One of the challenges in creating Vault of the Galaxy is designing a universe filled with alien civilizations. Many of the tropes that work in Human Space—crime syndicates, space navies, etc.—aren't appropriate for alien races.

In this design request I'd like to hear about your favorite alien races (and alien civilizations) in fiction (books/movies/games) and how they might inspire us for Vault of the Galaxy.

To get things started, here are a few of my inspirations for some of the current alien races.

Larry Niven's Tales of Know Space

Though Ringworld is the more famous book, The Ringworld Engineers is probably my favorite. One of his races, called Pierson's puppeteers, is wonderfully incongruous, combining extreme cowardice with masterful long-term planning.

This book also introduced me to biogenetic transformation, as when the character Teela Brown eats a plant that mutates her into a Pak Protector: a creature with superhuman intelligence and strength biologically compelled to protect the Ringworld.

David Brin's Uplift Saga

I remember reading Startide Rising when I was young, but it wasn't until The Uplift War that I really got hooked on Brin's Uplift Universe.

This series has been hugely influential in science fiction. I believe it is the first book to use the word "uplift." It also popularized the now common trope (used in Star Control) of a long-dead and mysterious "progenitor" race from which all alien species emerged.

For Vault of the Galaxy I lifted his concept of "orders of sapient life" to design the various races in the galaxy. In Brin's universe, the galaxy is separated between oxygen-breathing and hydrogen-breathing races, though there are also other orders, such as transcendent, mechanical, memetic, and quantum.

Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space Universe

Though I haven't read all the books in this series, my favorite part is the Lovecraftian setting, in which humans are but pawns to alien civilizations pursuing their own inscrutable agendas.

I read these books around 2010 or so, long after the core of the Transcendence universe was set, but we might be able to get some ideas for Part II.

What are some of your inspirations? Let me know in the comments.

derakon 4 Feb 2020:

The Mote in God's Eye has the Moties, of course. It's been awhile since I read the book, but the main takeaways I remember are:

* They're stuck in their system, with no interstellar travel. And they've been like that for a long time. Consequently they're constantly bouncing into the limits of their material resources (but not so much their energy resources). Every single scrap of matter is precious; all weapons and engines are photon-based whenever possible to avoid wasting matter.

* They have short lifespans, but are incredibly fast learners and quick to pick up skills or imitate others.

* They're separated into clans that are constantly in conflict with each other. Periodically the conflict will go hot enough to knock the entire species back to the Stone Age or so. Motie "librarians" maintain knowledge preserves that are intended to rapidly uplift the species whenever this happens; damaging a library is taboo.

george moromisato 4 Feb 2020:

@Derakon: I love The Mote in God's Eye, and that's a really good summary of the interesting pieces in it.

If I remember correctly, another key point was that Motie biology does not allow for birth control, so there's no way to prevent overpopulation, and all civilizations eventually collapse in a Malthusian catastrophe (which led to nuclear war and thus back to the stone age).

Thanks for reminding me of it.

sarin 4 Feb 2020:

I think a muse hit me because I got an idea for an alien concept. Probably patched together from all the various books I've read...
Concept name, Mindgregates. Mostly solitary gaseous lifeforms that evolved in a gas giant, they had no civilization until a ship crashed nearby and sunk into their planet. They figured out how to interface with its computer and control whatever was left, using it to build more machinery and eventually their own ships.
As they explored, they found out that due to their gaseous nature, they can connect with other lifeforms and can form some sort of hive mind with them, and so they now wander the galaxy looking for new additions. Each one would be different, some aggressive, getting new minds by force kinda like Borg, some would try to trick them into joining, and some would be more benign, trading in knowledge and even helpful.

derakon 5 Feb 2020:

Oh, yes -- Vernor Vinge's *A Fire Upon the Deep* has an alien race that uses sonic telepathy to form synthetic personalities. Each person comprises generally from 2-6 individuals of the species, whose traits and tendencies combine to form the gestalt personality. Isolating an individual is deeply distressing for the gestalt and debilitating for the individual, which is unable to do much more than emit distress calls and attempt to integrate itself into any passing gestalts.

Because the gestalt is formed using sound waves, gestalts have to maintain a minimum distance from each other, lest their thoughts start to trample on each other. This is problematic when it comes to breeding, as only breeding within the gestalt group is a recipe for inbreeding long-term but joining with another gestalt risks permanent alteration to one's personality. Similarly, individuals must stay fairly close or their thoughts will "lag" behind the group, which is disorienting. In the book, one gestalt discovers that it can use radio waves (with mics/speakers) to maintain the gestalt over long distances.

A Fire Upon the Deep also has the neat concept that the degree of technological advancement possible depends on your distance from the galactic core. The further out you are, the faster you can travel, the better your equipment works, the smarter AIs are, etc.

sarin 5 Feb 2020:

@derakon I have not read that yet...oh well, one more to the reading list. I suppose my inspiration were hivers from some Discworld books and Borg.

ferdinand 5 Feb 2020:

In my youth I read a book by Piers Anthony called Chthon.

There was an interesting twist, Chthon was a planet that had become "alive" or intelligent because of the complex structures in it. It could turn other living creatures into zombies to serve it and send them out to destroy other races.

There also was a race called Minionettes. They are all identical young females that stay forever young by negative emotions, but positive emotions cause them pain and suffering and love will kill them. They are also telepathic and very strong.

george moromisato 5 Feb 2020:

@Sarin: Great ideas! You could go several different ways with this. Maybe the gaseous creatures always need someone else to build their technology (which they then take over). This leads to the archetypes around ghosts and possession. Could be scary.

Another path is to focus on the alienness of the hive-mind. In particular, I like the dichotomy of hive-minds that are different depending on what they assimilate. Lots of dramatic potential there.

george moromisato 5 Feb 2020:

@Derakon: Great recommendation! I actually think I got the name "Transcendence" from A Fire Upon the Deep. Vinge's ideas of scales of intelligence (sub-human, human, beyond, transcendent) were hugely influential to me.

george moromisato 5 Feb 2020:

@Ferdinand: Heard great things about that book, but I never read it. Thanks for the recommendation.

avorite 6 Feb 2020:

Greg Bear in 'The Forge of God' and 'Anvil of Stars' writes about a race of beings known as "The Benefactors" that supply the remnants of humanity, or any other fledgling races which have had their home planets destroyed by an aggressive civilization.

They are highly advanced in technological understanding - but they are content to stand by and shepherd younger races on their quest to seek justice for the destruction of their civilization and home planets. Although they guide and resupply humanity, they are purposefully limited in the assistance - the supplied ship has to hunt for its own supplies and fight its own battles - if they perish, they perish permanently.

I think such a concept can be applied near the start of VOTG - some mysterious race supplies the player with some starting equipment after a run in with hostile factions, and an auton representative accompanies the player on his journey towards the Core for some purposeful end.

nagareboshi 9 Mar 2020:

My favorite alien race are the Protoss of Starcraft II and indeed, things like crime syndicates and the typical human things are not done in their civilization. They are spiritual race that have traditional rituals, highly values honor, treasures the so called "Khala" where the entirety of the Protoss are connected as "one mind" and those who cut themselves from it are Banished from civilization. With this in mind, they are considerably "tribal" and interestingly, they have not developed any sort of healing/medical technology and instead, completely rely on their shield technology.

Though I must say, I haven't really immersed myself on the lore behind this alien race so I may have some errors on my statements about the Protoss. However, I believe that this is a reliable source about them:
Can also find info about their creators, the Xel'naga:

viperion 21 Sep 2020:

I've been playing through a little bit of VoTG, so maybe these are implemented somewhere, and a couple suggestions I have

- Possibly have some faction that is planet-bound to one or two systems which has a post-scarcity economy, but still needs intervention in shaping events outside their sphere of control. They could have some very strong (level 30+) defenses/offenses surrounding the gates in their systems, and could send the player on missions tracking way back to Mourner to cause factions to become friendly/hostile to the player. Kind of a faction in a state of power greater than the player (or maybe even D/O) could possibly reach, but meddling in lower affairs.

- The above faction could be, say, monitoring the galaxy for signs of outbreak of something like Greenfly (from the end of RS) or Exordium (causality violation), and could send the player on a quest to defeat an outbreak before it could happen.

- I'd also like to see some kind of, I'll call it an underground railroad of `wolfling` races that the the player could ally with/against (and maybe interplay with the extremely powerful faction above).

- I'd also find it interesting if there was a faction that specifically eschewed the gate technology for some reason, but had previously used it, and so have a presence in different systems, but have shifting alliances with the larger alignments (for example, some places they are aligned with the Reenu, but others they are aligned with Tor Quan)

- I'd also find it really interesting if the Huari re-appeared somewhere.

- Finally, "hexapodia is the key insight", and I think it would be awesome if somewhere in Mourner, a character like the Twirlip of the Mists could drop some similar knowledge.

shaggymoose 8 Apr 2022:

Its funny, I checked my books tagged with "alien civilisations" and I got back Ringworld, the Motie series and Vernor Vinge (both A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky). The only other that comes to mind is the Trisolarans from the Three Body Problem.

digarw 16 Apr 2022:

Tiananmen Square 1989 <-- This just defense mechanism against Chinese bot. George may delete this.