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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 5: How Can I POSSIBLY Think Like An 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...

Being a Human, how can I POSSIBLY think like an alien? I mean, except for a few forays into the possibility of Humans as “prey”, I can’t think of a huge number of SF writers who have really, truly tried to think like an alien and the write a story from an alien point of view. Stanislaw Lem tried, and created one of the most alien beings in SF, the sapient ocean in his novel, SOLARIS. Maybe was successful because he’s Polish and just THINKS differently than your average Western American? However he did it, for me he was successful in creating a really alien “feeling” alien. Commenting on two of the movies made from his book, he wrote, “…none of these films reflected the book's thematic emphasis on the limitations of human rationality.”

One problem with doing such a thing is that – Why would I want to read about an alien that was so different I couldn’t possibly connect with it in any way. Writing such a story would fly directly in the face of Lisa Cron’s foundational paradigm, “We're wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.”

If I’m biologically wired that way, then how can I read a story that would catch my attention if it was written from a truly alien point of view? It wouldn’t meet the needs of our neural wiring.

Some notable attempts stick out to me:

In STAR TREK, there were two – first was from the original series episode called, “Devil in the Dark” in which a silicon life form appears out of the depths of a remote mining colony and begins to slaughter the colonists working in the mine. The upshot is that the miners have found veins of valuable ore along with piles of “curious” silicon nodules – which turn out to be Horta eggs. The alien reproduces on a scale Humans can’t imagine in a way that’s entirely alien. This episode cheats a bit when we realize that the Horta is killing Humans because she’s protecting her kids – an entirely Human and understandable situation.

Another Star Trek story, “Darmok” came out in the second TV series, Next Generation. This time, instead of strictly biological, it involves HOW the Tamarians phrase their conversation. They do speak words, which the Universal Translator translates into English, but they use some sort of referent system that makes what they say understandable – but entirely gibberish. It turns out that the speak in metaphors. (No idea how they communicate technical data – it seems to me that it would be clumsy talking about computer programs or starship construction using metaphors – though I suppose they could create a “dictionary” of specific technical jargon metaphors. At any rate, again the writers cheat having Picard be familiar with Human mythology, parables, and fables and eventually understanding.

This is what makes Lem’s alien ocean among the most incomprehensible aliens ever written – and I note as well that the story is told entirely from the POV of the Humans in the story.

More recently, the aliens from “Arrival” are very nearly incomprehensible. Based on SF writer Ted Chiang’s short piece, “Story of Your Life”, the aliens in both do not view time as linear but unitive – all at once. It plays with how we perceive time.

One thing I have had trouble understanding is why such a point of view is entirely acceptable when talking about aliens, but entirely UNacceptable when talking about God. I have long believed, along with CS Lewis, that God exists outside of time and sees all time from beginning to end simultaneously. (“Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty…is always the Present for Him… If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.” This is from MERE CHRISTIANITY, chapter 3 “Time and Beyond Time”. Rant over.

I think, in the future, to create alien aliens, I need to stick with changing ONE THING. I tried to do in “Hermit” which morphed into “Cuyuna”. I need to work on this story more because the aliens in it are in a relationship called mutualism (BIOLOGY: symbiosis that is beneficial to both organisms involved). The Pak are immense creatures that dwarf blue whales by several sizes. The Gref are “humanoid” creatures. Both are intelligent, but the Pak are virtually incomprehensible to humanoids of the Unity, where the Gref are understandable – except in their relationship with the Pak.

The Gref live inside of the Pak which moves through space and time without technology – not using ESP or anything we can comprehend, but by manipulating the universe at a quantum string level. (I suppose I cheated there, as well.) The Gref are understandable to us because while they’re “alien”, they’re humanoid, have feelings, and are, more-or-less, Humans with funny makeup wearing weird suits. On the other hand, their relationship with the Pak deserves some work as well…at any rate. Once I take this new insight to “Hermit”, I’ll let you know if I can sell it.

Finally, another story I wrote and have been unable to place, “By Law and Custom”, has a Human and the alien WheetAh, plantimaloids who evolved from Euglena, pitcher plant, Venus flytrap and bamboo-types of ancestors. I’ve only been able to sell one story out of that universe (the Human-WheetAH universe) – perhaps because I haven’t been able to make them comprehensible to a reader…we’ll see how this grows!

So? The answer appears to be that it takes effort to think like an alien. CJ Cherryh’s Atevi, whom I’ve mentioned before, are different ONLY in that they don’t love, but ASSOCIATE. If my WheetAH, for example, are primarily plants and use stellar energy to synthesize sugars, supplementing that with dropping proteins into their “stomach”, how does that change how they perceive their world – and us? Good questions I need to ponder…


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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