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A WRITER’S VIEW: On the Reasonable Alien

AWritersView-1600x2500It has been argued that sentient aliens are forever unknowable to us, and therefore can only be written as metaphor. Well, not necessarily.

The main challenge to knowing a sentient alien is psychology. We could observe behavior, should we ever meet a such a being, but we are wildly unlikely ever to converse with one. Radically differing organs of communication, or wavelengths of the light, sound, heat, whatever, that those organs might employ, are only the beginning of the possible disconnects between alien species. The technologies of vastly different worlds would likely meet with the same difficulties. And not everything can be expressed in mathematics.

Alien physiology is not much easier.

Yet we try. We produce critters with imaginative physical presences ranging from the near-human to the intriguing to the horrifying. And from time to time, an author with knowledge of the appropriate sciences does show us aliens of bizarre but believable physiologies.

Much more rarely, someone probing the unknowable realm of the alien mind produces a creature with trace elements of the truly strange. Hearty applause for creations such as those, but with a question: are they strange to us in believable ways?

It is an impossible task, to judge objectively the believability of the unknowable.

It is also irrelevant.

The “knowability” of concepts or entities as yet unexamined by science has never been the point of science fiction. The point, as often expressed, is reasonability: basing our fictional work on concepts that are “true to, or reasonably postulated from, science as it is known at the time of writing.” Fully knowable or not, the scientifically reasonable, and therefore believable, natures of hypothetical aliens can be postulated from current science in several related ways.

The only reliable method of producing a natural living species that I know of is by evolution. So, IMHO, the Darwin standard of the reasonable alien would be – you might want to sit down for this – one whose body and psyche have evolved over significant periods of time, in step with the development of its native world, as any real creature would be.

What? Evolve an imaginary species?

Well, maybe. A rough analytical model* of such a feat might be produced based on studies of the changes in environmental conditions (largely originating in climate and tectonics) that have stimulated major evolutionary variations here on Earth, and their general effects over the ages on living species. These details could then be adapted to the nature and degree of comparable causes and effects on an alien world – perhaps from observable conditions on an exoplanet (a real planet discovered orbiting anther star) or from details of a scientifically based imaginary world – and applied in the proper sequence to a primitive alien life form that might be found there.

Fortunately, there are less daunting approaches.

Such methods might involve:

  1. Choosing an exoplanet, studying its known environment, topography, etc. in as much detail as possible, then considering what characteristics a species evolved on such a world might have developed and/or would need for survival there today.
  2. Designing an alien with characteristics to serve a given story line and considering, in the same detail as in method 1, what sort of world might reasonably evolve and sustain such a creature.
  3. On the basis of parallel evolution, adapting an alien and its immediate environment from Earth-based life forms to a world with a similar range of environments.

My own current work involves a combination of options 2 and 3, and there may well be other approaches of similar rigor. But in all cases, the need for internal consistency should be kept in mind in both alien and planet designs.

Of course, the general environmental approach to alien design has been around for some time. Rough evolutionary aspects have been used at least since Hal Clement’s 1954 novel, Mission of Gravity, featuring a centipede-like species designed to withstand the planet’s tremendous surface gravity. Such usages have continually increased in detail and complexity in response to scientific advances over the years, providing ever more reasonable alien characters with each refinement.

Likewise, with sf readers’ growing interest in character development, writers have expanded the psychological and social issues involved in both human and alien character design, again, based on information from the relevant sciences. Among discoveries of interest in psychology and sociology over the years are insights into the ways we are shaped by our changing intellectual environments, the major events of our histories, and the assumptions and practices of our cultures.

With careful examination, the results of the less rigorous evolutionary design methods described above can be logically expanded upon, offering insights for inferring lesser physiological and sociological features that might occur in the creatures so produced: small physical traits and nuanced behaviors that could reasonably accompany their resulting body forms, even realistic bits of psychology that might arise from such evolutionary stresses as extreme environments or fiercely competing life forms, all of which add texture and believability.

All of these realities, these stimuli, can contribute to a sentient alien’s psychological, intellectual, and social behaviors as well as to its physical being, offering improved realism as well as scientific reasonability to the development of an alien culture.

A careful author, however, might not reveal all of her aliens’ secrets, either to her human characters or to her readers. She will know them, and describe each alien’s observable behaviors to the degree the story requires; kneading into key personalities small hints of their own deepest truths. But she will not explain them. Though broader-brush motivations may be revealed, she will take care to preserve her aliens’ nature as subtly ‘other.’ Because knowing any alien fully is never likely to be reasonable.

Such an alien as this, designed body and mind as a scientifically reasonable individual, with attention to the full range of insight available to that process, is no metaphor. He or she or it is both a unique science fictional artifact, and as much a genuine character in its own right as any in literature.

Copyright© 2015 by Paula S. Jordan

* Further thoughts on this approach can be seen at

References and Resources:

Dr. Sheridan Simon, late professor of physics, astronomy, and astrophysics at Guilford College, Greensboro, North Carolina. Extensive class lectures as well as materials kindly shared from his hobby of imaginary planet design.

Aliens and Alien Societies – A Writer’s guide to creating extraterrestrial life-forms, by Dr. Stanley Schmidt. This is an excellent handbook for every aspect of that work, highly recommended. Writers Digest Books, 1996.

Species Imperative, a science fiction series by biologist Julie Czerneda. The brilliantly designed aliens in these books come the closest of any I know to the fully believable. Also, from Ms Czerneda’s excellent workshop on the design of alien characters and environments based on real creatures from the wilds of Earth.

For Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity: Wikipedia and sub-links

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