Here’s a new list of Alien Aspects in addition to the 13 Aspects About Aliens You Shouldn’t Ignore from earlier this year. I’ve promised Peter Cawdron I’d write one, so here you have it. Several extraterrestrial creatures were (un)intentionally killed in the creation of this post, and a small inhabited planet was destroyed. The course of time is now forever altered … I hope you’re happy, Peter. I hope you can sleep at night.
So — aliens, my favorite subject! They’re one of the best tools a science-fiction writer has, as they can offer both an interesting contrast and a warped magnifying glass, allowing us to see the homo sapiens from a different perspective. So feast your mind on extraterrestrial speculation. Come at me, humans!
1. Aliens are people too
Beyond saying that you should make aliens interesting, I say you should also make aliens feel real to the reader. Especially in the case of intelligent aliens, giving them full rights as people is a must.
Every single feature that is “not like a person” needs to be explained or at least shown to be intentional. Say… if the Greys landed on Earth and they acted like emotionless robots who neither eat nor sleep, you should explain why; or if humans landed on an alien planet and the local dominant species has technology but no complex society, you’d better come with a great explanation, and so on. Show us that aliens are people too, and we will be ready to feel something for them. This is doable even if they don’t have much in common with humans, either biologically or psychologically, as long as–
2. Aliens mean something to the characters
Having aliens in a story solely to shock or stun the reader, is like having cheap CGI take central stage in a movie. It wows momentarily, but leaves the audience with a bitter aftertaste of pointlessness (think of the corny 3D gunfights in the otherwise excruciatingly meaningless Resident Evil: Afterlife).
I’ve touched on this subject in a comment to a post by author Sheron Wood McCartha, and what I’m basically sayin’ is that what makes aliens work and makes them feel real in a story, is not so much their resemblance to humans but their meaning to them, and what behavior and understanding they stimulate in them.
However much we like to think that we love our loved ones unconditionally, that is never true. We love them for what they represent to us, for what we see in them, for who we believe them to be. If we didn’t “discriminate” this way, we’d love everybody on the planet whose pheromones we could smell, and not just our “special someones”. This is also the reason we humans are able to get attached to animals, places, and objects: we infuse them with meaning, and they become representations of something we care about and consider valuable or indispensable.
And it works the same way with aliens. You can sulk all you want for the perceived death of romance in these statements, but as a writer you need to understand how to make the reader care for things he can’t touch, and this is the way to do it—have these things carry meaning.
Conversely, aliens will have feelings for humans depending on what we represent to them, what meaning we carry in their perception.
3. Aliens are not stand-ins
Alien presence must be justified in a story, there’s no going around it. If you can replace an alien with a human from another culture, you should do it, because it means the poor Martian’s only there as a silly prop.
I define “science-fiction” as fiction in which science cannot be replaced by anything else without fundamentally altering the story’s meaning, and I define “aliens” as extraterrestrial creatures which cannot be replaced by humans or animals without losing something of fundamental importance to the story.
4. The evolution of life is guided by efficiency
Or put more simply, don’t give aliens extra appendages or physical features that serve no purpose, and served no purpose in their evolutionary path either. Even Cthulhu must’ve needed his tentacles for something.
And I’m looking at the Avatar makers here—a movie with some of the WORST worldbuilding mistakes I have ever encountered—who gave all large beasts on a low-gravity world 6 powerful, muscle-packed limbs to… sustain their flimsy weight? Come on! Oh, sorry, except for the Na’Vi of course, who have 4 limbs and and don’t seem to have any genetic material in common with the other mammals on that planet. But maybe the mammals on Pandora are a false lead altogether, and the Na’Vi are just an oversized species of tree lice.
5. If you have human vs. alien violence, don’t try to sugarcoat it. Have some balls.
If we visit an alien planet, we’re either guests or invaders, and we’re certainly gonna be treated as such. How are guests treated? With caution and civility, but only until they get on the host’s nerves. How do we deal with guests who disrespect our efforts and our civility? That’s right. We kick their ignorant asses out! Who are they to step into the privacy of our homes and tell us what to do?
And if we’re invading an alien planet to take whatever the hell we fancy at that time, you bet they will do all they can to stop us. And there will be nothing to justify our violence against their natural right to defend themselves. Even if we’re on the brink of extinction and they have the only thing that could save us, trying to somehow morally justify our violation of their home reeks of cheap, cheap self-righteousness and just generally discredits the writer.
Violence is violence, it has no moral justification, only an evolutionary explanation that shows violence always existed, and will continue to exist because it does what it’s intended to do—resolve conflicts of interest in the fastest way possible.
6. Aliens won’t care about our morality or ethics
And they will, in effect of having different morals, also have a different perception of violence, cruelty, honesty and fairness. Keep this in mind, and don’t have the inhabitants of a distant star system display Western morality without explaining the similarity in a plausible way.
7. Highly advanced alien technology will look like magic
Mr. Clarke was a very smart man.
If you could go back in time even one measly century, and take your iPad and a Leap with you — what do you think people will think of them? And these were things we invented and developed to fulfill our own needs and desires. What about pieces of technology alien beings invent in a society that’s millennia ahead of ours to fulfill needs and desires we don’t share?
8. Technologically superior aliens would have AIs
This is something I’ve always wondered about. If AIs are inevitable in the exponential evolution of technology in an intelligent species, then why don’t superior aliens have AIs? Why don’t they send androids and intelligent robots down to Earth, instead of coming down themselves, clad in space suits we can damage? Why don’t they send intelligent unmanned ships and military drones into combat or dangerous missions, while they watch on a screen from the comfort of a different solar system, instead of risking their own lives?
There have been too few works of science-fiction dealing with alien AIs (the only one coming to mind is Iain M. Banks’ Culture series). There should definitely be more!
9. Alien life doesn’t necessarily look like life
Our only term of comparison is life on Earth. This fact is overlooked so easily by even otherwise highly scientific people, it sometimes makes me wonder if our current ways to search for life are in fact hindering us in finding it. Given that the natural circumstances of our planet are very rare in space, and the probability that there is other life out there is high in relation to the number of star systems and planets, we’re most likely genetic rarities, or freaks of nature.
The likelihood that life will seek to be efficient and versatile is high, and there is a high probability that most life in our galaxy is carbon, boron or silicon based. But how it will look and act like depends solely on its environment. And so far, all environments we’ve discovered are not like Earth and would thus steer life on an evolutionary path that is very different that on Earth.
Many if not most alien species will be biologically different from us. Who says we’ll recognize them as “alive” at all? What if the rings around an alien planet are individual, conscious entities? Unless they want to make themselves known to us for some reason, we’ll not be able to recognize them as sentient because we only expect to encounter life that has something in common with the one we know from home. And what if we encounter some highly intelligent viruses out there? Will we even be able to distinguish their attempt at communication from an infectious alien disease we must fight against?
10. Alien societies will have own beliefs, if only as part of their history
Religion developed as a way to explain phenomena before there was science, and to assure individuals of the meaning of their existence. It is this need to define self-worth by external criteria, which is part of the human being, that led to the development of religion. Aliens will have experienced a somewhat similar development in the pre-scientific era of their societies, and it will play a role in their history, if not their present. So even for atheist writers such as myself, ignoring religion in the creation of an alien species is negligent (especially if that species is otherwise presented in detail), and basically similar to ignoring the effects of technological development on the way a species defines itself.
11. Communication happens on many channels
We communicate with words and images, combinations of sounds or shapes that carry meanings we convened upon and recognize. Most birds communicate only with sounds, some with additional body language. Some species of marine creatures communicate only with light signals. Most insects communicate with chemical cocktails. Some insects, however, communicate by percussion, hitting the ground with their bodies in a certain pattern, akin to a Morse code, or by “rocking their boats” i.e. playing the strings of their webs like a musical instrument. In fact, insect communication types are the vastest in variety and awesomeness that our planet has to offer.
It is not a given that all intelligent species will develop language the same way we have, by using combinations of sounds or images to form words and symbols. Maybe they’ve always used pheromones… or vibration carried by solid matter. Think of how their technology would be tailored to accommodate that, and how we could establish communication with them. Certainly not by emailing them the Oxford dictionary — or can you learn Chinese solely by reading a dictionary written entirely in Chinese? Most likely our body language will differ greatly from theirs as well, so waving at them and shaking hands on first contact is probably a very bad idea.
12. Aliens to the rescue
Don’t put an alien species into a story only to solve a problem of humanity. This includes aliens who come to give us the cure for cancer and only ask for water in return; aliens who teach us how to get unlimited energy and only ask for… willing females in return; or worst of all, aliens who happen to have a solution to our biggest problem but it’s unimportant to them and they just give it to us because they’re such nice guys and just want the love and respect of Mighty
White Man. Puh-lease.
It doesn’t matter how probable you calculate this to be in reality, in fiction any significant alien intervention in human matters had better serve a damn good purpose, otherwise it’s just bad worldbuilding or a cheap plot gimmick.
13. In a pluricultural future, aliens will have a deep impact on our daily lives
Even if we don’t live on the same planet or space-station, in a future where humans have successfully established relationships with alien species of any kind, even the little details of a human’s daily life will be profoundly affected.
The clothes we wear will have to respect the aliens’ tastes, or at least the creations of our fashion industry will be greatly impacted by “alien couture”. The things we find in grocery stores or food-generators will be influenced by alien tastes, and delicacies will be even more freakish than they are now. The books we read will have very different themes and the music we listen to will be tailored as to not offend or even damage alien senses. And just think of the many awesome new ways in which alien technology will change ours!