Sex and the SotSverse

“Tarka Female”, Sword of the Stars fanart by MK01 on Deviantart.


Got a couple of interesting questions from one of our players this morning, and thought the answers might make an interesting topic for a blog.

QUESTION: “I find that mating lore and procedures are curiously detailed for every race. Why?”


Short answer?

Science. Raar.

Longer answer?

The best way to explain my approach to race creation is to go over the aspects of my background and research interests that feed into it.

My father was a bio-mathematician; my mother was in the medical field. I was steeped in the core concepts of bio-science and medicine from an early age. To me it’s strange when people create an alien race and we DON’T know how they reproduce. And I find it very off-putting and weird when an SF author seems to have no understanding of evolution and heredity.

“Where do babies come from?” is one of the first questions children ask about themselves, and it is one of the first questions that I ask myself about any given alien race. My scientific background tells me that the core facts of biology are going to have a VERY large impact on the values, beliefs and behaviors of the sapient race that emerges from those core facts. Everyone has to navigate the challenges and advantages of their biological mode.

Also, my major academic discipline is anthropology. The field covers a pretty broad range of topics, since “the study of human kind” covers the human body, human language, human origins, human behavior and social organization, human systems of power and political models, and the human past.

When I create a race of aliens, I try to be sure that I can answer at least the basic questions that I can answer about human beings. What were their primitive ancestors like? What is the core social unit for their species? (For humans and most other apes, the core social unit is the mother and child, for example.) What are the current relations of power within their society? What qualities are respected and revered, and how do individuals and groups acquire and hold power and influence? If they have separate biological sexes (male/female), how do they construct and view gender? How do they form personal and professional relationships? What is their core mode of sustenance? How do they communicate, not only thought and ideas but emotions and reactions?

Sex, gender and reproduction are just part of that overall picture.

QUESTION: “There is plenty of sexism in the SotSverse. Or, if sexism is not the right term, but there are a lot of gender concepts that stand out. Why? Is it parody? Are you spreading a message? A way to just get the stuff out of your system? You know that many who may yet become part of the problem, or already are without knowing it, are going to go ‘lolz Hivers like to blowtorch females, sign me up!’, or ‘Zuul males get their own harem, that’s a lot of sandwiches!’… so why?”


Parody? Message? Stuff in my system?

All of the above.

The Sword of the Stars universe is a universe at war. One of my main research interests in social science is the anthropology of war and violence. It may seem “quirky” or weird to care how a race reproduces itself and how power is organized within that society when asking how and why aliens go to war, but to me these are absolutely critical questions to answer if you understand why humans go to war. I see no reason why aliens capable of building starships would be different.

To make a long answer a tiny bit shorter: Sword of the Stars is not JUST a silly and fun space opera jaunt, although of course I try to make it fun as much as I possibly can. Because I’m the one writing this stuff, it also ends up being a full-credit course on a lot of anthropological topics: kinship, gender hierarchies and relations, religious and philosophical movements and beliefs, war and genocide, environmental politics and how different societies use (and abuse) the landscape, how societies legitimize war, how different cultures mix and mingle during war and peace, how technology impacts social relations within a society and how it impacts relationships with other societies…yadda yadda yar.

I make my job fun for myself by exploring ideas and models that interest me in the course of the daily work. And of course, it’s always interesting to me how people react to the work.

To answer your moral concern about whether my work is making anyone a worse person…I seriously doubt it.

Different people will be drawn to different parts of my work for different reasons. Are there SotS players who are bad people, or misogynists? Sure. It’s impossible that it can be otherwise, statistically speaking. And I do encounter misogynistic fans of my work occasionally, which is always weird.

There was one guy who refused to buy the Mind Games expansion for Sword of the Stars: The Pit because the Tarka character was female, just as an example. The fact that the Tarka have been a matrilineal society and that their women are always militarily active, and have been since people started learning about them in 2005, has just apparently bounced off the dude for the last 8 years. :P

The guy has problems, no doubt. But there’s also no doubt that I am not part of his problem. Just from the pragmatic perspective, being able to enjoy a woman’s serious work in any field is going to dent your misogyny a little.

More broadly, though–exposing people to different ideas and social models is never going to make them part of the problem when they weren’t before. Some people may latch onto the fact that Hivers kill enemy females, sure. But if they identify with Hivers, they are choosing to identify with a HIGHLY matriarchal society. Some people may latch onto the fact that Tarka males have dramatic and interesting lives and significant access to roles of authority and power, but again…the Tarka are a solidly matrilineal society.

By the same token…will playing the Liir cure your transphobia? Maybe not. But the Liir are a biologically gender-fluid species, and I find them a useful model for introducing the concept of gender as a performance.

Anyway. Core concepts and realities will always bounce off some people. Others will dig deeper and “get it” at a much deeper level. And different people enjoy things for different reasons. I’m always amused when a female player favors the Hiver because she enjoys the way everyone calls her “My Queen”. ;D

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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