Here’s an activity I highly recommend for science fiction writers (or anyone, really): watch your favorite funny YouTube video with someone from another country. It’s got to be your very favorite, the one that rendered you into a weeping, stomach-aching mess. And you can’t share it by sending a link along into the ether. You’ve got to be with the person. You’ve got to be close enough to catch every muscle twitch, every batted lash. One of two things will happen. If you’re lucky, your foreign friend will laugh just as hard as you did, you’ll be reassured of your common kinship, and the two of you have fuel for inside jokes for years to come.
The more likely outcome, at least in my experience, is social purgatory. You’ll sit there for an excruciating three minutes or so, your grinning eagerness disintegrating as your companion watches humorlessly, perhaps with a puzzled wrinkle between their eyes or a smirk that suggests they get the joke but can’t imagine why anybody bothered making it. You’ll glance at each other when the video ends, awkward and confused. At this point, invite your friend to share one of their favorite videos, if they haven’t already leapt at the chance to cleanse their palate. Put the shoe on the other foot. Feel reality start to unravel as you wonder what sort of lunatics would find this funny.
Now bottle that experience, and uncork it as needed. That’s how you write aliens.
That’s not what I usually say when the how-do-you-write-aliens question comes up. My go-to answer is that I start with biology. I figure out anatomy and reproduction first—often riffing on whatever real-world bug or critter I’m giddy over at the time—and from there, I imagine how that would affect their homes, their technology, their family structures. All of that is indeed how I go about writing aliens, but it’s only half the answer. The other half involves explaining my relatives, which is more than the person asking the question bargained for. But since I’ve been given space to spread out here: I start with biology, yes. Then I start pulling from years of navigating get-togethers with folks from elsewhere.
So, my family tree. My mother’s parents immigrated to the US from Germany in the 1950s. My mom and her brother were born in California, where I was born, too. My uncle returned to Germany after college, got married, and had two kids. One of those kids was adopted from Russia (and has triple citizenship, the lucky dog); the other now lives in London. Both my brother and I inherited that side of the family’s wanderlust, which is why until a couple years ago, when it came time for me to cool my heels, everything I owned (aside from a shedful of books at my parents’ house) fit into three suitcases. It’s also why it felt totally natural for me to spread my family out further. My wife’s an Icelander, born and bred, as are all my in-laws. Well, except for the handful that live in Norway.
Holidays are complicated.
I don’t know what it’s like to not live in a home where I don’t hear happy phone calls in languages other than English, to not have to pick up relatives from the airport at least once a year, to not know off-hand what time it is an ocean away. I sometimes envy families who can claim they’ve been in a place for five, six, seven generations. It must be nice to have all the people you care about within a drivable radius. But it is nice, too, to challenge the assumptions born out of my immediate environment. Despite all the bonds of blood and choice, sometimes my family and I simply don’t understand each other. My wife and I call this the “four-thousand mile stare,” the conversational moments where, even after twelve years together, we run full-tilt into opposite sides of a cultural wall we didn’t know existed.
There’s a sacrifice that comes with leaving familiar territory, a space that needs to be emptied in exchange for the new things you take in. I say I’m a Californian, but I’m a Californian with a footnote. I don’t always feel like I belong here, not after years spent away, tweaking my behavior to suit new social norms. Last October, I sat in a friend’s kitchen in Iceland as she told us about some recent visitors she’d had. “They brought their American friends,” she said, “and god, they were so American.” She continued, as matter-of-fact as could be: “Like Becky when she first came here.” I laughed until I thought I’d bust. I can’t explain to you, my fellow Yanks, what goes on the list of criteria for being “so American,” but I knew exactly what she meant. I also know that I am still so American, and I always will be. I’m constantly unpacking myself, teasing out what’s an imprint and what’s me (I’ve also come to the conclusion that making that distinction is impossible). Despite the limbo I sometimes feel, I value the first-hand knowledge that there’s no default state of being for our species—not politically, not economically, not socially—but that we all share the same base desires for love, safety, and happiness. On some level, we’re the same.
Except we’re not the same, not in all the details stacked on top of that core program. My family is a tangled mess, a constant compromise. There are things about every culture I share time with that drive me bonkers. I get tired of being the person expected to explain the minutiae of, say, US foreign policy, just as my wife longs for newly met Americans to ask her about her interests, rather than prompting her to transform into a walking travel brochure as soon as her country of origin comes up. I hate knowing there’s not a shred of comfort I can provide when she misses her family, because I’ve been on the flip side of that equation, too. I hate that my language skills are so poor. I hate jet lag. I hate that I can’t have everybody in a single place at once.
So when I write spaceports and multispecies ships, that’s what I’m writing. When my character Sissix is sick to death of humans but can’t imagine living away from them, that’s me, two years into living in Reykjavik. When Ashby smacks down his crew for doing something culturally insensitive to someone else, that’s me, politely going on the defensive at dinner tables on both sides of the pond. When Sidra gets overwhelmed in a moon-sized marketplace where everything is new, that’s me in every foreign grocery store I’ve ever been to. When Blue stands alongside Pepper while she has a conversation about his future in an alien language he can’t speak, and there’s nothing he can do except trust in her, that’s me with my wife and father-in-law at the Icelandic immigration office. When my characters have to stop and listen and puzzle each other out, and maybe everybody’s more confused than when they started but they’re happy they had the exchange—that’s me. That’s me and everybody I love.
This article was originally published in March 2017.
Becky Chambers is the author of the award-nominated science fiction novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and its stand-alone sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit. She is currently working on book three, Record of a Spaceborn Few. She can be found online at Other Scribbles and as @beckysaysrawr on Twitter.