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July 30, 2008


Telling people to "beware, you might be biased" is not useless, but is almost so - all you can do is become more uncertain. Telling people "beware your judgment when drunk" is a lot more useful, as you can then become more uncertain when drunk, and more certain when not drunk.

Telling people to in general "beware of assuming aliens are like you" is very weak advice. It would be much more helpful to tell them more specifically kinds of situations or features for which they are more likely to make this error.

Economists usually get the opposite complaint, that our math models are too much about a generic social intelligence, and too little about specific features of human society.

Can't we imagine the SF writers reasoning that they're never going to succeed anyway in creating "real aliens," so they might as well abandon that goal from the outset and concentrate on telling a good story? Absent actual knowledge of alien intelligences, perhaps the best one can ever hope to do is to write "hypothetical humans": beings that are postulated to differ from humans in just one or two important respects that the writer wants to explore. (A good example is the middle third of The Gods Themselves, which delves into the family dynamics of aliens with three sexes instead of two, and one of the best pieces of SF I've read---not that I've read a huge amount.) Of course, most SF (like Star Wars) doesn't even do that, and is just about humans with magic powers, terrible dialogue, and funny ears. I guess Star Trek deserves credit for at least occasionally challenging its audience, insofar as that's possible with mass-market movies and TV.

Budget constraints usually curtail attempts to bring 'alien' aliens to the big and small screens. Making plausible-looking aliens is quite expensive; even the prosthetics used to make quasi-human aliens are extensive, and the more complex they are, the harder it is for actors to be expressive.

In the few cases I know of where it was attempted anyway, people responded so poorly to the unfamiliar aspects of the extraterrestrials that the shows gave up. See especially: the early appearances of the Minbari from Babylon 5. Delenn was originally supposed be male, played by a female actress, then changed to female in the metamorphosis at the end of the first season. JMS thought the juxtaposition of human-female features in a male character would be interesting.

Everyone hated it, and Furlan wanted to ditch the facial prosthetics, so the plan was scrapped.

What about Vulcans? They have no emotions at all. Would that count as an escape from the funny suits? (Of course in practice the writers did not do a good job of depicting emotionless characters, but suppose we give them credit for the idea if not the execution.)

"What about Vulcans? They have no emotions at all."

Trekkie nitpick: Vulcans do have emotions; they just repress them.

Captain Kurt is one hot MoFo! Even an alien can see *that*!

I remember Star Trek TNG had an episode about a sort of progenitor humanoid race that had at some point in the past seeded parts of the galaxy with its DNA. So that was at least an attempt to explain why all the races were so similar. Even so I find it hard to get into any SF where alien races are obviously just subsets from human culture: the warrior race, the neutral race, the science race, the trader race, etc.

A radically different intelligence might not be graspable by us as an intelligence, or as an individual, or as anything at all. Perhaps termite mounds are intelligent, but in such a different dimension that we just can't appreciate it.

What you seem to want is an intelligence that is non-human but still close enough to human that we can communicate with it. Although it's not clear what we'd have to talk about, once we get past the Pythagorean theorem.

I've read that people with autism anthropomorphize far less than other people, because their "model other people based on myself" module doesn't seem to be working normally (or so my crude impression goes).

The gap between autistic humans and neurotypical humans may be bigger than the gap between male and female humans. I would list autism as an exception to the psychological unity of humankind.

On one hand I totally agree that assuming that aliens would necessarily have human emotions because they are intelligent is stupid. On the other hand, I think it would be _possible_ to have some emotions in common with some species of alien. If the emotion operated in the brain the same way and arose in a similar way (e.g. anger at economic freeloaders), you might as well call it the same emotion, in the same way you could meaninfully translate words for colours in aliens with a similar visual system.

I wonder how large the spectrum of emotions and modes of thoughts for intelligent entities (that might evolve or be designed) is ? Does it dwarf the human experience ? Are there elements that are nearly universal ?

I think natural selection would also result in animals that could reason about the behavior of their predators and prey. That's why we often imagine what other species of animals are thinking even as they do things a human being would not.

An Alien being a human in a funny suit due to budget reasons seems logical for television and film. A SF novel has no costume budget restriction. How much weight do human traits in aliens have in the readers picture of the alien? Do human traits make the alien believable, enjoyable. What is the commercial value of human like aliens vs. alien aliens?

What you seem to want is an intelligence that is non-human but still close enough to human that we can communicate with it. Although it's not clear what we'd have to talk about, once we get past the Pythagorean theorem.

How about P vs. NP? :-)

The gap between autistic humans and neurotypical humans may be bigger than the gap between male and female humans. I would list autism as an exception to the psychological unity of humankind.

I remember reading "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" and thinking: "This guy is more alien than most aliens I saw in Sci-fi".

Mtraven: "Although it's not clear what we'd have to talk about, once we get past the Pythagorean theorem."
Scott: "How about P vs. NP? "

Or Bayes, I guess.

The mind-projection fallacy is an old favourite on OB, and Eliezer always come up with some colourful examples.

None are as good as this one, though:


How alien would intelligences really be that "grew up" in our culture, under pressure to function well when interacting with us?

Huhm, thanks Eliezer, now I start seeing your point. It's amazing that you can imagine a mind that doens't run on emotional architectures like our own. I honestly can't. No matter how hard I try I keep being biased by my own humanity. And yet I've lived in very different cultures and in various extremes of human nature.

Doug S.: I don't agree, I found some autistic people to be far more 'human' (or should I say humane) than the average person. If you look for an example of a non-human human, how about Hitler? Serial killers? Rapitsts? They obviously lack some basic human(e) emotions.

Surprised you didn't mention DNA here, Eliezer. I imagine that if a truly alien species did a lifeform scan [cringe] of Earth, the first general comment they'd make would be along the lines of 'hey, they're all based on a double-helix self-replicator system'. Although not in English, of course.

So tell us - just how far back do we need to roll our intuitions here? If there's no perfect, blank ghost-in-the-machine intelligence, what common factors would we expect the average evolved intelligence to have? Some sort of visual cortex? A 'brain' that began as an I/O hub but 'evolved' to be the seat of intelligence? A mix of 'organic' and 'technological' elements?

Scott Aaronson:
Can't we imagine the SF writers reasoning that they're never going to succeed anyway in creating "real aliens," so they might as well abandon that goal from the outset and concentrate on telling a good story?

Personally, I recall often hearing both writers and readers mention that you shouldn't try to make your characters genuinely alien - not because it's hard, but because readers will have a difficult time understanding and emphasizing with totally alien characters, thus detracting from their enjoyment. I even read some reviews of Egan's Diaspora where people complained about the characters being too alien - considering that those were still pretty human in my eye, it seems like it's rather easy for people to get that feel. From reading one of the Uplift novels, I can relate - there were aliens there who were sufficiently alien that I did found them rather interesting, but definitely couldn't relate to them on an emotional level.

Stanislaw Lem treated the theme of ungraspable aliens with some success; "Solaris" is better-known, but "Eden" is even more striking in its exploration of the failure to understand.

The remark about the "Star Trek" episode seems strangely inept; surely the writers weren't concerned about the plausibility of the identical parallel evolution - it was just a literary device for them. Criticizing that as a failure to imagine divergent evolution is a bit like criticizing a soap opera for using the twin device to keep an actor after the character dies; after all, the writers could have refrained from doing that, and instead put in a new different character with a different actor...

Valentina Poletti:
If you look for an example of a non-human human, how about Hitler? Serial killers? Rapitsts? They obviously lack some basic human(e) emotions.

I wouldn't call it obvious at all. Case in point: meat. The majority of people in Western countries regularly eat meat, despite the knowledge that by doing so, they are helping maintain a system where countless of farm animals are kept in miserable conditions (me included - though AFAIK the animals have it somewhat better in Finland than in most countries). They don't even do it because they'd believe themselves to be helping "real" people, like Hitler thought - they simply do it because they like the taste.

You don't need to be lacking basic emotions in order to do bad things - you just need to think the other person as something else than a human. And not necessarily even that explictly - most people (whether they admit it or not) care more for those more similar to them (members of the same family, culture, whatever). I doubt people participating in tribal wars lack any human emotions - they just only express those towards their in-group, which doesn't happen to include the enemy tribe.

mtraven: any intelligence will be visible by the optimizations it produces. As for that matter will other sorts of optimizer than intelligence. There might exist some X which is as alien to everything we know as intelligence is to evolution, but it should produce identifiable stigmata resulting from its process, just as evolution and design do.

Yes, science fiction writers don't write truly alien characters because the market is too small.

Aliens who don't make sense are basicly all the same alien.

Aliens who make sense according to some logic that doesn't fit human feelings can be an interesting intellectual puzzle. But they aren't real, they're puzzles. You can figure out the logic.

Aliens who start out not making sense but then start to make more and more sense as it goes along, and you keep fitting things together to understand things you didn't see before, and at the end of the story you still don't get it all -- I find that satisfying, but it's hard to write like that. CJ Cherryh has made solid attempts at it. She has aliens that are very much like big smart cats, but the longer she wrote about them the more like humans they got. In _40,000 in Gehenna_ she had aliens that were a lot like alien ants. One of her less successful stories. She wrote one where the aliens were like truly giant earthworms who communicated by building structures. She wound up with humans who could communicate with them after a fashion, but who weren't very good at translating. It was odd.

Larry Niven's "puppeteers" were reasonably alien. Herbivores who had technology that let them live forever. If you were this kind of alien all you had to do was keep your place in the herd and you need never die. But ordinary ones were not allowed to reproduce at all, there was no place for more of them. And any individual who was willing to get in a spacecraft or go face-to-face with dangerous aliens like human beings was classified as insane and snubbed. Things that we would consider reasonable risks were not reasonable for them, when they might live forever. However, Niven wrote a short story, "Safe at any Speed", in which immortal human beings behaved precisely the way his puppeteers did, and they seemed quite human. Niven at 40 years old had a quite limited concept of how 200-year-old humans would behave, much less immortal aliens. Still, his stories were interesting and they sold well.

Some people consider human beings inhuman when they do something that is considered socially unacceptable. Dictators who start purges that kill many of their own supporters, like Stalin, say. Or Mao. But people who get into high-stakes gambling will do all sorts of things for the chance to win, when the stakes are high. And dictators play for the highest stakes, it's somewhat rare for them to lose and come out of it alive. The ones who survive and come to the USA etc tend to die in a few years of various things, typically cancer. They aren't that different.

On the subject of Star Trek, the Klingon culture in ST:TNG is supposedly inspired by (Western stereotypes of) feudal Japan.

Japanese Klingons? Now there's a thought.

I'm not plugged into the 4chan or Something Awful communities, but if anyone runs a photoshop contest on what a Japanese/Klingon culture would look like, do notify me.

Many of our emotions can be thought of as shortcuts for reasoning. Not so much simple states of happiness and sadness, which are more affective descriptions, but emotions like fear, anger, hope, love, envy, jealousy and so on. These emotions prompt actions. But in principle, such actions are in most cases the same ones that a fully rational and unemotional person would take. Fear makes you run from danger - exactly what a rational person would do. Love makes you protect your allies - again, a rational action. The value of the emotions is that they shortcut what might be a slow rational decision, and also that they are available to lesser animals who do not have our developed sense of rationality.

One place we might look for alien emotions, then, is to shortcut other aspects of rationality. Aliens might have a strategic-move emotion, that would activate in games like chess or in comparable strategic situations. This would manifest as an urgent subconscious drive to make a certain move in such situations.

A simpler example would be an emotional drive to eat. We have hunger, but that is just a sensation. And sometimes people do acquire emotional connotations for eating. But aliens could have a feeding emotion, as urgent in its way as fear or love, but as different as these two, and directed towards eating.

Any biological behavior could acquire a corresponding emotional drive. Aliens might even give themselves emotions. Imagine aliens who have emotions helping them to overcome bias. Perhaps they have an emotional abhorrence of disagreement, so that the idea of consummating a bet fills them with horror. They might look at our society with barely restrained disgust and disdain.

Commenting on the autism thing (as I've got an insider's perspective there): one thing that strongly characterized my experience growing up was being consistently "mis-read" by those around me. While I (and, I'd wager, most others on the autistic spectrum) do have some "standard" reactions to things (like laughing when amused, smiling when happy, etc.), I don't always emote in visibly standard ways. This led a lot of people, while I was growing up, to believe that I "didn't care" in situations where I cared deeply, that I had intentions I didn't have, that I was sad/lonely when in fact I was just neutrally preoccupied with something, etc.

I also tend(ed) to get read as "nervous" a lot because I can be fidgety and have difficulty speaking (or, in some cases, talk a mile a minute simply because I don't have much vocal modulation) -- and while like everyone I get anxious occasionally, I am probably no more generally anxious than average, and despite being introverted, I am definitely not "shy".

Anyway, even before I found out I was on the spectrum, I had figured out that I was (what I termed) "differently mapped" -- as in, I'd realized that my outward signals didn't mean the same things that people assumed them to. Earlier, in around fourth grade, I'd determined that I might actually be an alien because of how disconnected I felt from those around me and how often I was called "weirdo". I soon decided that it was scientifically infeasible for me to actually have come from outer space, but still, in communicating with other autistics, I have been amazed at how common it is for us to wonder as children whether we're "not entirely human". There's even some thought that "changeling" mythology (in which young children are said to have been "replaced" by elves or faerie babies, whose qualities perplex or annoy the parents) is based in early observations of autistics and other atypical children.

Also, regarding the "autistics anthropomorphize less" thing: my experience as a youngster was subjectively similar to what I've seen termed "panpsychism". That is, I didn't really distinguish between "live" and "non-live" things at all, or between humans and nonhuman animals -- everything was "potentially alive" as far as I was concerned. I've since learned otherwise (due to learning about brains and nerves and such), and I no longer wonder if objects like pencils and Lego blogs feel pain, but I definitely still feel a kind of "psychological unity" with nonhuman animals, especially cats, as their actions make a lot of sense to me for some reason.

I've confirmed that I am not unique in this among the autistic population; several others have described similar experiences (I know one autistic kid who, upon determining that the electronic pokemon plush he'd just gotten at the store didn't light up the way it was supposed to, decided to keep it anyway because he figured it still needed a home). Which is interesting to me, as the stereotype seems to be that autistics see the whole world (including the people in it) as "dead" and "empty". My experience was the precise opposite of this; I perceived the whole world as vibrant and suffused with great depth and beauty and complexity, to the point where humans didn't always stand out as the most interesting thing in my environment (which is probably why I was seen as "oblivious to other people" at times).

Nevertheless, I certainly wouldn't describe autistics as "actually alien", as we evolved here on Earth just like everyone else. We're just a particular variation of human. And I do actually think that despite the lack of a simplistic "psychological unity" that can be fully detected on the basis of outward expressions, there is definitely a deeper psychological unity. Autistic humans and nonautistic humans alike can feel happy, sad, frustrated, angry, appreciative of beauty, disgusted, etc., even if we show these emotions in different ways and in response (sometimes) to different experiences.

One of the great challenges of what I'd call "social progress" is that of figuring out how humans with different cognitive styles can learn to communicate with one another and recognize that different but equally "valid" minds do in fact exist already within the human population. I also think it is probably relevant to AI research to look at how humans who *are* cognitively different in various ways end up coming to understand one another, because this does happen at least occasionally. I've noticed that in relating to other autistics I experience a lot more of what feels like the ability to take accurate "short cuts" to mutual understanding, and it occurred to me a while back that perhaps that "short cut" feeling is what many nonautistic people experience all the time with the majority of those around them.

Anne, feel free not to answer this one: What do you know about neurotypicals that neurotypicals don't know about themselves?

Anne, feel free not to answer this one: What do you know about neurotypicals that neurotypicals don't know about themselves?

Wow, that's an interesting one. I don't think I can make a valid general statement that some particular thing that's true of ALL nonautistic people but that none of them know themselves, so I won't even attempt that.

However, the thing that does come to mind in response to your question (and I don't know if this counts but I'll put it forth anyway) is that I do find myself often aware when (nonautistic) people are making certain assumptions about reality that are transparent to them because they happen so automatically, but apparent to me because I don't make those assumptions.

I'm sure I make other assumptions (as all humans, insofar as I know, use heuristics to some extent), but it's pretty evident that my heuristic set is somewhat atypical, and judging from the cog-sci stuff I've read, some of this could probably relate to a difference in how low-level perceptual information is processed.

E.g., there have been times when people have commented on something I've done, "You must have spent a lot of time on that!" or even "Too much effort" (as one teacher wrote on a project I did in high school), when in fact I haven't necessarily spent a lot of time on said thing, or put in what I'd consider to be heroic amounts of effort. I've also had the opposite experience, wherein I've tried very hard to do something for a long time, and still not been able to, and gotten numerous comments regarding how I could do it if only I "tried harder" or "relaxed".

To me, this says that many (mostly non-autistic) people tend toward a particular way of perceiving and processing certain kinds of information, and are hence presuming that certain things are going to be relatively easier or more difficult based on the assumptions their processing style encourages. And it also tells me that in those cases, I am sometimes more aware of how their processing style might be working than they are -- that is, what variables they might be ignoring without realizing it.

Hopefully this doesn't come across as horribly presumptuous -- I'm perfectly aware that this can go in the other direction. Where I see there being potential here (as far as helping further an understanding of cognition goes) is in the fact that minds with at least somewhat different basic assumption-sets can sometimes point out these assumption sets across cognitive style gaps, leading to a greater meta-awareness of the kinds of assumptions that tend to get made and what their consequences can be.

I have to agree completely with the contents of this post. I've spent years trying to explain to people how terribly unlikely DNA is to be the genetic material of an alien life from, but with little success. Heck, even carbon isn't essential (although I would expect it to be a common case).

Thank you for writing, Anne. Your comments here, as well as your recent 'interview' posts on your blog, have been most interesting.

mtraven: any intelligence will be visible by the optimizations it produces.

Intelligence will be visible by the improbable situations it maintains. It's a special case of the visible signs of life.

I have a dim memory of a short story (By Ursula K. LeGuin?) in which humans come in contact with another life form, but they can't make any sense of the life form. They can't communicate with it (them?) and, indeed, aren't even sure the life form is aware of them. So, in frustration, the humans wipe it out. Does anyone else know this story?

It's the unrecognized bias I find frustrating in Science Fiction Television and Movies. For example, in space, there's no up or down, yet every single space ship is in the same orientation with every other space ship it encounters. I mean, why couldn't The Enterprise "up" be "down" on a ship that it's communicating with? It wouldn't even be a difficult special effect and could be quite funny. When Kirk would be talking to the Klingons "on screen," the Klingon Captain would be "upside down." "Why should I negotiate with you? You don't even know up from down!" I have never seen an aknowledgement of this orientation problem in any sci-fi movie (or book, for that matter).

It adds an interesting complication to the whole transporter beam technology: not only would the beam have to transport all your atoms and metabolic functions, but it would have to put you back together in the proper orientation. Otherwise, you'd end up "standing" on the ceiling and crashing "Up" into the floor.

And I haven't even gotten to the truly alien: what if "Up" and "Down," "Ceiling" and "Floor" made no sense to them at all?


Katherine, the up/down thing would just work out for communication. If you turn your TV upside down the picture turns upside down with it. Or if the camera turns upside down your TV picture will turn upside down apart from your TV. It's all in the signal.

The transporter problem would go the same way, if there's a downside at the emitter then that information will get sent to the receiver which also has a downside.

Things like space battles usually don't show enough detail to see that they're thinking in 2D. The StarTrek movie _The Wrath of Khan_ did a parody of that, though. Kirk realizes that Khan is thinking in terms of two-dimensional strategies, so when Khan is chasing Kirk's ship, with all the advantages because he's behind, Kirk moves his ship *up* and Khan is completely confused and goes straight ahead so that Kirk can then go *down* and get behind him. It's possible it wasn't meant to be a parody, but it's so stupid I'd rather give them the benefit of the doubt.

I don't remember that LeGuin story, but somebody -- LeGuin? Joanna Russ? -- did a Clarion exercise where they had some of the writing students pretend to be aliens who communicated with stylized gestures, and the other students were supposed to react to that. The aliens did their thing and nobody could figure any of it out. The aliens started "dying" and they called it all off because it was so totally frustrating.

CJ Cherryh wrote a story where human soldiers were fighting on some dreary planet where the enemy never surrendered but sometimes would commit suicide rather than keep fighting. Their carrion birds actied kind of weird, everything was a little strange, the humans got very tired of fighting with people they didn't understand. The viewpoint character has gotten completely sick of it, and at the story's end when they've negotiated a sort of peace he realizes that to actually seal the peace a human soldier has to do a mutual suicide with one of the local soldiers, and he pulls the grenade pin while the other guy holds it.

People who read science fiction like to get insights from it. But when it's alien stories, it's hard to provide the right level of hints. Too many and it's trite, too few and it never makes sense. Hard to calibrate that for the average reader.

C.J. Cherryh (again!) also wrote a series of books (the Foreigner series) about the interaction of humans with a race of reasonably human-like aliens. The basic driver of the first few books is the premise that the aliens were a bit too human-like, and their language fairly easily understood, such that the humans became overconfident of their "understanding" of the alien culture.

J. Thomas, I believe the Cherryh story you mention is the novella "The Scapegoat".

Cherryh has clearly wrestled with these issues for a while...

Peter Watts' "Blindsight" is one of the better attempts to describe a truly alien-alien I've read recently, and I think he still has it as a free download. Interestingly the human protagonists (and the vampire - don't worry, it's not what you're thinking) are almost alien-alien as well. Although not quite.

This is from the star-trek wiki which gives an explanation as to why many of the aliens resemble each other - http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Humanoid

Quote -

Despite the vast distances separating their homeworlds, many humanoid species have been found to share a remarkable commonality in form and genetic coding. These similarities were believed to be evidence of a common ancestry, an ancient humanoid species, who lived in our galaxy's distant past some four billion years ago.

To preserve their heritage, this species apparently seeded the primordial oceans of many potentially hospitable planets with encoded DNA fragments. The genetic information incorporated into the earliest lifeforms on those planets and through preprogrammed mutations caused by a genetic template, directed evolution toward a physical development similar to their own. Because of this controlled mutation mechanism, most habitable planets in the galaxy evolved with many physically similar species (e.g. fish, trees, dogs, insects), and on many of those worlds with at least one sentient species with a humanoid configuration. Most of these humanoids are even interfertile with each other.

>if anyone runs a photoshop contest on what a Japanese/Klingon culture would look like, do notify me.
Here, I'll give you a thought experiment to get you started: Whorrf wearing a Hello Kitty outfit.

It would not be hard to read SF stories/movies as a reflection of how the US-Soviet relationships were - how tense the Cold War was. During dentente, one gets cuddly aliens like ET. During more tense periods one gets The Thing, or Invasion of the Pod People.

I also wouldn't read too much into why Star Trek aliens look like people in rubber suits. After all, the "transporter" was done as a cost savings as they could not afford the budget to use the "shuttlecraft" in every episode. While $300k/episode doesn't get you much these days, back in the 1960s it was a budget buster. And after all, Kirk kissing Uhura was the first interracial kiss on US TV - and it almost got that show cancelled as well.

This post series was seriously undermining my enjoyment of Hellboy 2 last weekend.

We have plenty of aliens available on our planet. We already have citations of animals and termites in these comments. My most recent reading on that was Mary Roach's Bonk, which enters via the topic of pig orgasms. We have trouble recognizing the emotional states of species not that different from us because we are looking for similar facial expressions; and where we see things that look like human facial expressions, we infer similar emotional states; and this is already assuming that other species have human emotional states.

AnneC, I find the same "effort" thing in dealing with my co-workers, with everyone more or less neurotypical. I do mostly quantitative work, and they are mostly innumerate. That seems to be a big enough distance. Most have no concept of whether a request will take five minutes or a week, or even what constitutes a well-formed request. I assume this is the case for most of us: those outside our specialties have trouble telling which are the hard cases.

I'm probably WAY to late to this thread to be asking this, but what exactly do you mean by "you've never antled"?

I'm thinking this may just be some reference that is lost on me.

Miguel: it doesn't seem to be a reference to something, but just a word for some experience an alien might have had that is incomprehensible to us humans, analogous to humour for the alien.

I think Star Trek TNG did a really good job at presenting alien protagonist culture. While most aliens were flanderized, Federation had a rich culture that was quite unlike modern human culture, with post-scarcity economy, Prime Directive and happy exploration as the main goal.

It probably didn't make a very good story, as DS9 make Federation a lot more human. It improved storytelling, but I still miss TNG Federation and its alien ways.

On the subject of Star Trek, the Klingon culture in ST:TNG is supposedly inspired by (Western stereotypes of) feudal Japan.

The original Klingons were obviously supposed to be Russians, in ST:TNG and later they seemed to be some kind of absurd combination of Vikings and Samurai (both small warrior minorities in much larger cultures). Though I'd say Star Trek went to that well so many times that they dried up the water table.

Klingons: Samurai
Romulans: Imperial Japan
Cardassians: Fascist Japan
Talaxians: Occupied Japan

Even the institutional culture of Starfleet could be considered something of a riff on Corporate Japan.

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