Tuesday, June 2, 2015

My favorite Alien Culture

Hi folks! Mark here with just a short post.  I'm looking for some feedback and possible items to add to my reading list.  My interest today is in 'the most fully realized alien culture' vein.

When I look back over my reading life, I consider myself lucky to have been introduced at a young age to books that presented me with well-developed plots and characters in such ways as to make it easy for me to suspend my disbelief and wallow in the weirdness.  I never had any trouble accepting that spiders could speak and spell or that pigs could solve mysteries or mice could sail boats or drive model cars. I think it must be a universal constant for those of us who love to read and write in our genre to accept the unusual, understand in ways that approach the common-place, and to respond to it intellectually and with wonder at the same time.  No, really, I'm serious: I love the SFF genre for the paradoxes if for nothing else. I feel we tell the great stories better that way. 

I recall Sam telling Frodo that he sensed they were part of one larger, continuous story, and I think the Professor got it right. Middle Earth was always intended to be HERE, and folks have long identified recognizable elements in all the various cultures that made up the fabric of the place.  In the end, we come to love stories like the Narnia Chronicles, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, Freddie the Detective, and The Lord of the Rings not just for the escapism but also for the familiar. They make sense to us, for us, because ultimately they tell the big story of which we are all part.

Ultimately, culture has to fit in there somewhere. Narnia, Middle Earth, the barnyard, Watership Down, all of them worked for me because the cultures in the story were so fully realized.  In addition to the references above, I have a number of other books/series/authors whose work has always influenced me for the quality of the world building, the surreal familiarity of the cultures they present and the quality of the stories they told.  To wit:

CJ Cherryh has been one of my favorite authors since I first discovered her in Lin Carter's old Year's Best Fantasy anthologies. And then I found Gate of Ivrel and I was hooked. She is a master, in my opinion, of depicting alien culture in such a way as to make it acceptable.  Her Faded Sun books, the Dreaming Tree duology, the long running Foreigner series, the Downbelow Station universe novels--practically everything drips culture/conflict/comprehension.  I get the same high when I dig in to McKillip, McKinley, and LeGuin.  I must have an affinity, and yet I know I have my limits: I tried Rama too young to 'get it' despite how much my aunt raved about it.

What I would like to see here now are a series of comment responses from all who view this blog with respect to the following question:

What are or have been your favorite works that present fully realized alien culture? I'd like some titles and an explanation as to why you would include it. What makes it/them so special in this regard?


Mark Nelson
The Poets of Pevana
King's Gambit
Path of the Poet King
Pevanese Mosaic


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll play. I'm defining 'alien' loosely as 'other' and simply running with the first books which come to mind.
1) Ross Leckie's 'Hannibal'. Historical fiction about the Carthaginian general, not to be confused with his more recent, rather less interesting namesake. You've got two cultures, Carthage and Rome, and each has values which differ from the other's (hence the conflict) and ours. Much historical fiction depicts modern people in togae. This doesn't. It's short and intense. Not an easy read but a worthwhile one.

2) Gene Wolfe's 'The Book of the New Sun'. Again an utterly alien culture and mindset even if traces of more familiar times can sometimes be glimpsed. Actually I'd say it beats Tolkien for world-building (Lewis's world-building never feels believable to me, much as I love the Narnia series; too many disparate elements). Anyhow there is an immense imagination at work in tBotNS but one that is always under control. Internal consistency, that's the thing. This has it.

3) Doris Lessing's 'Canopus in Argos' novels. Aliens from the inside, and truly the building of worlds is what it's all about. There's a moment, about a third to halfway through 'Shikasta' when the lightbulb suddenly lit up in my head and I realised what and where the narrator was describing. It's big picture stuff thinking in enormous timespans. 'My favourite is 'The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five', which probably operates on the smallest scale of the five books.

4) The realisation of faerie in Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell'. It's not exactly original - which isn't a criticism: it's why it works so well - but it does convey the sense of the otherness and the utter amorality of such characters, not evil nor even wicked but entirely selfish and self-satisfied, better than any other book I've read. It's an aspect the current telly series has missed entirely.

Terri-Lynne said...

I really don't read much scifi, but remember Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books fondly.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

I've read some Wolfe: very intense. I've always been a fan of good historical fiction, so I will have to look up Leckie. Sounds great!