Let there be … aliens? — by Mike Weatherford

*As everyone knows I don’t write aliens.  Okay, I’m not saying I never will, because the minute I do that, an entire alien civilization will start dancing in chorus line across my mind, and then I’ll have to write it.  But so far I’ve been too intensely interested by humans to write aliens.  Also, my concept of alien is really alien — things we can’t GET and therefore remain completely outside our perception or are perceived as random forces.  Alternately they’re things like in Puppet Masters, where they might be sentient or not, but the meeting is still disastrous.  That’s a personal thing.  Maybe I was bitten by an alien as a child. In the absence of my going on and on about aliens, Mike Weatherford has been thinking about them on his own, and he very kindly offered to do a post for me, while I’m pushing to finish Noah’s Boy.  (So if I’m relatively quiet in comments, I’m not dead, I’m writing.  The two conditions are eerily similar, actually.  The moving fingers on the keyboard are all that stops my husband holding a mirror to my lips, sometimes.)  Mike writes science fiction.  You should maybe check his work.  (Ignore James Michael Weatherford, he’s clearly an impostor trying to steal Mike’s thunder.)  It’s reasonably priced.  REALLY reasonably priced which means sometime soon I need to meet Mike and talk sternly at him.  He blogs at Old Patriot’s Blog.*

 

Science fiction is the fiction of the future — almost exclusively the future of humanity.  It almost always shows descendants of today’s human population in futuristic settings, doing things that few even consider possible today.  Much of it shows ONLY humans.  A few stories include non-humans, ranging from semi-intelligent to super-intelligent aliens, allied with, indifferent to, or in direct conflict with humanity.  Sometimes aliens are the bad guys, sometimes the good guys, and frequently mostly for scenery or a plot device.

 

How realistic are these depictions?  We’ll never know if/until we meet them.  The one thing that’s certain, however, is that IF you’re writing Science Fiction, and you use alien creatures in your work, how realistic are your characters to your readers?

 

Past depiction of aliens run from human or almost-human to so bizarre they’re almost impossible to relate to.  Some of them work, some of them don’t.  Let’s look at what a realistic alien needs to possess in order to “work” — to appear realistic to readers.

 

One of the major considerations for creating aliens is to construct a realistic social structure.  Individuals, regardless of the type of creature you create, cannot extend beyond its own ability, and no individual can do everything it takes to build civilizations.  To expand beyond the individual requires a social structure, whether it’s the family, tribe, nation-state, planet, or greater.  The more complex the alien civilization, the more complex the social structure needs to be.  This doesn’t mean you have to create that social structure in your book, but you MUST create it in your mind, and remember it when writing your words.  This is THE major blunder writers make when working with aliens.

 

Social structures need advances in individual capability to develop and mature.  That means language, probably art, and definitely science.  It doesn’t mean it has to be anything LIKE human language, art, and science, but that the alien society has developed something similar.

 

No alien is going to get beyond the early hunter/gatherer stage without the ability to create and use tools.  While a multiple-armed tentacled creature could develop the ability to use tools, its society would be definitely more constrained than something like humans with opposable thumbs (it takes a tremendously greater amount of mental activity to control twelve limbs than it does to control two limbs, two hands, and ten fingers.  Intelligence isn’t likely to expand beyond basic tool usage, because too much brain activity is being concentrated in manipulating appendages — or otherwise brains are so huge they don’t fit in confined spaces).

 

Our alien has to have sense organs in order to perceive its environment.  Another strike against our tentacled creature above would be the probable necessity of having a unique sense organ for each of its manipulative appendages.  Coordinating that much information would again require such a huge amount of brain space that there would be little room left for intellectual pursuits.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that our alien’s sense organs need to be the same ones we use.  There may be an alternative to the five senses we employ (sight, touch, hearing, taste, etc.).  There may be a telepathic sense that provides all the external evaluation sensors we employ, or an all-inclusive sense of touch that lets the individual interact with its world.  It isn’t as important what they are as that they exist, and have understandable parameters that establish what they can — and cannot — rely upon their sensors to provide.

 

Those sensors also have to relate directly to the world where they developed.  For instance, let’s say that our aliens developed on the planet around a red dwarf.  Red dwarfs don’t give off enough light for the human eye to function well.  The alien’s eye would have to compensate for that dimness in some way — by a better vision transfer means than our rods and cones, of larger eyes/vision organs, or by the ability to significantly manipulate the vision organ to provide a greater range of operating, such as down into extremely low frequencies.  At the same time, a creature that has developed around an F-type primary needs the ability to restrict the amount of light that enters the sense organ, or they’ll end up with eyestrain.

 

We need to back up just a minute, and inject a little hard science.  When we talk of red dwarfs and F-type stars, we’re talking about stars of different brightness — and also, of different evolutionary development rates.  The best source of information for this is the Hertzsprung-Russell (Hertzberg-Russell) diagram (do a Google search).  ANYONE who wants to write science fiction and wants to get out of the Earth’s solar system should know this information implicitly.

 

The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram plots stars according to their size/surface temperature.  There are three basic groups of stars:  the MAIN SEQUENCE, the WHITE DWARFS, and the GIANTS.  The main sequence stars are divided into CLASSES based on their surface temperature, from the hottest to the coolest.  These solar classes are O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, with a half-dozen other classes to classify the non-main-sequence stars.  An easy way to remember this is the mnemonic “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me.”  Stellar main sequence evolution also relates to size/surface temperature, with the largest stars being the shortest-lived, while the coolest stars live the longest.  This is because of the star’s energy budget:  an O-class star must burn massively more hydrogen than an F-class star, and an F-class star burns significantly more hydrogen than an M-class dwarf.

 

All of this has meaning for your alien civilization.  An O-class super-giant would never exist long enough for a civilization to form before exploding into a supernova, destroying any planets that might exist around it, and any developing civilization that might have existed.  On the other hand, an M-class dwarf would probably not provide enough energy for something akin to plants to develop, much less a civilized society.

 

This doesn’t mean that M-class dwarfs don’t have planets — we’ve already discovered some that do.  They just aren’t a very good choice to find an advanced civilization.  The best, most logical choice would be around the suns that can provide enough energy for a civilization to come into existance, enough longevity for the long, slow evolutionary process to take place, and sufficient energy to keep the process moving.  This pretty much leaves with F-, G-, and K-class stars.  Luckily for us, these groups make up the second-largest number of stars in our galaxy (and any other, for that matter), behind M-class dwarfs.

 

All of this leads us to our next biggest area of consideration:  the environment in which your civilization develops.  That depends on two things:  the output of the source of energy, and the distance from that source where your planets are located — the so-called “inhabitable zone”.

 

What this actually defines is the zone where water can exist as a solid, liquid, and gas, at least during part of its stellar cycle.  This more or less defines the “inhabitable zone” for humans and aliens similar to them.  That DOESN’T mean that some weird form of life can’t exist in other areas, such as the clouds of Jupiter-type planets, the surface of Titan and similar environments, or other areas, just that it’s less likely.  The energy budget for such creatures would be so small their movements would have to be measured over decades, or the source of energy would have to come from other sources, such as gravitational forces that heat Jupiter’s upper atmosphere to temperatures similar to those found from central Europe to the tropics  (Robert L. Forward’s novel “Saturn Rukh” handles this very well, and very intelligibly).

 

So, our alien has to fit his environment, which has to fit his world, which has to fit his sun.  That means his development through stages to intelligence, then up the ladder to where he can at least contemplate life elsewhere, to where he can physically search for that life among the different stars.

 

One other thing needs to be discussed, then I’ll shut up:  sex.  How do you handle alien sex?  You cannot ignore it — just as it’s a main driver of human development, it will most likely be a main driver of alien development.  The drive to reproduce is what keeps the numbers climbing, and civilization being forced to come up with more and more ways to accommodate the higher numbers.  Civilizations that don’t have a population growth don’t have any other kind of growth, and soon die.

 

Alien sex can be anything from asexual (very unlikely, but possible, especially on a planet with surface conditions similar to Titan) to requiring up to a dozen individuals to succeed (very possible, especially on a planet around a very active sun, where multiple copies of the genetic record are needed to keep mutations from destroying the society).  Sex, like the other characteristics of your alien, are shaped by its environment, not our wishful thinking.

 

The following is just a personal evaluation of aliens, and only shows how I have developed and depicted the aliens I have used in my stories.

 

I believe that there are far more planets in our galaxy than most scientists are willing to admit.  I also think that much of the identification of large, close-in gas giants is actually the detection of multiple planets, instead of one.  I can’t see gas giants being viable around F-type and hotter suns.  The solar wind would strip any atmosphere they may have from them, leaving a rocky core which would be significantly smaller than what’s being measured.

 

I also believe life is far more pernicious than most people think.  Life is found everywhere on the planet Earth that it can exist, from the permanent snow line to the deepest depths of the oceans.  I would expect life to develop wherever there was the possibility for it, which would include an energy budget to allow it to exist, the raw materials for that type of life, and the time for it to have evolved.  (I also believe that when God created life, He created the OPPORTUNITY for life to develop – a viable energy budget, the raw materials, and a gentle nudge based upon the laws that govern the universe [created by God, so they're God's Laws].

 

With life, Intelligence should also have developed.  That does NOT mean it’s “our” kind of intelligence, or even something we can understand — just that intelligence will develop anywhere there’s the possibility for it.  All in all, I think we have a lot of friends – and enemies – awaiting us once we learn how to get to them.

121 responses to “Let there be … aliens? — by Mike Weatherford

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    I’m skeptical about “intelligent life we *can’t* understand” when it develops on planets similar to Earth. IMO the big problem with intelligent aliens from such worlds will be cultural. We can see “interesting” differences in culture even on Earth. So cultural differences between humans and intelligent aliens are very likely.

    Of course, if the intelligent aliens developed on planets very different from Earth, then the intelligent aliens can be extremely difficult to understand.

    In general, I believe that a writer that creates intelligent aliens impossible to understand is a sloppy writer. He/she doesn’t want to do the work to make the aliens understandable.

    • I don’t know Paul. It is possible to have aliens in an Earth like environment that we don’t get at all. There’s all sorts of OTHER paths their development could take. Say, mostly under water… Or worse. IMHO the best aliens are Heinlein’s, and he never makes them FULLY understandable. There are WAY too many choices you can take along the line that result in humans not even realizing your sentient. For instance, we’re not absolutely sure elephants AREN’T sentient and DON’T have a complex language. (Latest indications are both of these might be true.) And h*ll, they’re our brother-earthlings.

      • we know dolphins are sentient (at least I am pretty sure of it)– (at least the scientists do) It is very hard to have a culture similar to hours when you live in an ocean environment with no hands or disposable thumbs. (Dolphins can learn sign language and do tasks– they were used for military operations etc)

        And then how about the animals that use us for food and clothing– Don’t tell me they aren’t smart and haven’t figured it out. We just haven’t. ;-) The scale for intelligent animals is how they work for us. it doesn’t measure how they work for themselves. Even ravens are pretty smart and rats. They are not all instinct-driven like the scientists first believed.

        • oops I mean aposable =– does anyone have disposable thumbs… tissue like?

          • No, but THAT would make a GREAT alien.

          • Something similar enough happens on Earth. Google “autotomy.” Also, many diseases can cause humans to lose digits or limbs. Alas, we don’t just have to wait until our next molting for them to come back.

            I read a story a long time ago (too long to remember the title or author) about two children. The human child was horrified that the alien lost some of his memories as he grew up, and the alien was horrified that the human lost some of his teeth.

        • Humanity has been colonized and enslaved by a predator species that uses us for food and shelter. Meerrrowwwwww.

          • My cat says that you misunderstand the greatness of felinity and their civilizing mission.

            • TXRed, no offense, but explain the greatness of sitting on the back of my chair with a 13 lbs little fuzzy butt, guaranteed to take a flying toss when I get up to go get coffee?

              Oh, wait. Havey’s mission is to keep me writing. Ya’ll are paying him, right?

              I see.

            • To the contrary, I admire and respect the utter ruthlessness with which they have pursued this project, sacrificing members of their race in order to disguise their intent.

              I do wonder whether those who claim that we are but pawns in a long-standing competition between feline and canine species might be correct.

              • I prefer to think of it as co-evolution of humans and other domesticated animals. But, you know, cows and sheep really got the bad end of the deal.

                • If you have ever had much experience dealing with them, you may very well believe cows and sheep got exactly what they deserved ;)
                  I have often said that the reason God constantly compares people to sheep in the bible, is because sheep were the stupidest animal he could think of.

                  • well… also because if He’d said “you’re like Havelock-cat” no one would have got it. Havelock is the first of my cats not to be able to tell which way I’m facing. (I wish I were joking.) He randomly tries one side of me, and if he gets no pets (he also can’t tell if I’m asleep) he tries the other side. He keeps this up till pets materialize. It’s … uh… interesting.

                  • Oh yea– sheep esp. domesticated sheep will follow each other into danger. Not all sheep are stupid though. I like goats actually. Cows are pretty smart– especially range cows and really grouchy though. Dairy cows are very different.

                    • Pigs also get a really bum rap. I raised pigs as a 4-H project. I found that my brood-sow could be trained better than my hunting dog, and was far more loyal. I taught her to sit, roll over, play dead, stand on command, stay, and nastiest of all, to attack. She could also distinguish between attack and cause bodily harm, and attack and frighten. I’ll guarantee that 700 pounds of hog, with a mouth almost a foot wide, running at a full gallop, you WILL be afraid.

                      We had a family of really BAD kids in our neighborhood (two or three of them, actually). Three of the oldest boys jumped our pasture fence and decided they were going to beat me to a pulp (there were reasons). Two were carrying baseball bats, and one a piece of pipe. I let them get to within about twenty feet, and gave Emily the signal to attack, no holds barred. One of them made it back across the fence. The other two spent WEEKS in the hospital. Of course, that got me in trouble with the local sheriff, until I showed him that she was only doing what I’d taught her — to protect me, and that she was fully under my control. He turned a little white after the demonstration.

                      I’ve found that being free-range increases the IQ of any domesticated animal.

                    • Yes– pigs can be very dangerous– have you seen the wild pig shows. Plus they are very smart in the wild. Pigs are very loyal as well– Great story Mike–

                    • Ever read Harry Harrison’s The Man From P.I.G.? It strongly supports your contention about porcine intelligence.

          • You guess my ssssssseeeeeecccret. meow

            • I think the cats are quite happy having their “owners” doing all the hard work to keep them warm, fed and content. Dogs? Dogs are just hoping we keep spilling table scraps to complement the kibble.

          • Russell wrote my favorite stories on that theme. “Into Your Tent I’ll Creep” and “Homo Saps”.

            • I have been trying for years to recall the author/name of a story in which a human ship lands on a world populated by aliens so far advanced above us that they virtually ignore us until one member of the party (the female, indicating the vintage of a story that contemporary notions of sexism did not prevail) finds acceptance in the role of a pet for the aliens.

              I keep thinking it to have been Mack Reynolds, but would suit the sense of the absurd that Eric Frank Russell or William Tenn might equally have composed it.

              • I’ve read quite a bit of Russell and Tenn (but certainly not everything), and I don’t recall a story quite like that. I haven’t read much Mack Reynolds. He wrote two stories with a similar theme, but I don’t think either Dog Star or Fido is the one you’re thinking of.

                • It has been on the order of 30+ years since I read much of any of those (although when I read them I read all I could find) so we’re talking pretty old memory.

                  OTOH, I recall Tenn’s Null-P as if I had read it yesterday.

              • Wayne Blackburn

                Are you sure you’re not confusing that story where the aliens put the humans into a “cage”, until one of them made a pet of a little animal, then they were let out of the cage on the notion that “sentient creatures are the only ones who keep pets”?

                Not that I know the name of that story, either, but if that’s the one, it may help to identify it.

                • Can’t be sure of anything that far back in Time’s rear-view mirror, but I distinctly recollect the away team consisting of two guys and a gal, with the gal being the one to figure out the aliens would only acknowledge them as pets.

    • Look, we’re talking about aliens. They ARE going to be different from us, even if they were close enough to us for us to interbreed (doubt that will ever happen, but then…). Part of it would be cultural, of course, but a larger part of it would probably be environmental. It could be anything from how they interact with plants and lower animals to how they adapt to their environment, or adapt their environment to them. Consider an alien that is a 99.999% biological match to humans,but grows up on a world where the seismic activity and volcanism is ten to twelve times that of Earth. They would have to evolve both physically and culturally/technologically to deal with that. Another hypothetical point is, what if you have a planet whose atmosphere is identical to Earth to six decimal places except for water vapor. The planet has no oceans, but does have some middling-sized lakes. Yet the environmental adaptation by an intelligent being would have to be significant. For one thing, they couldn’t sweat like we do and still evolve to where they use tools. They’d be forced to drink almost constantly. What they would probably devise is a different way to shed excess heat, and a skin that didn’t permit water to be so grossly wasted.

      • Dietary requirements are a great place to show species differences. For example, what if your aliens thrive on a diet rich in plants that have a high alkaloid content? The first human that eats a salad on that planet is going to be in for a nasty surprise, ranging from hallucinations to death. Was it a mishap or was it murder? Or you have an obligate carnivore who encounters a bunch of vegans. The results could range from mildly awkward to horrific to a moment of black humor to who knows what.

        As an aside, my MC is a biped, is 5′ 3″ tall (160 cm). She really likes being taller than her employers, who are preferential quadrupeds that stand 3-4′ tall at the shoulder. But she also has to watch out for low doorways for the first time in her life (aside from when she’s in spaceships).

        • I am minded of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, where alkaloids are indeed common in much of the foods, and anytime the human viewpoint character is around, the people who don’t want to poison him (at least, not accidentally) are rushing around making sure that they have stuff on his “safe” list. It’s a bit like having a Really Bad allergy, I suspect…

          I do love a good alien viewpoint book.

  2. I freely admit to cheating and using RPG sourcebooks while keeping the civilization details kind of simple. Agree with the “must have it in your head” though, as no one wants to be the person who gets a penalty flag thrown on them (“Lack of Continuity, fifteen yards, repeat first down…”).

  3. People do tend to underestimate animals.

    On the other hand, I think we mostly get the generalities of what drive animals, if not the specifics. After all, we share a lot of the same fundamental needs and desires. Food, shelter, children, etc. This is what makes food the universal bribe when interacting with animals. :-P

    As for aliens – how could alien animals (well, animal analogues) be alien? Well, suppose your explorers met something that rebuffed their attempted bribes of marshmellows and beef-sticks – they aren’t interested in food because they don’t need it. How is that possible? – they might be photosynthetic, but with enough solar energy to be ambulatory – what needs would such a creature have then? Why would it be ambulatory? Maybe it needs to escape predators. Maybe it needs to follow the day-night terminator of a tide-locked planet as it orbits the star to stay in the light, but avoid being cooked. Maybe they get their energy from some ambient source like orbiting through an extremely strong magnetic field. Then their needs would be territory over which to spread some sort of inductive collector. They would be territorial, and utterly uninterested in what the redshirt-of-the-week is trying to feed it.

    Even weirder – what sort of creature wouldn’t need children? All life has to perpetuate somehow – what’s leftover is the stuff that somehow made sure it is represented in the future. But if not in terms of new generations, then the creatures must be functionally immortal and capable of spreading themselves via budding. How might such organisms be able to innovate traits in the absense of something like sexual selection? Perhaps they trade genetic material like some bacteria do to a limited extent, but rather than using it to produce offspring with mixed traits, they grow new pieces/organs to their bodies.

    • For that matter the ultimate bribe for training children is— drumroll food. Yes, very interesting concepts Mad Scientist. ;-)

    • First of all, you have to decide what kind of energy budget you have to work with. A creature that lived by photosynthesis (or something similar) would require a significant energy budget in order to be ambulatory. That’s why plants aren’t. That energy budget means the animal has to live either much closer to its primary, or around a much more energetic star — while at the same time having enough water vapor in the air or a thick enough skin to stop the significant increase in radiation, and the risk of genetic mutations that would probably be deadly. See how it all links together? BTW, it would have to be a pretty large creature, which means a smaller planet and less gravity if it’s going to evolve to the tool-using stage.

    • What would be the consequences of a multi-partite entity, say, a hive mind? Perhaps it unifies its individual components through the electromagnetic spectrum or pheromones or (since we still lack any clear understanding of Why — as opposed to How — living entities differ from non-living ones) perhaps spiritually?

      Such a creature might practically be immortal and have no need of “reproduction” as such, merely growing fatter (more constituents) or thinner (fewer constituents) as conditions permit.

      Or consider an alien race that has transcended biological units, converting its sentience into nano-bot swarms.

    • BTW, back before Xanth became too lucrative to write other things, Piers Anthony wrote a series* that explored various possible means of alien reproduction strategies and methods. A human(-like) MC went through the universe temporarily occupying aliens’ bodies or something like that, for several books. Yes, Piers Anthony wrote alien porn.

      *The series name escapes me at the moment and I am too lazy and indifferent to look it up. Sorry. A quick Wiki check suggests it would be his Cluster series … which would render the sexual encounters … Cluster F*cks?

      • Wayne Blackburn

        Yes, part of the Cluster series involved Anthony speculating as to various alien reproductive modes (most of which I find extremely unlikely, though they were inventive). And I wouldn’t wonder if he had that term in the back of his mind as he wrote them. :-)

  4. BTW, nice article. I hope you don’t mind me throwing all sorts of ideas at the wall in the comment section.

    “I believe that there are far more planets in our galaxy than most scientists are willing to admit. ”

    Have you heard about the Kepler space telescope? It is using a new method that searches for the dip in the received light from a star as a planet transits across the stellar disk. If the transit is periodic, we can separate it from more random events such as sun-spots. This requires the planetary disc to be aligned with the star.

    Long story short – they’ve been finding several thousand planets, including some multi-planet systems that are in truly bizzare configurations (if we’re seeing what we think we’re seeing). They aren’t very much like how planets are distributed around our Sun.

    • Aligned between the star and our line of sight, I mean

    • Kepler is also discovering a lot of much smaller planets than the gas-giants that we can detect through things like the gravity wobble method. It seems the planets are following a 1/r^2 distribution between size and frequency.

      The wobble method is biased in terms of finding close-orbiting gas giants – it can only see very large masses orbiting close to the parent star.

      The starlight nulling methods can get direct images of planets by carefully blocking out the host star, but again only very large planets orbiting very far from the stars.

      What we have right now is data that is heavily truncated by the limitations in our methods, but with better methods we are seeing much more of what is out there.

      • I keep track of what is put out about the Kepler telescope, and anything else I can find to follow about astronomy, along with about 40 other things. That’s one of my biggest problems – reading all the interesting stuff I can find, and still finding the time to write.

  5. I think you must mean something other than “pernicious”—perhaps “persistent”?

    • It’s a little tongue-in-cheek there. I mean that it’s everywhere, and you cannot get away from it. I don’t think we have even come close to all the different ways life can exist. James White’s “Sector General” series comes the closest, in my mind, to project the greatest diversity of life and lifestyles I’ve read.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        I don’t know. The persistent lack of solid evidence for life on Mars is making me less and less optimistic in the persistence or perniciousness of life throughout the Universe.

        I realize that once we send humans there and get proper facilities set up, we may find that there are lifeforms there which were just not obvious enough for the machines to pick up, but even so, they are not going to be big indicators of being able to find it all over everywhere.

        That said, there is always the possibility of rocks from Earth (and others, since it is almost certain to happen elsewhere even if not as often as you think) seeding life on other planets, even if it didn’t develop there naturally.

  6. I sometimes write aliens, but I haven’t much interest in writing incomprehensible aliens… at least not as a major part of the story. There’s a sentient, telepathic ship; a hint of a planetary will; bug aliens that have human slaves; mostly anthropomorphized aliens with a human infestation in the walls of their ships; and two tailed lizard aliens that communicate using body posture and air sack membranes who have captured themselves a “breeding group” of humans and are making a botch of it. Other than that, my “aliens” are human, or used to be.

    I actually have a “job” at the moment that involves creating an alien persona. The advice I’m getting from the boss (it’s more complicated than that) is to include things like not knowing what money is. This, of course, makes me nuts (though I don’t say so). The things that have traditionally be used to imagine “aliens” make no sense to me. Of course they have money and understand the concept of paying for a meal. Of course they understand lying. Of course they have war.

    • “Other than that, my ‘aliens’ are human, or used to be.”

      This reminded me of a novel I read a few years ago, and the inability to recall the title is making me crazy. It involved a protagonist with dissociative identity disorder on the run from government thugs, a former human colony who had all developed mental illnesses or developmental disorders as well as a culture adapted to make them a functional society despite their issues, and an essentially autistic genius programmer in that society. Oh, and the ‘crazy’ society were the only ones capable of interstellar flight. Anyone remember such a book? I thought I knew the name (something like “Upon this Distant Shore”) but my Google-Fu is turning up nothing.

    • Though there are variations of money. I recall a short story, which later became a more-satisfying book, IIRC, where the (felinoid/ursoid) aliens had twilga (I think that was the term…). Everyone carried a checkbook, basically, and whenever anyone made a transaction, they carefully recorded the details in their little sum-books. There was no physical money — it was all credit to each other.

      Then humans came and wonked it all up, of course, with their sneaky economic tricks, like saying, “I want to pull in all the credit at once unless you pledge your share to paving our messy mess of a main street so we aren’t always wading in mud every rainy season.”

      …can’t remember the title of the story, darnit.

      • Would this be The Weigher, by Eric Vinicoff and Marcia Martin?

      • Wayne Blackburn

        Some show I was watching on either Discovery or TLC, or Science Channel several years ago showed how Chinese (I don’t know if it was a particular sector or if it was supposed to be all of them) had a similar system, including generational debt. They showed some guy delivering a barrel of wine that was owed to some other family by his grandfather, I think it was, and marking it off his records.

  7. I remember when I was younger looking down somewhat on the humans-with-funny-ears trope of Star Trek and similar. As I consider it now, though, it seems eminently plausible that another space-faring race (hey, we’re capable of it, even if we’re not *acting* on it right now) would be similar in many ways. Mike points out the advantages of some of our traits above. Fingers and opposable thumbs might differ in details (number of digits or joints, for example) but they’re very likely to be there. Bilateral symmetry has advantages as well, for elements of balance and simplicity of design. Heck, even the arrangement of facial features has a great deal of sense to it (no pun intended). On the other hand, some things will differ. There is no reason I can see that the neural center should be in such an isolated, vulnerable location (though since most Terran animals have that configuration, there may be some advantage I’m missing). On the gripping hand, differences are what make aliens interesting.

    Now, if the biology is similar, then physical needs are going to be very similar as well. That being the case, we’re looking at huge cultural differences rather than fundamental psychological differences. Those can be huge to overcome, as the world around us indicates, but they are not insurmountable. Not like trying to understand the thought processes of a distributed intelligence that metabolizes ambient gases for sustenance and reproduces by division. Or that of a socioopathic carbosilicate amorph evolved from biological data storage devices several million years ago and addicted to “a very heavy stimulant cocktail cut with shampoo and inert ultra-tensile carbon”. :)

    • I always thought of the Star-Trek alien cultures as cultures that would be well-within the range of what humans could/have develop/ed. The drama usually centers around some difference on the cultural/sociological level, and the differences in biology rarely enter into it. (Then there was that Next-Generation episode that retconned why there was so little difference in biology to speak of)

      I suppose, given different enough living circumstances, even human cultures would get pretty alien.

      Example:
      I have a sort of alien-cutlured humans meet more traditional humans type scenario in one of my science fiction storylines that I write (and hide).

      Suppose you have a group of people who live in space, and have been doing so long enough for it to seriously shape the way they see the world. They don’t live near other major starbases or civilizations, (still trying to decide the precise reasons – They see being self-sufficient enough to live in the furthest uninhabitable reaches of space to be the ultimate guarantor of their freedom and wellbeing. There will always be more territory, more resources, more fronteir to vanish across if things ever turn sour in any given place. They aren’t beholden to the authority of anyone’s port like space-merchant types would be.)

      They depend on their equipment for everything – machinery is their life. Without their tools, they cannot survive in the frozen depths of space, on icy moons of far-orbiting gas giants, etc. No physical attribute of the human body is relevant to their existence. Every aspect of their world is an artifact. This means they are extremely good with manipulating tools, designing tools, life support, etc. That also means they would get very good at automation and robotics – it is much easier to move a robot arm around on the outside of a ship than to suit up and go kick the misbehaving radiator-scissor-jack. When you get in the habit of doing some things remotely via robot, and there is no very good reason to ever get up from your control console, you can get in the habit of doing *everything* remotely.

      So the “Machine People” have basically designed pods to stick their physical bodies in, while they go about doing other more important things. Their bodies are safer there anyway, suspended in a bath, fed intraveneously, and generally maintained with as little footprint as possible, out of the way. They get in the habit of talking to each other via computer, and seeing each piece of equipment they own, including their bodies, as just another tool or avatar that they have in the world. Their sense of self is spread over everything they own, rather than being in a single spot. They basically deal with the world from a 3rd person RTS perspective.

      Now a more traditional planetbound society tries to establish diplomatic relations with a passing nomadic Machine People fleet. Let’s look at it from their perspective:

      Their demands are strange. They don’t just want to talk, which we’ve been doing, they want to talk *in person*. They insist on seeing us face-to-face, whatever that is supposed to mean, saying that it is essential for mutual trust. We sent them a robotic multi-function probe, but that doesn’t seem to be what they’re after. They want one of us to find our *original body*, get it out of it’s pod, and carry it down to the surface of one of those turbulent surging chemically active planets with an atmosphere. There we are to move it to a function they call a “party”, where apparently it is considered sociable to sit our bodies around a table and eat solids, manually, *with our mouths*. (Ewwww) (Does my digestive system even still work like that?) (I think I replaced mine a while ago) (Do I even still have my *body*? (searches)) (Looks like whoever was sentimental about their original physiology just drew the short straw).

      Culture-shock hijinks ensue.

      • Write that, if you haven’t already. I’d to buy it on release day.

        • I want the second copy.

          • Ehh, I’m not much of an author. Most of my storylines make it to about chapter four or five before life intervenes and I drop it. (It’s an occasional hobby for me, not a career) When I take up writing again, the channel has changed, and I have new ideas/settings.

            On the other hand, i have a lot of fragments of stories in my “drawer”.

            I’ll see if I can stick to anything long enough to finish it.

            • Read Dwight Swain’s Techniques Of The Selling Writer. Also, be aware that most books die halfway through. I think it’s either a lack of mental tools, or you hit the “die” point and think you did something wrong. if you push past, they come back to life again.

          • Thank you for your interest though. Perhaps if I manage to get anything good in a complete/finished enough state, I’ll share it.

            • … the “Machine People” have basically designed pods to stick their physical bodies in, while they go about doing other more important things. Their bodies are safer there anyway, suspended in a bath, fed intraveneously, and generally maintained with as little footprint as possible, out of the way.

              That essentially describes Daleks without the psychopathic tendencies.

        • Today is my day to leave many comments, apparently. This is very interesting idea for a setting. I can see all kinds of hijinks here.

          The idea reminds me a little bit of Singularity Sky, but the Machine People seem more comprehensible and relatable (and less destructive) than the Festival, and there are more directions the story could go.

    • That’s another aspect of the “really-aliens”, and why they might be more likely – how long have they been a space-faring civilization?

      We might think we could relate somewhat to our hunter-gatherer tribal ancestors. Maybe if we had a long time and explained things very slowly, we could manage to make ourselves somewhat understood. But there’s only about 4000-8000 years of history between us and them. And most of the really radical changes have been within the past 400 years.

      So you have life that kicks off in various places and various times, technological intelligence that takes off on planets after life has lived there long enough, and they start exploring the universe. What would they find if they came across Earth (or if we came across Planet X)? Well *when* did they come across planet Earth? Throw a dart at the dartboard of geological time, and what are the odds it intersects human civilization?

      Probabilistically speaking, they/we are either going to find a planet full of animals, or they/we are going to find whatever happens when intelligence/civilization has been given *hundreds-of-millions of years* to operate.

      So perhaps Star-Trek level interactions among peers, rather than chance encounters between apes and angels, are something that would be more likely between human societies (/uplifts/earthborn AIs) as they diversify and spread out among the stars.

    • There is no reason I can see that the neural center should be in such an isolated, vulnerable location (though since most Terran animals have that configuration, there may be some advantage I’m missing).

      Heat dissipation.

      I am “rereading” the audiobook of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and am up to the dissertation on spacesuit engineering.

      • There’s some stuff that just gets arbitrarily frozen in too, because it worked at the time, and at a later more complex stage of development, there’s no easy way to change it.

        Take the number of limbs on reptiles/birds/higher mammals – four limbs worked. Random mutation to the segment of DNA that controls body segmentation is, at this late stage of complexity almost always fatal. Earlier during the Cambrian explosion, there were all sorts of different body-segmentation-types represented.

        I suppose if you had a planet of six-limbed higher animals, the transition to tool use would be much easier. quadrupedal-motion plus manipulators is probably a much less arduous path than bipedal-motion plus manipulators. You may have two or more tool-using species develop simultaneously then.

        • There’s some stuff that just gets arbitrarily frozen in too, because it worked at the time, and at a later more complex stage of development, there’s no easy way to change it.

          Such as the idea that railroad gauges are a consequence of roman chariots.

          http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.asp

          • This is a very weird combo on a day when older son has decided he needs to do realistic paintings of various creatures in-uterus, in their fetal stage: dragons, fairies, unicorns, hello kitty, Thomas the tank engine…

            • A fetal … steam engine? That got my visual imagination to jump the tracks. :-P

            • I was all right with your son’s choices until you hit Thomas the Tank Engine. That’s Timmy’s all-time favorite. I posted a photo once of his track layout HE created in the living room. That’s long since been cleaned up, but the track’s there to do it again if he ever gets the notion.

              • Marshall ADORED TTE. He used to highjack me for ENTIRE days to play with him. (I was helpless. I swear.) I also read him the books, of course.

                I THINK that’s what gave Robert the idea. These are SUPPOSED to be “adorable”

            • Robin Roberts

              A fetal tank engine … uh, don’t we call that a steel ingot?

        • That’s the tack I took — everything on my fluffy SF aliens’ planet is six-limbed, which means that the bird-equivalents look a bit like griffons. (Hey, it’s basically space opera. I can have birdish birds. I also have reptilian versions (center leg-pair becomes the wings), and then there are the little six-legged rat/rabbit equivalents, and the six-legged sabertooths that are the “gorilla” equivalent to the sapient race…)

      • Also proximity to sense organs and blood circulation. There are many counter-examples in fiction, of course, such as Niven’s Puppeteers.

        That’s been a problem for me before. I was thinking one day about what would happen if aliens were more like giraffes or elephants or, a bit weirder, something evolved from a vertebrate that looked kind of like Opabinia regalis. Or the recent re-imagining of Quetzalcoatlus: http://i53.photobucket.com/albums/g62/TigerQuoll/dinosaur/quetzalcoatlus_612_400.jpg

        I figured I wouldn’t want a large brain on a long neck in normal gravity. There are structural issues (the weight of the brain), blood pressure issues (giraffes have some interesting adaptations here, which could probably go even further, or perhaps they could have “helper” hearts or separate circulatory systems), and long-nerve issues (I’m not sure if reaction times would really be a problem, but it could be expensive to maintain, but you could also have multiple brains with one processing and refining sensory data that is then sent in compressed form to the main brain).

        There are many ways around the problem, but what I ended up with was something kind of like a therizinosaur but with the eyes, mouth, etc on the front of the body below the “neck” and the brain below the base of the neck. The long neck is more like an elephant trunk that ends in a nose and “fingers.” Instead of pulling up grass, they sit back and pull down leaves and fruit from trees. I think it might work. They would have trouble seeing what their trunk was doing sometimes.

        On the other hand, an alien with a brain deep inside their body might think intelligence couldn’t evolve in a species with a brain on an appendage since it would have to be protected by a layer of bone and couldn’t grow as much over time. It would be impossible for the adult to give birth to a child with an adult sized head! And how could they control their legs which are so much further away than their eyes?!

      • Wayne Blackburn

        Also, the combination of sight-sound-hearing is better processed as soon as possible, for survival purposes. When TSHTF, being able to react to the unexpected as quickly as possible is a major survival factor. Touch is something that is far less likely to involve a life-or-death decision before one of the other senses is triggered.

    • “I remember when I was younger looking down somewhat on the humans-with-funny-ears trope of Star Trek and similar. As I consider it now, though, it seems eminently plausible that another space-faring race (hey, we’re capable of it, even if we’re not *acting* on it right now) would be similar in many ways.”

      I always figured the reason that Star Trek aliens were similar to humans except for a few minor differences like pointy ears or metacarpal crests was for ease of casting and costuming.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        It was, but there have also been a lot of writers who went, “Oh, this planet is like Earth? It should have humans, then, because of parallel evolution.”

  8. One place I have to keep working on with alien species is their internal logic. OK, they are an advanced technology with FTL travel, so why do they still [blank]? There has to be a good reason, at least to the members of that species. How do I communicate that reason, or at least enough of it to show the reader that these critters are not just nuts? Or do I leave it alone and let other characters and readers wonder?

    • Or give it a religious reason– which makes sense to the aliens and none to use

    • Maybe, but “internal logic” can be overemphasized. As an example, although it is not about aliens, I enjoy Lee & Miller’s Liaden universe stories … even though the economics of the interstellar trading that underpins so many of their stories is ludicrous.

  9. One factor to keep in mind is that unless there are some areas of interaction with humans there is no conflict and no story. Immobile silicate intellects would have no cause for interacting with humans (well, at least not until we started mining their mountainous bodies to rip out their nervous systems — veins of gold.) Truly alien entities, such as Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, would not be in competition with humans for resources and thus there is very little story content.

  10. What if it turns out that humans have been engineered from a basic template and the universe is populated by trillions of “people” more or less like us? What if the universe was purpose built with a plan in mind and a destiny? What if communication between planetary civilizations is the norm, but the Earth is under quarantine because our civilization is a dysfunctional mess? Seems to me that any of these possibilities is more likely than planets full of bug-eyed monsters.

    • Now that you mention it, I have been meaning to re-read That Hideous Strength now that I am old and experienced enough to understand it. When I first read it I hadn’t even been to college …

    • Sounds like Douglas Adams– stuff ;-)

    • Um… THAT is my feeling — but I’m me.

    • You just described the _Star Trek_ universe — the “explanation” for the “forehead-of-the-month-club” appearance of aliens (as well as “alien nookie” :) ) is: All species in the universe depend from a common stock created by a Progenitor Race, who seeded them across the galaxy for reasons as-yet unknown.

    • Meanwhile, in a small corner of the galaxy a renegade captain by the name of Lucifer incites a rebellion, and there ensues a “war in the heavens” between loyalists and the rebel alliance. At system headquarters an admiral by the name of Gabriel takes decisive action to prevent the rebellion from spreading. He shuts off the power to the entire sector. Interstellar communications are jammed and transports are forced to land on the nearest inhabited planet. Captain Lucifer finds himself marooned on a rocky sphere populated by aboriginal savages, but he’s not finished yet. He discovers an away team under the command of Lieutenant Adam and Ensign Eve. They are geneticists working to improve the gene pool of the native inhabitants. Adam and Eve are concerned because normal communications have been disrupted. Captain Lucifer offers an explanation, a series of lies designed seduce the pair into joining the rebellion. To be continued.

    • What if the Drake Equation is incorrect and there are a lot, a whole lot, more sapient species out there? And all of them believe in Special Creation? ([Deity] made us in [deity's] own image and we are the chosen ones!] Talk about a mess. Or you have two of the oldest species meet humans, shrug and say, “of course a deity made the Universe and scattered it with all sorts of creatures. The laws of statistics don’t allow for any other options. What is this ‘evolution’ stuff you insist on spouting?” (That second one might work better in a Drako-Tavern-style short story.)

      • I vaguely recall a story which featured a rather harried Deity, busily retconning every new theory of the evolutionists, retoractively planting evidence in the fossil record (an advantage of not being time-bound) to support the theories.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Don’t remember that one Res, but I remember a short story where God had to row dice to keep up with the physicists. At the end there’s a reference to Einstein’s comment about “God not rowing dice”. IE God made a comment about “What does Einstein know”. [Smile]

        • Actually I think it was one of the Terry Pratchett stories– I don’t remember which one at this time. I thought it was pretty funny ;-)

      • Wayne Blackburn

        The Drake Equation can be completely correct (and it seems to take into account all the relevant points), yet the assumptions the individual uses can vary the answer to the equation to any degree. Remember, the Drake Equation does not make any assumptions, so all variables are filled in by the person trying to make a prediction.

        The one that (in my opinion) is the most difficult to determine without experimental data, is the length of time that a civilization is detectable by current technology. If there are faster and more efficient communication and power technologies that do not radiate in spectra which we can currently detect, then many civilizations which can be in existence would not be detectable once those technologies become widespread.

  11. A lot of our interactions with aliens in the future will depend on how common “Earth-like” planets are. If they are common, then the chances of intelligence that we can interact with will be greater. If rare, then we’ll Ooo and Ahhh over the gas fish of tau Ceti 11 and argue about wether the moving rocks of Formalhaut 2 are intelligent, or even alive.

    The “Sweet spot” of enough earth-like planets to nurture space traveling beings we can interact with, and few enough that each one is valuable enough to fight over is the meat and potatoes of Mil SF.

    • Pam — consider that energy-class F, G, and A stars make up more than 75 percent of all stars in our galaxy, and that we’ve found planets around all three spectral classes, I’d say that planets are fairly plentiful. The BIG question is, how many of those are in the “sweet spot” – in a stable orbit within the liquid stage of water — the kind we’d be interested in. That doesn’t mean that ONLY stars with planets in that orbit will harbor life — we just don’t know, and won’t until we get there. Chlorine, silicon, and methane/ammonia creatures ARE possible. It may be that different body chemistry may sort itself down on different types of star systems, with silicon beings around more-energetic A-class stars, various types of water-based creatures on planets around F, G, and A type stars, and methane/ammonia type creatures around the colder M-type dwarf stars and the larger planets beyond the water/life boundaries around other stars. I haven’t really been able to create a solar system that has a chlorine-based life form, but I have to assume they’re possible.

      Remember, there are 200 to 400 BILLION suns in our Milky Way galaxy. Our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of galaxies. Let’s say, just for argument, that one-third of all the stars in our galaxy have planets, and ten percent of those have planets in the “sweet spot”. That’s TEN BILLION PLANETS in the vapor/liquid/ice range of water. That’s a lot of real estate. Multiply that by the number of galaxies in the universe, and we’re beginning to talk in mind-numbing numbers. Even if as few as one planet in a million had what we consider intelligent life on it, our galaxy alone would have 10,000 intelligent species. Granted, they’d probably be pretty spread out — the Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light-years in diameter, and anywhere from 1000 to 25,000 light-years in thickness. There are also several dozens of globular clusters with anywhere from 10,000 to 10 million stars each, plus two satellite galaxies (the Lesser and Greater Magellanic Clouds). We’ve barely explored our own neighborhood. The rest of the universe is huge, and anything is possible.

      • Well I’d even say if planets were plentiful there’s always some “far-sighted” sort whom can see a day where there will be too many humans and/or Alien X. Which explains why said aliens must go away. Not that I’m suggesting humans are predisposed to genocide or anything.

        • I second the vastness of space as a deterrent to population pressure. Resources of any sort aren’t rare. Any element you can pick off the periodic table can be had in arbitrary quantities even in a single star-system.

          Planets aren’t rare – there are tons of them

          Earthlike planets don’t seem like they would be rare, though it’s too early to tell. Due to the length of time life existed prior to civilization, it seems there would even be a very favorable ratio of habitable/inhabited planets.

          The entire universe is practically infinitely vast (if not actually infinitely vast – spacetime does appear to be globally flat, after all)

          If there is something that is rare, it would be intelligence and creativity, culture, art, artifacts. The universe is, on this level, relatively, (again apparently IMO) rather achingly empty – most of the matter in the universe untouched by life or purpose – a vast canvas, almost entirely blank. (And hopefully to be filled in part by us and our descendants one of these days).

          I doubt hypothetical alien invaders would target Earth to steal our *water*, or living space or anything else on the periodic table. If they wanted to invade Earth, it would be to steal *us*.

          • Then again, how many of mankinds wars were about population pressure, and not an overenlarged aristocracy/political class that needed to find new people to conquer, lest their current serf’s productivity be divided among too many noble hands.

          • Thus the beauty of Star Trek’s Maguffin Cry … um, ‘scuse please, I meant to say: DiLithium Crystals.

            Similarly, they could be invading Earth in order to plunder our reserves of the rare mineral, unobtanium, produced as the result of eons worth of the excrement of (only) the male bovine, aged and compressed by geological forces. In their view, Hercules’ labors cleaning the Augean Stables is an act of desecration greater than the burning of the library at Alexandria.

      • Keep in mind a few more constraints.

        Supernovas will regularly “reset” the biota of the neighboring stars. The closer to the core of the galaxy, the riskier the neighborhood. And then there’s the matter of the older stars being metal poor, and poor prospects for planet building. Of your F, G and K stars, the Ks are more likely to be older, as they have a longer life than the larger, hotter stars. http://www.technologyreview.com/view/424638/astronomers-publish-new-map-of-galactic-habitable-zone/

        Of the three rocky planets in the inhabitable zone of the sun, one is too small, with too weak a magnetic field to fend off the solar wind, and has lost most of it’s atmosphere. One has a very slow rotation and such a thick atmosphere that it is too hot for any sort of “standard” biology to get going. So perhaps only 1/3rd of planets in the zone might be habitable?

        So, how rare are other things about the Earth? A late impact during the accretion phase knocked off virtually all the volitiles, so the atmosphere is thin by Venus standards, let alone the gas giants. It has a huge moon that causes tides triple those of the sun. Is that needed to keep a liquid core and strong magnetic field? Is such a magnetic field necessary to block, or at least mitigate, the more energetic events around a planet? Until we have solid data on other planetary systems, we won’t be able to put a number to how rare or how necessary these conditions are.

        At a quick glance at old references, since there’s been complex life on Earth we’ve had five major extinction events, losing over 50% of all species. They’ve ranged from 40 million to 130 million years apart. In only one of those “stable eras”, the currently 64 million year long period since the dinosaur extinction, has an animal intelligent enough to build a civilization evolved. So one chance in five that a given planet wide biota would produce an intelligent lifeform that used tools, accessed energy from something other than their own metabolisms, and might become space travelers in the future?

        No, it’s worse than that, the evidence for controlled use of fire is less than a million years old, out of that 64 million years. So factor in another 2% chance of getting the timing right to catch that promising species when it’s far enough along to be doing something we can’t dismiss as “termite mounds.”

  12. My favorite alien is one that is emphatically Not Like Us. He/she/it is up in orbit observing the culture and working on a Masters thesis on primitive life forms at the U of Tau Ceti. Like Margret Sanger, only from further away. Assume that the alien civ is different enough that nothing whatsoever is familiar. It all gets noted with some attempt to describe it, and little effort to make sense of it.

    Walking in these shoes is also a good approach to take when hearing someone elses theory of everything. It helps put the nonsense into perspective.

    The other point is that space is looking less and less like a vast empty void, and more and more like a huge cloud of floating gravel. Where there’s dust, there will be clumps of dust, some big, some very small. I visualize the interstellar spaceship arriving at its destination with a LOT of pits in its windscreen. If it’s lucky.

  13. For a bunch of aliens which are in now way like humanity, look no further than… H. P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu; Yog-Sothoth, all of them — aliens so far removed from being human, humanity cannot even comprehend them.

    • Hmm, on the Lovecraftian “really alien” side of things, how about this idea:

      Suppose a self-propagating life-form that doesn’t have any form at all. Like a computer virus, it’s entirely information – in this case a pernicious complex of ideas and thoughts. Suppose your SETI program picks up a transmission from another star system – a genuine alien signal, and when you decode it you find fascinating ideas, compelling and strangely hypnotic images and sounds.

      If you hear/read/listen to enough of the pattern, these ideas get inside your head and begin working on your priorities and motivations. You begin wanting to spread the mental-pattern and achieve it’s objectives, eventually in preference to your natural loyalties and goals. Proceeding to propagate it might take the form of a cult or strange religion. Eventually you would want to capture the education establishment and indoctrinate everyone you can.

      Once this pattern has acheived dominance and swept aside any natural cultures and loyalties on your planet (and probably messed up the functioning of your civilization with its hijack), it will want to spread further, and so you’ll find yourself building giant powerful transmitters and scanning the skies for other civilizations with which to “share”. A galaxy full of formerly uncorrupted civilizations, each just beginning to eagerly search the skies, could become the perfect hunting ground for this incorporeal predator.

      Bwahahaha!

      This sort of creature could only live inside the minds of creatures and cultures complex enough to find and understand it – and curious civilizations would be uniquely vulnerable. Imagine how an open-minded, scientific, curious civilization would have to fight something like this – what it would do to them in the long run if they attempted to resist. Even attempting to understand the pattern risks infection – knowing what you are up against would drive you mad, in the manner of Lovecraft’s aliens.

  14. I have a major complaint with nearly all SFF “alien” species and societies. It’s that they’re far to flat and homogenized. In culture, race, etc., the whole world is the same. If you look at earth, the variations are very wide, rather idiosyncratic from the POV of a member of any group, but make perfect sense in their settings and to their members. (Or, they do sometimes. There’s always the Odd in any culture, isn’t there?)

    But is the whole planet the same? Might as well be paved in concrete. No oceans? No sand beaches or fjords? Not even the difference between Maine and Massachusetts? No large lakes? No tropics? No deserts? No high mountains? People live everywhere, and if they live there long enough, they adapt to the local conditions. Those variations will redound to racial characteristics, cultural variations, religious attitudes (compare and contrast the Christians of Central Africa with the High Church Anglicans).

    Most written alien cultures ignore this their foreign planets are all the same from pole to equator, everybody speaks the same language, a character can say, “[ ] are [ ]” and be speaking accurately and not from bigotry. Even Cherryh’s wonderfully-realized Atevi are pretty much the same, for all they speak local dialects and have political factions. There isn’t even as much variation among them as there is between the Japanese and the Chinese on earth. Walk down the streets of any major cosmopolitan city on Earth and you’ll see more variation than you do in galaxy-spanning empires in SFF.

    And that’s the thruth. Thpbthpbthpbthpbthpb!

    M

    • Yeah – where are the alien equivalents of Rednecks, Cajuns, San Franciscans?

      To be fair, Howard Taylor and John Ringo (to name a f’rinstance) have sorta presented this in the universe they share. As did ST:DS9 is addressing the political factions among the Cardassians & Bajorans.

    • True – I’ve noticed this as well.

      I suppose it’s part of the fact that these worlds are written/directed only by a single author. I imagine it’s a bit of a trick getting yourself to think in terms of a different perspective, different enough to be alien. Doing it several times for several characters/cultural groups who would probably be about as alien to each other as they are to the author’s perspective is probably that much harder.

      Apparently some webcomic authors have noticed and needled the trend as well: http://www.rhjunior.com/QQSR/00017.html

    • By the time a civilization gets to the point where it’s able to conquer really DEEP space, it’s pretty well homogenized. If you don’t think this is happening, just look at the fast-food industry as a starter. Communication and travel have reduced differences, although admittedly they still exist to a point. Give us another thousand years of advances, with people living where they please, travel where they please, and we all speak a semi-common language, and most of those differences will no longer exist. There will always be economic differences, and economic stratification, but the common culture will overlap at least 80% of what the individual lives. It takes a dedicated effort to maintain many of those differences.

      A very good case in point is the US military. There is no more demanding cultural environment than the military — everyone is expected to behave in the same general way. Some will be good at it, some won’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that the common cultural environment WILL NOT BE BREACHED. Those people go back into society and take their skills — and their culture — with them.

      A good case in point is interracial marriages. When I first joined the military in 1964, that was kinda, sorta a touchy subject. Yet American servicemen (and to a far lesser extent, servicewomen) had been marrying Japanese, Korean, and Filipino women for two decades or longer. Black/White marriages were less frequent, but occurred. Today we add a FEW Arab women (the culture is very adamant against it), but culturally, it’s no longer a big deal. In 500 years, it’ll probably be even less.

      Cultures change and evolve with communication and cooperation. The more we get to know our “neighbors”, the less we think they’re “funny-looking”, and the more we’re willing to interact with them. The more we work together, the more the rough edges get knocked off, and the fewer differences there are.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Yes and No. Yes it *could* happen that way but it might not. A *planetary* civilization could likely become homogenized but if space travel (either within a star system or to other star systems) becomes somewhat inexpensive, you could have sub-sets of the *planetary* civilization moving off world to create their ideal society. Communications within a star system and between star systems would not be as easy as it would be on the home world. Even if all the sub-sets started out with a common language, local talk within a given sub-set would likely evolve from the common language. Once sub-sets of the main civilization get outside of the home star system, the differences will grow especially if the colony doesn’t much contact with people from other systems and/or the home system. If we developed a FTL star drive today, there could be French colonies, English colonies, Scottish colonies, American colonies, German colonies and so forth. Each colony world would develop differently from their fellow colonies and Earth itself. A form of English might be the language of interstellar trade & diplomacy but the colony language could be much different from that language. IMO the cultural views of each world could be different than the “standard culture”.

      • I don’t think so. I think that any society is going to retain the kinds and varieties of cultures it had at the time that it achieved space flight — including those primitives who choose to remain so or are, for whatever reason, are unable to make the transition to a less-primitive state. Somewhat like humanity’s retaining characteristics that stopped evolving when we achieved intelligence, civilization, agriculture. Some primitives will seek the opportunities presented by modern society, I’m sure, but there will always be remnants.

        That’s for species who are inhabiting the world(s) of their origin.Out in the colonies, the picture will be different. Particularly if colonists try to coexist with native populations on a given world.

        And what if multiple species live on the same world? For example, what if Neanderthals had not died out? Had somehow managed to survive and successfully defend against attempts at genocide? (Or hide… what if the sightings of crypto humanoids (yeti, alma, sasquatch) are actually the cast offs of a tight society that is well-practiced at hiding from the killer homosaps?

        And who decides who homogenizes? If Americans get a star drive next year, will the Chinese let themselves be left behind? Who represents Earth out there in the galaxy? Who are the “official” Terrans?

        I can’t see these issues being resolved neatly. They’ll be messy and fraught with conflict.

        M

        • Ummm– according to the DNA record humans and Neanderthals were together at the same time… so not a far out possibility.

          • They keep sounding like they know everything about the Neanderethals vice homo sapiens. I suspect there are many surprises there.

            M

            • The surprise is that humans may have breed with the Neanderthals. (mostly European and Northern types). I can’t remember what I read about the Eastern Islands — but there was another sapian race that breed with humans supposedly.

  15. I have a weakness for stories with incomprehensible aliens. Like Simak’s The Visitors. I suspect this is a minority opinion.

    I’ve been doing world building the last couple weeks for a video game. The setting I eventually came up with is appropriately high-fantasy for a game (must permit showy magic effects). On the way there I came up with a very hard SF setting that included some odd alien ideas I wish I could use for something.

    But of course there are the usual problems. A fantasy setting has to answer many subjective questions like “How cool is this?” and “How overused is this?” and a few tricky ones, too. “So if magic is cheap, why isn’t everyone rich?”

    Trying to make a hard science setting tends to get bogged down in “Yeah, but how would they fly?” “Okay, but then the gravity isn’t high enough to hold the atmosphere and wouldn’t waves be ridiculously high? That whole coastline is unusable.” “Okay, but now the temperature is too high at the surface. Well, maybe, depending on what model you use since none of them seem to work very well.” “And now the total insolation is too low for fast growing plants.” “Okay, that’s all settled, but now it wobbles too much.” “Fine, it’s a moon of a super-jupiter of a higher mass than can reasonably be accreted and the magnetic field is killing everyone who isn’t already flattened by the constant 60mph winds.” “Okay, that *might* reduce the magnetic field and the diurnal temperature difference, but now there are no seasons and no fire. Aaaarrrrgh!”

    And once you get past the physics, there’s the chemistry and biology, which is even less certain and subjects I know even less about. And then there’s the culture and language, which is always the most daunting task, and has to be done for both fantasy and hard science settings.

    I really enjoy world building. It’s my favorite phase of making a game or role playing setting. But I don’t know why I like it. It’s frustrating and impossible.

  16. These comments keep making me add to my wish list of books to buy! Not that I’m complaining. ;)

  17. Wayne Blackburn

    While I agree emphatically with the main points, I do have one quibble:

    I also think that much of the identification of large, close-in gas giants is actually the detection of multiple planets, instead of one.

    Unless you’re trying to claim that there are multiple planets orbiting each other in a close configuration, the math just doesn’t work out. The orbits for these planets show one object orbiting the star, or else either the light profile or the apparent motion would be far more complicated.

    It does seem odd that they would not lose their atmospheres that close to a parent star, but the ones that I have read about are pretty massive, so maybe the gut understanding is a little off in this case.

    • Without running the numbers, I suspect sufficient gravity will keep an atmosphere in place on a gas giant even very close to a star. As long as the escape speed from the top of the atmosphere is grater than the maximum speed of even the hottest gas molecules, they should stay put.
      (Yes, I know the Maxwell-Boltzman distribution never drops to zero, but you can push it to where you have an arbitrarily small chance of even one molecule reaching escape speed.) (And yes, I know solar radiation might strip gas molecules from the atmosphere, maybe even faster than incoming hydrogen from the solar wind replenishes it. Someone who’s studied that in more depth will have to comment.) (And come to think of it, I believe the atmospheres of at least some of these very hot giants has been found to be metal vapor, which will have a slower speed at temperature than hydrogen molecules will.)