Invertebrates generally, and insect-like creatures specifically, do not feature in global mythology to the same extent as their vertebrate and humanoid cousins. Likewise, although vertebrates have inspired various fantastic peoples (generally in the form of shapeshifting monsters such as the Japanese kitsune or European werewolf), invertebrate equivalents are rare in the extreme, and most with which we are familiar are products of 20th Century science-fiction, in which they fulfil the role of faceless, animalistic hordes, thus providing a simple (if somewhat heavy-handed) solution to the “Are orcs racist?” problem.
The cutting of the Gordian orc-knot – combined with the natural revulsion which many humans feel and the diverse array of invertebrates for inspiration – have probably contributed to the explosion of insectoid monsters in fiction, alongside which has been the small, but steady, emergence of the bug people.
Got a Reason to Live
Bug people have fewer defining tropes even than orcs and trolls, and largely carve out their niche by distinguishing themselves from bug monsters. Bug monsters are generally just scary animals who want to kill the protagonist and feast on his tasty innards, whereas bug people will have at least some sort of justification behind the evisceration buffet. Obviously, looking at least somewhat like an arthropod is a prerequisite (and is one of several reasons why the Borg do not quite make it into this week’s article, although I did seriously consider them), but aside from that, bug people tend to have a limited number of traits with far-reaching implications behind them. Such traits include:
- A “hive-mind” (however badly expressed)
- Psychic/psionic powers
- Strange physiology
- Even stranger psychology
And, narratively speaking, it is typical for the bug people to be confused for simple animals at some point in the narrative by another species, and that species tends to be humanity.
Bugs in Space
The unfortunately named ‘Buggers’ (sic), Warhammer 40k‘s tyrannids, Starcraft‘s zerg, The Last Federation‘s thoraxians, and Sword of the Stars’ hivers are all examples of this first kind of bug people. Although clearly related in inspiration (if not in fact) to the likes of the bugs from Starship Troopers, those aliens were presented as completely feral, unlike the other five. Narratively, they provide a sense of danger (by being physically menacing and overwhelming in number) but ultimately vulnerable to human ingenuity/the human spirit/the military-industrial complex/space chocolate (delete as appropriate) because of the over-arching control exercised by the queen.
The queen, as a locus for the hive-mind, thus provides an opportunity for the writers to allow for a less “alien” social interaction at a narratively satisfying moment, perhaps as part of a twist in the story (usually of the “we’re not animals, this is all a big misunderstanding: you’re the monsters in this tale” kind). It is at this moment, however, that the authors’ understanding of what constitutes a hive mind tends to break down somewhat. In the Enders’ Game books, individual buggers* have individual volition, but it can be over-ridden by the queen. That is not actually a hive mind, but an individual’s mind taking control of another being’s mind and/or body.
Likewise, the Warhammer 40k lore is shy about asserting whether the tyrannid swarm is a single organism, the apparent multiplicity of creatures no more distinct from the whole than the cells that make up a human body, or whether the “mind” is a product of individual norn-queens acting in concert, or whether each is only an individual if separated from the whole, like some sort of amorphous blob, and quite how the definition of a single hive mind is realized in any of these possibilities is not entirely clear. Suffice to say, however, the ultimate narrative purpose of the tyrannids is “sell more models”, so it is hardly surprising that Games Workshop has not agonized over the specifics and left it to blogs written by pathetic nerd losers like, er… oh.
Thus, the narrative possibilities provided by bugs in space tend not to be fully realized, which is a shame. One exception to this, however, is the hivers from Sword of the Stars, who do not have a hive mind, but do act eusocially, with much of their biology and culture revolving around the dominant position of fertile females. Thus, the almost sacred way in which females are perceived by the hivers makes them unwilling to hurt human or tarka women in combat. As in Ender’s Game, the bug people and humans clash because of a fundamental misunderstanding about what each represents to the other, and unlike in, say, Star Trek, these are fundamental differences rooted in biology and culture, which cannot be simply overcome, but require a whole new branch of political philosophy to address, a much more interesting interrogation of the concept than nebulously defined, inter-dimensional space-brains.
Bugs in fantasy
Bug people in fantasy are almost entirely relegated to the shadows, optional picks for third-party supplements in games (for which they tend to be rubber-forehead
gnomes kender aliens rather than something truly distinct), or obscure parts of the lore. Case in point, the dromites of Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, which came about in the development of rules for psionics in the third edition of the former. Dromites were probably developed because of the association with insectoid hive minds with psychic powers (see: tyranids, zerg etc.). Alas, it is clear that the writers did not really know where to go with the concept, and so dromites remain rather flat and uninteresting, which is a shame.
The only place, to my knowledge, where bug people in fantasy have been done well is in The Empire Trilogy, for the reasons that I discuss briefly here. Upon revisiting what I wrote, however, it is clear that the cho-ja’s strengths lie in the same places as the hivers and, name aside, the buggers.
The cho-ja are, effectively, an alien race living in an uneasy peace with the humans whose lands border and surround theirs. Tsurani society puts a great emphasis on subtle social interaction, a fact which is not lost on the cho-ja, but the insectoid creatures have entirely different priorities and, crucially, are incredibly hard for humans to read. Not only that, but they are individually much more dangerous than humans, possessing natural weapons, impressive stamina, and immense strength and swiftness which largely offset their bulk. Thus, the weapons – martial and social – which the Tsurani** use upon one another with gleeful abandon, are largely useless against the cho-ja. Although much about the cho-ja is withheld in order to maintain their mysterious narrative quality, their psychology and the reasons for why they have the peculiar relationship with apparently weaker neighbours is carefully and cleverly explored over the course of the series in a way which makes sense and allows for the resolution of narrative threads, but without ever making them seem less alien and dangerous.
Thus, the real strength that bug people can bring to fiction is two-fold: a sense of sinister mystery or even menace, joined to the opportunity to explore an entirely alien psychology, whether it be that of a eusocial society or some sort of hive mind.
Bug people are young, narratively speaking, lacking much of the pre-existing mythology which allowed Tolkien to give his orcs a leg-up, but they have a great deal to offer. It is time for us, with them, to leave the conceptual cocoon, and spread our great big chitinous wings of pretension, and explore some really interesting ideas.
*Canny and regular readers may have noticed that I render names for species and races without a majuscule first letter (orks rather than Orks, for example) despite this flying in the face of most creators’ wishes. This is because the tendency to do so in most media is a result of the misunderstanding of what constitutes a proper noun: we do not write Human, after all, but human, and I am nothing if not miserably consistent. The exception, of course, is the alien called Human in the Enders’ Game universe, which just underscores how important miserable consistency is.
**The majuscule belongs here, however, because Tsurani – like Briton or German – is a proper noun, referring as it does to the people of a nation.