Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I like my aliens believable

Have you ever noticed how often ‘Aliens’ (especially in the movies or the TV) are humanoid? They usually have two arms, two legs and one head, two eyes and they speak with a mouth. Or maybe four arms or legs just for variety. Cast a glance at the Cantina scene in Star Wars IV (The first one, ‘A New Hope’), or even the new arrivals, the beings in the movie Avatar, who are ten foot tall, blue Cherokees.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, in a way, nothing. After all, we’re not talking intelligence here, we’re talking technology. Sure, you can have all sorts of aliens inhabiting other worlds. Look in a pond on Earth, or in the ocean trenches or in the deepest caves. Life abounds in all sorts of conditions. But not much of it uses technology. Take dolphins; acknowledged to be very, very smart. But I can’t see your average dolphin building a spaceship. To do that, it seems you need first the desire and secondly the digits to make it happen.

Enter the opposable thumb. Oh, and some brains. And suddenly all those humanoid aliens become a little more understandable. You need things like fingers to build machines. So smart lizards would fit the bill. Very common, your lizard-like alien – especially if it’s a baddy.

Okay, so there might be other ways of building technology that we quite literally cannot imagine. That’s not much use to a writer, is it? So let’s accept that our aliens will have to have some way of getting around (we call them ‘legs’ in our part of the universe) and some means of manipulating material (fingers, hands). But there are other issues. There are a lot of ‘earth-like’ planets in the galaxy with the possibility of liquid water, a reasonable temperature range, and not so much variation in size that gravity will be a huge issue. What about the atmosphere? What if there’s too much oxygen? Or not enough? We need breathing apparatus if we go above a certain altitude on our own planet, or to go down into the water which occupies two thirds of its surface. So it’s pretty hard to imagine all those aliens in the cantina scene all comfortably breathing Tatooine’s air. Yes, I know some of them wore respirators or some such. But not very many.

Really, when you start looking at the difficulties, the solution used by more and more SF writers makes a stack of sense. Bioengineered planets, terra-formed to suit humans. You’ll find them in Elizabeth Moon’s books and Jack McDevitt’s books among others.

I must say also that I find it difficult to imagine why the inter-stellar inhabitants of a planet like (say) Jupiter would ever want to come to Earth and do more than take a passing look. Always assuming, of course, the amorphous blobs living in Jovian storms subject to enormous gravity would bother to build a space ship. So they get here from their star system and then what? Wouldn’t they be more likely to eye off Jupiter? Now this assumption puts paid to a lot of space wars. Why bother, after all?

Which is why the Ptorix (aliens in my book The Iron Admiral) evolved on a world similar to ours and live on worlds similar to ours. We are cosmic rivals trying to share a galaxy.
The Ptorix don’t look humanoid, but they do have tentacles. They have two mouths, one for eating which looks rather like an insect’s proboscis, and another for speaking. They have three eyes set on top of a conical ‘head’ which enable them to see most of the way around them and they see different light spectra to us.

Here’s a brief description of them from The Iron Admiral : Conspiracy.

They followed the crowd into the cavernous main hall. Most of the passengers were Humans, probably getting out while they could. Just like us. Sean headed toward the flight schedule displayed in the middle of the main hall while Allysha waited, arms folded, foot tapping on inlaid tiles, eyes flicking around the hall. The building glittered around her, all curved walls and ornate embellishment, busy with people and luggage. A Ptorix voice rose above the echoing din and she started, nerves jangling. No. The two conical forms approaching her had pale blue fur and wore elaborately decorated, green robes. High caste business people, she’d guess. The writhing tentacles at the ends of each of four arms betrayed tension, nervousness maybe, but not alarm. They passed her, appearing to glide in their floor-length costumes.

Hard to believe that the sight of a Ptorix would frighten her. Then again, she would never have imagined the violent demonstrations, crowds of Ptorix brandishing placards saying ‘Humans Out’ rampaging through the streets, attacking human businesses, looting, even assaulting passers by. She shuddered at the memory.’

Oh, by the way, there is NO possibility of a half-human, half-Ptorix. There is no tab A for slot B and even if there were, the chromosomes and other bits simply wouldn’t match. Sorry about that.

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Greta wishes she was born a thousand years or so in the future, where space ships zip around the Galaxy and people have adventures on exotic worlds. Well, if you can’t be there, why not write about it? And slap in a healthy dollop of romance, too? She lives not far from the sea in Queensland, Australia. When she’s not writing she enjoys photography, cooking and the beach.


  1. I love that your aliens are so different than humans, Greta. Species have evolved in so many different ways here, the odds of an alien species from another world looking similar to and being able to interbreed with humans seems next to nil. (Unless of course they have seeded, created, or are the forebearers of humans, as some stories portray them. That I can buy.)

    And yes, like your aliens, opposable thumbs are a good thing, but there are other ways to have dexterity--tentacles, prehensile appendages, cilia, spined fins, any number of ways that might allow an alien to assemble things or push buttons.

  2. I like your argument,Greta. I remember my editor asked why all my characters were humanoid, and my main reason was that we'd probably associate more with races that we had something in common with, like we tend to associate more with people we share interests with. And being that even among other humans, we often base dislikes and even wars on the most ridiculous little differences, the chances of us being friendly with something remotely on our own personal yuck list is pretty remote. (pardon the cynicism).

  3. Great post, Greta! I honestly think some of the "human aliens" (in old TV/Movies at least) had something to do with the difficulty of special effects. I noted in the animated Star Trek series, they immediately had more non-human crew members.

    Still, an infinite number of possibility of lifeforms and we've seen/imagined very few!

    Reminds me of a line from Star Trek the Undiscovered Country: "The Federation is nothing more than a homo sapiens only club."

    I love that you write non-humanoid aliens!

  4. Thanks all for the comments. I don't see it's all too hard to build a relationship with non-humanoids. At least, I hope not. We do it with dolphins, don't we? I don't doubt there will be plenty of prejudice - but that's humans. Anyway, I think the odds of encountering anything remotely like humans out there is vanishingly small.


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