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Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 4: Speculative Biology and What It Mean To Be “Human”

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...

My current work-in-progress (wip) and a couple I just finished deal specifically with speculative biology. The wip looks at the possibility that there are only two sapient civilizations in our part of the galaxy – Humans (which we know about) who are animals (some more so than others…) and the WheetAH who are “plantimal aliens” who are best described as “short, needle-less, barrel cactus-shape” crossed with mobile extraterrestrial plants distantly related to Euglena, Volvox, pea aphids, green sea slugs, and spotted salamanders. Obviously, they also have vastly different ways of viewing the universe and card-carrying members of the Plant Kingdom. I call this the WheetAh-Human Universe.

A story I just finished will eventually have Humans joining (as provisional sapients, currently) a Unity of Sapients. Some of the aliens I’ve invented: “*ting* – planet bound, crystalline lifeform that communicates by phased radio pulses.”; “Benkaithanintanis – a space-living, asteroid-sized intelligence”; “Field-of-Dreams – a semi-autonomous intelligent plant/amoeba that occupies thousands of hectares on its home world and colonies. It communicates through chemically induced dreams.”; “Kifush – they’re some sort of disconnected intelligence, ‘system non-integrated colonial arthropod’. A monstrous pill bug holding the leashes of smaller pill bugs of various sizes.”; “Leviathan – ocean-going “eel” that communicates entirely by taste.”; “Pak/Gref – primate-descended mobile, sensory/cognition invasive Gref “units” of a massive ocean-born “worm”, the Pak.”; “Ybraith – neon Nautiluses suspended from balloons”; and the “Zham Woyi – Queen mother is giant sea star with square limbs studded with crystalline prisms that refracted light and trailing a parachute, made of lead and leaded crystal.”

I haven’t worked out all of the biology yet (I have it for the Pak/Gref, the Benkaithanintanis, as well as the WheetAh, and the Shabe, giant kangaroo-octopus-like intelligences), but I’ve got several of them sketched out.

The last is Confluence versus Empire which is currently confined to exploring one planet, a puffy Jupiter called River. I sometimes refer to this as the River Universe.

On River, there are no aliens, but Humans have split into two factions that coalesced into civilizations. In the Confluence of Humanity, genetic engineering is practiced to the edges of possibility. ANYTHING is legal and manipulation of the Human genome has created people capable of living anywhere that flesh and blood might be stretched to fit.

The Empire of Man has laws that all boil down to one essential paradigm – anyone who is less than sixty-five percent Original Human DNA is “not human” and without rights. Time has eroded the sharpest edges of that law. People who are slightly less than 65% can get an education, own property, and have a few other civil rights, but in essence, they are not truly Human. The Imperial Family maintains its Original Human DNA at 95%. DNA stored from the early 21st Century Human Genome Project, is the Imperial Standard (some modifications for health and life extension purposes are permitted.)

So, those are the three Universes I write in. All three have challenges and are fun to work in. I’ve had stories from all three published at one time or another, so my work is at least somewhat believable.

One last thing, in creating alien aliens, I’m not sure I ONLY mean aliens who are obvious. In my reading, I’ve found that by changing a single paradigm, you end up with people who are, by all appearances and most behavior, entirely Human. However, their underlying beliefs and behaviors are as alien to me as say, James Cambias’ lobster-like, intelligent Ilmatarans. Miles Vorkosigan’s world appears “normal” to us, but the underlying assumption, that children produced via something called a “uterine replicator” are totally normal…and makes for alien (and entertaining!) thinking.

In future posts, I’ll go into details for my WheetAH, one or two the Unity aliens, and a few of the Humans of the Confluence of Humanity. The question I ask myself every time I create a conflict or alliance between these sapients is: “Is being Human a matter of strict biology, no matter how speculative – or is ‘Human’ more a reflection of thoughts, words, and deeds?”



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. Image 2:

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