Thursday, January 29, 2009

Alien aliens (from Kansas)

Okay, not Kansas, exactly. Someplace homey. One of those myriads of "Class M" planets and moons with which the Star Trek universe is rife.

Can terrestrial planets give rise to alien aliens -- by which I mean, as proposed in early posts in this series, non-humanoids? Not people in rubber suits?

Of course: Think how varied life on Earth is. It's not much of a stretch to imagine intelligent dolphin-like creatures. They could evolve prehensile tongues and lips to remain streamlined and still be tool users. Or intelligent elephants -- they have prehensile trunks. Or tool-using (and perhaps larger, thus flightless) parrots. Or dinosaurs. If a big rock hadn't smacked into Earth, what might dinosaurs have given rise to by now?

What fictional alien aliens have we seen able to live on Earth? Equivalently, what fictional alien aliens have we seen on whose home worlds humans visit without special gear?

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle brought us the Fithp, wonderful elephant-like creatures (who coveted Earth), in Footfall. They brought us the even more wonderful, three-armed, greatly speciated, Moties of The Mote in God's Eye.

Niven also brought us the Pierson's Puppeteers, in several of his Known Space stories and books (to which, in some small part, I've recently contributed in two collaborations with Larry). Puppeteers are three-legged, two-headed herd creatures with mouths for hands -- and possessed of a ruthless cowardice of which other species best beware.

In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge brought us the delightful Tines, wolf-like creatures who -- communing with ultrasound -- form pack-like sapient group minds. Their technology remains primitive, limited by only cooperating mouths and muzzles for "hands."

Michael Flynn gave us the dimension-crossing, insectile Krenken (amid the Black Death in medieval Germany, no less) in Eifelheim.

Ted Chiang brought us heptapods in "Story of Your Life," possessors of a mindblowingly nonhuman perception of reality. (It's a wonderful story -- I've cited it before -- and I hate to say more. It won both Nebula and Sturgeon awards, and was nominated for a Hugo. Just go read it.)

So: We can have our cake (Earth-like planets, on which human characters roam, with whom readers can readily identify) and icing on it, too (alien aliens). I just wish it happened more often.


Catreona said...

*scratches head*

Ed, perhaps you now need to move on to a consideration of Earthlike planets. The assumption is that on an Earthlike planet, shirtsleeve or nearly so conditions for humans must necessarily exist. Certainly, in a couple of my projects, I have made this assumption: in one case the indigenes are humanoid; in the other, they are rather like large, fuzzy, variously colored teddybears, ranging from about seven to about ten feet tall, with antennae on their foreheads. In both cases, the human settlers have had little trouble adapting to the climate, gravity etc. But, is that the definition of an Earthlike planet? I mean, isn't Mars a tarestial i.e. Earthlike planet? Yet, in its present state, conditions there are inimical to human life.

Not altogether sure what I'm asking. Though I haven't worked it out yet, in the first project mentioned above I have an idea that the solar system, the Nova Europa system, is chockablock full of planets and moons and asteroids that have in some cases been taraformed and in other cases otherwise adapted as with doams to allow human habitation. The planet where the action takes place is a classic Earthlike planet. Since my characters are natives (Settlers who have been there so long that Earth is almost a legend to them), I don't really have any way of gaging whether gravity and atmospheric pressure on Nova Britannia are identical to those on Earth, though that seems unlikely. But certainly, the settlers have thriven, which indicates that conditions were close enough at landing for them to make themselves at home.

But, is it possible that an Earthlike planet might not be welcoming to humans? With a poisonous atmosphere, for instance, or an uncomfortable temp range? Guess I'm looking for a definition of "Earthlike."

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Catreona,

My intent with this specific post was to assert (with examples) that even non-exotic environments can give rise to exotic aliens. That being so, I meant "terrestrial" very literally: like Terra. "Terrestrial" *wasn't* a synonym for "rocky."

(An earlier post in this series, Alien aliens [from alien places], dealt with the other end of the spectrum. There I spoke of using an exotic locale to drive the creation of unusual aliens.)

You asked: "is it possible that an Earthlike planet might not be welcoming to humans?" Parts of Earth (say the high arctic, the Gobi Desert, and the ocean floor) aren't exactly inviting. If "a lot" (an ill-defined term) of technology is needed to live on a world, then I would not call it Earthlike.

Catreona said...

Thanks. That is pretty much what I thought, and it makes sense. Gives broad guidelines as well.