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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 6: The Horrible Alien as a HERO...

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.

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

The other day, I posted the following Tweet: ( “David Brin took time to develop the personality of dolphins in his UPLIFT books…has anyone ever tried to imagine what it would be like to be an intelligent colony of Ichneumonidae?”

What are the Ichneumonidae? Short and sweet. Wasps. Who lay their eggs in living insects (NOT Humans like in the movie “Aliens”! The wasps are where THEY got the idea for the “Aliens” from.)

You can find this family of wasps anywhere on Earth except for Antarctica. They’ve been around since at least the Early Cretaceous (c. 125 mya), but probably appeared already in the Jurassic, laying their eggs inside or on the skin of, the immature stages of countless insects and spiders. They are a major source of “help” for the constant Human battle against insects to keep them away from our food. They are typically solitary insects, and make no nests or colonies of their own. However, they take over colony space once they’ve eaten all the original residents, or the previous residents abandon it.

They aren’t particularly attached to the eggs they lay, either. Once they inject an egg into a host, they include a polydnavirus that suppresses the immune systems of their host insects so the egg can grow unmolested.

There’s also this creepy tidbit: “Various ichneumonoids are used as biological control agents in controlling horticultural or forest pests. An example is the relationship between the species Ichneumon eumerus and its host butterfly Phengaris rebeli. The butterfly larva is a parasite within Myrmica ant nests. The adult wasp searches for ant nests and only enters when they contain the caterpillars. Once inside, they oviposit within the caterpillars and escape the nest by releasing a chemical which causes the worker ants to fight each other rather than the intruding wasp. The wasp eggs then hatch inside the caterpillar and eventually consume and kill the host.”

So, these horrible, “Alien” monsters that have entered our lexicon of “weird and horrifying” monsters, are, in the case of the Myrmica ants, SAVIORS! Do they welcome the marauding Ichneumon with open arms (or legs…or wings as they case may be)? Not at all! The wasp has to release a chemical to keep the ants from hunting it down and killing it – it’s beneficence would be repaid with execution if the wasp didn’t have a magical protection, making it invisible to the ants…

How different would “Alien” have been if instead of showing up to prey on Humans, it was SAVING us from the giant starship pilots? I’ve always assumed they were defenseless, helpless spacefarers, just like the crew of the Nostromo! What if the giants were invading Human space and were about to make Humans into tasty kabobs and hors d'oeuvres with leg bones as toothpicks?

We don’t know, because that wasn’t supposed to be the intent of the movie. The intent was: “They wanted to follow through on Star Wars, and they wanted to follow through fast, and the only spaceship script they had sitting on their desk was Alien.” So, no deep interest in commenting on the state of Humanity. No intent on reflecting on the kinds of thoughts an alien hive mind might have (though technically, Ichneumonidae are NOT a hive mind. They are solitary insects.) Even so, they are strange; they are scary; and they justified saliva rivers of GIGANTIC creepy-crawlies whose sole purpose was, of course, to eat Humans…

But let’s play it out with the Aliens as the heroes.

For the large part, you can’t have them suddenly be intelligent, though the parasitic wasps are indeed independent to an extent. They DO have the behaviors that allow them to create a home for more than a single wasp; they are known to both take over abandoned nests or to simply dig in, eat part of a tree branch and set up housekeeping.

How much difference is there between the Alien and their parasitic wasp ancestors? It might be like comparing Humans with a tarsier (“haplorrhine primates of the family Tarsiidae…the lone extant family within the infraorder Tarsiiformes…all of its species living today are found on a few islands of Southeast Asia…”)

So, let’s move on. We have an individualistic alien civilization descended from parasitic wasps, made up of barely related individuals. There are no family units to speak of, though with technology, I’m sure they’ve identified some sort of useful connections. Those are fleeting and brought up only to gain something.

There are no queens, kings, presidents, or any sort of government we would recognize. So, how have they become space-faring? They CAN cooperate, just as the Ichneumonidae do. They can create cities, but they don’t HAVE relations…except, perhaps with their PREY…certainly kinds of prey are varied based on the species; certainly some prey is larger and can have numerous eggs laid on them. Would the hatchlings, after competing for the food, form bonds? Could intelligent wasps then CHOOSE which eggs would be laid on which hosts in order to create possibilities for relationships that they really have little control over? Would it be a chaotic society without a leader?

What if the biological imperative for the Wasp Saviors was to seek out the Marauders (the giant aliens who seek to devour civilizations)? And what if the Marauders were adorable Teddy Bears?

So, the Wasp Saviors found a ship of Marauder Teddy Bears and attacked, laying Wasp Savior eggs in some of the immature forms of the Marauder Teddy Bears. The newly hatched Wasp Saviors would then thwart the invasion…

Now set up “Alien” in such a situation. Of COURSE Humans have no idea who the Marauder Teddy Bears are or who the Wasp Saviors are.

The Humans enter the crashed starship and find a previously aDORable dead Marauder Teddy Bear and a storage bay full of Wasp Savior eggs. The story set up might be the same, but the outcome COULD HAVE BEEN different if some smart Humans and a smart young Wasp Savior (who accidentally killed a Human and deeply regrets it) communicate, Humans learn that the Wasp Saviors are only working to protect Humans from the first wave of the Marauder Teddy Bears…in THIS story, the Wasp Saviors (aka “Aliens”) aid Humanity…maybe we form a relationship with THEM. Maybe an egg laid in a Human confers some understanding in the hatched young Wasp Savior? What if people, ones with terminal diseases, could CHOOSE to host a Wasp Savior knowing that their death would ultimately protect Humanity from the Marauder Teddy Bears…

What if the Aliens from “Alien” were HEROES?


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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