A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, an online magazine devoted to fiction and art about bugs. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
It should come as no surprise that bugs – whether you stick to the scientific definition of “true bugs” or go with the broader, popular definition of all things creepy and crawly – are the perfect source of inspiration for speculative fiction. Bugs are weird. They have too many eyes and too many legs. Most can walk on walls, some can walk underwater, and others on top of it. Ants can carry 10 to 50 times their body weight. Fruit flies, flour beetles, and waterbears can withstand massive doses of radiation (even more than cockroaches) and keep right on going.
Compared to humans, bugs essentially have super powers. They also have radically different social structures, life cycles, methods of reproduction, and means of communicating. When you look at close-up macro photographs of bugs, they barely look like they belong on the same planet as humans. Why wouldn’t an author drawn on their characteristics when building an alien race, or an entire alien world?
Let’s take a classic example – the xenomorph from the Alien franchise. Xenomorphs are eusocial, like most species of bees, ants, and termites, meaning they have a single fertile queen. Like parasitoid wasps, xenomorphs forcibly implant their larva in other species. They go through several distinct stages during their lifecycles – egg, face hugger, chestburster, and full-blown adult alien. (We won’t discuss the weird alien wiener snake from Prometheus.) While parasitoid wasps are slightly less dramatic than chestbursters, simply feeding on their host body from the inside until they’re ready to pupate (which they occasionally do while continuing to wear the dead skin of their hosts), the parallels are clear.
Like terrestrial insects, xenomorphs are the ultimate Other. There’s no common ground for humans to reason or negotiate with them. They don’t want anything, other than to live their lives and reproduce. At best, humans provide convenient host bodies to facilitate xenomorph breeding; at worst, they’re an infestation to be eradicated.
In their role as the ultimate Other, xenomorphs can be used to illuminate aspects of humanity. Parallels can be drawn between the Alien’s behavior and some of the darkest behavior of humanity – rape, enforced pregnancy, or even the way the Company in the franchise views it employees as entirely disposable, a means only to achieve their own growth and continued existence.
Even terrestrial bugs are Other enough they can be seen as a blank slate; their behaviors and motives can be anthropomorphized to show us ourselves. Humans have developed an entire insect-mythology or shorthand, which when done well can be used to tell a very effective story, and when used poorly can substitute for plot, character development, and motivation. Bees stand-in for a highly militarized societies, or rigid caste-systems where everyone has a rank, orders are not to be questioned, and the status quo is to be maintained. Praying mantises represent sexually predatory females. Spiders are clever tricksters. Ants are industrious. Grasshoppers are lazy. And so on.
In many cases, the way we use insects to tell stories can reveal uncomfortable truths about humanity outside the text. Other-ing a character, human or inhuman, strips away their agency, takes away the voice they would use to tell their own story. Behavior and motivation are ascribed from the outside, defined by a narrator who has no experience of what the Other is actually thinking or feeling.
When faced with the Other, humans often fall back on received ‘wisdom’, stereotypes, and prejudices. A relatively innocuous example of this as it relates to insects is the term “social butterfly”. Butterflies are primarily solitary and not social at all. It is the ‘flighty’ aspect of butterflies, flitting from one flower to the next that brings about the association – butterflies have a surface relationship with bright, pretty flowers, but no lasting interactions. They are shallow and vapid, much like the outward appearance of a person described as a social butterfly. There are obviously less innocent ways to draw insect and human parallels. Used deliberately, they can illuminate a profound truth within the text; used unquestioningly, they may reveal an uncomfortable truth about the author’s prejudices.
But I digress.
Coming back to character building and worldbuilding, there are several insect behaviors (and insect-related human behaviors) that rarely make it to the page, any one of which would make a fantastic jumping-off point for building an alien race and world. Why not create an alien race that tastes with its feet, the way butterflies do, or communicates through chemical traces in the earth? Why not have a society that expresses itself through something like a bee’s waggle-dance, or the male peacock spider’s elaborate mating dance? What would the technology of an insect-based alien race look like? Human scientists are working on building cameras that see the way a fly does, with fractal vision. They’ve built a robot that can be driven by the movement of a silk moth. There’s even an app that lets farmers gauge the health of their crops based on insect activity in their fields.
The beneficial nature of insects often gets neglected in fiction, as bugs so readily conjure up images of horror or invading alien species. There’s a worldbuilding goldmine in the complex ecosystem surrounding the symbiotic relationship between fig wasps and fig trees in Africa. The female of the species sheds her wings and antennae while burrowing into the immature fruit, while simultaneously depositing pollen gathered from outside and thus pollinating the female flowers found on the inside of the fig. Once inside the fig, the female lays her eggs and dies, and a new generation is born from inside the fig. As if that weren’t enough, there are also ants farming aphids for the nectar they get from the figs, whose tough mandibles facilitate the wasps getting into the figs in the first place.
There’s no shortage of examples of alien bugs, bug-like aliens, and bugs in general in speculative fiction: the Buggers of Ender’s Game, the hive-minded Borg of Star Trek, and the buggalos of Futurama, which act as both a food source and a mode of transportation in a pinch. Last year, E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” was nominated for just about every major genre award, including the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. This year, Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” is nominated for a Hugo and a Locus Award. As you can see, when it comes down to it, bugs and speculative fiction fit together perfectly, and they make for a winning combination.