MIND MELD: The Best Aliens in Science Fiction
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week, we sent our distinguished panlists this question:
Here is how they responded…
My preference for great aliens is for the really unknowable ones. I like the ones with totally crazy physiology and motives so alien that we find them utterly unknowable. Just giving a human some head ridges and having them practice a form of Buddhism with a funny name doesn’t do it for me. That’s not alien. It’s deeply human. With head ridges.
Right now, I’m partial to the aliens in Octavia’s Butler’s Adulthood Rights, which is part of her Xenogenesis series. The book is about these tentacled, telepathic aliens who reproduce by merging themselves with other species. There are four or five parents involved, and the way they interact with the world – touch it and taste it and understand it – is very different from our own. Writing from a purely alien POV is hard, and not a lot of writers can pull it off. But Butler brings us into the POV of one of the alien hybrids – a mix of human and alien genes – to help make the aliens more accessible. The merging of the two ways of seeing the world, and how that character negotiates these different impulses, go a long way toward helping us understand his “other” half.
This question is difficult for me to answer because I think one of the strengths of good science fiction is to show us ourselves through the eyes of an alien species. If the aliens are enough like us, it allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of another. However, if they are so different from ourselves that we can’t imagine their perspective at all, we get a new and interesting culture to explore.
For instance, Heinlein accomplishes both these views in Stranger in a Strange Land. Michael Valentine is a human who has been raised by Martians on their native planet. He’s a grown man by the time he comes to Earth, and as a result he has to learn about human society – it’s taboos, its religion, and culture – from scratch. He’s completely innocent of the knowledge of good and evil – like Adam in Genesis – and as such he breaks many taboos while retaining that innocence. Throughout the story’s progression, he slowly reveals things about Martian society, but their perspective is so completely alien that its hard to empathize with them. Michael Valentine is the reader’s bridge between the two worlds.
Another example would be the way Harry Harrison portrays alien life in his Death World and Planet of the Damned novels. In both instances, survival depends on being able to understand the planet’s alien life in order to survive. Alien plants and animals react to the the actions of the humans, whose lack of understanding brings them harder and harder challenges. Survival must be accomplished with knowledge and understanding rather than brute strength, though there is plenty of violence throughout the stories.
So, to answer your question, I think we need to portray both kinds of aliens in science fiction. We have plenty of fiction and movies that portray aliens as being more or less similar to ourselves (think Star Trek), but I’d personally like to see more truly alien worlds – ones where we can’t imagine what they think of us, because we can’t see the world the same way they do. I’d like something that challenges our understanding and forces us to think outside the box.
One thing we know for sure about any aliens with whom we may someday come into contact – they will be utterly alien. They will almost certainly not resemble humanity in any way – they will look different, act different and, if they are intelligent, they will almost certainly think in ways that will make them seen inscrutable.
As fun as aliens from Star Trek and Star Wars may be, they are all too human. True, as special effects have progressed, they look less like people wearing makeup, but they still think and act like humans. They seem to be motivated by money and power, and they react predictably in their dealings with humans and each other. Babylon 5 had some of the best aliens, at least at first – who wasn’t in awe of the Vorlons when they were the mysterious alien race that seemed to pay no heed to the actions of the rest of the species of the galaxy?
Ridley Scott’s original Alien came just about as close as I can imagine to depicting what a first encounter gone awry might be like. The creature was so unlike anything humans were prepared to meet that it made each minute of the movie seem suspenseful as we wondered not just who was going to die next, but what the alien was going to do next.
What makes a good alien often depends on the author’s overall intention. To my mind, sentient aliens should be mysterious to some degree (the same goes for alien flora and fauna). One complaint leveled at some SF writers is that their aliens are little more than humans-in-rubber-suits, that their behaviour appears too idiosyncratically human to plausibly be the members of a species from another world, which would be at the current end point of its own evolutionary course and socio-cultural history. For some writers, though, that kind of detailed conceptual underpinning is part of the fascination and the motivation for creating an alien species.
Other writers may have a different goal in mind, a different point to make. But most SF writers working in the space opera mode will at one time or another be confronted by the question, ‘How alien should my aliens be?’ Make them too human-like they risk being seen merely as stand-ins for some faction or grouping from contemporary society: make them too alien, too enigmatic, and you risk mystifying the reader to the point where it suppresses the pleasure of reading (unless, of course, the sheer lyrical power of the prose is the reader’s main pleasure, rather than the explanation of mysteries).
My favourite humanesque aliens include the Skroderiders and the Tines from Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon The Deep, and the Tymbrimi and the Thennanin from Brin’s Uplift War sequence. For enigmatic aliens I cannot forget the Moties from Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye, or the insectoid intelligence from Bruce Sterling’s short story, “Swarm”.
I think there are really two kinds of aliens — the kind we’d like to meet, and the kind we wouldn’t. Within the kind we’d like to meet are the helpful aliens, the smarter but more caring aliens, the ‘just like us’ aliens, and the aliens that are weaker than us. Within the kind we’d like to avoid are the scary aliens, the conquering aliens, the smarter than us and views us as cattle aliens, and the truly ‘we can’t understand them at all’ aliens.
There’s a lot of debate around whether or not we have yet to create a ‘real’ alien, one that humans can’t understand. Frankly, if we humans can’t understand it at all, it’s going to be hard to write about it, because the author has to understand their characters, and if the aliens are so alien that they’re not understandable…well, you can see the paradox forming.
To me, though, coming up with a ‘real’ alien misses the point. Movies, TV shows, literature, none of these are creating aliens to be able to later on prove their existence scientifically. We’re creating them to entertain, to teach, to make people think.
Personally, while I write about aliens all the time, and most of my aliens fall under the ‘we’d like to meet them’ banner, in real life I fall more on the Stephen Hawking side of the house — I agree that whenever we really meet real aliens, it’s likely we’re going to be in real trouble, because they won’t be coming to offer entry into the Galactic Union.
So, for me, a good depiction of an alien depends on what you, the creator, are trying to show, what emotions and thoughts you’re trying to create in those who watch or read or look at what you’ve presented. And, honestly, if what you created wasn’t engaging in some way, then I think you’ve failed, because you can’t get your point across if no one’s reading or watching. By that measure, as long as the alien-based effort was engaging in some way, I call it a good depiction of an alien. (I’m easy that way.)
Star Trek did a good job of showing us what different aliens might look like and act like as humans met and interacted with them. Star Wars showed us a galaxy filled with different life forms that interacted with each other much like people from different countries do on Earth. Both of these are great examples of the aliens we’d like to meet, because they all ultimately have some kind of human emotions or motivations we can relate to.
In the Alien movie series, at least in the first three, the aliens are nothing like us at all. They view humans as something to lay eggs in, something to destroy when we get in their way, but nothing else. However, there are examples of these kinds of creatures in nature on Earth. Not as big and scary (to us, anyway), but they’re there. In the Predator movies, again, at least the early ones, humans are viewed as big game. Predator is driven by more human motivations than Alien, but they’re aliens we don’t really want to meet. But we can still look at them and find a human motivation or an aspect of them that’s relatable. And Pitch Black, where the aliens are both terrifying and not at all like humans, may be one of the better depictions of aliens, at least on the ‘we don’t want to meet them’ side. However, you can still assign some kinds of human or at least animal motivations to the aliens.
Literature is filled with great examples of aliens. My feeling is that you have but to pick up any SF piece that deals with non-humans and you’ve got someone’s good example of how to do an alien. But some who did and do them well include Asimov, Silverberg, Heinlein, Burroughs, Simak, Lichtenberg, Sinclair, McMaster Bujold…there are more, many, many more. And, insofar as we can’t prove or disprove any of them, they’re all good, all interesting in their own ways.
My personal favorites for depictions of aliens are Galaxy Quest and the Men In Black series from the movie side of the house, Green Lantern animated series on TV, and Douglas Adams for literature. I like these best because they’re funny and because, ultimately, they show the huge number of varied aliens to indeed be just like us, both good and bad, only with some key differences in physiology and technology. But mostly I like them because they’re fun and funny and I enjoy laughing a lot more than I enjoy being scared.
The first aliens I remember being fascinated by were the Ixchel on the colorless planet in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Their whole world lacked color, and they lacked eyes–that was so foreign to me as a child, it really made me think about what it might be like to exist in a completely different environment, with different primary senses. They were minor supporting characters, but they had seized my imagination. I reread their chapter over and over.
Another group of aliens that really struck me were the ranids in Elizabeth Bear’s Undertow. The parts of the book that stuck with me most strongly were the ones from the alien Gourami’s point of view. I thought Bear’s treatment of the ranids was masterful: from the vivid and visceral description of life in the tepid swamps, their complex life cycle and relationships, and the way that their interpretation of events differed from the humans in the story, her aliens left an impression on me.
A particularly memorable and creepy treatment of aliens is An Owomoyela’s “All That Touches the Air“. There is nothing sympathetic about the Vosth. An uneasy agreement between the humans and the Vosth is all that prevents the parasitic species from taking over human bodies and minds and using them like puppets. Owomoyela’s protagonist is horrified by the possibility, and frankly so was I.
And on a lighter note, I’m not sure any alien has delighted me as much as Douglas Adams’s adorable sentient mattresses of Squornshellous Zeta, though they do add an extra layer of guilt to taking a nap!
I was fortunate that my teen years were populated by magnificent aliens. Childhood doses of Space Ghost villains and Colorforms’ Outer Space Men toys had prepared me well, and Star Trek, Space: 1999 and Star Wars deftly pried open my headspace to the notion of imaginatively crafted lifeforms. But even then I realized there had to be more depth to the alien mind then awkwardly-manufactured phrases like “I will destroy you in two of your Earth minutes!” It was the Heechee, Moties, and Gentle Giants of Ganymede that first illuminated what was possible. These were beings that humans had no common ground with, and where the true conflict in the story came down to comprehension. Shortly thereafter came Angus McKie’s So Beautiful So Dangerous, and The Incal by Moebius and Jodorowsky, and suddenly alien life was a weird and delicious commodity. The final blow to my preconceptions of possible alien biology and sociology came on page 75 of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, where I learned about the Polarians from Piers Anthony’s Cluster series. These waxy slugs rolled around on leathery balls, which they jettisoned as part of their tender mating ritual. My bi-pedal symmetrical carbon-based self reeled at how alien an alien could be, and considered itself humbly schooled.
What makes a good depiction of aliens? That depends on the goal of your story. As much as I scorn the lazy, unthinking man’s bromide “SF is about what it means to be human,” there’s much to be said for aliens created as counterpoints to Homo Sapiens. Creatures as varied as Mork, the Zanti Misfits, and the Mysterons all served to illustrate (in very broad strokes) the eccentric nature of human tendencies and shortcomings. Klaatu and the Overlords were heavy-handed signifiers of human potential. This “hold a mirror up” technique has the benefit of being almost infinitely scalable. Consider The Twilight Zone, where most alien species are hyperbolic proxies for fear, paranoia, communism, and prejudice. It is a sizable leap in magnitude from the bleakness of the Cold War to the indecipherable enigmas of the Old Ones, Solaris, and the more advanced races from the Perry Rhodan universe, who remind us how small and (c’mon, say it along with me now) insignificant we are in the face of a vast and unsympathetic cosmos.
Once you get past this symbolic realm of “the other,” you find soundly-built aliens play just as well in less-contrived settings. When compared to classic allegorical SF, the themes of Space Opera and interplanetary Hard SF can be downright naturalistic, and require aliens with substance. Niven’s Known Space and Brin’s Uplift are the usual default choices for milieus where multiple spacefaring species take practical measures to coexist, so I’ll add Kristine Katherine Rusch’s Retrieval Artist and Charles Sheffield’s Inheritance series. In these stories the aliens resemble us in that they are just trying to get by, make a living, and achieve progress. Their philosophies and methodologies are wildly dissimilar to ours, and there is often open hostility, but their goals all point to roughly the same direction. The sociological aspect of this gets a lot of play in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis (or Lilith’s Brood), one of the finer series about alien interaction. I’ll also mention the insectoid Naxid from Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall series, who make war with other races out of fear of losing their status. In these examples individual and species-wide motivations become nuanced, and the authors make their creations relatable.
Compare and contrast that with beings like MorningLightMountain from Hamilton’s Commonwealth, the Blight from Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, or the Mechs from Benford’s Galactic Center series, who (to the credit of their authors) have totally logical and self-sustaining reasons for the wholesale elimination of the human race (and anyone else nearby). For a near-perfect take on such implacable ethos at work, read Peter Watts’ “The Things,” which retells John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” from the POV of the shapeshifting alien who wants only to return to the glorious post-physical culture of the greater Galaxy, and “save” humanity along the way. You actually feel the creature’s horror as it realizes how humans function.
The Mechs lead me to a favorite subject of mine ever since Dr. Morbius showed the crew of C57-D the works of the Krell: learning the nature of aliens from their technology. I still consider Pohl the master of this with the Gateway series, but in recent decades this concept has evolved. Most fascinating to me is the alien automated system, the idea of programs and mechanisms running in the background of the cosmos carrying out tasks over eons. Examples include Festival from Stross’ Singularity Sky, the Hypotheticals from the Spin trilogy, and the Inhibitors from Reynolds Revelation Space. Hell, I’ll throw in the Monoliths from 2001 as well. This concept is a great tool for portraying the mind-numbing distance between us and forward-thinking intellects with galaxy-sized ambitions.
I also have to salute the clever method of depicting alien nature via their rituals. Klingons are a good example, but Farscape and Babylon 5 both made extensive use of this trick, my favorite being the Drazi. I paid homage to this trope in my story “Eating at Joe’s“.
In the end, the bizarre entities visited upon my formative years still influence my tastes. I find aliens work best when communication and shared frame-of-reference are nigh-impossible. My favorite examples are Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee and Photino Birds, the inscrutable smiley-faced abductors from Moonshadow by J. M. DeMatteis and Jon J. Muth, the zookeeping Lactrans from the animated Star Trek episode “Eye of the Beholder”, Mors the Qys from Miracleman, the Weeping Angels (who feed on potential), and the Pattern Jugglers (who feed on biotechnical data).
I love the mind-play of Big Smart Objects like Rorschach from Peter Watts’ Blindsight, Tin Man from Star Trek TNG, and the biomechanical “mother” from Swamp Thing #60 “Loving the Alien” (when comics were 75 cents!). I also have a soft spot for the wholly non-physical, such as the sentient mathematical equation Dkrtzy RRR from Green Lantern, and the Hoovooloo, the hyperintelligent shade of blue from Hitchhiker’s Guide. Yes, these can be more conceptual window-dressing than realized characters, but they force the mind to take a counterintuitive step sideways in order to grasp the possibilities of alien nature.
Which, when you get down to it, is the best reason to write aliens in the first place.
What makes for a good depiction of aliens in science fiction? I know the reasonable response is to identify the aliens who least resemble humans as the best depictions, and to criticize as worst the “aliens with funny noses”–those fictional extraterrestrials who have, say, three nostrils, but few other dissimilarities to humanity. However, I grew up reading that swashbuckling subgenre of SF known as the interplanetary romance, so I retain a certain fondness for an even less dissimilar style of alien: the human non-Earthling.
This style of alien has lost popularity over the decades, in part because the characterizations are often cardboard, offering minimal insight to the reader. However, the better examples of human non-Earthlings–such as those found in the interplanetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, or several episodes of Star Trek–are developed with more psychological complexity. This means that, when these humanoids vary from us, they do so in ways that let us see ourselves in a new and different light. The most famous example is probably the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” which limns the folly of racism by locking the black-and-white humanoids of Ariannus in apocalyptic conflict with the white-and-black humanoids of Ariannus.
Alien characters fall along a spectrum, from the strongly similar to the radically unfathomable. Near the anthropocentric or “knowable” end of the spectrum, we find Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, about the divergent descendants of an extrasolar race which colonized numerous planets (including Earth) millennia ago, then collapsed. The divergent races’ common origin allows Le Guin to examine her extraterrestrial characters in uncommon depth, while the diversity of their civilizations and biologies allows her to illuminate human behaviors from unique angles.
As we move toward the other end of the spectrum, we encounter increasingly unknowable aliens. The extraterrestrials inspired by non-human Earth species–such as the cat-like Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar and Kzinti of Larry Niven’s Known Space, or the parasite-inspired aliens of The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein, and The Host by Stephenie Meyer–have significant biological and behavioral differences from us, yet may still be explored with a revealing amount of depth. The implacable destroyers of the Alien movies and H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds act from drives or motives we cannot plumb, but only guess at–yet their actions still have informative analogues in our own behaviors. The bizarre and wonderful pond in Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s novel Heaven is more a reflection of what we are not than of what we are, and is inevitably too much the Other to be delved into with a Le Guinian–or even a Burroughsian–level of complexity. And, at the farthest end of the spectrum, the ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris is the ultimate unknowable Other. So different from us that it can’t even be developed as a character in its own right, the planet-spanning alien defeats all human attempts at understanding, leaving us to gaze at a mirror which reflects only our own weaknesses, limitations, and failures.
Given our persistent inability to determine whether even fellow Earth species, like dolphins and nonhuman primates, possess human-level intelligence, Solaris may prove more predictive of human-extraterrestrial encounters than any other work of science fiction. Surely, it is fiction’s finest depiction of the extraterrestrial Other. Nonetheless, when I’m reading or viewing SF, I favor Others who are rather less inscrutable. I revisit Burroughs’s interplanetary romances or the Alien movies more often than Lem’s Solaris, because even the films’ relentlessly destructive monstrosities, or The Chessmen of Mars‘s bizarrely symbiotic Kaldanes and Rykors, are characters ultimately more consonant with the human heart than an ocean.
I think there are two questions hiding in there. There’s the question of what makes an alien depiction realistic or plausible, and then the
entirely different question of makes an alien depiction fun or interesting.
I think it’s an important distinction, because we’ve seen what interacting and communicating with alien intelligences is like. We live with some very intelligent and communication capable creatures on our very own planet, and we’ve been trying to dialog with them for years. Dolphins share most of our DNA, live on the same world as we do, and have almost all of the same biological requirements. They are clearly capable of abstract thought and complex communication. And our level of communication with them is utterly rudimentary. Finding common ground, meaningful symbols, and methods for communicating complex ideas are still in the works, but they are slow going.
Now that those attempts at communication and take away all the commonality. Take away the DNA similarities, the biological similarities, and even having a planet in common. How much more complex does the problem become? It seems almost insurmountable.
Fun, now, that we can do. Alien was an amazing film but it wasn’t because it deeply explored the concept of alien life. The story doesn’t change much if the threatening creature is a kodiak bear. The alien is a scary monster, but not much else. I thought the recent War of the Worlds remake wasn’t a particularly good movie, but the one thing it did is make its aliens and their motivations difficult to discern. I appreciated that about it. No lame, “they came for our water” justifications that fall apart with even a moment’s thought. Sadly, most of the aliens in movies are transparent stand ins for human fears. That doesn’t make the movies bad, but it also doesn’t make for particularly interesting aliens.
In prose, a number of writers have been able to successfully meld fun and truly alien. China Mieville’s Embassytown is a powerful novel that tells a good story while still keeping the aliens truly alien. In older fiction, Joe Haldeman’s Forever War gives us a frightening hive mind that is inexplicable enough to continue a war neither side wants for thousands of years. Vernor Vinge has been creating weird but empathetic aliens long enough to populate his own small galaxy. Scott Card’s novel Xenocide brought the Descolada, a possibly sentient viral life form, and the term ‘Varelse’ to describe aliens with which no meaningful communication is even possible.
I’m reading Jack Vance’s Dragon Masters right now. The aliens are basically reptilian versions of us. But boy is the book fun.
Aliens in science fiction have always been more about allegory and metaphor than they are an attempt to actually predict what alien life might actually be like. The most memorable SF aliens are the ones that reveal something about us.
That having been said, probably my favorite science fiction alien is the eponymous sentient planet from Stanislaw Lem’s classic Solaris. In that case Lem presents a truly alien alien, and makes what I think is an extremely valid point: When we do meet another sentience out there in the wide universe, chances are we won’t hardly be able to identify it, let alone communicate with it. After all, we’ve never managed to speak to whales and dolphins, and only in the past year have scientists identified arsenic-based life here on earth.
Even then, Lem’s Solaris did function as a metaphor, a microscope into the insecurities of the human researchers. The aliens that tend to resonate with people fill a niche not just in the narrative but in the social or even political makeup of the cast of characters. For instance, Spock represents the coldly logical side of Captain Kirk, while Dr. McCoy occupies the opposite end of the spectrum and acts as Kirk’s emotional conscience. Captain Kirk, the character we’re intended to identify with, has to learn to balance both ends of that spectrum in order to be not just the ultimate starship captain, but the ultimate man, in general.
Even those aliens that are more like monsters, like the unnamed alien in the movie Alien, shine a light on what it means to be human. As a species we’ve become the apex predator in every environment on Earth. One of the scariest things we can consider is a circumstance in which that balance is tipped and we go from being the hunter to the hunted. In a way, from the point of view of Ripley, we get to feel what it’s like to be a deer, relentlessly pursued by a ravenous monster we can’t hope to defeat—and even to be used as a sort of livestock, our rights, our lives, our very humanity, utterly ignored so we can be used as surrogate wombs for their young.
I happen to be of the opinion that the universe around us is teeming with life, but like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, I think we’ll have even more trouble understanding our celestial neighbors than we do the other sentient beings that share our homeworld. Thankfully, science fiction writers won’t be held accountable for solving that problem when it’s eventually forced on the human race. We’ll be working on creating aliens of our own that tell us something about ourselves.
There are two aspects to the creation of a good depiction of aliens in science fiction, one of which is more important in visual science fiction (art, television, and movies) than it is in literary science fiction.
In writing science fiction, an author can describe anything she wants to and it is up to the reader to create a mental image of the alien in their mind, the strangeness of the creature’s visual form is only limited by the joint imagination of creator and the reader. Artists can depict any sort of aliens they want, as long as their abilities can keep up with their imagination. In television and film, the image of the creature is limited by the abilities of either the costume designer or, more recently, the computer animators.
An example of these limitations is, of course, the aliens which featured in classic episodes of Star Trek or Doctor Who. Most of their aliens appeared as people in rubber masks, although occasionally an experiment would produce the Daleks or creatures which were made out of light and pulsating colors. One of the aliens which clearly suffered from this limitation were the Menoptera, featured in the first Doctor Who serial “The Web Planet.” Despite the writer’s ability with the story, these aliens come across as looking no more realistic than John Belushi wearing his killer bee costume on Saturday Night Live. Conversely, by the time Doctor Who introduced the Vespiform in the episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” computer generated imagery had advanced to the point of creating a realistic creature which could meet the needs of the aliens described in the writer’s imagination.
Similarly, even in the short period from 1977 to 1984, Star Wars was able to move from the humans in latex prosthesis of the Mos Eisley Cantina to the puppetry of Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi, eventually introducing the computer generated aliens of the prequel trilogy such as the Kaminoans or the Geonosians (and compare the latter to the Menoptera or Vespiform).
With the use of first puppets and then computer animation, science fiction has opened up a new expanse of aliens, which will continue to advance as the computer technology improves. James Cameron’s Pandorans are just the latest line of creatures to be introduced which are physically alien to terrestrial creatures, but which are given a realistic appearance on screen.
The other aspect of writing aliens, which is important in both visual and literary science fiction, harkens back to John W. Campbell, Jr.’s challenge: “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.” Because literary science fiction does not include the visual aspect, the depiction of alien thought and activity becomes more important in these areas.
Truly alien thought processes are evident throughout science fiction. The titular creature in the movie Alien is ascribed motivation, but it is clear from watching the film that those motivations are projections of the humans who are trying to make sense of what the alien is doing. This can be contrasted by many of the aliens who appeared in the original Star Trek universe who are motivated by all too human thought processes no matter what color makeup was spread over their features or the prosthesis on their faces. Even the Klingons were provided with motivations which were easily defined within human terms.
In fact, in science fiction the alien does not need to appear alien at all on the surface. One of the most alien individuals in science fiction is Mike Resnick’s mundumugu Koriba in his Kirinyaga cycle. On the surface, there should be nothing alien about this old man sitting on his terraformed asteroid. Koriba was educated at Cambridge and Yale and uses a computer. However, he has come to espouse a culture and way of life which is quite removed from the western civilization in which he was brought up, championing customs which are not only foreign to Western civilization, but in some cases anathema, ranging from infanticide to female circumcision. Although Koriba’s attitudes are based on a real society, he is as alien as any creature to come from another planet.
In some cases, basic, stereotypical aliens can become much more as the author writes about them more. Larry Niven’s Kzin began their lives as relatively one-dimensional aliens in the short story “The Warriors,” but as Niven (and eventually other authors) began to explore the universe through which the Kzin moved, they became more and more alien. In these cases, the author starts out with a stock alien and they only become notable as the author begins to really flesh them out over time, severing them in many ways from their origins.
There is also the danger of making the alien too different from the way humans think. A gas bag creature floating in the atmosphere of a gas giant may not have enough in common with humans for an author to make them relatable to the reader. This doesn’t mean authors can’t realistically depict these extremely strange aliens, and many attempt to, and some succeed. They just don’t often become the sort of aliens people remember since they are so outré.
Of course, what it comes down to is the author, artist, or designer thinking intelligently about the aliens they are trying to create, not just in an attempt make something cool, but trying to make it fit into its ecological (and sociological?) niche. An alien species can evolve as well in a fictional setting as one can in the real world. One that initially appears as a cliché can, in the long run, turn into something amazing.
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