View Full Version : Aliens

09-23-2004, 05:12 AM
Just to get the ball rolling on this, I thought I'd put it in the form of a poll....

When creating an alien race for a story, which do you think is most important and why?

09-23-2004, 05:15 AM
Almost forgot -- for fantasy writers, feel free to substitute 'non-human races' for 'aliens'.

09-23-2004, 05:48 AM
Most important in what way? To creating them? To their role in the story? To how sexy they are?

(I'm hoping you'll say the last one:grin )

09-23-2004, 06:06 AM
:lol I should have put that up as a choice!

Good questions. Their role would vary from story to story, so I guess what's most important to a writer when creating them would be a better angle for the discussion. I personally have not done alien races yet in any of my very limited fiction writing, so I'm quite curious what process other skiffy and fantasy writers go through.

09-23-2004, 06:27 AM
I put "All of the above," because depending on the story, any one of them could be the most important element. It depends where you, the writer, want the story to go.

09-23-2004, 06:44 AM
I put "all of the above," too. I think of it like a character sketch. Even if you don't use all of the infomation you create, the more complete your information about an alien species, the more convincing your portrayal will be.

09-23-2004, 07:56 AM
My gut reaction was "their society," but I can see where each one could be important in different stories. I think I would concentrate more on their society so that the aliens wouldn't just look like humans in disguise. You know, they've got green skin and two heads, but they act just like us. Society and technology affect each other, so I think I'd want to work them out at the same time. Of course if the story is about aliens that we're trying to kill, then their appearance and biology might be more important.

09-23-2004, 08:11 AM
All the points are important, but I voted for their society. I think who they are culturally is what's going to have the greatest impact storywise... at least in my stories.

But I have to agree with HConn that how sexy they are is pretty important too. :p

09-23-2004, 08:19 AM
I say "all of the above" as well, but with this reservation:

It depends...
Often, just the word 'alien' denotes a strange appearance (which goes hand-in-hand with their biology). But without some description of the beings' society and technology, the result is a cardboard cutout. In "War of the Worlds," the 'martians' are merely evil. Where we are shown a high level of technology (greater than our own--and this is common) and a distinct difference in biology, we are left to imagine any sort of culture. I'd say the same holds with the alien in "Alien." In O.S. Card's "Speaker for the Dead" and in Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky," the aliens are more fleshed out, with clear descriptions of biology, society, level of technology as well as apperance.

Then there are the so-called human-like 'aliens' in the Star Trek TV shows. As far as I'm concerned, they don't meet my criteria of alien. I believe there was one STNG show that explained why all the 'alien' cultures the crew of the Enterprise comes across are so often humanoid.

09-23-2004, 08:47 AM
The most important thing is how the readers and human characters respond to the aliens. Everything else is subservient to that.

09-23-2004, 09:30 AM
Although I was tempted to clk All of the above, I decided that how they look like is probalby the most important first, since I would like to try and imagine what they look like before I start worrying about other things (which I can probably pick up in the book anyway).

09-23-2004, 09:56 PM
The most important thing is how the readers and human characters respond to the aliens. Everything else is subservient to that.
Great point.

Terra Aeterna
09-24-2004, 12:23 AM
I chose "their society" because I'm an Anthropologist, so I couldn't help myself. :P

I think the other replies about how the reader reacts, and "it depends" are much better answers.

Flawed Creation
09-24-2004, 05:22 AM
the society.

the society is what makes aliens alien.

now, in fantasy, some times a race isn't meant to be alien. if a race is closely integrated into trhe h7uman society and was created around the same time, they may not be very different, culturally.

but alien need to be different from people where it counts- the way they think and act.

09-24-2004, 05:41 AM
I believe there was one STNG show that explained why all the 'alien' cultures the crew of the Enterprise comes across are so often humanoid
Yeah. They found a billion-odd year old recording from a projenitor race of all the humanoid races in the galaxy. What they didn't explain is how Picard's tricorder was able to play it. :b

PS -- found it here. (http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/series/TNG/episode/68598.html)

09-24-2004, 09:15 AM
I picked all of the above, but I think of the four, technology would be the LEAST of my concern. Some alien species have no or low technologies... think "Alien" -- what a classic.

09-24-2004, 11:34 AM
What they didn't explain is how Picard's tricorder was able to play it.That, my friend is pure bolognium. :lol

In the link you gave, there is this:
Picard and Beverly quietly retrieve a partially fossilized sample. Unnoticed, they feed the sample into their tricorder. The mysterious program is activated, and a humanoid hologram recorded billions of years ago appears before them. Who goes on to explain everything we need to know...convenient, huh?

09-24-2004, 06:22 PM
Pthom, as I remember the episode, the hologram wasn't a convenient expository device. It was the prize at the end of the quest.

And the universal translator is 100% bolognium. But at least Star Trek bothered to wave their hands at the "Everyone speaks English" convention. Stargate SG1 doesn't even bother.

09-24-2004, 10:57 PM
H, you got me thinking. (my sainted mother thanks you) :grin

Anyway... In our stories, if there is to be alien / human interaction, it would seem that it must be facilitated by something like Star Trek's universal translator. Bolognium such a device might be, but the alternative of having every alien culture speaking perfect English is far worse as HConn has pointed out.

So ... how do you have your races interact?

I remember reading the story that the Star Trek original series episode called ARENA (http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/series/TOS/episode/68698.html) was based on, by the late Fredric Brown (http://www.hycyber.com/SF/brown_fredric.html).

In this original version, the human and alien he is fighting never communicate, not verbally anyway, and the outcome is quite different. A brilliant story.

A Pathetic Writer
09-24-2004, 11:10 PM
Anyway... In our stories, if there is to be alien / human interaction, it would seem that it must be facilitated by something like Star Trek's universal translator.

Steven Speilberg would disagree.

09-24-2004, 11:27 PM
I disagree as well, which is why I used the phrase "it would seem". Yes, Close Encounters used light and audio, and ET managed to get his message across with only a few words of English. Yet look at some of the stuff on TV recently: Stargate, Lexx, Andromeda, Star Hunter, etc. They all speak english to each other. I haven't followed those particular shows much because, to be honest, I don't find them to be all that good, so I don't know if they have some explanation for why they can all talk and understand each other.

Mind you, it would be difficult to have an entertaining weekly show without having the characters speak the same language, but the reason they can speak the same language needs to be explained.

The other part of this, and what I'm more intrigued by, is: can entertaining science fiction be produced without resorting to some construct to allow the characters to all speak the same language. Your example of Spielberg shows it can be done, and quite well, as does the original ARENA story I mentioned above.

09-24-2004, 11:35 PM
Chunk, earlier this year I finished a screenplay about an alien invasion--they learned English by watching tv broadcasts on the way to Earth.

Man, did that script get savaged. Lions don't tear apart an antelop carcass so thoroughly. Yikes!

Anyway, you can always fall back on telepathy, if you have to.

APW, why are you mentioning Spielberg in the sf/f forum? :b

09-25-2004, 12:48 AM
Lions don't tear apart an antelop carcass so thoroughly
Ouch! I should be glad my rejections have all been generic forms without comments (so far, he said looking warily over his shoulder).

09-25-2004, 05:27 AM
I read a couple of (not so great) romance/sci-fi novels where the aliens (who were close enough to humans to interbreed) used subliminal messages to learn English (they put tape recordings under their pillowcases at night, and woke up the next morning speaking English.) :wha

So ... how do you have your races interact?

In my fantasy novel, the races each have their own language, but they've been interacting long enough that the human language has become the dominant one used in inter-racial interactions, for a couple of reasons that make sense to me, as opposed to being bolognium. One, there are many more humans than their are of either elves or dwarves, and two, the elves and dwarves mistrust one another so much that they don't speak to each other, and the humans are the intermediaries.

Speaking of translations, I was just playing around over here:

Free Translation Online (http://translation2.paralink.com/)

I typed in:

Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Translated it from English to Russian, then from Russian back to English. Here's what came out:

Our Father in Heavens,
Consecrated to be your name.
Your kingdom arrives, you will be made on the ground as it is in heavens.


Universal translators that can decode and translate unknown languages may indeed be possible in the future, but for now, we've got to perfect translators that can translate known languages into other known languages.

09-25-2004, 05:52 AM
How true, Yesh. I just tried the same thing with the classic "We come in peace" and ended up with "We enter into the world".

Another story I remember is one where first contact is made and the earth crew spends days trying to communicate with the alien ship. Finally the breakthrough is made when a human engineer (I believe) manages to tell his alien counterpart a dirty joke.

You never know where you'll find common ground.

09-25-2004, 05:55 AM
Anyway, you can always fall back on telepathy, if you have to.:rollin
I just finished reading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0312856830/102-8055255-1568165?v=glance). He tells the story from several POVs. We see events through the eyes of the humans, of course, but also through the eyes of the aliens. When the POV is alien, there are only small clues (at first) that they ARE alien; their actions, mode of speech, interpersonal interaction seem most human (a very good technique, IMHO).

When it comes time for the humans and aliens to interact, he uses a technique I've not seen before: some of the humans are "focused" (have a controlled virus that enables extra-human mental ability) and they figure out (among other things) the alien language. The only way communication between the two species can occur is through these focused "zipheads" as he calls them.

I haven't written any aliens ... yet. But I have read innumerable stories that have them. I am curious. How important is it in your science fiction to have aliens at all? And what purpose do they serve? To give the story a sense of other-worldliness? To provide an antagonist? To give Hollywood makeup artists a challenge? ;)

09-25-2004, 06:40 AM
I'm fairly confident in my saying that if I ever do write a more sci-fi based story/novel, it won't have aliens in it. I mean, if the plot calls for it, but all means go ahead, but my interest in science fiction is more of the science/technology aspect, not other life forms etc.

09-25-2004, 07:43 AM
There's an old classic story that someone translated "Out of sight, out of mind" into another language and someone translated it back, and came up with "an invisible lunatic".

I love Stargate, but the language thing does bug me, especially as they were very thorough about it in the original film. And have you noticed in Star Trek, if someone wants to speak in Klingon or something for dramatic effect, the UT suddenly doesn't work?

09-26-2004, 04:49 AM
:lol So true, Nyki! I like hearing actual Klingon spoken in Star Trek. I thought it was so cool in the original movie when the Klingons spoke with subtitles.

Pthom, a good point you make about the necessity for aliens. (when the hell did I start talking like Yoda? sheesh!)

Anyway, should you put aliens in there just because they're neat, or should they serve the story on a deeper level? Perhaps one good reason for having aliens is to try for an outside perspective on us humans. Get too out there and the story could be tough to read, but if you don't make your aliens different enough, then you don't have the perspective you need.

09-26-2004, 05:42 AM
but if you don't make your aliens different enough, then you don't have the perspective you needMaybe this could be a good thing? Some of the better SF stories I've read involved beings from another planet who were much like humans in appearance, but with a difference. It is that difference that must be there, I think, or as you say, why bother?

The neat thing about science fiction with aliens, is that we're given a plot theme not obviously available in most other genres: man against beings more intelligent (powerful, wiser, etc.) than himself. Now of course, someone will say "not true, Mr. Pthom! What about man against God?" And I say, "Fine. But now, have your characters meet God and shake His hand. ... And, do it in outer space." ;)

Flawed Creation
10-12-2004, 11:22 PM
Allyour base are belong to us!

you have no chance to survive make your time.

www.planettribes.com/allyourbase/ (http://www.planettribes.com/allyourbase/)

i think that the subject fo aliens is perhaps the biggest difference between sci-fi and fantasy. sci-fi aliens, IMO, should be ttruly alien. they have originated under conditions unlikely to be anythinglike earth, will have evolved a completely different culture, etc.

fantasy races genereally inhabit the same world as humans, and are often very humanlike. in many worlds different races have been created by different gods. each wants something somewhat different from their followers, but the basic conditions of the world are the same, and frequently cultural values.

furthermore, often the races have developed together.

so fantasy aleins should be more human than skiffy aliens

10-13-2004, 07:40 AM
Except, of course, those from unspeakable demon worlds. Nothing can be too far overdone for them.

11-29-2004, 06:49 AM
I think a lot of folks want aliens to be different when the odds favor them being very much like us in the values they hold. Consider this for one thing. You can't discount Maslov's Hierarchy of Needs (hope I got the title and attribution correct). No matter what you apply it to, it applies. Every creature, intelligent or otherwise, seeks to survive and seeks out its needs in specific orders. Many might not ever get to the level of needing socialization or communication with others, but the needs of food, shelter when needed, and such are requirements that simply can't be ignored. To do so is to risk failing to survive. An intelligent alien, however, can be expected to have almost the same needs as an intelligent human.

Also, keep in mind that aliens are not very likely to be ultra-strong individuals because that would conflict with their development. To demonstrate, let's use humans.

As it was, humans became a dominant species because they were in an ecological niche where they were not the strongest nor the weakest species on Earth. Had they been the weakest, they probably would have become extinct. Had they been among the strongest, they would have no need of developing tools and weapons.

It was by virtue of being in a middle ecological niche that they were forced to stand together as a group and develop their minds along with an understanding of their surroundings and the tools for dealing with their environment. Consequently, they developed clothing and shelters for living in hostile environments. They developed tools to make those and weapons. The weapons gave them the ability to hunt food that they couldn't hope to catch. That also gave them the ability to expand into other areas that would have been otherwise inhospitable.

A successful, intelligent alien species would also have to be from a middle ecological niche as well. Without that, they'd have no incentive. After all, when's the last time anyone saw a grisslie (sp?) bear fly a jet plane?

11-29-2004, 08:01 AM
After all, when's the last time anyone saw a grisslie (sp?) bear fly a jet plane? Can't say that I have. But Larry Niven imagined a race of large cat-like beings (with delicate pink ears) who were large, powerful and not all that smart...the Kzin.

11-29-2004, 10:01 AM
Yes, I read one or two of those. I stand by my statements which means I feel that the Kzin were largely improbable.

Possibly the only exception would be a race that had been modified by others into an intelligent race. Were that the Kzin's situation, though I don't recall enough details about them, it would explain why they weren't very smart since they'd tend to instinctively fall back and rely upon their other attributes.

Euan Harvey
11-29-2004, 11:48 AM
when the odds favor them being very much like us in the values they hold.
I agree. If you're developing an alien race, providing they reproduce sexually (and have two sexes...), then I'd guess their psychology would be much like ours, as evolution would dictate similar cognitive designs (see here (http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html) )

But having said that, think of how peculiar it feels to arrive in a foreign country where you can't read the language, the weather is all wrong, the food smells bizarre and has entirely too many tentacles, and then multiply by ten. That's what it would feel like to walk on an alien planet. Not incomprehensible, but like really really bad culture shock.

Writing Again
11-29-2004, 02:04 PM
I like individuals. Any given individual is going to have differences from its group. One of the best ways to delineate both the group and the individual is to point out these differences.

Think in terms of a mermaid who cannot swim, a dog who finds burying bones disgusting, and a leprechaun who is allergic to gold, a seagull who flies not for the sake of eating but for the sake of flying alone.

An alien from a man eating society who cannot stand the taste of human flesh.

11-29-2004, 03:50 PM
that the Kzin were largely improbable.Very much so. So are Klingons and Farengi. So is the alien in Alien, although it might be said that such a beastie is more likely than a Farengi.

I think it's VERY hard to come up with an alien (non-humanoid) that isn't in some way comical. Going back to Niven, he invented those things (called Moties because the humans didn't know what they called themselves) in The Mote in God's Eye (http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue102/classic.html) and The Gripping Hand (http://www.booksforabuck.com/sfpages/sf_04/gripping_hand.html), which, although bipedal had three arms, one of which was extra large. Implausible? Yeah, perhaps--except Niven put enough thought into the design of these creatures so as to suspend my disbelief at least for the purpose of the story.

He also has some pretty darned good aliens in Legacy of Heorot (http://www.larryniven.org/reviews/159.htm) and Beowulf's Children (http://www.larryniven.org/reviews/beowulfs_children_review.htm), none of which were humanoid at all. I think these particular aliens were more probable than the Moties or the Kzin mainly because there was little attempt to "anthropomorphize" them. In the story they behave in very alien (and mostly misunderstood) ways.

12-01-2004, 02:50 PM
The mention of H.R. Giger's Alien (or Xenomorph, as it is alternately called) will always drag my attention. i've long felt that the only plausible nature of such a non-sentient or quasi-sentient beast would be as a biological weapon that ran astray.

For example: complex organisms tend to specialize within their native environment and be utterly helpless outside of it. So, just the fact that the Xenomorph is so survivable across a wide spectrum of envronments, implies that some intellect designed it to be so.

i could ramble endlessly about the creature... it strikes me as a work of dramatic impact, with traits designed more with an audience's reaction in mind than with attention to plausible biological detail.

And i suppose the above raises one central question about introducing aliens: are they present for the purpose of exploring a plausible speculation, for provocative etertainment, or both? Answer that, and the story likely will write itself...

Euan Harvey
12-01-2004, 03:14 PM

Yes, the alien in the Legacy of Heorot was cool, but basically it was a frog with go-faster stripes. What I'm saying is that thinking of a non-humanoid and non-sapient alien is basically thinking of some kind of animal, which is considerably easier than creating a culture, which is what creating a sapient alien requires.

I thought the Moties were pretty convincing, and I also thought Niven had worked out the consequences of their biology in enough detail to make it work (trying not to give away the plot).

12-01-2004, 05:26 PM
What I'm saying is that thinking of a non-humanoid and non-sapient alien is basically thinking of some kind of animal, which is considerably easier than creating a culture, which is what creating a sapient alien requires.Absolutely.
Niven ... worked out the consequences of their biology in enough detail to make it work Yes he did.
For another example of a sapient culture, well thought out, and most convincing, read A Deepness In The Sky (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0812536355/104-7382962-2769536?v=glance&vi=reviews) by David Brin. I won't say more; just go read it.

And, of course, there's the complex biology of the planet Lusitania in OSC's Speaker For The Dead (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0812550757/104-7382962-2769536?v=glance), and he handles the human-alien interface well. But I like Brin's "spider" culture better.

01-23-2008, 12:56 PM
For me, it's their biology. I have three differant elemental races... one comes from a volcanic planet where magma boils over most of the surface; the second comes from a watery realm, where there is very little dry land; the third comes from a planet of solid ice. For my three races, I have to know a great deal about their biology in order to make it believeble for creates to live on a planet of fire or a planet of ice, and I have to explain also how both are able to come here and live comfortably on our planet earth as well.

The easiest race for me to explain is the water race, mostly because I can base them largely on mermaid myths.

I went ahead and made it even harder on myself, though, by having members of the fire race marry/mate with members of the ice race, and ended up with a forth (mutnant) race. so of course I had to explain how it was biologicaly possible for that to happen too.

so, I voted biology.

small axe
01-23-2008, 02:39 PM
Alien evolution may be as much shaped by luck or bad luck, as by any sort of rational explanation. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, if you started Life over again on Earth, it's unlikely the existing species would have the forms they have now ... because Darwinian natural selection doesn't determine everything.

There's random genetic mutation at work (and only then can selection find clay to work upon) A random asteroid hit or other ecological disaster might simply erase the "most evolved" or "most intelligent" species out and by bad luck leave the idiots or the non-scientific behind to inherit their world. You may have a species like the Whales who developed Intelligence a million years before they climbed out of the sea again and developed thumbs or tentacles to build Technology.

There is the issue of "memes" and "taboos" at work that might provide a greater Selection force on a species than any one we'd recognize (I dunno, imagine the other great apes evolving after Man's extinction, and they have Intelligence but one great Planet Of The Apes taboo: "Don't build FIRE, because we were there when Man set their world on fire, and we won't make that mistake."

I see most Sci-Fi assume that the aliens who walk out of the Flying Saucers are Technological like WE are. Yes, a machine got them here, but maybe their machines no more define the average alien than they do the average Human: I watch TV, I drive the car, I type on the computer ... and for all my ability to build or repair those things, they might as well be run by ghosts. :)

What, after all, is the great final plot twist of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL ???

That Klaatu isn't the boss, Gort the robot is. Klaatu has just come to warn the Earthlings that they're about to be snuffed out unless we shape up and fast.

Anyway ... my position would be: ALIEN SOCIETY is most interesting to me. It's fun thinking up weird biological shapes ... but what's interesting about PEOPLE is what's inside them. And our challenge on meeting ALIENS won't be so much what they look like as what motivates them, what amuses them, what reaches them inside, in emotion and psychology and soul?

01-24-2008, 09:31 PM
I think this is a question of what role the aliens serve in the story. If this is a "close encounters" story, then perhaps it's the advanced technology that matters more. On the other hand, the aliens of the "Alien" films are ones that - to the best of my knowledge - we're never introduced to anything other than the beings themselves in any of the films or written material (the comics series for those who don't know) - precisely because their society or home world doesn't matter as much as the fact that they're scary and bleed acid. :)

01-24-2008, 10:59 PM
I think this is a question of what role the aliens serve in the story. . :)

I agree. My stories kind of read like Gothic Horror, more than sci-fi, even though the characters are aliens themselves living here on earth. In my stories, their tech. is not important, cause no one really cares much how they got here, fact is they got here and now what are we going to do about it is the over all atitude of the humans.

As I said before, their biology is most important for my stories, because of how I use them in the stories. Society comes in seconds for me and my aliens, because even though they vagly resemble humans and a few of them can pass themselves off as humans, they do not act like humans. Plus since I'm dealing with three differant alien races from three differant parts of the galaxy, I have to deal with three very differant social backgrounds.

I suppose if I used them differantly in the stories, than their tech would be important, but because of how I use them, it isn't.

So, yes, I agree with you. Certain things are more important to differant stories at differant times based on what the story is about and how it is being told.

01-24-2008, 11:01 PM
All because they influence the alien's motivation and provide spectacle for the story.

01-25-2008, 04:22 AM
I think their biology- and not just because I'm a biologist :D

For me at least, once I've got a creature's biology figured out everything else falls into place. If I decide on a language, culture and technology level first, then I have to create a biological profile to fit. This can lead to a contorted little organism. I suppose because I have the background, it makes sense to start with natural history of the species/world first. If I had been a linguistics major instead I'd probably start with the languages.

01-25-2008, 08:20 AM
I'd say biology. It restricts what a race can and can't do. Say worms were smart enough to build spaceships. How would they? They'd need to evolve into a parasitic or symbiotic race. Then that would become a major part of the story. Then their "partners" would be part of the story.
On the other side of things, say humans did have space travel. What would happen if we landed on another planet? Say there's low oxygen levels, or none. And we'd only survive in temperatures ranging from about -20 to 50 degrees celcius and the higher and lower ends would be pushing it for long term survival.