My Top Ten Fictional Races

One of my favourite things about speculative fiction is imagining non-human sentient races. It’s endlessly fascinating to me to imagine creatures who are not quite like us, who have different thought processes, different perspectives.

I thought it’d be fun to run down my ten all-time favourite non-human races within fiction.

We all know what’s going to be #1, but let’s pretend there’s some suspense.

10: Elves, The Obsidian Trilogy

Cover art for "The Obsidian Trilogy, book one: The Outstretched Shadow" by Mercedes Lackey and James MalloryInnovation is good, but there’s also something to be said for taking the same old stuff and just doing it really, really well.

This is what Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory did with their Obsidian Trilogy. In many ways it’s an extremely generic high fantasy adventure, but it polishes all the old tropes to a brilliant lustre.

The best example of this the series’ Elves, as fascinating and alien a bunch as you’ll ever see. I loved the subtle intricacies of their culture, their bizarre yet somehow logical ideas of politeness.

9: Castithans, Defiance

Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) in DefianceCastithans are one of those things I shouldn’t like, but do. Objectively speaking, they’re a nasty bunch. Dogmatic, brutal, conniving, unrepentantly sexist.

But if their society is cruel, it’s beautifully cruel. Gloriously cruel. They’re like if the painting The Scream was a society: horrifying, beautiful, disturbing, and fascinating all at once. There is such depth, such intricacy, and such artistry to everything they do that it’s easy to forget how horrible it all is.

8: Cylons, Battlestar Galactica

Lucy Lawless, Tricia Helfer, and Grace Park as the Cylons Three, Six, and Eight in Battlestar GalaticaThere’s a lot of brilliant things about how the Cylons were depicted in the BSG reboot, but to boil it down to its core, they hit a great balance of making them clearly real people with real feelings, but also clearly not human. Always a difficult tightrope to walk.

The whole point of the series is that Cylons are not mere machines but feeling individuals, but they didn’t fall into the trap of making them identical to humans. They clearly have their own unique perspective and psychology, as seen in things like their “projection” ability.

7: Drow, Dungeons and Dragons

Art of a Drow warriorThe wonderful thing about the Elves is that they’re equally compelling as both heroes and villains.

I’m not the biggest D&D fan around, but I’ve always had a great fascination with the Drow. I think they’re perhaps the best example of Elves who are anything but noble.

There is something enticingly alien about the Drow. They come from a place without light, or life as we understand it; a place of darkness and mystery where those of us born under the sun are not welcome. Like any good Elves, they are beautiful and majestic, with an intricate culture, but whereas some Elves are virtuous, Drow are terrible and deadly.

6: Orcs, Warcraft

Saurfang dual wields Chuck NorrisAfter the last few WoW expansions, I think the whole Warcraft community is a bit burnt out on Orcs, myself included.

That said, that doesn’t change the fact that Warcraft’s Orcs are awesome. They are a fresh take on the archetype, not just savage brutes but a complex and multifaceted people. Over the years, they’ve been used to make all sorts of great points about the assumptions we tend to make, judging books by their covers, and how one society’s monster can be another’s hero.

Their story is an incredible rollercoaster of highs and lows, and even after all the terrible things they’ve done, it’s almost impossible not to feel sympathy for them. They destroyed themselves as much as they destroyed their foes.

5: Night Elves, Warcraft

Art of Warcraft's Tyrande Whisperwind and the brothers StormrageI like to make fun of the Night Elves. They’re dogmatic, xenophobic, smug hypocrites, and as a proud native of Quel’thalas, I’m somewhat obligated to dislike them.

And World of Warcraft has certainly ill-served them. They’ve become little more than hippies these days.

But all that said, there’s still a lot about Night Elves that’s incredibly cool. The original vision of them being savage, feral Elves was a really fresh take on the archetype. They’re not Drow, and they’re not the traditional cultured Elves, either. They’re a very unique breed unto themselves.

Listen to Nightsong, remember the days when Ashenvale was a place outsiders feared to tread, and reflect on the terrible majesty of the Kaldorei.

4: Romulans, Star Trek

Romulans in Star Trek: NemesisOne of my favourite styles of villain is that of the cultured, sophisticated villain. They could crush you outright, but they’d rather spin such an intricate web of deception you prove your own undoing, and they’ll do it while finely dressed and sipping a rare vintage

That’s the Romulans in a nutshell. They’re the bad guys, yes, but there’s also an incredible sense of history and culture to them. They’re better than you, and they know it.

I don’t think Star Trek has ever really explored the Romulans to the extent they deserve, but at the same time that sort of adds to their mystique.

3: Mantis-kinden, Shadows of the Apt

Art of the Mantis-Kinden from Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt"Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Mantis-kinden are similar to Elves in many ways. They’re forest-dwellers, they live in tune with nature, and they’re a relic of a long-forgotten time.

However, the Mantids are much harsher, more savage, and more bloodthirsty than Elves. They are graceful, but also terrifying. They’re not just a relic of an older time, but a relic of a darker and far more brutal time.

Of course, that just endears them to me all the more.

2: Protoss, StarCraft

A council of Protoss leaders in StarCraft II: Legacy of the VoidMore than almost any other non-human race I’ve encountered in fiction, the Protoss manage to feel both convincingly alien and yet still like real people.

On the one hand, the Protoss are very clearly not human. Their long lives, their telepathy, their warrior culture, and their connection to the Xel’naga give them a perspective completely different from that of humanity.

But unlike many aliens in fiction, the Protoss are not just an archetype or a rigid set of personality traits. They are not a mono-culture. There is great diversity among them. This was true from their inception, and Legacy of the Void went to great lengths to further expand upon the various different Protoss cultures.

Think about it. How often does fiction bother to give non-human races a variety of nations with unique cultures? I’m sure it’s happened outside the Protoss, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any examples off the top of my head.

All of the Protoss cultures share the same warrior spirit, but how that identity manifests varies greatly, from the rigidly honour-bound Khalai, to the fiercely individualistic Nerazim, to the brutal Tal’darim.

Even within those broader cultures, there can be variation. Aiur’s society includes dogmatic hardliners like Aldaris, open-minded idealists like Artanis, curious scholars like Karax, and bombastic warriors such as Fenix.

This diversity has allowed some fantastic points about multiculturalism to be made throughout the Protoss story. The Nerazim were rejected by greater Protoss society for their “deviant” behaviour, but without them, the Protoss never could have survived the onslaught of the Swarm.

When the tables were turned, many Nerazim did not want to harbour the Khalai refugees, but without them, the Nerazim would have fallen in the End War — and all creation with them.

And beyond all that, it’s hard not to admire the honour, dedication, and sheer badassery of the Protoss.

Take the immortals. These are people who have been crippled and mutilated by combat. A human in that circumstance would consider death a mercy. But the Protoss willingly — gladly, even — volunteer to have their ruined husks implanted into giant war machines so that they can continue to serve their people for years, perhaps even centuries, to come.

“Uhn dara ma’nakai — our duty is unending.”

1: Blood Elves, Warcraft

Art of a Blood Elf paladin from the Warcraft universeYeah, this is the most unsurprising ending to a listicle in history.

By now my love of the Sin’dorei is very well-documented. I’ve talked before about how they won my undying devotion by maturing along with me. When I was a child, they were a majestic if simplistic embodiment of goodness, and when I became a teenager, they evolved into something darker, edgier, and sexier — everything a teenage boy could want.

Their story has so many strong commentaries to make on issues like addiction, genocide, racism, and victim-blaming. Which isn’t to say that they are saints or without blame in their own downfall, but that just further deepens their profoundly complex themes. For the Blood Elves, there are no clear right answers. Nothing is ever simple.

They are one of the most fascinatingly complex moral studies in speculative fiction, their elegance and grace are unmatched, their tragedy is heartbreaking, their endurance is inspiring, and their sheer cool factor is undeniable.

Selama ashal’anore.

Honourable mentions:

My love for non-human races in fiction is such that there are many more favourites who didn’t make the list.

One thing Warcraft has never lacked for is fascinating races, so in addition to those mentioned above, I could also praise the Tauren, the Worgen, the Forsaken, the Pandaren, the Faceless, the Vrykul, and the Nerubians.

Adrian Tchaikovsky gifted us with no end of fascinating races in Shadows of the Apt, and in addition to the Mantids, Spider-kinden were always a favourite.

Star Trek’s aliens tend to be pretty bland as a rule, but they have come up with some good ones over the years beyond Romulans: Klingons, Borg (pre-Voyager), Trill, Tamarians, Denobulans.

The much-missed Myth franchise of video games was fantastic for coming with interesting new races instead of just relying on the same old archetypes. I especially liked the nightmarish Myrkridia and enigmatic Trow.

Ian Irvine is also pretty good at coming up with new concepts within fantasy, and I’m especially fond of the mighty and regal Charon.

Do you have any favourites I didn’t include on my list?

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Things I Hate About Things I Love

I think nuance is important in life. It’s always good to remind yourself nothing is entirely good or bad, to see the flaws even in things you enjoy. Blind devotion is never a positive trait.

To that end, I have compiled a list of things I truly hate about things I truly love. None of these things are enough to turn me off my passions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t really get under my skin.

This is by no means a comprehensive list; it’s just the things that stood out to me as I was writing.

And just so you know, to continue the theme of balance and nuance, I will also be doing a post on things I love about things I hate.

World of Warcraft: Mandatory subscription

There’s no shortage of things I could have picked where WoW is concerned. It’s a game with much that I love, but also much that I would gladly purge with cleansing fire.

I settled on the subscription. I’ve said it all before; I don’t like subscriptions and the psychological pressure they create.

My warlock's awesome new look following the Blood Elf model revamp in World of Warcraft: Warlords of DraenorIn WoW’s case, I find the subscription is having an increasingly toxic impact on the game’s design. More and more the overriding thought behind Blizzard’s decisions seems to not be “How can we make this more fun?” but “How can we make this take longer?”

Star Trek: Enterprise: Gratuitous T&A

Enterprise’s infamous decon scenes and other acts of shameless fan service have received much criticism, and while I think it’s a bit unfair to act as if this was something new to the Star Trek franchise (mini-skirts — just sayin’), it does deserve to be criticized.

Yeah, it’s sexist. It’s also silly, ridiculous, and unnecessary, and it cheapened what was otherwise a fantastic piece of intellectual science fiction.

I mean, I was going through puberty when Enterprise was on the air, and even so, I still didn’t enjoy the decon scenes.

Much.

Seriously, though, even then I was like, “This is dumb. Why are they doing this? I mean, I like seeing Linda Park in her underpants and all, but really, this is dumb. Get back to the plot.”

At least they made some small effort toward being equal opportunity. Trip did spend an awful lot of time in his underwear and/or sweaty and covered in dirt.

Yeah. This happened.Fun fact: TrekUnited’s “let’s drool over Connor Trinneer”  thread was roughly ten to twenty times longer than the equivalent threads for Jolene Blalock and Linda Park combined.

This is not an exaggeration.

Battlestar Galactica: Season four

I have a lot of love for Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot. My autographed photos of Katee Sackhoff and Aaron Douglas sit proudly next to my computer desk. My pilot’s wings pin occupies a place of honour on the headboard above my bed. One of my first major writing projects was a massive BSG fan fic up that ended being nearly novel length. BSG produced three of the best seasons of television ever made.

And then season four happened.

Sigh.

I mean, there was still some really great stuff in season four. I loved the mutiny arc. The acting and character arcs were fantastic until the end. “Revelations” was possibly the best episode of the series.

But most of season four was defined by random drama and shock value for the sake of drama and shock value. It killed off beloved characters for no apparent reason.

A screencap from BSG's rambling mess of a series finaleWorse still, it became clear that, despite what the opening credits said, they did not have a plan. The writers were clearly making it up as they went along, and in the end, the show “collapsed under its own weight,” as an old friend of mine aptly put it. The ending was a nonsensical mess that boiled down to two hours of “a wizard did it.”

The first three seasons of BSG were so brilliant that season four cannot diminish what they accomplished. But that’s not for lack of effort.

These days I mostly try to pretend season four ever happened. Though not as hard as I try to pretend Blood and Chrome never happened.

Stargate: Universe: Montages

I loved SG:U. After its shaky first few episodes, it evolved into one of the great sci-fi shows of all time. But there’s one nasty habit it never quite shook off.

Those damn musical montages.

Nearly every episode had to conclude with five minutes of the cast staring off into space and looking depressed while some crappy song plays in the background. It never stopped being irritating.

The starship Destiny in Stargate: UniverseTake that time and come up with some proper opening credits instead. Would be as useful.

Mass Effect: Asari

With a few notable exceptions, I’m not fond of the alien races in the Mass Effect franchise. It feels like very little effort was put into them — they’re almost entirely bland archetypes the likes of which you could find in any generic sci-fi story.

The Asari stand out as the worst, though. They’re basically an entire species of adolescent sexual fantasies — gorgeous, bisexual alien girls. Considering how progressive Bioware tends to be, shameless fan service such as the Asari sticks out like a sore thumb.

I find it ironic that the games try to make it this offensive stereotype that Asari are defined by sex, but the games spend more time stereotyping them than any of the characters. There’s next to nothing unique or noteworthy about the Asari culture or temperament other than their sexuality, nearly all Asari plots revolve sex or relationships in some way, and Asari strippers are utterly ubiquitous.

Admittedly, my view has perhaps been skewed by the fact Liara is the most prominent Asari in the franchise. Her entire personality boils down to, “Gee, Shepard, you’re so awesome; wanna feel my boobs?”

Catching up with Samara in Mass Effect 3: CitadelIn fairness, Samara is pretty cool.

Heroes of the Storm: Dragon Shire

I was going to mention the amount of filler in Bioware games, but then I remembered how much I hate Dragon Shire, and there wasn’t room for both.

Heroes of the Storm’s map variety is one of its great strengths… unless you get Dragon Shire.

I hate this map so very, very much. It’s just endless back and forth — you can easily go ten to fifteen minutes into a match without either team winning the map objective. It’s so slow, and so tedious. It’s also really easy to get screwed over by your team composition in quick matches because you need a very specific set of heroes and roles to hold all three shrines effectively.

It also seems very snowbally compared to other maps. Winning the dragon is such a massive advantage, and there’s no “consolation prize” for the team who doesn’t capture it. It’s agonizing to spend half a match fighting over the damn thing, only to have the enemy team cap it and wreck half your forts because your team made one mistake.

Oh, and it has the most boring visuals and the dullest announcer of all the maps.

Zoning into a Heroes of the Storm match as JohannaI have my highest win rate on Dragon Shire, but even that does nothing to quell my hate for this awful, terrible, no good map. I have at times (briefly) considered quitting Heroes because of Dragon Shire — I’m not kidding.

Fantasy in general: Lack of diversity

This isn’t necessarily something I hate, but it confuses and disappointments me.

Science fiction has a pretty rich tradition of showing a future where humanity is more united and giving us diverse casts composed of a good balance of sexes, races, and even sexual orientations.

Fantasy, for whatever reason, isn’t like that. The vast majority of fantasy novels are about straight white guys. If an author is feeling really daring and progressive, it might be about a straight white woman.

There are a few exceptions. Ian Irvine and Glen Cook have made at least some effort toward racial diversity in their casts, Mercedes Lackey gives good representation to LGBT characters, and… that’s all I got.

I guess Dragon Age could merit a mention, too. Good balance of sexes and sexual orientations, at least.

StarCraft II: Too much macro

The beginning of a Starcraft 2 ladder matchStarCraft II is one of the great RTS games of all time, and the countless hours I’ve sunk into prove my love for it. But it always bothers me how much of the game boils down to macro, to economy.

If you run your economy well, you can all but ignore what happens on the battlefield, at least until you reach the highest levels of play. I remember hearing a guy saying he made it from silver to platinum league by giving up on commanding his army and just devoting all his attention to macro.

That’s pretty messed up.

And it’s just boring. Way too much of every game is spent churning out workers, and pylons, and overlords, and so forth. “YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS” is a meme for a reason, but it’s not necessarily a good reason.

Everything: The fans

“It’s not the band I hate. It’s their fans.”

The sad truth is I have yet to find anything that can’t have the fun sucked out of it by its fans. The worst part of playing WoW is the other WoW players. The worst part of being a Trek fan is the Trekkies. And so on and so forth.

That’s not to say you won’t encounter nice people in fandom. Some of the best friends I have were made through fan communities. But on the whole, I’ve found my every attempt to engage in the fan community for any game, TV series, movie franchise, etcetera has ultimately proven frustrating and lessened my enjoyment of the original product.