Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (aliens)

Oh, come on.

Admit it: That (or some more colorful phrase of disbelief) is what you're thinking. How can aliens be only an SF trope? In such a huge and ancient universe, how can I dismiss the possibility of alien life elsewhere and elsewhen?

I don't. In fact, I plan to start a new series of posts in the new year dedicated to alien aliens.

This post is about non-alien aliens. You know the type: humans thinly disguised as aliens. Such species have served as stand-ins for Cold War allegories (e.g., two neighboring worlds locked in a war whose origins no one really understands), racial parables (e.g., two species on the same world, one pointlessly oppressing the other), and strawmen to advocate for (or against) birth control or euthanasia or gender equality or darn near any sociological pattern. When the medium is visual, these aliens are humanoid in appearance -- wouldn't want to be too subtle.

Near-certain signs of a trope alien: the aliens are cross-fertile with humans or (like decades of lurid pulp-magazine covers) find members of the other species sexually attractive.

There's no plausible basis for such aliens. Parallel evolution, you say? True, octopi have eyes much like humans -- but we can't bear each other's children! Panspermia? Suppose common seeds of life did drift, eons ago, to both Earth and Mars (or Earth and Rigel III). Since then, there's been a whole lotta evolution going on -- on both worlds. I have more genes in common with a redwood or a rattlesnake than a human can have in common with any extraterrestrial cousins.

Alien aliens: real SF. (I'd like to say meat-and-potatoes SF, but I'm guessing aliens aren't edible, either.) Stay tuned for next year's new series.

Social stand-in aliens? Trope. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)


Catreona said...

One particularly notices the humanness of aliens on Star Trek. I mean, the Cardasians(sp?) are green and look to my poor vision vaguely lizardlike, but they're definitely humanoid. And there's the unavoidable fact that members of different species keep becoming romantically involved.

On the other hand, nonhumanoid aliens take more work for both writer and reader. The aliens in _Moonstruck_ were well realized, but even in _Analog_ and _Asimov's_ it's unusual to encounter totally alien aliens. I mean, how is one supposed to relate? There has to be some point of contact, and physical form is the easiest.

Edward M. Lerner said...

First, thanks for the kind words about _Moonstruck_. It's always nice to get feedback about one of my books.

One reason for humanoid aliens on Star Trek is probably budgetary: facial decals or Silly Putty forehead ridges beat spending on FX.

Trope aliens -- humans thinly disguised -- have their narrative uses: telling stories about ourselves that might otherwise be too uncomfortable (or in some places, censored).

Alien aliens enable stories that challenge us more. And yes, they're harder to pull off. My forthcoming post series will deal with the issues and give examples of (to my taste) well-done alien aliens.

Catreona said...

You're welcome. I read Moonstruck as serialized in Analog. Can't remember the alien heroine's name, but I remember her, how she loved her animals and was heartbroken to lose them, how she enjoyed getting kittens and watching elephants on television. I also remember being really tickled by the first human glimpse of her as a walking barbicue grill. Maybe I was particularly drawn to her because she's disabled, and I'm disabled.

Also enjoy your stories about Jeff, the fellow with the prostetic arm. In fact, I was disappointed at first that Moonstruck wasn't about him.

My own characters are human, or humanoid. I started a warewolf story once that didn't go anywhere. But then, my stories lean more towards Fantasy than SF. Even the more SF type ones tend to include psychic powers and such soft, fantastical stuff.

REally glad I found your blog. Looking forward to the upcoming series of articles.

Catreona said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Catreona,

Since you mentioned the one-armed-man stories from among my Analog appearances ...

Greatly expanded, extended, and updated, those two stories have been integrated into my latest novel, Fools' Experiments. If you're curious, see my post of November 11, 2008. (My apologies for not providing a link; the silly comment editor won't take a URL as long as I need.)

Thanks for joining the discussion. A fellow writer's comments will be a welcome addition to the blog.

Catreona said...


Do you know whether an audiobook edition of Fool's Experiments is in the offing? That would be better for me than a print edition, since my Kurzweil reading machine is on the fritz.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks for asking.

Fools' Experiments will be available in audio format, from Recorded Books. I don't have any insight into the availability date.