[GUEST POST] Tom O’Donnell Asks “How Alien?”

Tom O’Donnell has written for McSweeney’s, Atari, and the upcoming show TripTank, on Comedy Central. His comic strips have been featured in the New York Press, the Village Voice and other papers. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn, NY. Follow Tom on Twitter as @TomIsOkay. Follow Chorkle, the hilarious five-eyed alien from his new middle-grade sci-fi novel Space Rocks!, on Instagram and on Twitter as @ChorkleFromGelo.

How Alien?

by Tom O’Donnell

My comedic middle-grade sci-fi novel, Space Rocks!, is the story of an human-alien encounter-as told from the alien’s point of view. It was a fun conceit because it allowed me to imagine how bizarre everyday human behavior might look to a member of another species.

Think about what you did today. Myself, I got up, I brushed my teeth and then played an obscene amount of Batman: Arkham Asylum on Xbox 360. Any aliens secretly observing me foam at the mouth and then pound the Joker’s henchmen into the ground for two hours might incorrectly conclude that I’m a psychopath who loves the taste of Crest (instead of correctly concluding that I’m simply a dude with mild anxiety/terrible time-management skills who is too cheap to buy new video games). It’s this sort of detached anthropological take on of humanity that comes into play in Space Rocks!

To make it work, though, I needed the perspective of the protagonist-a young “Xotonian” living on an asteroid between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars-to feel very alien. However, I soon discovered some interesting limits as to just how alien that could be.

Right off the bat, you’ll find that Space Rocks!-despite having a first-person extraterrestrial narrator-is written in English. So in a certain sense, I’ve already betrayed my central premise. I suppose one day someone will write an entire novel in an invented alien language, but personally, I’m not that brave (insane?). For now we will have to content ourselves with stories of aliens written in human-ese.

Still, I did want the Xotonians to at least have their own language. So I invented Xotonian words to describe things that we humans wouldn’t have any words for-organisms specific to their world, their food, parts of their own strange anatomy-and used them throughout the novel. For example, a Xotonian doesn’t have “hands” or “fingers” but rather it uses four appendages called “thol’grazes” with grasping “fribs” on the ends. I say “it” because all Xotonians are genderless, another way I thought it would be interesting to differentiate them from humanity (and make the book more difficult to copyedit).

Logically, I decided, there’s no way an alien race would use our same earthly systems of measurement. After all, they would share none of our history, so English or metric wouldn’t make any sense. In the first draft of Space Rocks!, all the units of length were “xeggs” and “kul’xeggs”. Each day was about 5.3 “iaqs” because why the heck should extraterrestrials subscribe to an arbitrary timescale based on earth’s rotation?

But when I read back through the manuscript, though, these invented units of measurement simply didn’t work. While it might be fun for the reader to imagine a Xotonian grabbing something in its fribs, it isn’t fun to mentally calculate how many iaqs are in a day, every single instance the concept of time comes up.

I found that there was a often tension between alien-ness and clarity. In the case of measurements I put aside logic and decided it was more important for the reader to know when things happened and how far away they were. In subsequent drafts, I changed Space Rocks! to take place in days and hours. For length and mass I used the metric system (This only forces the reader to mentally switch “meter” for “about three feet” every time the concept of length comes up.) In short, I made my narrator’s voice slightly more human to serve the story.

One of the delights of reading science fiction and fantasy is encountering whole civilizations of non-humans, who look, think and act differently than we do. But ultimately these aliens (or elves etc.) we read and write about are defined by their relationship to humanity. They might represent certain human qualities taken to their extreme (Vulcans) or perhaps deep-seated fears we share (vampires). Sometimes they’re simply more human than actual humans (hobbits). But they’re always a reflection of us, which is one way these genres allow us to explore our own nature and culture. I realized that as alien as I wanted my Xotonian narrator to be, it was always going to be a little bit human, too.

And that’s okay. Because Space Rocks! is a story for human readers, imagined by a human author-just like everything else that’s ever been written… Well, until we get to read some books that are actually written by aliens, that is. Fribs crossed.