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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 3: Looking at an Original Alien

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’m going to dissect, so to speak, an alien that is less…um…alien than it is exaggerated. It’s iconic and from the first Alien movie.

In the universe created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett, how the aliens look (as envisioned by H.R. Giger), are less important to me than how they act. Do they ACT alien?

In the original three movies (which spawned (ironically), an entire franchise (, the aliens appear to be simple monsters; a giant-sized version of somewhat insectile, somewhat reptilian…rats.

While the aliens here weren’t new, nor was the tone of the movie: “…the Doctor Who serial ‘The Ark in Space’ (1975), in which an insectoid queen alien lays larvae inside humans which later eat their way out, a life cycle inspired by that of the ichneumon wasp. He has also noted similarities between the first half of the film, particularly in early versions of the script, to H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, ‘not in storyline, but in dread-building mystery…’”

Being a biologist, I’m most interested in the connection between the Aliens and the wasps. They’re part of a very small family of the order of Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps, sawflies) of which there are some 150,000 species. Within their suborder, they are a secondary branch described as parasites. Though this group is only unofficial, within the rest of the Hymenoptera, we have the insect superfamily that inspired the Alien franchise.

The Ichneumonidae, of which there are some 100,000 species, mostly unidentified, are distinguished by the quintessential characteristic of the Alien species – they lay eggs inside of living caterpillars. The young hatch, and eat the insides of their host on their way out. Then they go on with their lives.

So, the problem with creating aliens and THE Alien, is that the writers had two directions they could have gone. They could have left the aliens as animals or they could have made them intelligent; with a society, morality, and thoughts to think.

Instead, they chose to make them MOSTLY animals with just enough brains to appear to threaten the Humans. They don’t speak, just hiss and drool a lot. They aren’t particularly intelligent. The implication is that they are an “infestation”. When the NOSTROMO crew first discover them, their hosts were immense humanoids who apparently piloted the ship. They find a hold full of eggs, which is where the horror begins to grow.

I’m not the only person who’s noticed this: “In Alien Vault, the excellent account of the first film’s creation by Ian Nathan, the nature of the creature is briefly discussed by its creators. ‘It’s never been subject to its own culture,’ said screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. ‘The alien is not only savage, it is also ignorant.’”

“Savage and ignorant the alien may be…in Alien, the creature uses the ship’s darkness and hiding spaces to its own advantage, turning a tatty old mining vessel into a hunting ground – abilities you’d expect from a natural, highly-evolved predator. But later on in the film, the alien begins to do things you wouldn’t expect of a mere animal.”

Hmmm…I expect dogs, cats, and monkeys to hide. I expect these animals to seek out the warmest, safest place to hide their young. Ryan Lamble uses this instinct to imply intelligence: “In Aliens… Ripley points out that the creatures' lair is located right beneath a reactor, meaning any stray gunfire could destroy them as well as the aliens…Did the aliens choose this spot for their nest as a tactical advantage, or was it merely the coziest spot in the base?” Another question is that using other life forms as hosts, do they also need exposure to outside sources of energy to complete their metamorphosis into adults? Or do they get that energy from eating both the host and anyone else around the host?

They bring up another point, “Ripley…threatens to torch the alien Queen’s eggs if the latter doesn’t restrain her soldiers – a moment of bargaining that probably wouldn't work with mere animals.” Consider though that even wolves and other animals might back off when a Human threatens their litter. “…and echoing the events at the conclusion of Alien, Ripley later discovers that the Queen has snuck aboard the Sulaco, avoiding destruction on LV-426 in an almost identical fashion to her predecessor on the Nostromo decades earlier. To do this, the Queen had to work out how to operate a lift, and then, we're guessing, hide itself away in the landing gear of the dropship...”

But as the kid’s movie “Homeward Bound” shows, even Earthly animals are capable of amazing feats. Higher animals like the elephants and dolphins are capable of self-sacrifice. I understand that people always argue that animals are people, too, but I think part of that is a ploy to get their puppy a seat on the jet and a table at a five star New York restaurant, rather than to preserve the elephants and dolphins. At the end, animals are animals no matter how much caviar you feed them. And the aliens in Alien are intelligent, no matter how much you claim they’re animals.

Speaking of eating tasty delicacies, “…[a] proposed final scene would have revealed that [after eating Ripley’s brain, a] xenomorph is capable of rational thought - or, more chillingly still, it's somehow capable of imbibing the intellects of its victims [implying that xenomorph is much like we humans in certain respects: it's a creature of its environment as well as its breeding…[they also have an] uncanny ability to anticipate their prey’s movements, and even manipulate machinery…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…”

Given all of that speculation, the Aliens in the franchise are severely short-changed and left to stew in their own highly corrosive juices. We’re never given a chance to find out what they might have become. Rationality implies at least a possibility of rational thought. Even the leftist of the left and the rightest of the right can’t imply that their far distant counterpart isn’t Human and capable of all of the other assumptions we make about Humanity. In the Alien franchise, the Xenomorphs aren’t given a chance to show their “Human” side (to be specist!)

Would hive intelligences inherently be our enemies? How SHOULD they react – besides skulking about in dark starships and murdering Humans right and left and lashing their pointy tails (have you ever noticed how they are more-or-less an “alienized” version of our cartoons of Satan?)? Do the writers ever give them a CHANCE to do anything but be…monstrous?

 What about their dreams? Bizarre, no doubt; but would they be any more bizarre than an elephant dream? David Brin took time to develop the personality of dolphins in his UPLIFT books and gave the Streaker’s captain “whale dreams”. What if the purveyors of the Alien franchise took the same amount of time with the Xenomorphs? (They may have as I’ve never read an Alien original novel…of which there are a dozen or more…) has anyone ever tried to imagine what it would be like to be an intelligent colony of Ichneumonidae?

Maybe I should read one of the books and find out.



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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