Humans with funny foreheads are easy; truly alien aliens are hard. With that in mind, here’s what we asked our panel of experts:
Here’s what they said!
I’ve heard this argument since well before I wrote any story with aliens in it – whether or not an alien can be alien if they resemble humans. While there are good arguments on either side, I come back to one thing – I’m not writing for real aliens, I’m writing for humans. And that means humans have to be able to relate to the character – or understand why they aren’t relating – in order for any story to work.
Gene Roddenberry famously didn’t want any nonhumanoid aliens in Star Trek, based on his feeling that viewers wouldn’t be able to relate to something ultra alien. (And it would have been hard in the 1960’s to create a truly alienlooking and feeling being without having Ray Harryhausen working on every show, which would have made costs prohibitive and each episode something that came out once a year.) This forced the writers and actors to come up with ways of showing alien thoughts and behaviors, perhaps more than they would have had to otherwise.
This is a related argument to the issue that if someone creates a “real” alien, it might be so far off from what human minds can comprehend that no reader or viewer could get into the story. And, frankly, while we can imagine any kind of alien, the person or people writing and/or creating that alien are still human, meaning that we’re going to filter the idea through human brains, infusing human thoughts, feelings, and motivations onto that alien, no matter how hard we try to make them feel truly “other”.
Frankly, a “funny forehead” alien is still alien. And doing one that is believable isn’t easy – because you have to make the reader or viewer believe that the funny forehead is a part of that alien, and not just makeup or a “face hat” slapped on for convenience. Of course, as we prove every day with skin color prejudice, someone who looks “different from us” is immediately suspect until we learn that they are just like us with a different colored skin. And sometimes to create a believable alien, the look alone is enough. Groot, in Guardians of the Galaxy, is definitely an alien, and no one’s going to confuse him for a human.
However, there’s usually more to creating an alien than looks alone. In my Alien series, and many series and standalones that have come before and will come after, the aliens (at least some of them) look just like humans. The differences are internal (two hearts, for example, or the ability to fly faster than a speeding bullet) but also in the ways the aliens think and react to things, what they find meaningless or important, what prejudices they do or don’t share with humans. Groot doesn’t act like a human for the most part, though his actions are relatable – he wants to protect Rocket and then the other Guardians, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes in order to protect his team. That is a human thing that makes Groot, the walking sentient tree with an extremely limited vocabulary, relatable and beloved.
Most of science fiction finds a way to hold a mirror up to society. So aliens can function as humanity’s conscience, as the example of what we might become for good or for bad, or as examples of humanity’s biggest hopes and fears.
The bottom line? It’s down to the reader or viewer for what works for them – what they believe is a good representation of an alien and what is not. And it’s up to the authors, screenwriters, directors, actors, and makeup and special effects artists to make those humans believe in our aliens in the best ways we know how.
A truly alien character is one whose motives must by definition remain forever mysterious: for they are alien. If you have a character born under another sun who – regardless of how outrageous its physiognomy or brain structure might be – converses in the same manner as your next-door neighbour, and shares their motivations, desires and outlook, it is not, by any stretch, genuinely alien.
True alienness, then, to me, is a question of mind more than body, although there’s also the related question of how you even identify alien life as such. What if it took a form radically different from our own? Would we even recognise an alien life form as being alive, or would it be so far outside of our understanding we might mistake it for some unthinking artifact of nature, no more alive than the wind or the rain? What then do we mean when we speak of alien “life”?
A good example is the apparently sentient ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. It appears to communicate by creating living constructs based on the innermost desires and thoughts of the human characters, but its purpose ultimately remains mysterious – along with the question of whether or not it’s even alive in the first place, or whether new definitions of life need to be created in order to describe it. The aliens of Peter Watts’ Blindsight are not conscious by our definition, and this makes it particularly hard to understand them – assuming such a thing is even possible.
If you want something really and truly alien in your story, then it’s going to present an almost certainly unknowable quantity since by definition its motives likely cannot be known or understood. In that respect, you might say truly alien characters lie beyond the limits of human knowledge: I’ve only read the first two books in Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy so far, but I suspect that Area X – much like the Zone in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic – is a good example of precisely that kind of unknowable and perhaps alien mystery (maybe he explains everything in the third book, but I won’t know until I read it).
We can speculate, imagine, test, and argue about not only what we mean by intelligent life – is self-awareness necessary? What, exactly, constitutes life? – endlessly, but we’re forever hampered by the limitations both of our human senses and of the culture and language we use to interpret the world around us.
One of the things that attracts us to science fiction – or attracts me, at least – is that sense of the unknown and possibly unknowable. I’ve tried to inject a certain degree of alienness into those of my characters that are alien, or at least to make them sufficiently different from the human characters that they’re more than just regular people in funny clothes . . . or at least that’s the hope.
The closest I’ve come to the truly alien in my own writing is, I think, the Marauder, in the book of the same name. But even then, the Marauder is able to communicate with us – after a fashion – and even negotiated with; and ultimately, its motives are knowable, rather than unknowable.
To write about the truly alien, then, to my mind, is to describe the genuinely inexplicable. Like the ocean in Solaris, the truly alien raises the question not only of whether we can know or understand it, but whether we can even identify it as life in the first place. And that alone may challenge the very foundations on which our understanding of the universe and how it works rests.
(One non-fiction book that does an excellent job of examining the wildly varying forms alien life might take, and which I can highly recommend, is What Does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. It’s also been published as Evolving the Alien.)
My goto truly alien creature is the ostrich-like Tweel, in Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey.”
“Tweel set up such an excited clacking that I was certain he understood. He jumped up and down, and suddenly he pointed at himself and then at the sky, and then at himself and at the sky again. He pointed at his middle and then at Arcturus, at his head and then at Spica, at his feet and then at half a dozen stars, while I just gaped at him. Then, all of a sudden, he gave a tremendous leap. Man, what a hop! He shot straight up into the starlight, seventy-five feet if an inch! I saw him silhouetted against the sky, saw him turn and come down at me head first, and land smack on his beak like a javelin! There he stuck square in the center of my sun-circle in the sand—a bull’s eye!”
To be fair the story has a lot of scientific problems. Mars had canals and a thin but breathable atmosphere and propulsion is from something called “the atomic blast” though this was written before a fission chain reaction was achieved by Fermi. Still, I really believe Weinbaum was on to something when he said,
“Well, there we were. We could exchange ideas up to a certain point, and then—blooey! Something in us was different, unrelated; I don’t doubt that Tweel thought me just as screwy as I thought him. Our minds simply looked at the world from different viewpoints, and perhaps his viewpoint is as true as ours. But—we couldn’t get together, that’s all.”
What’s interesting, is that it’s not the only alien in the story and, in fact, is the most comprehensible.
The entire story is available at the Gutenberg project here: “A Martian Odyssey”
A lot of things go into the creation of a successful alien character—and I think many of these are the same things that go into forming a successful human character. The character must be distinct. An alien character can’t be a quick-shortcut composite, “a little of this and a little of that,” all thrown together and shaken up with an olive and a fancy umbrella. The best aliens are the ones who are carefully analyzed and thought through: physiology, temperament, history, home planet, etc. All of these things should draw from each other; all should correlate smoothly and logically. Just like a human being’s personality is shaped by their culture, race, upbringing, and geography, the same is true for an alien. They are real people, and they should be portrayed and rendered with the same richness and attention to detail as any other character.
I think this can be a particular challenge because in writing a human being, there are a good many shortcuts. While every character is a distinct individual, there are still a lot of elements that don’t need consideration. Number of limbs, placement of key features, and so on—these never enter the picture. So creating an alien species, with their alien world, and their alien culture—that’s a big job! And the more so when you might have multiple species in one novel. Added to this is the fact that masses of detail, planning and research goes into the creation, while only a minute fraction of this might ever make it into the final manuscript. You don’t want to infodump any of this information. But when it’s done well, that care will show: your alien character will feel real and authentic, because every aspect of his or her portrayal feels carefully thought through and motivated by the character themselves.—Which is, of course, the key to writing any impactful, engaging character.
It’s also important, I think, to challenge our own biases and expectations. We’re all familiar with the old TV shows where all aliens were shaped suspiciously like humans-in-alien-suits. It’s worth the time to take a little more thought: Does my alien walk upright on two legs? What’s his home planet like and would that be the best method for him to navigate it? Does my alien have two eyes and a nose and mouth in his head? What does he eat and how? Does he have fingers or claws or something else altogether? How does he interact with his environment? What senses or faculties does he need based on his environment and skill set, and how are those similar or different to our own?
This is an immensely fascinating process and one which can be a lot of fun to delve into!
In real life, an alien life form might be just so alien we will never recognise it. Fortunately the question specifies an alien character, so that gives us a baseline: an entity that can be put into a story as a significant plot element. If there’s to be any point then its contribution must derive from its alienness (otherwise it’s an unnecessary multiplication of entities and a human would do just as well), though at the same time it should still make enough sense to a human reader for the story to be understandable.
Let’s assume we’re talking something more impressive than, say, an alien bacterium or slime molds – though in Ian Watson’s The Martian Inca just such an organism brought back from Mars inadvertently sparks off a revolutionary movement in South America that recreates the Inca empire. But while the organism is an alien lifeform, it’s not a character. So, let’s assume sentience.
The minimum for me is a significantly different physical form to humans. At the very least this helps the reader picture the character as alien, and that is a large part of the battle already won. But even then, if your talking tree isn’t convincingly treelike – if in every other respect it acts like a human would if a human were made of wood – then, again, it might as well be an ape descendent. So, give it a different physical form, and then think through the implications.
My first novel featured a race of four-legged aliens, the Rusties, and I did it simply so that, in my head, they weren’t humans in rubber suits. However, I found that by imagining their distinctive body language I could get into their minds. My Rusties are descended from herd creatures, which affects their entire psychology – the ease with which they can be manipulated as a crowd, the challenge of one-to-one interaction – in ways that the humans only slowly come to understand. I had nerdy fun developing a language whose syntax includes markers for body stance and expression of pheromones, as well as actual words. Their motivations are entirely understandable to a human audience – the need to survive, to reproduce, to enjoy life – but the ways they go about working them out are something quite different.
Another great advantage of a non-human physique is the physical tics that the alien can have. They have retractable claws? Maybe a sign of tension is rapidly flicking them out and in again. Wings? The more they unfurl them in your presence, the more they make themselves vulnerable, which means the more they show they trust you.
But, why should they have wings or claws in the first place? Which brings us to the third challenge: making their form plausible. I assume evolution to be a universal constant, and I’ve read Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable which is essentially his manual for how complex
forms can arise from simple ones. When I’ve designed aliens, that’s the filter I ran their shapes through. Could I devise an evolutionary history for them? And with that done – guess what, I had the world they evolved on. It didn’t have to feature as a setting, but I knew, and that informed the writing.
(There’s a nice throwaway line in Charles Stross’s Saturn’s Children: in a far future society of androids, Darwinism has the same status as Creationism in ours. The androids know perfectly well that they were created, and when and by whom, so any talk of evolution is obvious
My favourite aliens of all are Vernor Vinge’s Tines, first encountered in his story “The Blabber” and greatly expanded upon in A Fire Upon the Deep. Again, their motivations are exactly the same as ours: food, family, survival. They live in a pre-industrial society with castles and warlords. The minor difference is that a single Tine inhabits many bodies: the persona derives from ultrasonically networking the brains of a pack of four or five doglike creatures. Adding or subtracting bodies to a Tine character changes the character, for better or worse; a severely damaged character that has lost several members may be assumed into another.
With that given, A Fire Upon the Deep Vinge then goes further by having a the chief villain Tine think logically through what it can achieve with human technology. It distributes itself, its many bodies sprawled over a far wider area than any pack has achieved before, communicating by radio. There are many other ideas packed into A Fire Upon the Deep that make it an exciting and thrilling excursion into the far future, but the simple idea of the Tines and its subsequent working out drives whole swathes of the book effortlessly forward.
All too often, the aliens I read or view in SF are stand-ins for humans of non-dominant races: a horrible example of that would be Jar-Jar Binks, who in one pre-screen incarnation actually went around exclaiming “Heighdey-ho,” like Orval Faubus’s nightmare vision of Cab Calloway.
With a benchmark that low, it’s hard not to hit above it, and many do. My sentimental favorite in this field is C.J. Cherryh’s iduve, the viewpoint species for her early novel Hunter of Worlds. For starters, she based iduve evolution on descent from wolf-like predators, so their biological imperatives are markedly non-primate. Also, Cherryh is a linguist, and her genius for analyzing the underpinnings of language led her to create a tongue reflecting the iduve’s very different concepts of what’s important.
A slightly more recent appearance of a species that feels truly alien to me is depiction of the tlic, the parasitic aliens of Octavia E. Butler’s award-winning novelette “Bloodchild.” Not only are the tlic physically similar to lizards and centipedes (again, non-primate forms), they have goals and agendas which are not easily reconciled with those of Butler’s human characters.
The factors that make an author’s aliens believably alien to me, then, are three-fold. First, modeling an alien’s biology on that of an Earth animal is fine; terrestrial models are about all we have. My advice, though, is to use a model that’s not a close relative of humans such as chimpanzees or bonobos. And paying attention to the scientific knowledge we have of the original will make the resulting creation more convincing. (I particularly recommend as a reference Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson — a book which is now also a TV show.) Second, using whatever specialized expertise an author has to illustrate the alien’s difference from us gives that illustration more depth. A linguist can point up how the alien’s language works; a seamstress can show how variations in physiology and culture manifest in clothing and other textile technologies, and so on. Third, assuming that an alien species has its own agenda means the story in which they’re acting will have a reasonable level of complexity, and that its members have a chance at seeming as real to the reader as the story’s humans.
I’m currently working on a series of short stories (called Making Amends, the series so far comprises “Deep End,” “In Colors Everywhere,” and “Like the Deadly Hands”) centered on a penal colony on an already inhabited extrasolar planet. The indigenous aliens are so different from us humans that their status as fellow sentients goes unrecognized by the settlers/prisoners for more than a generation. I hope I can pull that off.
Aliens, in whatever style or shape (bi-pedal, wrinkly headed, insectoide, six stories tall, etc.), must have an element that makes them inscrutable. At their most elementary, this means a singular physical feature and a cultural quirk that is a metaphor of some kind – they have wrinkly foreheads and like war, they look like squids and hold their brains in their hands so they’re peaceful, they are large and slug-like and also gross.In many shows or movies, such as Star Wars or Star Trek, the differences in species are very simple and easy to define. In fact, there is often a character on hand to enumerate them. When a new species does something odd or unexpected there is always someone on hand to say, “Ah yes, the So-and-sos always eat while standing on their heads because they believe it makes them harder to poison,” or whatever. I’ll be honest. I love this pulpy nonsense.I also think that these kinds of aliens often become an awkward way for the author to analyze social issues in a ‘safe’ way. Talking about aliens instead of real people creates a sense of distance and safety. The really interesting aliens exist when these differences don’t involve simple customs, and aren’t just a stand-in for culture. The interesting aliens possess needs and have goals that are completely unfathomable and make us question our own needs and goals.When writ large across an entire planet or species, these differences make any interaction with these creatures dangerous or difficult. A very simple example would be Giger’s aliens or the bugs from Starship Troopers. These creatures have needs and wants that are completely mysterious to their human victims, and the only option they have is to run or to react with immense violence (re: nuke them from orbit).
The problem with these examples is that they are so inscrutable and so impossible to understand that no true interaction can happen. There can only be a winner. Interestingly, the Starship Troopers animated series creates much more interesting aliens, as Carl is able to communicate with the queen and begins to understand their needs and wants. The other troopers even worry that they’re losing him to the other side. He begins to question the human’s goals and see parallels between the violence on each side.
This is when aliens get really interesting – when they are able to communicate enough to hurt or help humans on a non-physical level. One example might be The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, in which a group of missionaries goes to an alien planet and is completely unprepared to work with the local aliens. Their understanding of social requirements and the needs and wants of humans doesn’t help them. They are forced to question their faith and their understanding of the universe because of their missteps in a new world.
Elizabeth Bear’s aliens are wonderful examples of inscrutable monsters who, none-the-less, manage to co-exist with humans in fascinating ways. Her Boojum’s, huge sentient fish-ships (well, kinda) often comprehend human needs and can even communicate with those humans, but in the moments where their needs are different from human needs, conflict occurs. For example, when a Boojum wanted to go out to space, she saved a single human and left the rest to die. Her needs here were probably bizarre to the abandoned humans. Yet, her will was her own. By the way, she saved the human by swallowing it and integrating it into her brain. So, you know, there’s that inscrutable thing again.
Another wonderful example is the spectacular comic Saga. Saga is set in an enormous universe with a huge variety of aliens. These species have huge lists of expectations, cultural differences, and goals that are sometimes close to human understanding, and sometimes miles away. When these cultures interact, there is lot of awkwardness, violence, and even mystery to the reader, with no helpful narrator to explain who believes what and why. We are left, like the characters, to untangle the images we’re seeing and attempt to create a moral pathway through it.
The creation of this moral path is what makes aliens interesting. It’s not really the aliens themselves, but the questions they force us to ask about ourselves. These aliens have no issue with nude bodies. Why do we? These aliens have no sense of self? Is that objectively important, or a construct? Is that construct still important?A really ‘alien’ will make our skin crawl a little bit, and make us wonder why they do that. It’s easy to do this physically, by making them gooey or bug-like or something, but I love when a writer makes their will so strange to me that I have to sit and think about how a mind could need and want those things.
This idea of “authentically alien” is interesting, because it begs the question of what “inauthentically alien” means, and where the dividing line is. I suspect that we can probably see what these terms mean if we turn the question inside out: what is authentically or inauthentically human?
After all, that’s the inversion at work when we write about the alien, isn’t it? We’re inverting the human. That’s what humans have been doing in stories about the “other” for ages now: tales of the dog-headed people in some distant land, or lurid stories of barely-human people of some different race… even in Graham Greene, there’s a degree to which, when he writes about the local people in any exotic setting, he’s covertly writing about “us.” (That is, a white, Western, contemporaneous “us”–not that white Westerners are the only people in the world to do this. Far from it.)
The other is the not-us, the opposite-of-us: that much is obvious. But I’ll avoid the detour through post-colonial literary theory, because it’s applicable in a more interesting way: as much as we “other” people, we also “us” them a hell of a lot. I have a good friend who is fascinated with sociopaths, by which I don’t mean he’s a fan of Dexter, but rather that he’s had that experience that most of us have had: he’s met that brilliant, charming individual who gained his confidence, then screwed him over and moved on; a human predator whom he discovered later to have left a wake of ruined lives, and businesses, of emotional and psychological carnage a mile wide. “But he seemed so nice,” people say… that is, until he didn’t seem so nice at all. Chances are you’ve met a psychopath, unless you’re a shut-in… and most of us, asked to guess who it might be, will do a terrible job of it, because not all of them leave those trails of wreckage, or at least, don’t leave them quite so visible in their wake.
So that’s what’s “inauthentically human,” at least: the everyday fairytale we all immerse ourselves in that a bell curve is actually a flat line: that people are all basically the same, when they’re really not: that’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect, whereby we’re generally terrible at estimating our own and others’ competence.
But then, what’s “authentically human”? Somewhere in a discussion, I remember someone pointing out that we habitually anthropomorphize other people: that we project onto other human beings a sort of assumed definition of humanity based on our own experience, combined with whatever norms we pick up from our cultures. The more science uncovers about us, the more that comfortable cartoon falls apart: people are sometimes discovered to simply have no corpus callosum. Whoops: here’s the invisible, alien-shaped hand of toxoplasma gondii working its effect on human civilizations… synaesthetes… supertasters… Hell, when I was growing up, I thought everyone was speaking in elaborate, extended metaphors when they claimed to visualize things inside their heads, because for whatever neurological reason, 99% of the time I can’t. When I read a book, it’s words on a page or a screen, and emotions, and ideas, but no movie in my head. I often wondered what was wrong with me, theorized it had something to do with having a lazy eye… but now I’m over that: it’s just difference. Variety. That’s my spot on that particular bell curve. Now, I’m always amused when people assume mind‘s-eye visualization is a universal and constant human activity.(Or, rather, I suppose, I can visualize things; I certainly can spontaneously produce visual descriptions of scenes in speech or written text, enough to know something’s going on under the hood. But I never actually “see” this stuff with my “mind‘s eye”; I suppose that means it’s a species of “blindsight.”)
Speaking of which, Peter Watts’ Blindsight comes to mind because it’s a book where–let alone the aliens in the book–the human characters are more “alien” than a lot of the alien characters in other books (and are more alien than most aliens in film and TV by orders of magnitude). Watts is doing something special, of course… he’s using his story to bonk us over the head with all kind of wonderful, fascinating, terrifying insights about the most bizarre and “authentically alien” object we’ve yet encountered in this here universe: the human brain. But even Watts’ deeply “alien” humans are accessible to us as readers: we care about Kiri Seeton, we empathize with him. Watts even has his characters (and us) empathize with a homicidal, predatory vampire, and more than once.
Which is to say that writing the “truly alien” is really a literary trick, like any other. Every beginning writer discovers that “authentic-sounding” dialog doesn’t really resemble real-life spontaneous dialog at all: the real thing is quite unreadable, and the trick is to master stylizing your dialog in a way that feels authentic. As far as I’m concerned, truly “authentic aliens” would likely make for very frustrating fiction, or at best serve as a backdrop: what I want are aliens that straddle the line in ways that open up the alien to me in accessible, baffling, astonishing ways. I’d rather not just bang my head against a wall of complete incomprehensibility. So I think it’s not so much about a dichotomy between the forehead alien and the authentic alien: I think there’s a spectrum with a vast fuzzy line in the middle, and that it’s more about the artistic trick of walking that fuzzy line, balancing the bizarre and alien, being brought to the point where we relate to and empathize with something that boggles our minds. The best “aliens” in science fiction really tend to balance human and nonhuman (or inhuman) features; they’re just stylized so well that they pass for alien.
And really, that doesn’t just mean extraterrestrials–and it hasn’t really since H.G. Wells, many of whose early novels featured “aliens” in various forms: not just the Martians of The War of the Worlds, but also humans further along our evolutionary path (the Morlocks and Eloi of The Time Machine), the proto-posthumans in several of his novels (In the Days of the Comet, The Food of the Gods, and Star Begotten)–heck, you could argue that Wells even writes about proto-AI (biologically engineered through vivisection, a metaphor we’ve replaced with hand-wavey computer science) in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wells walks the line in different ways, too: utopia here, dystopia there, a disaster, a great leap forward.
Ever since Wells, if not before him, that’s where we’ve found this pleasure in the alien, and many–though not all–of my favorite SF writers tackle this subject extensively. Greg Egan’s Diaspora is a masterpiece of this kind of line-straddling (and Schild’s Ladder, too), but so is Brother Termite, by the late, under-recognized Patricia Anthony. (In most of her books, the aliens are inaccessible ciphers by design, but Brother Termite is about the most interesting exploration of the Grey Alien mythology I’ve ever seen. Then again, I love Molly Gloss’s “Lambing Season” and her dog-headed alien is a ciphers too–but mainly a springboard to a human story.) Anyway, it’s possible to enjoy Charlie Stross’s mind-bending Accelerando (or Glasshouse, for that matter) and also to enjoy, say, Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, which is basically (though it wasn’t marketed that way) an SF story about sentient, slightly-telepathic elephants grappling with life in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa: her elephants are alien in this way I’m talking about, and straddle that line between humanlike and not-at-all-human in a satisfying and compelling way. I could include many more examples–and I’m leaving out plenty that it feels criminal not to mention–but I suspect my contribution is long enough as it is, so I’ll stop now.