Are Your Aliens Alien Enough?

Posted: March 29, 2016 in science fiction, Writing

Are Your Aliens Alien Enough?

Alien: defined by Merrium-Webster as “not familiar or like othMessina_Straits_Chauliodus_sloanier things you have known: different from what you are used to.”

I love really alien aliens by which I mean ones that aren’t anthropomorphized (made to resemble us). I’ve seen too many bad aliens that seem like just another human in a gorilla costume. Examples:

Two-legged-ism (bilateral symmetry): why do most aliens we see on the screen follow the same bisymmetrical, two-legged, two-eared, two-eyed pattern as humans? I suppose it’s easier to outfit human actors with some special effects makeup and minimal costuming rather than create a radically divergent species requiring CGI, puppets, etc. Still, with today’s robotics technology, I hope we start to see some really radical aliens in popular media.

Aliens that like human stuff: Why does Jabba the Hutt like human-shaped women? How would that even work from an anatomical standpoint? Why do the Star Wars cantina musicians sound like a Klezmer-jazz ensemble? Why even use human audible sound at all? Why not light, magnetic fields, or odor plumes (smell)?

Earth Air Everywhere: Why do most aliens breath the same kind of air as us? I assume exoplanets must have a variety of atmospheres that support life (assuming life is out there, which I do). Earth’s atmosphere has changed over time from a methane- and carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere in which Earth’s first life developed to a hyperoxic (35% oxygen compared to our current 21%) atmosphere as oxygen-producing organisms proliferated. Even more diverse exoplanet atmospheres are almost certainly out there, and it’s not unreasonable that life may have evolved in some of them.

I love aliens that are so strange they really pull me into their world. Dune had an alien without a human body form that appeared briefly with its own atmosphere (Guild Navigators- ok, technically, they evolved from humans, but they look extremely alien). The science fiction novel Blindsight by Peter Watts did a great job portraying aliens that were so different the human characters struggled to understand them (the 9-legged organisms dubbed ‘Scramblers’).

This is what I want. An expansion of what life can be into strange territory.

In the novel series I’m working on, one thing I’m trying to account for is the vast amount of time that has transpired in our universe. The Milky Way Galaxy formed 13.2 billion years ago, while life on Earth started (we think) about 3.8 billion years ago, and our primate ancestors came onto the scene roughly 75 million years ago.  Do the math and that’s enough galactic history for life to have evolved again and again throughout the galaxy’s 100-400 billion stars.  Assuming a civilization begun early in our galactic history could survive for thousands, millions, or even billions of years, what would be the result? Would they look the same, similar, or be unrecognizable from their ancestors? Would they advance biologically through that time, becoming smarter, stronger, tougher? Culturally, would they become angels or devils or neither? How would they see and interact with lower life forms, even primitive sentient life forms that have only been around a few million years or so and had technology for a few hundred years or so (like modern humans)?

So how do you make a really alien alien anyway? Although there seems to be no shortage of “how to create an alien” articles on the web, I’ll add my own thoughts on the subject into the mix.

First, try other body plans, reproductive strategies, sensory modes: A good starting place is to look here on Earth. The Alien film franchise co-opted some rather gruesome insect reproduction (parasitoid wasps) with obvious success, but there are many more strange and fascinating animal or plant models out there that would make good aliens. Seahorse males brood their young, rather than the females. Clownfish can change their gender if needed. For my novel, The Farthest City, I modeled the alien Hexi after fish and rays that use electricity to sense prey and defend themselves. The Hexi use electricity to communicate.

Second, what are some likely exoplanet environments and how would life adapt to surviving and evolving in them? In my pending novel series, one alien species has evolved on a landscape full of highly-corrosive, fluid-filled pools.  Humans call them Bone Walkers.

Third, go beyond the superficial. There are some really good alien templates out there. I’ve mashed up several of those with some additional variables of my own to help me create more authentic aliens. The possibilities are endless, and that’s part of the fun. The idea is to add some depth for the species you’re creating and some alien strangeness.

So, what are your favorite aliens and why? What are your pet peeves about aliens depicted in books/film?



image credit: Chauliodus sloani abissal fish arriving in surface waters in the Straits of Messina (permission of prof. Francesco Costa). [].–Edd48 16:44, 8 September 2006 (UTC). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

  1. dps337 says:

    Thanks Sherry- I wanted to use the chines to explore how intelligent machines might diverge from their human creators. I’m glad that came through in the novel. And thanks also for the great review and tweets!


  2. SherryH says:

    They weren’t biological aliens, but I think the Chines in _The Farthest City_ were an excellent example of an “alien” race/culture. The different sizes and configurations – bipedal definitely wasn’t *their* norm! – the construction of their cities, the social norms and hierarchies they’d developed, even their art contributed to a feeling that they weren’t human, or even human-like, but were a society of intelligent individuals.

    (Review is *finally* up on Amazon, btw – sorry to have taken so long!)


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