Friday, April 7, 2023

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 23: Speculative Biology and How It Might Affect Alien Behavior...

Using the Program Guide of the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland in August 2019 (to which I will be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide.

Speculative Biology: An introduction to the art and field of speculative biology (aka speculative evolution). Panelists addressed three questions, focusing on how we make the relevant plants and animals scientifically plausible: What is the future of life on Earth? How might life on Earth have turned out differently if events had occurred differently? What could life on other planets be like?

Dr Helen Pennington: Moderator, Plant Health Evidence and Analysis
Mick Schubert: writer, editor, science consultant: paleontology, evolution, genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology
V Anne Smith: computational biologist
Adrian Tchaikovsky: author

While this was surely a fascinating discussion and I would have loved being there, I wasn’t. I’m using the idea to look at where this subject is leading me.

A novel I wrote (that awaits a more…mature edit than I was able to provide when I finished it) deals specifically with speculative biology. OUT OF THE DEBTOR STARS concerns a Milky Way where there are only two sapient people – Humans (which we know about) and the WheetAH, plantimal aliens who are described as “short, needle-less, barrel cactus-shape” and card-carrying members of the Plant Kingdom (having evolved from Euglena-like, Volvox-like, pitcher plant like, pea aphid-like, green sea slug-like, spotted salamander-like organisms).

Obviously, they should have vastly different ways of viewing the universe.

My problem is that they don’t in my novel.

As part of this universe, I’ve got a single published story in Cast of Wonders (link here: I LIKE the universe, but I don’t think I’ve reached a point where I can write aliens believably – and I’m not sure why.

In another universe I created, I’ve got Humanity desperate to join a Unity of Sapients. In that universe, 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 a partially 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 (though I have it for the Pak/Gref and the Benkaithanintanis), but I’ve got several of them sketched out.

The last is Confluence versus Empire universe. It’s currently confined to exploring one planet, a puffy Jupiter called River. I sometimes refer to this as the River Universe. I’ve got a published story in there (from the defunct PERIHELION Magazine. You can read it here:

In this universe, there are no aliens. 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 – including a Human who is an 18-kilometer across flying manta-ray-like creature whose internal organs and spaces have been rearranged to form a living ambulance.

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 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.

Of the participants above, the only I’ve read is Adrian Tchaikovsky. His CHILDREN OF TIME is an absolute stunning read! Otherwise, he writes fantasy (which is fine, but in most cases, not my cup of tea). The world-building in the first book is amazing and the concepts staggering!

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 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.

So, something I need to get better at is to make my aliens both MORE alien while at the same time being believable:

First: “For aliens to be utterly alien and stay that way, a story still needs to have something understandable for the characters to press against…[This is] the strange paradox that writing about aliens entails across all of fiction. For aliens to remain truly alien, then we must not understand them. But once an alien isn’t understood, we run into the problem above of having no drive for our characters to work toward with regards to the aliens.”

Second: “How will you approach the alien in your story? Will you make them utterly incomprehensible? Where then, will your drive be in relation to that alien? Or will you make them more understood by the characters, acknowledging that you’re losing some of that “utterly alien” factor in exchange for the ability to have drive and vision understood (or capable of being understood) in one or both parties?”

Last: “…it is important to understand the distinctions between them, as well as what kind of story they may help or hinder, so that you can best decide where you will draw the line. Do you want alien aliens? Or do you want aliens, IE sapient beings that are different in culture, thought, society, etc, but that are still understandable for the most part, even if their logic seems strange?”

This is going to take practice. It’s going to take me going back to my note pad and trying to look at this.

I’m also going to pick ONE alien to make more alien…and I think “Marrow-bone & Cleavers” might be the best story to start with! (I’ll let you wonder a little while and come back to it later!)

Resource: ,
Program Book: