Many of my favorite stories in science fiction and fantasy deal with exploring an alien culture. I really like to see different species learning to communicate with each other, or an alien viewpoint on a more familiar human culture. It often requires the writer to step outside the box and create a point of view that takes into account different physical and mental abilities, a different environment, a different way of thinking.
I’ve always been drawn to these kinds of stories, especially the ones that are told through alien viewpoints, especially non-human aliens. I’ve always liked getting into the point of view of characters that are different from me, and seeing the world through their eyes.
There are a number of SF/F books and stories that deal with these themes, but below are five(ish) older works that were big influences on me, and that explore alien-human communication from different angles.
Leviathan’s Deep by Jayge Carr (1979)
The alien Delyene in Leviathan’s Deep are in the process of being contacted/invaded by a human military star empire. The Delyene are matriarchal, have their own agendas, and they have secrets they know they can’t let the humans discover. The humans have some basic misconceptions about Delyene culture and biology; they want to control the Delyene but they don’t understand them. This is not a happy fun book, but it is a great story with an alien point of view, about alien contact going terribly wrong.
Survivor by Octavia Butler (1978)
After fleeing earth to an alien planet, a human colony ends up caught in a war between two alien cultures, the Garkohn and the Tekkohn. The humans’ lack of understanding and misconceptions allows the Garkohn trap them and take complete control of the settlement without the humans realizing it. The main character, Alanna, is an outsider to the human group and the only one to realize what is really happening to them. Then Alanna is captured/rescued by the Tekkohn, and ends up gradually learning and joining their culture, though it isn’t an easy process. There are a lot of human-in-an-alien-culture stories, but Survivor was the first one I remember reading (I was fourteen and probably a bit young for it) and it made a huge impression on me.
The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh (1981)
The hani are furred, catlike aliens, with an advanced star-faring civilization, interacting with other alien cultures in a trade organization called the Compact. While docked on a space station, the hani crew of the starship The Pride of Chanur find a strange creature escaping from their enemies the Kif. That creature is a human, an unknown species, and the Kif want him back. This is the first books of a series, and it’s a human-in-alien-culture story, but told from the hani’s point of view as they try to understand and communicate with a member of this strange new species. It’s a great example of an immersive alien viewpoint, as well as a fabulous adventure story.
A Judgment of Dragons by Phyllis Gotlieb (1980)
In the four novellas in this book, the aliens are large panther-like telepathic cats, who are trying to take their place in an intergalactic star empire. The stories are all from their point of view, and they end up solving unusual mysteries while coping with strange worlds and hostile alien entities. They often have to deal with equipment that isn’t designed for their bodies or eyes, and humans who want to see them as savage animals. These are great stories, and the alien viewpoint is fascinating and easy to sympathize with.
Uhura’s Song (1985) or Hellspark (1988) by Janet Kagan
I’m cheating here because I couldn’t pick between these two books. The main character of Hellspark has to solve a murder mystery among a group of explorers from widely varied cultures who all communicate in different and often contradictory ways. She also needs to try to figure out a way to communicate with the Sprookjes, a newly discovered alien race, to save their planet from exploitation. It’s an alien contact story and it explores the differences and difficulties of communication among all the widely varied human cultures.
Uhura’s Song is a Star Trek novel where the Enterprise crew has to communicate with a civilization of cat-like aliens who have the cure to a terrible disease. The aliens would give them the cure, but its existence is hidden in a historical mystery that the crew can only unravel be understanding and learning the alien’s culture. It’s a great story about two cultures who basically want to cooperate with each other, trying to figure out how to do it. It shows how difficult alien contact can be even when both parties are trying their best to make things work.
Martha Wells is the author of over a dozen fantasy novels, including The Cloud Roads (the first book of the Books of the Raksura series), The Wizard Hunters, Wheel of the Infinite, and the nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer. She has also written YA fantasy, short stories, non-fiction, and media tie-ins, including Star Wars: Razor’s Edge. Her most recent book is Stories of the Raksura vol. II: The Dead City & The Dark Earth Below.