Created By: fulltimeD on October 24, 2011 Last Edited By: fulltimeD on October 28, 2011
Troped

No Such Thing As Alien Pop Culture

Aliens have deep, complex societies rooted in ancient traditions... but no mass media or pop culture

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Trope
The tendency for alien civilizations (and sometimes futuristic human civilizations) to be portrayed as having no analog of contemporary popular culture, even when it would make sense for an advanced planetary or interplanetary civilization to have some kind of mass media. Sometimes this can be due to The Law of Conservation of Detail, but frequently these cultures are exquisitely detailed: the creator of the 'verse has written a rich, deep, complex culture with its own religions and traditions... but absolutely no equivalent of popular culture.

In practice, this means that while Klingons have their own culture complete with Proud Warrior Race Space-Jesus and Vulcans have their Proud Scholar Race Space-Socrates, there's no such thing as the alien equivalent of "The Simpsons" or "The Three Stooges." These rich, detailed cultures, spread over dozens of planets and actively exploring the galaxy, seemingly have no literature that isn't ancient and part of their mythology. They have no comics, no TV shows, no newspapers, no satirical essays, no novels; only epics, myths, legends, sacred scrolls and ancient tomes. Frequently, the entirety of an alien culture is equated with its religious mythology and traditions, completely excluding the existence of a secular mass media. This leads alien characters to interpret human popular culture along religious lines, for example when G'Kar in Babylon 5 asks if Daffy Duck is one of Garibaldi's household gods.

If an alien culture is explicitly detailed as being rooted in its theology, extremely isolated and/or controlled by an authoritarian government (and these are almost always examples of planetary monocultures), this may be justified. It is a mystery as to how a civilization can purposefully develop starships and faster-than-light communications (and presumably print, radio and the technology for visual broadcasts) without also developing, at least by accident, a mass media independent of their ancient traditions.

Sometimes it is justified by high culture being the sort of thing that gets noticed by outsiders, or that the aliens are on their best behavior when in diplomatic situations. After all, when works by one culture are translated to another on Earth they usually give a misleading picture: more people know about Homer then Aristophanes, and the Byzantines did do more for entertainment then making glorious mosaics. Imagine an alien judging our culture having only knowledge of the "Great Books" curriculum without Family Guy or The Simpsons, the New York Times Best Sellers List, or even the World Wide Web.

When this trope is in effect, an alien Cultural Rebel may find that when Klingon scientists get no respect, Earth becomes the general direction of interstellar brain-drain.

NOTE that this trope, common to Space Opera films and television, is usually remedied in Expanded Universe material like novels and comics which attempt to show more realistically diverse alien cultures. Also note that while this trope also covers futuristic human societies, it should not overlap with Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions, which is a separate trope. Please limit examples to aversions, subversions, and instances in which the trope is sufficiently played around with to warrant mention. Finally, note that instances in which aliens assimilate popular culture from Earth are not true aversions, but this trope being in effect is what makes Earth pop culture so irresistible to E.T. in those cases.

Aversions, Subversions, and Not-So-Straight Examples:

Live-Action Television:
  • The colonies of Man in the 2000's Battlestar Galactica have pop music and indications of different subcultures. They also have sports, card games, nude magazines and novels that have nothing to do with the Sacred Scrolls.
  • The Minbari in Babylon 5 nearly count as a straight example, but that's because outside of the Religious Caste, we know nothing about Minbari culture. However, most of the Minbari we got to know were either Religious or Warrrior Caste, so the largely unseen Worker Caste may have their own separate cultural roots. Also, Minbari humor (not specifically Religious caste humor) is said to be based around failure to attain spiritual enlightenment.
  • Another Babylon 5 example: the alien parents in "Believers" appear to come from a planet like this. Somewhat justified as it's specifically mentioned their planet is backward and isolated and their contact with aliens limited. They're not even members of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation and afterwards: Klingon Opera. (And Shakespeare, best appreciated In the Original Klingon.)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Ferengi are the mercantile traders of the galaxy, so naturally they come stocked with holonovels like "Vulcan Love Slave" and other gems of the 24th-Century entertainment complex. Their children also collect action figures presumably based on a popular culture franchise, Marauder Mo (TM).
  • One episode of Star Trek: Voyager featured a Klingon romance novel called Women Warriors at the River of Blood.

Literature
  • The Glatun and the Horvath, two alien species from John Ringo's Troy Rising series, have rich pop-cultures that include popular music, trash literature, movies and so on (the Glatun even have the same sort of advertsing spam we get on their computer networks). The Horvath, on the other hand, are portrayed as being unimaginative to the point that their lack of a popular culture is justified: they're simply not creative enough to have developed one.

Video Games:
  • Mass Effect has some popular alien films, but most of them are relatively recent. Examples include Fleet And Flotilla and Blasto: The Jellyfish Stings (although that sounds more like a human production than a Hanar one).

Anime:
  • Robotech has an interesting example. There's an aversion with the future human society, since they still have pop stars and things like that (they're only Twenty Minutes into the Future). But the invading Zentraedi don't have anything like that; they are an entirely militaristic society. In fact, this becomes a plot point later on. The Zentraedi, having never been exposed to singing or anything like it, are rendered stupefied by a recording of a singing pop star. The humans actually seize on this and use it as a tactic in battle, making the pop star both a weapon and a morale booster.

Role-Playing Games:
  • In Traveller Interstellar Wars it is specifically stated that there is an aristocratic Vilani culture and a commoner Vilani culture.
  • In Warhammer 40K, there are many mentions of Imperial pop culture, including the popular if historically inaccurate holo series Attack Run and the children's song The Tracks on the Land Raider Crush the Heretics.
    • Never any mention of alien pop culture, but that's because no Imperial citizen cares what the filthy xenos do with their free time.
  • Part of the background of the Teenagers from Outer Space role-playing game is that Earth has the best pop culture in the galaxy. There may be some pop culture put out by alien races, but it's our Hat and the reason all the aliens have come to Earth.

Other:
  • Homestuck is also an aversion. Alternian pop culture is highly advanced - they have video games and TV and tabletop RPG lore and bad books about vampires. In fact, the troll movie industry has been running for so long that they've run out of titles, and instead describe films with a list of the tropes that appear in them. This is appropriate because the characters are all Geeks into varying fandoms. Karkat is even into an Alternian Expy of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Played for Laughs, mostly.

Community Feedback Replies: 35
  • October 24, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Part of the background of the Teenagers From Outer Space role-playing game is that Earth has the best pop culture in the galaxy. There may be some pop culture put out by alien races, but it's our Hat and the reason all the aliens have come to Earth.
  • October 24, 2011
    deuxhero
    True of future Earth as well, not just alien cultures. The exception is a Fan Of The Past or Planet Of Hats based on Aliens Steal Cable results in the pop culture being old Earth material.

    No Pop Culture In The Future?
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    How Did We Miss This One?

    Mass Effect has some popular alien films, but most of them are relatively recent. Examples include Fleet And Flotilla and Blasto: The Jellyfish Stings (although that sounds more like a human production than a Hanar one).
  • October 25, 2011
    Tuomas
    This is such a common trope that it probably makes sense to have only aversions and subversions in the example list.
  • October 25, 2011
    Arivne
    I agree with Toumas. If we included examples, this could easily become one of the largest pages on the Wiki.
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Agreed, Arivne and Toumas. We'll stick to listing aversions and subversions.
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Aversions:

    • The colonies of Man in the 2000's Battlestar Galactica have pop music and indications of different subcultures. They also have sports, card games, nude magazines and novels that have nothing to do with the Sacred Scrolls.

    • The Minbari in Babylon Five nearly count as a straight example, but that's because outside of the Religious Caste, we know nothing about Minbari culture. However, most of the Minbari we got to know were either Religious or Warrrior Caste, so the largely unseen Worker Caste may have their own separate cultural roots. Also, Minbari humor (not specifically Religious caste humor) is said to be based around failure to attain spiritual enlightenment.

    • Star Trek Deep Space Nine's Ferengi are the mercantile traders of the galaxy, so naturally they come stocked with holonovels like "Vulcan Love Slave" and other gems of the 24th-Century entertainment complex. Their children also collect action figures presumably based on a popular culture franchise (Marauder Mo).
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    • Also in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Cardassian "enigma tales" (detective stories) get mentioned a couple of times.
    • One episode of Star Trek Voyager featured a Klingon romance novel called Women Warriors at the River of Blood.

  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    @deuxhero: True but I'd rather keep "Aliens" in the title rather than "the future" because a future society can be alien while an alien society isn't necessarily futuristic. I'll add that to the description though. I feel like we should exclude cases where it's due to Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions, that's a separate trope than "no culture beyond religion/ancient traditions."
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Another Babylon Five example: the alien parents in "Believers" appear to come from a planet like this. Somewhat justified as it's specifically mentioned their planet is backward and isolated and their contact with aliens limited. They're not even members of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds.
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Robotech has an interesting example. There an aversion with the future human society, since they still have pop stars and things like that. But the invading Zentradi don't have anything like that; they are an entirely militaristic society. In fact, this becomes a plot point later on. The Zentradi, having never been exposed to singing or anything like it, are rendered stupified by a recording of a singing pop star. The humans actually seize on this and use it as a tactic in battle, making the pop star both a weapon and a moral booster.
  • October 25, 2011
    Qmarkthe2nd
    Played with in Futurama. The Omicronians, an alien race that lives on a planet 1000 Light Years away from Earth, recieve television broadcasts from our planet 1000 years ago. This means that by the yesr 3000, these gargantuan alien invaders spend their spare time watching shows like Friends.
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    @Qmark: That's Aliens Steal Cable, only a partial aversion of this trope. I'll make that clearer in the description.
  • October 25, 2011
    jatay3
    Justifiable by simply saying that high culture is the sort of thing that gets noticed by outsiders. Or that the aliens are on their best behavior when giving tours. After all, when works by one culture are translated to another on Earth they usually give a misleading picture. More people know about Homer then Aristophanes and Byzantines did do more for entertainment then making glorious mosaics.
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    In Traveller Intersteller Wars it is specifically stated that there is an aristocratic Vilani culture and a commoner Vilani culture.
  • October 25, 2011
    jatay3
    Also what is pop culture at one time and place can be high-culture at another. Kalevala was "An intellectual took a vacation in Finland and heard yarns from fishermen."

    Or try rereading Decameron. Or so on. For that matter England's greatest epic was "big hairy shirtless drunkard tears a monster's arm off"
  • October 25, 2011
    Trotzky
    How Did We Miss This One?
  • October 25, 2011
    SharleeD
    In the Humanx Commonwealth series, thranx culture offered few options for casual recreation before their partnership with humans. Art and theater weren't unknown, and poetry was a sober and respected craft, but thranx games were mostly on the level of "flip the pebble at the stick".
  • October 25, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Star Trek The Next Generation and afterwards: Klingon Opera. (And Shakespeare, best appreciated In The Original Klingon.)
  • October 25, 2011
    pcw2727
    The aliens in Galaxy Quest had no concept of fiction what so ever and assumed an old science fiction program was in fact a historical document.
  • October 26, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Seems like this is less common with future-humans than with aliens.

    I think in addition to aversions and subversions, you should choose interesting straight examples, like the Teenagers From Outer Space example which plays with the trope by making pop culture our Hat.

    Homestuck is also an aversion. Alternian pop culture is highly advanced - they have video games and TV and tabletop RPG lore and bad books about vampires. In fact, the troll movie industry has been running for so long that they've run out of titles, and instead describe films with a list of the tropes that appear in them. This is appropriate because the characters are all Geeks into varying fandoms. Karkat is even into an Alternian Expy of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. Played For Laughs, mostly.
  • October 26, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Hmmm... you mean like a "notable variations" section? I do agree, this is less common with future humans than with aliens. I don't know if listing ANY straight examples is a good idea though. YMMV on whether a straight example is "interesting" enough to merit mention.

    I do want to keep aversions of this trope distinct from Aliens Steal Cable though. I can already see the confusion starting.
  • October 26, 2011
    fulltimeD
  • October 26, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Literature
    • The Glatun and the Horvath, two alien species from John Ringo's Troy Rising series, have rich pop-cultures that include popular music, trash literature, movies and so on (the Glatun even have the same sort of advertsing spam we get on their computer networks). The Horvath, on the other hand, are portrayed as being unimaginative to the point that their lack of a popular culture is justified: they're simply not creative enough to have developed one.
  • October 26, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Great example, thanks Worldmaker!
  • October 26, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Okay, due to popular demand I added the Teenagers From Outer Space example and a few others where the trope is played around with, but let's please try to avoid confusing aversions of this with Aliens Steal Cable and the inverse of Alien Arts Are Appreciated.
  • October 27, 2011
    TBeholder
    Depends how you would define it. Music box level folk music being subject to Sturgeons Law? Or things that can exist exclusively in the environment of IP laws and working ad campaigns? In the first case, there's no easy way to tell if something alien is Mistaken For Profound, in the second, well, it would be a gag if it did exist.
  • October 28, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Anyone else think this is ready to publish?
  • October 28, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Ok, one more hat and I'll publish this tonight after work.
  • October 28, 2011
    Shnakepup
    Did you go and edit any comments? I noticed one of my comments now says it was done by you...
  • October 28, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Sorry about that, I didn't realize it would do that if I used that feature to add examples to the main ykttw. I apologize.
  • October 28, 2011
    fulltimeD
    I was being lazy.
  • October 28, 2011
    randomsurfer
    For future reference, if you click the pencil icon of an example to get the markup, you can click the pencil icon again and it won't overwrite the original author's name. Or you can open the ykttw in another tab/window and click the "show all markup" button at the top.
  • October 28, 2011
    dalek955
    Click the pencil button again and it closes the comments editor without making any changes.
  • October 28, 2011
    fulltimeD
    Thanks.
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