Writing sociological SF

I’m not *actually* working on my SF novel just at the moment. Actually, I have two started, both sociological, each in a different universe, but of course I have to pick one to work on first, and the choice was easy, since it’s the one that both Caitlin and my brother want me to work on first. But since it came up, let me talk about what I personally mean by sociological SF just a little — at least, when I’m talking about my own stories.

Both my started SF novels are definitely sociological. Or you might say psychological. Or you might REALLY say, they focus on behavior and they are written from an evolutionary perspective, because that’s what I am most interested in. This is a topic that SF, but not fantasy, really lets you play with.

Let me just add that I’ve had a really fun time with the first bit of both my SF novels, but for right now let me focus just on the one I’ll be working on first. Of course it doesn’t have a title, titles come dead last for me. I’m thinking of it as “the turun story” because “turun” is the name of the important alien species.

It’s slow because I’m having to design a lot of the details as I go — there’s a ton of vocabulary to develop and get familiar with, for one thing, and every time I take a break, when I come back to it, I have to re-familiarize myself with all of that. Actually there are two major societies I’m working with: one purely human and one turun-plus-human. These two societies are completely unfamiliar with each other when the story opens, and I’m switching back and forth from one to the other. That means two different sets of vocabulary, two different styles of visual settings, two different kinds of technology. Two very different societies.

So it’s slow even though I have an excellent big-picture idea of the backstory, a decent idea of the overall plot, and a good grasp of the basic social and psychological structures I am working with.

Now, I don’t know how other people do it, but I design alien species from the deep instincts up. It’s pretty cool. This species is based loosely on African elephants, though now that I’ve said that, get that physical picture out of your head because they look completely different except for being big. But a few million years ago, their ecological niche was very similar to the elephant niche, so their deep instincts are very similar as well. Of course they are fully sentient and technologically advanced. They have a lot of *history* behind them as well as a lot of ecology. But their instincts are not the same as human instincts, and CJ Cherryh is right: when you hear the word “instinct” you should think of emotions, because instinct is not what you *do*, it is the feelings that prompt you to do stuff.

Think of your kid, those of you who are parents. Think of how you felt when you first held your baby the day he or she was born. You do not protect your child because he or she shares half your genes. I mean, sure, that may be the ultimate evolutionary reason, but the proximate reason — the *real* reason, if you will — is because of that feeling. You don’t protect other people’s children because back when humans used to live in small hunter-gatherer communities everyone was more or less related to all the children. Well, you do, but the real reason you protect other people’s children is because of how you feel when you see them in danger, an instinct that has carried through to the present day, when you probably share no significant genes with most children you see.

And of course when you’re talking about complex people, you also get instincts that spill out all over everything, which is why people can have similar parental feelings about dogs and cars and whatever. You, being human, have human emotions all over the place. Plus instincts interact with and compete with other instincts, which we see when mothers throw their kids out on the street in order to make up with their new boyfriend. That is a perfectly natural behavior, which is why we need to add a moral dimension on top of nature in order to be civilized, so that we can declare that that kind of thing is indefensible and contemptible.

Anyway, so forth and so on, the whole soap opera dimension of human behavior, utterly lacking from, say, insects, which is why entomologists seem to come up with such reductionist theories of behavior even if they study the most socially complex bugs*, but that’s another story, never mind.

Anyway. A sociologist goes to a foreign country and looks around and says, Wow, all these people are so different! But an ethologist goes to a foreign country and looks around and says, Wow, look, people are the same everywhere! This is because an ethologist doesn’t compare one human society to another and focus on trivia like differences in personal space. Instead, an ethologist compares humans to other species and focuses on deep instinct.

Here are some of the behaviors that arise from the deep instincts that humans possess, though since instincts do interact and compete, you will find individual cases and whole societies where important instincts have temporarily gone underground. Plus you do seem able to brutalize people in such a way as to destroy some of their normal instincts, as we see when ISIS militants behead infants.

A lot of these behaviors are basic to primates, by the way. So:

Humans move closer together when they feel threatened by anything outside the group.

If there is a generally positive relationship between them, then humans tend to approach people who have threatened or hurt them, trying to resolve the conflict. It is the person who feels hurt or afraid who wants to resolve the conflict, more than the aggressor.

Humans move toward new things that appear in their environment. They want to touch things and investigate with their hands. Children put things in their mouths.

Humans lean forward, speak more loudly, and repeat themselves when they feel frustrated.

Humans avoid having sexual relationships with agemates they grew up with, even if such relationships are socially approved. We see this clearly in societies were unrelated children are reared together, such as on an Israeli kibbutz.

Humans generally support their kin against unrelated people.

Men tend to form friendships with other unrelated men men and then support each other as though they were related. (This is very unusual, btw.)

Women tend to form friendships with other unrelated women and then support each other as though they were related. (This is also very unusual.)

Humans tend to form moderately to very stable relationships with unrelated people of the opposite sex, especially if they have children together.

Humans protect their children. Don’t think this has to be the case in every possible intelligent species; it doesn’t. Look how James Cambias handled his Ilmatarans.

Human groups tend to be led by older men.

And so on.

There are important points where humans and elephants are similar, but here are a few points where African elephants differ from humans:

Adult males are fundamentally solitary.

Adult males do not form stable relationships with females or other males.

Males don’t experience significant breeding success until they are in their thirties at least. Females strongly prefer older males.

Males experience musth, intervals during which they are very aggressive and sexually active.

Groups are led by older females.

Groups consist of related matrilines and their calves. Juvenile males are forced out of the group.

An ecological difference: adult elephants have almost no natural enemies. Humans are a natural enemy, though, having hunted elephants with spears since the stone age. And lions can and do kill elephants — especially young male elephants, who are not generally protected by any adult bulls that might be around. Even so, compared to humans, elephants were historically far more safe from predators once past a certain age. Adult females were just about as safe as males. This has to have produced a very dramatic psychological difference in how elephants viewed the world, at least prior to horror of the modern ivory trade.

A physical difference: In humans, males are bigger than females, with a good deal of overlap. But in elephants, males are MUCH bigger than females — about twice as big — with no significant overlap once adult.

Okay, now. Turun share all of characteristics listed above for elephants. How do you suppose all that plays out when your species attains full sentience and develops complex civilizations and a high level of technology? Do you see any major differences between turun psychology and history and human psychology and history? I sure do. Mine get to be real, since I’m the one writing the story.

Now add a small number of technologically primitive humans from a lost colony to an advanced turun society and stir briskly. What do you suppose will happen? Remember how H Beam Piper handled the introduction of fuzzies into human society? That’s pretty much what I’m doing, but sort of in reverse and all hauled into the backstory.

Wait a hundred years and add an outside enemy. NOW what will happen?

Now add sudden contact with the original human population. Right there, that’s where my story opens. The backstory is huge and radiates forward into the current story in very important ways. But don’t worry, I don’t dump all the backstory on you in a massive prologue. I just know a lot about it myself. You’ll get to see the parts that are most important to the story.

*I know that honeybees are not true bugs. I am aware that true bugs are Hemipterans and bees are Hymenopterans. Just wanted to clear that up if you wondered.

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3 thoughts on “Writing sociological SF”

  1. I’ve mentioned the set-up from the last few paragraphs to some other people who like it, too — such as Mike S., who’s recently been commenting here. And now that you’ve posted all this, I confidently expect still more people to join me in wanting it to get closer to the top of your project list.

  2. It’s close to the top! Really it is! I was surprised when Caitlin asked me, “Say, do you think you might like to write science fiction?” But the answer was definitely yes. I just hope the sudden resurgence of interest in sociological SF lasts for at least five more years. There’s just no way to tell about things like that, though.

  3. Oh you HAVE to read WOMAN OF THE IRON PEOPLE. But maybe after you finish this one so you don’t feel contaminated.

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