Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 8: Aliens Only Have To Be Different In ONE Way To Make Them 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 years...so...I 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...

When I create aliens, I have to make sure that they ACT differently. To do that, do I have to change EVERYTHING about them, or can I tweak a single Human characteristic to make an alien?

STAR TREK is guilty of flaunting this to extreme degrees. For example, the ALIEN Vulcan, Sarek, father of Spock, talks to his son about his emotions and gives fatherly advice, even though his dad is fully alien Vulcan and bleeds green blood and Spock is some sort of unbelievable “half-breed”…

The Nova Corp of the Marvel Universe “Guardians of the Galaxy” shows a Nova Prime where rainbow-colored alien bipedal parents walk around on two legs, holding the hands of their children -- exactly like Humans in makeup and funny suits.

STAR TREK, in a rare display of originality shows a silicon mother whose entire civilization has died out and she is the last one alive. When the zillions of eggs she has been guarding hatch, she becomes the mother of a new civilization…My question has always been when she passes on the wisdom of the old civilization, can she change it? Can Mother Horta alter the way things have been done?

In Marc Steigler’s award-winning short story, “Petals of Rose”, a Human works with the incredibly short-lived Rosans, whose entire life is lived in hours; and the Lazarines, whose lifetimes span millennia. Rosans, Lazarine, and Humans are working together to create a way of communicating faster than the laws of physics would allow; creating a sort of LeGuin’s “ansible”. He accidentally becomes the founder of a new religion – based on an idea he had about how memories are passed from Rosan generation to Rosan generation -- they eat a parent and receive their body and much information. He suggest the young eat the brain of one and the body of another...

While aliens need to behave differently, even among HUMANS fathers behave in vastly different ways, varying from loving to brutal to indifferent to entirely absent. Animal “father” behaviors vary just as much. Some males help keep the nest warm while the female hunts. Some males and females mate for life. Some animals perform gang rape…

How different would an alien have to behave in order to be truly alien?

Turns out, not that much. It turns out that I’ve traveled a lot, mathematically slightly more than half way around the Earth. I didn’t just “stop in airports”, either. I spent more than three weeks at the two end points – from FambĂ©, Central African Republic to Incheon, South Korea, and three months in Nigeria and a month-and-a-half in Cameroon and Liberia...NOT in a hotel, but living with indigenous people who were Lutherans.

I have experienced strange behavior everywhere; behaviors that seem inexplicable, performed by Humans.

Two examples. In West Africa, we shared a meal with a group of doctors and nurses. They prepared a regular lunch for us of pounded yam fufu in soup. Fufu has the consistency of uncooked Bisquick (pancake and baking mix). The soup was the thickness of chicken gravy sometimes with a bit of chicken in it, sometimes not. One notable soup was made from okra and had the color and consistency of mucus. Fufu and soup was standard fare, but it was eaten one-handed. We had learned to pinch a small ball of fufu from the larger one it’s served as, roll it into a small ball, swipe it through the soup, then pop it in your mouth, SWALLOWING IT WHOLE. As I said, strange, but we’d learned how to do it.

Our hosts had set the table with Western-style silverware and when we sat down together and said our prayers, they also started to eat – cutting small pieces of fufu, dipping it in the soup – and CHEWING the fufu.

It took only a moment for use to realize that both groups had set out to make the other comfortable by adhering to the customs of the other group – in this case, the SUPPOSED customs of the other group…

In South Korea, it was customary that when adults meet for a meal and the children were not at table, that Soju would be the traditional drink. Soju is a distilled spirit from Korea that’s traditionally made from rice, though it can also be made from sweet potato, barley, tapioca, wheat or any combination of those ingredients. Sometimes called Korean vodka because of its neutral flavor, Soju and Japanese sake are similar, though Sake is fermented and brewed like beer and soju is distilled like vodka.

I’ve been a teetotaler since before most of my peers started drinking, mostly because of familial pressure – they did, I refused. But a shot of Soju was customary in South Korean society. When I was with my son and his best Korean friend, I shocked my son by drinking Soju.

Creating truly alien behavior is impossible – because we’re Humans and we can’t imagine doing things another way. But authors like CJ Cherryh have given us a clue about how that might be done. In her world of the Atevi and Humans, she has altered one behavior: her Atevi had no concept of love. In Atevi the biological drive is expressed by association. Even in an Atevi family unit, there are associations. Love between a couple is an alien concept to the Atevi. They have studied love, of course, because of a large refugee Human population living on their world, but they don’t understand it. It’s this single, foundational and by all appearances insignificant change that has given rise to Cherryh’s exploration of Human-Atevi interaction…for the past 27 years!

One change and figuring out how a civilization would develop based on that SINGLE CHANGE appears to be one important way of creating alien aliens. It might be expressed best by looking at one of the photographs taken of a celebrity and the statement made that the rest of us recognize only the dominant side of the celebrity’s face. If a photo is cut in half, and he NON-dominant side of the face is joined to a mirror image – we don’t recognize the celebrity! (https://www.buzzfeed.com/eglantinerbd/symmetrys-weird-you-guys) One change, and they are ALIENS!

I’ve been working on developing alien civilizations for years. OTOH, I didn’t realize until recently that to create truly alien aliens, all you need to do is change one thing about Humans. That seems to make the weirdest aliens of all. (I just realized that in the WALKING DEAD series, the only difference between Humans and zombies is that the zombies are dead…)

The aliens in WAR OF THE WORLDS? Humans are physically strong, but (let’s face it!) mostly mentally weak; the Martians are physically weak and mentally strong.

How about DUNE? It has no aliens in it. It has altered, sometimes drastically altered (the Guild pilots) Humans and strange Human societies, but everyone pretty much behaves as Humans; even the Fremen, who are in fact…Human.

In STAR TREK, the aliens look weird, but behave in perfectly understandable Human ways – the Klingons represented the Soviet Union, the Federation represented the United Nations. The ice blue Andorians were jealous and angry, but had honor. The Klingon Empire was subsumed into the Federation because…well, because America always wins! The Changelings were supposed to be aliens, but in the end, they just turned out to be Humans in makeup…

SOLARIS was different. It was an intelligent ocean. Now THAT was a weird one! Lem’s intent is best given in his own words: “‘The peculiarity of those phenomena seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity of the Solarian Ocean is beyond the reach of human beings.’ He also wrote that he deliberately chose to make the sentient alien an ocean to avoid any personification and the pitfalls of anthropomorphism in depicting first contact.” He changed one thing: a Human brain, small and simple; became a planet-spanning intelligence. Despite what the movies presented, Solaris couldn’t understand Humans; we couldn’t understand it.

How can I take my WheetAh – plantimals – and change one thing in them to make them alien aliens?

Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg



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 (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) 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. He thinks out loud in print at: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/

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