One of my biggest pet peeves about sci-fi universe building is the lazy approach in building alien civilisations. We often see the trope showing one world, one climate, and one language. Given the variety that our planet has to offer under any aspect it is a shame that the same variety is lost in science fiction albeit on a planetary scale. Gallifrey should have Northern accents, Dagobah ice covered poles. It’s hard enough to find a nation with a single climate, let alone a planet!
Let’s look at Mars. Although the planet is a desert, there are seasons, thus periodical changes in its climate. The temperature varies from a cosy 35 degrees Celsius at the equator in summer to a chilling -143 degrees Celsius at the poles in winter. An important condition for rocky planets to develop life is through a regular seasonal cycle. Temperature gradients, winds, clouds and oceans were some of the discriminants for the success of life on Earth. The climate range for life to thrive is limited.
It is possible to keep a planet climate within a modest range, but as far as we have been able to model and observe, if you don’t care about life: boiling infernos and frozen globes are out there; unfortunately the lands of eternal spring are rare.
Venus is a good approximation to a stable climate planet. Although it has clouds and winds, and periodically its surface turns into lava, Venus has an impressively uniform climate. Its atmosphere of carbon dioxide has created the ultimate greenhouse effect producing a pressure of 92 atmospheres (like being 3000 meters below the sea) and a mean temperature of 465 degrees Celsius.
We have yet to directly observed a frozen planet, so for the time being we will use Europa as a boundary example. Although the underground ocean will have temperature gradients, currents and changes due to the gravitational influences of the Jovian system, its surface, on short term analysis, resembles any fictional frozen planet. Its surface cracks and changes as the ocean below the surface moves. The atmosphere is not responsible at all of surface changes. It’s incredibly tenuous, about 100 million billion times less than the Earth’s. Europa is a brilliant sci-fi location, and it’s a mid-term objective of NASA to get there. Europa has an atmosphere made almost exclusively of oxygen and twice as much water as Earth. If there’s other life form in the Solar system, they’re on Europa.
But what if you want a more active frozen planet, with snow storms and changing sceneries? Well, if the planet is constantly frozen and doesn’t even thaw periodically, then you can’t have it. What shapes the polar regions of Earth are the changes in temperature and the water cycle. If water can’t flow, evaporate, freeze and thaw, then you can forget snow storms, clouds and chilly fog.
Constructing a culture is difficult enough, so I mostly excuse the authors of my favourite sci-fi for the very limited span and depth that alien civilisation have. The amount and diversity of alien species in most space operas is undeniable but no matter their sophistication, the variation among individual of the same species is usually very limited. And it’s unrealistic.
For sci-fi authors, it seems that a global shared culture is the obligatory first step in the star-faring age of a civilisation. But we are not simply talking about ideals and values. These worlds that performed the phenomenal discoveries necessary to travel across the galaxy have just one language, a limited physiognomy and a single set of ideals. You have peace loving species, and warmongering ones. Logical and fair like the Vulcans, or logical and fearsome like the cybermen. If you want to build compelling alien characters you need to provide them with the same broad spectrum of interests, ideas and values that are found on Earth.
It’s understandable why this trope happens in TV shows: the budget and the time are limited. In 40 minutes the authors need to explain who the aliens are and why they are a menace, so that the heroes can defeat them and save the day. The trope often reduces the complexity of the fight, and while it is somewhat excusable on TV shows it becomes an enormous nuisance when it comes to other mediums. Feature length movies, video games and especially modern books that don’t bother to give alien races some realistic depth are missing a great chance.
Two good examples of writing teams working around this trope are the Star Trek and Doctor Who show runners. Many Doctor Who villains are openly or covertly clones species such as Daleks, Cybermen or Sontarans to mention a few; They are not simple physical enemies for the Doctor, they represent ideologies such as racism, worship of war and loss of individuality. These races are engineered (built, assimilated or cloned) in the show’s reality, and this justifies their replicated features and ideas, and in the new series, a lot has been done in smoothing the edges by introducing exceptions to the norm: good daleks, emotional cybermen and Strax. Strax is an excellent example. He’s been cloned as a warrior for the Sontaran and war is his raison d’être, but he’s got individuality, interests, qualities and flaws. Doctor Who manages to create interesting and varied species, although we were only presented villains: the best example is the Slytheen. We are told there are good slytheen out there, we simply never meet them.
Star Trek has a different approach altogether. Since the raison d’être of the Enterprise was to explore, the alien races tend to be more fleshed out and complex, and including former enemies into the crew of successive Star Trek iteration (such as Worf in TNG and DS9 and Seven of Nine in Voyager), allows for a better understanding of these aliens. Established races in Star Trek also show a range of skin pigmentation and planetary dialects, and it is one of the few TV shows that tries to mimic Earth’s variety while on alien worlds.
There are interesting possibilities regarding humanity’s future but I doubt a unique language and culture is one of them, languages disappear because people stop speaking them and although the knowledge of the English Language is important in the modern world, it is not a herald of the disappearance of the other languages.
The same goes with culture. Our ideals may or may not start to point towards the same goal, but it doesn’t mean we are culturally identical. Differences won’t disappear, but maybe clashes will be seen as barbaric in all the levels of the population. It is my hope that our differences will be celebrated; the shades of our upbringing will shine through while facing the issues the future will throw at us, together.