As there were no barriers to movement their society became very homogeneous with little in the way of intra-species conflict. This lack of competition resulted in a very slow but steady and stable development.

The Shivans from FreeSpace Blue Planet had a more radical explanation for their slow rate of progress. Lacking true consciousness, their technology does not advance by deliberate invention. Instead, it evolves by a form of natural selection. As such, their technology remains static until it proves ineffective against an enemy, at which point rapid technological evolution will take place via the destructive natural selection of warfare. Thus, their technology is in a state of punctuated equilibrium.

Skip to 09:16 for an explanation, albeit a somewhat cryptic one. Video by Frikgeek

Popular sci-fi does little to address issues of a post singularity world. The humans in Star Trek etc. are still human with no changes. Indeed, issues of trans-humanism are depicted in a negative light, with augmentations and genetic engineering being synonymous with evil. Khan was genetically engineered, and The Borg are trans-biological, and both were villains.

The only exception to this is Geordi La Forge’s visor and ocular prosthetic implants, which gave him superior vision to baseline humans. However, he only received these due to being blind from birth. It does little to portray people who have had optional implants to improve their existing abilities.

The video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided delves into this, showing the potential conflict between un-augmented humans and those that have received technological upgrades. The novel Blindsight also investigates this heavily, with all of the crew of the Theseus being upgraded in one way or another. Peter Watts elegantly shows the benefits these mission critical enhancements have given their recipients, but also the human cost. The novel goes on to describe Earth’s post-scarcity civilisation, where many people opt for technological enhancements, whereas others choose to live in a virtual world. It is possible an alien civilisation may have evolved beyond their natural state as well. 

The technology used by many mainstream sci-fi races is often tied to one path. ‘I.e. all their tech is biological, crystalline etc.’ All their weapons are based on beams etc. There appears to have been little thought given to the diversification of their tech. Considering human civilisation uses a wide range of technology, it seems unlikely that an advanced race would restrict themselves.

Proof there is no intelligent life in outer space

This restriction often leads to the alien civilisation having an easily exploitable ‘Achilles heel.’ For example, the alien ships from Independence Day were wholly reliant upon their energy shields for defense, and their central mothership for command and control. Once the virus had been uploaded to the mothership all shields on all vessels were deactivated, rendering them defenseless. The subsequent destruction of a city killer mothership resulted in all its fighter sized attack craft losing all power and plummeting to the earth. Bit of a design flaw that.

That’s all for today. There are probably many other boring or implausible alien civilisations depicted in popular sci-fi. What others spring to your mind that I have left out?

In the third and final part of this series we will change track completely, and take a look at alien biologies and civilisations that are either plausible or interestingly different. See you all then.  

Read next: Monsters Due
Iain Baker
Iain Baker

A 'pushing 40' life long gamer, reader, writer, film buff and amateur war historian. Loud and proud member of the 'The Oregon Trail Generation - the first gamer generation.' 

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The Implausibility of Popular Sci-Fi Aliens - Part Two
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