You are probably familiar with the Bechdel Test*- while not a test of quality or even feminist credential, it is at least an interesting gauge to be aware of as a writer. You’re not necessarily doing something wrong if your story doesn’t pass, but you should at least interrogate why your story doesn’t pass.
Now, let us apply that thinking to science-fiction, more specifically that brand of space-opera where humans are part of a rich interstellar setting, filled with many alien species. For that, consider the “Space Opera Bechdel”, if you will. To pass, a work must have a scene where:
- There are two alien characters of different, identified species
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than humans.
For counterpoint, this is more the sort of thing you usually see when two different aliens talk:
Now, I’m not saying that’s bad. In fact, this scene is one of the best “aliens talk about humans” scenes out there, possibly because it doesn’t raise us up to be the end-all, be-all, center-of-awesomeness that help define the interstellar region. In Trek, humanity are a superpower, even if they are part of a multi-species Federation, it’s very clear humans are the center of it. Starfleet is mostly human, a carryover of an Earth-based organization, with its training academy in San Fransisco. The capital of the Federation is also on Earth.
Of course, it’s easier to focus on humanity’s role in a potential future. We are who we know the best, and in trying to make aliens– even really alien aliens– the best we can hope to do is show aliens filtered through a fact of humanity, or focus on what humanity is not. But we remain the lens we see the universe through.
For me, part of the solution is keeping humanity from being a superpower. To put it in terms of metaphor, a lot of works make humanity the equivalent of the US in the later half of the 20th Century. My tactic is to make them the equivalent of the US in beginning of the 19th: not a player on the interstellar stage, and regarded with a bit of respectful skepticism by the superpowers of the day.
The other part of the solution is to do one’s best to give each alien culture depth. This doesn’t mean working out a full history, all the separate nation states, religions, rituals, and so forth. If you’re populating a full universe, that’s a herculean task that isn’t worth it. But every culture should have the potential for that depth. For example, if said culture is in space at all, you have to be able to believe that they’ve had a history of scientists and adventurers who’ve pushed the envelope to reach the stars.
Anything less will just seem lazy.
*- In brief: a work has to have 1. at least two [named] women in it 2. who talk to each other 3. about something besides a man. It was first come up with for movies, but I think it applies just as well to novels.