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MIND MELD: The Best Aliens in Science Fiction

Aliens are a classic trope dating back to the earliest days of science fiction, so we asked this year’s panelists this question:

Q: What are some of the best aliens in science fiction? What makes them superior to other extraterrestrial creations?

Here’s what they said…

Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has published stories in various magazines and anthologies. His novels include Crystal Rain, Sly Mongoose, Ragamuffin, and Halo: The Cole Protocol. He also has a short story collection titled Tides from the New Worlds.

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.

Louise Marley
Louise Marley is a recovering opera singer who writes science fiction and fantasy. Her science fiction has twice won the Endeavour Award, and she’s been shortlisted for the Nebula, the Campbell, and the Tiptree Awards. Her publications include the three books of The Horsemistress Saga, an omnibus edition of The Singers of Nevya, and Mozart’s Blood, the story of a vampire opera singer coming out in June 2010.

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.

Neal Asher
Having written for the small presses for many years, Neal Asher was taken on in 2000 by Macmillan who have since published ten of his books. These have gone on for translation in twelve countries across the world. His latest novel, Line War, completes his Cormac Sequence and he is currently working on Orbus, a follow-up to The Voyage of the Sable Keech. Later this year Scorpion Memory (Night Shade Books) and The Gabble and other Stories (Macmillan) should be hitting the shelves. Neal blogs at

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.

Nina Munteanu
Nina Munteanu is an environmental scientist, blogger and author. Her current novel, Darwin’s Paradox, is available now and she blogs at The Alien Next Door.

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.

Dean Wesley Smith
Dean Wesley Smith is a bestselling author of over 90 novels under varied names.

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.

David D. Levine
David D. Levine is a lifelong SF reader whose midlife crisis was to take a sabbatical from his high-tech job to attend Clarion West in 2000. It seems to have worked. He made his first professional sale in 2001, won the Writers of the Future Contest in 2002, was nominated for the John W. Campbell award in 2003, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the Campbell again in 2004, and won a Hugo in 2006 (Best Short Story, for “Tk’Tk’Tk”). His “Titanium Mike Saves the Day” was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2008, and a collection of his short stories, Space Magic, is available from Wheatland Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kate Yule, with whom he edits the fanzine Bento, and their website is at

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.

Marianne de Pierres
Marianne de Pierres is the author of the multi award-nominated Parrish Plessis and Sentients of Orion science fiction series. She is also the author of the humorous Tara Sharp crime series, written under the pseudonym Marianne Delacourt. In 2011 she’ll release the first of her new young adult dark fantasy duology entitled Burn Bright. Visit her websites at and

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.

Jeffrey A. Carver
Jeffrey A. Carver is the author of the Sunborn (Tor Books, recently re-released in paperback) and other novels of The Chaos Chronicles. You can learn more about his books, and even download some of them for free, at For more of his thoughts on writing and other fine madnesses, check out his blog at

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.

Gini Koch
Gini Koch lives in the American Southwest, works her butt off (sadly, not literally) by day, and writes by night with the rest of the beautiful people. The first book in her Alien series from DAW Books, Touched by an Alien, releases April 6, 2010, with Alien Tango coming in December 2010. Visit her at her website:

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.

Brenda Cooper
Brenda Cooper is a technology professional, a science fiction and fantasy writer, and a futurist. Her recent books include the Endeavor award winning Silver Ship and The Sea and a sequel, Reading the Wind. See for more info, and for periodic reading recommendations.

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…

Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His novels include Escapement and Green (both from Tor Books), Madness of Flowers (Night Shade Books), Death of a Starship (MonkeyBrain books), and his latest, Pinion (Tor Books). Jay’s short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide and he’s also editor of the anthology Other Earths. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

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

Sarah A. Hoyt
Sarah A. Hoyt was born in Portugal and lives in Colorado. In between she acquired husband, sons and cats and has written and published around three dozen short stories and over a dozen novels in fantasy, mystery, historical fiction and science fiction. The most recent of those are Gentleman Takes A Chance; Dipped, Stripped and Dead (as Elise Hyatt); and Darkship Thieves. Upcoming are A French Polished Murder (also as Elise Hyatt) and No Other Will Than His (historical fiction under her own name.) She’s at work on sequels for her fantasy and science fiction novels.

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.

Sandra McDonald
Sandra McDonald‘s novels – The Outback Stars, The Stars Down Under, and The Stars Blue Yonder – are about an Australian military lieutenant, her handsome sergeant, and their adventures in deep space. She also write short stories that have appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy and other magazines and anthologies.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. They’re musical! 5 notes is all it takes to cross the galactic divide of communication.
  4. They like Christmas lights and birthday cakes. Look at that sparkly mothership. No sleek battlecruisers of gloom for these gals and guys.
  5. 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!

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

23 Comments on MIND MELD: The Best Aliens in Science Fiction

  1. What the heck? No H. P. Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” or At the Mountains of Madness or “The Shadow Out of Time”? Lovecraft created some truly alien aliens and had the concept of Deep Time down.

  2. A great topic for a Mind Meld and superb, thoughtful responses. 


    I was intrigued to see that the aliens from District 9 were mentioned several times. I agree, that they are interesting portrayals of alien life.

  3. There are some great choices here, but one glaring omission as far as I’m concerned: Vernor Vinge’s “Tines” from A Fire Upon the Deep–dog-like aliens that have limited intelligence individually, but become conscious entities (“individuals”) in group-mind packs of four or more. Brilliant.

  4. David H. // March 31, 2010 at 9:01 am //

    My favorites are the ones in David Brin’s Uplift series. I’m not sure if I have a favorite, but I love the vibrant diversity of aliens in it. 🙂

  5. When it comes to aliens, there’s a couple of modes that books/movies/tv shows fall into, with a sort of either/or mentality.Either the aliens are there as a foil for human characters, playing an unrecognizable other, they’re there for variety (but are basically humans in how they think and how they look, or they’re truely alien. The first two catagories are more common, and there are very few aliens around that really represent something that’s truely alien. 


    A couple of things come to mind. Having recently watched Babylon 5, of all the aliens in the show, Kosh represents something truely alien. Over the course of the show, we’ve learned that they’re an alien race that far predates humanity in technology and evolution, and frequently, the characters have a difficult time understanding what Kosh has to say. To me, he’s one of the best aliens out there in television, because he is different in all respects: he’s not human. Doesn’t think like one, doesn’t look like one. Same, sort of, with the Shadows, although they seem to be a bit more relatable. 


    Nancy Kress’s Probability Moon, with the Worlders, also represents an interesting sort of alien race, because there’s a good amount of effort put into creating their culture and ensuring that they think and react differently from the humans who visit them on their home planet. The most crucial thing for aliens, in my opinion, isn’t what they look like, but how they think, react and deal with issues around them. Too often, aliens simply act like humans, and at points, it gets a bit discouraging, because the creators haven’t really taken the time to make the characters really different. 


    This was one reason why I really liked District 9 – the aliens were really alien, in their actions, and how they reacted to humanity and percieved us. There was a lot to do with cultural and societal differences, which in and of itself, caused problems throughout the movie – one of its strengths. 

  6. When I read the book (a lot of years), I was very impressed with the Moties in Larry Niven’s novel: “The Mote on the God’s Eye” and I consider all the aliens in Peter F. Hamilton’s novels are really splendid.




    MorningLightMountain in Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star



  8. The Martian invaders in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. More than a century on, and Wells is still kicking our ass…

  9. slothflyer // March 31, 2010 at 5:48 pm //

    Ford Prefect

  10. Nobody has yet mentioned Frank Herbert’s intelligent frogs in The Dosadi Experiment, and Kathy Wentworth’s Hrinn. In addition, I think the best aliens of recent fiction are Flint and Wentworth’s Jao from Course of Empire and its brand new sequel. I think it is an indictment of the Hugo and Nebula nominations and voting systems that Course of Empire didn’t win (or at least final) for both. It was nominated, but it didn’t make the cut. What a shame.



  11. For me the most important thing about any Alien race, is thats its actually ‘alien’, I beeping hate the trek idea of an alien – bung a bit of silly putty on the face and some skin paint and off you go, this is usually accompanied by them behaving in a pretty much human manner or with a slight difference that makes no real sense.

    I agree with Andrew about Kosh from B5, every second of screen time he got was fantastic, I loved the fact that for most of the TV show he pretty much ignored everything that everyone else thought was important. I would also like to credit B5 with giving us a series of fully formed races with their own agendas and moral out looks that were pretty much seperate from humanity.

    In nolves I really like Neal Asher’s Prador, whilst they are hardly unique in scifi, I like the way that pretty much everything about this race feels alien, and that Neal has obviously tried to create them as a truely alien race, I would put them above Hamilton’s MorningLightMountain.



  12. Thanks for all these insights! I’m clearly not up on my aliens, but I must say, any alien with a goopy, slimy podlike thing sends me under the covers scared. I’m off to add to my Blockbuster list and library request list! 🙂

  13. “Shambleau”, from C. L. Moore’s SHAMBLEAU

    “Tweel” from Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A MARTIAN ODYSSEY

    “Oscar” from Stanley G. Weinbaum’s THE LOTUS EATERS

    “Fander” from Eric Frank Russell’s DEAR DEVIL



  14. From from Don DeBrandt’s entertaining novel Steeldriver I nominate the Toolies, shapeless from birth but able to gradually construct a techno-skeleton from found objects.

  15. I nominate the aliens from E.E. Doc Smith’s “Civilization”, which include the Rigelians, a herd animal unable to imagine an immoral act, but also so lethargic and conformist that ambition and drive is as rare among them as perfect integrity is among us; the Valentians, who have compartmentalized minds, and are bloodthirsty and ruthless, as intelligent as humans but far more inflexible in their thought; the Palainians, who are amoral cowards (and perhaps the inspiration for Nivens’ Puppetteers?) but superhuman in the care and precision of their thinking — and each with outlandish physiognomies to match their outlandish psychologies, from blind and betentacled oil-drum bodies sitting on quadrilaterally symmetrical leg-stumps, to nightmarish multi-eyed flying reptiles, to starkly unimaginable fourth-dimensional amoeboids who cannot exist at Earthlike temperature and atmosphere, preferring instead the light near-gravity and near-absolute cold of Pluto (which is still a planet, no matter what upstart scientists say.)

  16. Gregg Eshelman // April 12, 2010 at 1:49 am //

    Amazing that nobody has mentioned John Brunner. “The Crucible of Time” is one of the few SF books that has no humans in it at all, who knows how far the world is from Earth. It’s set on another planet who’s solar system is moving through a rough patch of the galaxy, periodically bombarded by asteroids which dramatically disrupt the civilization. The story chronicles their ascent from early metal ages to escaping their world as it’s about to enter an area so dense with cosmic debris that it could be the end of their species if they stay put. (I just now found there’s a sequel “The Tides of Time”!)

    “Total Eclipse” is an older book but just as good. Humans have discovered a world where the inhabitants are gone, leaving behind not much in the way of artifacts. They can find only a single sunken ship on the barren beds of the evaporated oceans. Likewise there’s only singular examples of the aliens’ other failures. Its as if when anything they did had a problem, it was communicated to the entire race and always fixed perfectly so it never happened again. There’s also many other artifacts but only one of each. But how did an intelligent race so nearly infallible *fail to survive*? What caused the devastation of their planet?

  17. The aliens that had the strongest effect on me were the kind that were never actually depicted. By this I’m referring to the ones in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fact that they were never shown made their existence that much stronger.

    For me, a very strong sense of their personality was conveyed through the spectacularly large scale plot. I got the impression that a unified conscious entity was orchestrating the events all the way from the dawn of mankind until the birth of the starchild, all the while having their eyes – or monitoring mechanisms fixed on our developmental progress. 

    You can’t easily replicate that kind of creepy omniscience, and until today it makes me wonder whether some god-like entity of biological origins is behind the progress of human civilization. It gives me the willies just thinking about it now!

  18. Michael Klossner // April 29, 2010 at 11:24 am //

    The Doctor in Doctor Who.  Played by about a dozen actors in almost 200

    multi-episode or single-episode stories spanning 1963 to now.  He couldn’t

    help being complicated (and contradictory).

  19. Ed Richman // July 25, 2010 at 5:09 pm //

    As far as physical form goes, one of the top that I know of is Piers Anthony.  No one else came up with creatures that roll (The Polarians). 

    Jack Chalker had some too (Bozog among others).  As far as concepts surrounding aliens, I really liked his Well World, where anyone could become an “alien.”

  20. Ron Miller // September 3, 2010 at 6:00 am //

    How could “The Thing” have “deviated” from aliens “with bumps on their heads” when the movie came out a decade and a half before “Star Trek”? 

    And it’s too, too bad that no one has mentioned Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey”, which was the first story ever to create genuinely alien aliens, with non-human intelligences, non-human psychologies and non-human motives.

  21. @Ron Miller – Actually David Levine did, as did Mike Resnick in comments.


  22. John Colley // July 24, 2011 at 6:36 am //

    I’d have to say the Daleks,of Dr Who fame and the Aliens in “Alien”.

  23. The aliens who are the most alien for me are Heinlein’s Martians. The same ones who raised Valentine Michael Smith in Stanger in a Strange Land. They figure most prominently in a book for a younger audience titled Red Planet. Basically an adventure story about two teenage boys on the run who have got the goods on the colonial goverment on the eve of the martian (marsmen) declaration of independence, it is a fascinating description of the Martian culture, landscape, history (They had space flight a million years back AND GAVE IT UP!), not to mention the twelve-foot tall, three-legged Martians themselves. Read this, then reread Stranger and Smith will make much more sense to you and, at the same time, you will realize that no actual communication took place at all. “Talking to a martian is like talking to an echo, you don’t get any argument but you don’t get any results either,”  Doc McRae, Red Planet.

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