Aliens are a classic trope dating back to the earliest days of science fiction, so we asked this year’s panelists this question:
Here’s what they said…
I always thought the alien in The Thing was great, because at its heart, it deviated from the ‘actors with bumps on their forehead’ sort of approach you get in movies so much. A parasite, with some intelligence (it builds that spaceship out of spare parts), it really is quite a fun stretch that you don’t see too much of. It never communicates (language is already such a gulf between us, let alone something truly alien). You get a strong sense out of that movie that you’ve encountered something truly alien.
To me, the best aliens are those that have characteristics which make them more than just “other” — that give them motivations and desires and codes of behavior. While the aliens in the Alien and Aliens films are fantastic, and terrifying, their simple “devour everything” characters make it impossible, to say nothing of unwise, to relate to them at all. I don’t love aliens who just act like human beings in strange bodies, either, although they’re fun to read. I like novels of character, and two-dimensional characters don’t draw me into a story.
Two books come to mind. One is long out of print, sadly, and was one of my favorite novels of the ’90s, a lovely book by Carolyn Ives Gilman called Halfway Human, which features a character who never was granted the gender specification of its society. The other is Elizabeth Moon’s wonderful Remnant Population, which not only features an elderly woman as its protagonist, but has some truly alien aliens whose needs and motivations it takes an old woman to figure out.
For me the best has to be H R Giger’s creation…no I refuse to misuse the word eponymous…from the film of that name. In my time I’ve ranted about what I consider to be art and generally have seen very little I could call both art and truly original (Maybe that’s because I hadn’t see enough art, and certainly my view is changing now with what I’m seeing produced by the CGI crowd.), but way back in years of yore when I opened up a copy of Omni, turned over a page and saw my first H R Giger picture, I felt I was seeing something truly original and bloody good. I’m not sure if I even knew, when I went to see Alien, that he was the designer of both alien and weird sets, but I certainly knew afterwards. At that point I felt that the curse of the rubber head had died. The alien in that film and its sequels was not something you could laugh at – aliens had just grown up.
As for aliens in SF books, in them there seems to be a general failure of imagination, perhaps because the roles the aliens fill are so often too human: aliens as oppressed natives, the subject of bigotry, dominant overlords, invaders etc. Whilst they are often described in loving detail, that which is alien about them only goes as deep as the bone (or substructural biology of choice) and very often doesn’t extend to the mind. There’s still some damned good ones out there – Niven’s puppeteers spring to mind, as do the manta in Piers Anthony’s Of Man and Manta – but generally that which is alien falls foul of story, which can be hampered when, to retain the essentially alien, the writer must not allow the reader to understand it.
The best aliens for me have been those that served to illuminate our history and our very humanity, whether they played the archetype of simple antagonist or as misunderstood “commentator” on human prejudice, insecurities, greed, heroism, compassion and honor. I can think of several aliens who have provided excellent examples of this: the Martians in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the aliens in Alien, and the “prawns” of Peter Jackson’s District 9. Each provided a platform for the exploration and exposition of human’s strengths and weaknesses. How we handle “the other” is a very compelling and illuminating topic. One worth revisiting. Author Brian Ott notes, “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” says Peter Nicholls, Australian scholar and critic. Ott reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters.
Two of my favorite aliens span the gamut: Spock in Star Trek and the “self-aware” planet Solaris of the Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Before you laugh me off the universe, hear me out. Both provide excellent commentary on the human condition and what it means to be human (the prime focus of science fiction). Although Spock is very human-like in appearance, he behaves quite differently in culture, physiology and philosophy. This makes him a less intimidating commentator on humanity’s strengths and foibles. The audience identifies with Spock and feels compassion for him while acknowledging that he is different and accepts his commentary.
Solaris, on the other hand, is the epitome of the “other”, a force and entity unrecognizable and unfathomable. Lem’s existentialist portrayal of “the other” –and of humanity–serves as excellent commentary on what is important to us and our identity. Unlike the familiar human-like figure of Spock, Solaris accomplishes this through arcane manipulation of our dreams and yearnings. We never understand its motivations or intelligence, yet we are drawn to its reflective force and mirror of our souls.
I think my all time favorite alien ever invented was in a Gary Shockley short story titled “The Coming of the Goonga” which the aliens fought humans by stroking plant stems that were a part of them, sort of. You get the idea from the title. It was in a Damon Knight edited anthology back in the 1980’s called The Clarion Awards.
But when push comes to shove, I think the rip-off of the Beserkers done by Stargate Atlantis called the Replicators are my favorite aliens. Spock-like in their lack of emotion, yet spider-like in look, they are just flat scary and I always enjoyed those episodes. As to what makes them better? I think the true alien feeling they had. Spiders made out of metal who ate you and couldn’t really be killed and had no emotions and fed on anything and everything. The Beserkers were great, but the Replicators just were flat scary and a chance to actually write a Stargate novel with Replicators would bring me back to media work after five years without a hesitation.
But I also like The Fuzzys by Piper. I have very wide alien tastes.
It has often been pointed out that in Star Trek, humans have the smallest heads in the universe. All other alien species, for some unknown reason, look just like humans but with something stuck onto their foreheads, ears, or noses. By the same token, in many fictional universes humans have the largest souls. All other alien species consist of humans with much of their culture and mentality hacked away, leaving only one dominant factor such as logic or warrior honor to define their entire character. The most simplistic aliens are merely animals, such as the title character in Alien, or are enigmatic nonentities like the ones in Close Encounters — neither of these is satisfying as an alien, because neither has any apparent inner life. Another form of unsatisfying alien is the “human with a cat head” in which the primary physical and behavioral characteristics of an Earth animal are grafted onto a being that is otherwise fundamentally human.
The aliens that are most interesting to me are those that are not just humans with stuff added on or hacked away, but creatures that are truly different both in their physiology and in their outlook — aliens who, in the words of John W. Campbell Jr, “think as well as a man or better than a man, but not like a man.” I’m particularly fond of aliens whose personalities arise from their unique environment and biology. Some of my favorites are Tweel from “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum (1934), perhaps the first truly alien alien; Coeurl from “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt (1939), an early alien viewpoint character who is sympathetic despite being the story’s antagonist; Barlennan from Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (1954), a classic alien hero who finds humans incomprehensible because their environment is so different from his; Nessus from Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970), a distinctly non-terrestrial life form whose psychology has been keenly worked out from the premise of an intelligent herd animal; and Uncle Vanya from “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (2008), who manages to be a distinct character despite a mentality and language about as alien as any I can recall.
My immediate and emphatic response to the question is, Octavia Butler’s Oankali in her Lilith’s Brood series. Butler managed to encapsulate ‘alien’ and ‘familiar’ at once, something incredibly hard to achieve. Mostly, writers tend to stray too close towards one or the other.
In film though, my first place will always be Giger’s Alien. The predatory, primordial ruthlessness is hard to best and I still find it convincingly terrifying. Farscape received a lot of criticism for its alien puppets but I thought this series showed imagination. Zhaan the blue, vegetable based ‘Delvian’ alien was a beautifully portrayed creature that balanced on a knife edge between pacifist and supreme aggressor.
My vote for best alien?
The Horta, from Classic Trek–hands down. How can you not love an alien made of silicon? And I don’t mean a computer. Before I ever saw that episode, “A Devil in the Dark,” I’d written a short story about a sentient, silicon-based asteroid. This is not a story you will ever see, as I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, in terms of storytelling. But when I later saw the Star Trek episode in syndicated reruns–I’d missed it somehow on its first showing–I felt vindicated! So, what’s good about the Horta besides the fact that it was a silicon-based lifeform in a universe where everyone seemed relentlessly determined to be carbon based? Well, how about its cryptic yet stirringly evocative communication:
No kill I
Was it promising not to kill? Or asking not to be killed?
Once Spock was in mind-meld with the beast, we heard quite a heart-breaking soliloquy on the children, the Hall of Ages, and the end of all things.
Now, the Horta was reportedly inspired by a rug, and the special effects weren’t much better than a rug–certainly a far cry from the wondrous creations of, say, Avatar. But for pure heart, and going where no one had gone before, at least on TV, the Horta takes the prize.
As a side benefit, it gave McCoy a chance to say, after fixing it with patching plaster, “By golly, Jim, I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!” — a line I quote to my family to this day, on those rare occasions when I come up with a particularly clever solution to a problem.
I’m sure there are more inventive and original aliens, and possibly cuddlier ones, that I just can’t think of right now. But never mind. Just give me a Horta.
I’m a huge comics fan, but I don’t actually love alien representation in most comics. In the medium where I think we could have the most imagination, the alien characters tend to be no more or less interesting than the Earth-based heroes and villains, and in many cases, the aliens are just humans with one funky difference. (Don’t start me on Galactus, either — so not my cuppa right there.)
Superman, however, is my favorite alien in the comics (not my favorite comics character, however — I appreciate Supes but my heart will always belong to Wolverine). He’s a superior creation some simply because of his longevity, but also because he’s someone you care about. He has a truly vested interest in Earth, it becomes his home, and he cares about it possibly more than most humans do. Sure, he’s fighting evil, but he’s doing it to protect his adopted home. He’s the quintessential alien story to me — the example of all that can be good within humanity, as reflected by someone who isn’t human.
Beyond that, I’m almost embarrassed that the one thing I keep coming back to while thinking of how to answer this question is the 1984 movie Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, as opposed to a book or short story, or a movie or TV show made more recently. It’s a John Carpenter film, which is probably why it’s stuck with me for over 25 years, because I tend to love his movies.
What I loved then and still love now about Starman is the way I could believe Jeff Bridges’ alien, why he’d come to visit, and why he had to leave. He had some “E.T.” qualities, but I forgave them because they made sense to me the way the script was written. (I happen to be one of the only people I know who loathed E.T. at first viewing and have never liked it since — it’s banned from my home, just like Showgirls, Batman and Robin and any slasher flick, ’cause I have standards.) It’s also almost unabashedly romantic, and while there’s been a lot of SF romance out there, for me, this was probably the first one I experienced where the romance was so integral to the plot that the movie wouldn’t have worked without it.
The alien character was real to me — the way he was written and acted made him a character I believed could actually be here on Earth. The morality in the movie never felt forced or preachy, just real and honest. Much as I love Star Trek and Star Wars (well, parts of both anyway), the moralizing in them can, did and does get ponderous and heavy-handed at times. I never felt that from Starman.
Then there are two other movies where I just love the way aliens are portrayed — Men in Black and Galaxy Quest. It’s no coincidence that they’re both comedies, but I really liked the way the aliens were created in each one. In both cases, the aliens aren’t that interested in Earth, we’re just there as part of a larger galactic existence. I find it difficult to believe we’re the only life out there, and I find it easy to believe we wouldn’t necessarily be the focus of the entire galaxy. It makes it easy for me to believe these aliens are real, even after the closing credits.
I’m going to use this mind meld to pay a little homage, here. I started my career writing with Larry Niven, which was an altogether magical experience. The man is brilliant. The Puppeteers, the Fithp, and the Kzinti all came from Larry’s pen (some with help from Jerry Pournelle, and later with additions by Ed Lerner). Every story I’ve ever published with aliens in it is a collaboration with Larry. On one level, militant cats and herds of alien elephant-like beings are hard to take seriously, but Larry is always able to make them do the real job of science fictional aliens: illustrate what it is to be human. The puppeteers show how important our caution is by having too-much of it, and the fithp show us the strengths of our noisy argumentative society. The Kzinti now have thirteen anthologies devoted to them. I’m pretty sure that no other alien species has done so well commercially here on Earth. The Kzin even have a Wikipedia page (and I don’t).
Of course, the mad success of the Kzinti warriors may really be because so many writers have cats…
My favorite aliens in fiction these days are C.J. Cherryh’s Atevi, from the Foreigner series. Her portrayal of their culture has a depth and strangeness that’s just lateral enough to the human experience to be fascinating, while familiar enough to still make sense.
The challenge of course is writing (or filming) aliens that strike that balance. The funny nose/funny forehead school of alienation never worked well for me, beyond a fairly narrow application of a story-telling trope. By the same token, if you go right off the charts with alien-ness, you get Cherryh’s Knnn, from the Alliance-Union books. Methane breathers who are so utterly alien that at most they serve as window dressing. There’s a challenge in balancing biology, culture and accessible story-telling which can be a tough corner to get round, and very much depends on the intent of the author in their particular piece.
In some ways, the most convincing aliens are the ones who are (almost) just like us. Specifically, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand Of Darkness, for example. We as readers think we’re relating to the characters until suddenly we’re not. James Tiptree, Jr. does a more severe version of this in “Your Hapoid Heart”, which is a brilliant fusion of biology and culture in alienation. The notable counterexample to this, of course, is Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, which for my money is hands-down the most brilliant and convincing portrayal of profoundly non-human alienation I have ever seen.
As for film and television, I am rarely as impressed with aliens there as I am in print literature. This is probably my observer bias as a writer, but also the practicalities of design, production and acting certainly come into play. Of recent note, the aliens in District 9 were very interesting to me, but that had more to do with their own internal culture than the process of alienation. Unfortunately I don’t really have any long-term favorites in film and television, the way I do in print
The absolute best in aliens written OR movie are the aliens in Frederick Brown’s Martians Go Home. They are the only aliens that do feel alien and inscrutable, even when they are speaking English and behaving like… well, little green men from Mars.
Of course the reason they feel that way is that they are human-aliens. I’ve always thought that if true aliens existed, we might not even know if they were sentient, much less be able to communicate. At any rate, not yet. But Martians that are generated from our own subconscious are perfect. They are, of course, ultimately, what any science fiction alien is, but in this case — not so much more openly — while pretending to be aliens that are part of the human mind. It’s like those Shakespeare plays in which the boy playing a girl played a girl playing a boy. I love the irony and think it adds depth and a mordant wit to a work that would otherwise be silly and fluffy.
I’m an 80’s kind of gal, but I’m going to go with the 1977 for my favorite aliens of all: those mysterious, ethereal visitors in Stephen Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. CETK doesn’t get as much glory as Star Wars, but it’s a film gem.
The top reasons why these aliens rock:
- They have a sense of humor. Darting around the countryside, buzzing gathered crowds, sneaking up on Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) at the railroad crossing — they’re just teenagers out to have a good time on a Saturday night.
- They’re mischievous little folks. Playing with Barry’s toys, planting mental images of giant landmarks into people’s heads, whisking people off for interstellar adventures before depositing them back on Earth — you just never know what they’re going to do next.
- They’re musical! 5 notes is all it takes to cross the galactic divide of communication.
- They like Christmas lights and birthday cakes. Look at that sparkly mothership. No sleek battlecruisers of gloom for these gals and guys.
- They don’t get pushed around. At the end, the U.S. government lines up a dozen grim-faced astronaut volunteers to send away. Never have you seen a less enthusiastic bunch. But they pick Roy! Doesn’t everyone want to be the one chosen by the aliens?
The CETK aliens have similar-looking cousins who show up at the end of the 2001 movie Artificial Intelligence, which was also directed by Spielberg. Those aliens look similar but are pretty joyless: they reactivate little robot Haley Joel Osment and give him a day’s worth of happiness with his human mom, then let her die and let him die, too. Talk about glum. Give me galactic adventure on the sparkly birthday cake with the little musical folks!