Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Writing Rules for Space Slayings

(Editor’s note: This morning we enter the realm of crime fiction/science fiction crossovers with Mur Lafferty, a longtime North Carolina podcaster and the author of Chaos Central [Ace], which debuts in bookstores today. This is the second installment in Lafferty’s popular Midsolar Murders series, after 2022’s Station Eternity. Both star reluctant young sleuth Mallory Viridian, whose unwelcome expertise in solving homicides did damage to her life on Earth and led her to escape to an alien space station called Eternity. Below, Lafferty relates a few of her challenges in concocting mysteries that involve extraterrestrial species, some of which have different ideas about death and the pursuit of murder inquiries than humans do.)

Writing aliens has it challenges. You need to a) make the aliens, well, alien. Definitely not human … b) but not too alien, because you have to also make them characters that the reader can relate to, or at least understand on a base level. And c) try not to take real-life cultures that aren’t your own and base the aliens on those people.

When I was approaching alien creation for my Midsolar Murders series, I tried to think of what humans consider sacred. For example, no matter what your religious faith, pretty much everyone on the planet thinks that one should have respect for a dead body. (And those that don’t are just trying to wind up people who do, which acknowledges that someone thinks it’s sacred and a big deal.) We have many kinds of mourning and funereal practices, but whether it’s burial at sea or cremation or making the body into a mushroom farm, we tend to treat dead bodies with reverence.

So, I reasoned, if a human was trying to solve a murder of an alien, the first problem she might run into would be the aliens believing the body is something to study or even respect. No somber funerals, no careful prep of the body, no preserving of that kind of evidence.

The concept of death itself was something to play with. I have a rock alien species, the Gneiss, whose concepts of death and even sleep are different from those of humans. They can grow and evolve quite slowly, which includes reattaching of broken limbs or even changing shape and abilities. The Gneiss don’t sleep, but if they must heal from something becoming cracked or broken, they go into a sort of hibernation among others of their kind. They call it an ossuary, although they expect everyone to walk free of the place eventually. Because they can survive almost anything, the Gneiss are essentially immortal. Or as immortal as rocks tend to be. I suppose they can wear away if they end up napping in a river for hundreds of years. Or if they’re pulverized and the dust gets separated to different spots. But it has taken them a while to understand that the other species consider “death” a thing.

In the first book of the series, Station Eternity, the string of murders starts with an alien, but that species doesn’t understand when our human sleuth, Mallory Viridian, gets angry that the body has been treated like trash. Later, when she asks for backup from security, they are concerned with bigger problems and say murder is too small of an issue to worry about.

And sure, when you’re on a space station, problems like hull breaches are much more pressing than one killing. But it still confuses Mallory when they say the murder is so unimportant that she, a human and relative newcomer to the station, gets to investigate it.

When writing the alien insect race the Sundry, I borrowed from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995), which has a fairy tale featuring ants. “In ant arithmetic,” Stephenson explained, “there are only two numbers: Zero, which means anything less than a million, and Some.” In my book, only rarely is the individual Sundry celebrated, since one insect doesn’t contribute considerably to the hivemind.

For creating alien suspects, their motivations are key. They may have a different understanding of death, how to treat a dead body, and what is and isn’t illegal. And as countless sleuths throughout literature have discovered, if you don’t know the why that someone committed murder, then you don’t have much at all. Humans don’t know a great deal about other cultures in the galaxy, so this becomes a hurdle for our sleuth.

I took many things that humans get worked up about involving murder or crime in general, and had aliens react in different ways to them. What happens to cadavers, what death means, and what “respect” means to other cultures are all explored here. What we hold sacred says an awful lot about our culture, which means that those who hold different things sacred will be at odds with the first group, which creates conflict and misunderstanding. And that creates stories.

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