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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

CREATING ALIEN ALIENS: Part 1 -- The Premise and Groundwork

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction. 

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

I have created three universes.

In the first, it’s Humans alone. We genetically engineer ourselves to fit the varied environments we encounter. The overarching conflict is between the Empire of Man and the Confluence of Humanity. The first considers someone Human if they are 65% or more “Original Human” DNA based on the completed Human Genome Project competed in 2003. If you’re less, you’re considered Sub-Human. The second sees ANY genetic manipulation to be A-OK.

In the second, it’s us and mobile plants. Humans have gone deep into space and encountered the WheetAh, mobile plants reminiscent of a mobile giant saguaro cactus crossed with a pitcher plant. The conflict is as obvious as it is inevitable – we eat plants. They eat rodents; hence the pejoratives each lays on the other. We call them Weeds; they call us Weasels.

In the third, we are junior members of the Unity of Sapients, some fifty extremely different intelligences (I can’t say species – as in Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species – as there are smart minerals, arthropods, collective, herd, and individual intelligences in the Unity. We haven’t even been certified sapient. (definition: adjective – having or showing great wisdom or sound judgment; Orig –1425–75; late Middle English sapyent < Latin sapient- (stem of sapiēns, present participle of sapere to be wise, literally: to taste, have taste), equivalent to sapi- verb stem + -ent- -ent

So, I’ve written stories in all three universes. How many in each have been published?

Confluence/Empire: I’ve written seven; only one has been published.
WheetAh: Written two; one published.
Unity: Written seventeen, four published…which seems good, until I point out that the four published stories didn’t contain aliens.

So, I CAN’T write believable aliens very well.

Why not?

Writers who have written believable aliens: David Brin, Julie Czerneda, Hal Clement, James White, Alan Dean Foster, CJ Cherryh, Larry Niven, Octavia Butler, SL Viehl, and others that escape me; clearly depict them. But HOW?

I’ve been doing some superficial analysis and it seems that when Humans and aliens interact closely and the alienness is narrowed down to one or two SPECIFIC differences; the ones that somehow cause the problem; that’s when the aliens are acceptable.

For example, CJ Cherryh’s atevi. Basically giant Humans with golden eyes and coal black skin, bipedal, five digits, and sexually compatible with Humans (though not reproductively compatible). They have one clear difference: they have no concept of love. In place of love, they have a profound sense of association. All large, mammalian life forms on the Earth of the atevi have this same biological urge – to associate under one strong leader. The single Human who interacts with them, Bren Cameron, understands this and can speak their language fluently – but he still makes mistakes when under pressure to assume that the atevi “feel” about him as he does about them. This creates countless situations of tension and have driven the story line for some TWENTY novels over a quarter of a century of time. The reason I go back repeatedly is because I want to see what happens next as the Human population grows and the atevi advance in technology and eventually reach parity with Humans; and possibly visit Earth.

Another example is James White’s famous Sector General novels. Twelve novels spanning over thirty years of writing, they depict the life of a small group of Humans on a massive space station away from the “main thoroughfares” of a vast interstellar civilization as they interact with countless alien cultures and medical personnel. Languages, medicine, morality, humor, and emotions are touchstones – and points of conflict – for the series.

So – what have I learned with my brief analysis?

1) Aliens and Humans HAVE to interact closely; intimately. (I tried this with “May They Rest” and it was quickly bounced by five magazines as well as my favorite, to which I’d sold several stories…) In “A Complications of Sapients”, my character and an alien, “cockroach” sapient interacted VERY intimately – and didn’t sell…

2) I need more aliens than Humans. I did this in “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish”, podcast from CAST OF WONDERS. It took place on a trimaran carrying cultural exchange WheetAh. Humans needed to be at a disadvantage. The aliens were at an advantage.
 It was published.

3) It needs to be a BROADLY threatening situation. I think I did this in “The Princess’s Brain”, but I’ve got to go back ad reread it. I DID do this in “The Krasiman, Monkey Boy, and the Frogfather”, but that didn’t sell, either.

So, I’m ready to try something new. Using what I've learned from Lisa Cron's book, WIRED FOR STORY, as well as seriously studying the successful aliens published in books and online and paper magazines...should give me an alien story that will sell. We shall see!


Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS ( where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

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