Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Alien aliens (an introduction)

Too many SFnal aliens aren't really SFnal at all.

Many "aliens" are (in the video format, literally) people in rubber suits and makeup. That's fine where the story is as much allegory or satire as SF -- see my post on trope aliens. It's far from fine when we want to broaden our horizons a bit. After all, isn't one of the joys of SF broadened horizons?

Some argue truly alien aliens don't work in stories. If the author succeeds in portraying a truly alien alien, the reader won't be able to relate. Agreed: that can happen. It doesn't have to, as can be proven by example.

That is, some wildly popular pieces of fiction involve truly alien aliens. To name a few:

* The Buggers of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series.

* The Puppeteers of Larry Niven's Known Space.

* The pack-intelligent Tines of Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.

* The uplifted dolphins of David Brin's Uplift War series.

In this new series of posts, I'll be looking at alien aliens. Some of the above examples will surely crop up. So will aliens I've perpetrated in my own writing.

Will the aliens to be discussed have any characteristics in common with humans? Most likely. Common physical-world constraints and similar (not necessarily identical) evolutionary pressures may lead to some shared attributes. Beings able to take a holiday from physics and biology would be truly alien -- but they wouldn't be believable.

Stay tuned.

10 comments:

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Nice topic Ed.

I think in the long run were dealing with one of those anthropocentric issues: if you 'could' write an alien that was so alien humans couldn't relate - the reader wouldn't be able to relate either; at best the alien(s) would end up having all of their actions described as "doing something we can't understand for reasons and from motives we have not a clue about".

And that would get pretty boring around about page two.

The archetype for what you're talking about - the "alien we can almost/maybe/kinda relate to, if only in a very limited way" is Weinbaum's Tweel.

I think the beauty of "alien aliens" is actually drawn from the unique ways in which an author descibes those the differences. You and Larry Niven did a superb job in that regard with the Puppeteers. I speak here particulary of their eating conventions and waste disposal systems - but I'll leave it at that lest you think I have some kind of obsession or truly bizarre kink...

Edward M. Lerner said...

In my mind, there's a spectrum. At one end: the trope alien whom we can't NOT understand ('cause he's just one of us in a rubber suit). At the other extreme, there's the inscrutable alien. The art comes in exploring the middle.

I suspect I'll post some about physical differences, both ecological and physiological, that lead to understandable -- but quite unlike us -- adaptations.

BTW, thanks for the kind words about the Puppeteers.

ryorkport said...

Peter Hamilton's recent novels have featured some fascinating aliens. They range from humanoid Silfen, to the utterly alien Raiel and Angel.

Rick York

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, Rick. I'll have to check those out.

- Ed

Catreona said...

In my current project, I borrow an idea from C.S. Lewis' Perelandra so the indigenes of our planet in a galaxy far, far away are visually human though, of course, they cannot interbreed with Settlers, humans from Earth. Otherwise, on the rare occasions when my tales include aliens, I'm afraid they're pretty much of the people in funny suits variety. I'm not sure that's always a bad thing. The very seeming and illusury similarities between our alien and our human protagonist might well in themselves lead to problems, misunderstandings, misplaced assumptions, and the like that could drive the story.

Also, this approach is a little easier to wrap one's mind around than starfish people or whatnot.

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