This isn’t the first post where I’ve written about why I struggle to write science fiction – it comes down to the fact that I think way too much about every little detail, which I am not quite as inclined to do with fantasy, or maybe am better able to do – but I wanted to dedicate a post to a specific aspect of writing science fiction: writing aliens. Or, as the title more accurately asserts, failing to write aliens.
Every time I get to the point in a science fiction story of introducing aliens, I get bogged down in an endless loop of overthinking in which I attempt to come up with an alien that is truly, completely alien, but that can still somehow interact with humans. Nanoscale beings that interact with the strong nuclear force the way we do with electromagnetism, perhaps, or nebula-scale creatures that “see” in frequencies of gravitational waves, or even more outlandish concepts. Coming up with the ideas for such aliens is only the beginning of the problems.
Even with a great idea for a unique alien, there is then the matter of following through on that idea. Creating an entire culture that is truly alien, and not just some strange and inventive variation on a culture that could conceivably be human, is the truly difficult part. Getting the physics right is one thing, and plenty of science fiction authors over the years have managed that part, when they care to take the time: Rocheworld is an excellent example. There are also authors who have done wonderfully unique and interesting things by taking a few aspects that make their aliens alien, and basing their cultural uniqueness upon that: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Gods Themselves both do this very well.
Making an alien completely alien, though, is a rare, maybe impossible thing. A being that is completely alien would be incomprehensible to us, and therefore we might not even recognize it as life, much less have the words to describe it. It might not have any emotions we would recognize, or any culture we could identify as such. All of our language, all of our critical thinking, is fundamentally and inescapably anthropocentric. This is not a negative – it is simply an inescapable fact. All of our experience and all of the input that has shaped our ability to interact with the universe is earthly, and therefore in some sense coherent. There is an argument to be made that until such a time as we actually make contact with some alien species, we will never have the ability to convey that sense of otherness in a convincing way, at least not in a convincing way that still makes for a readable story.
Blindsight, despite my other issues with it, actually provides us with some of the most convincingly and thoroughly alien aliens that I have encountered. This is in part achieved by keeping the aliens at significantly more than arm’s length. If the aliens can be more like natural artifacts, like they are in that book, than they are like fellow sentient creatures, then it is much easier to keep them feeling fundamentally different from us. As soon as you start having a more intimate interaction, as soon as you start trying to establish communication, you run into a rapid anthropomorphizing of your aliens, no matter how they began.
There are some of you, perhaps many of you, who would argue that I am missing the point, and there is one aspect of this discussion that I have not yet brought up: the purpose that aliens serve in a story. Depending on that purpose, writing convincing, realistic, completely unique aliens may not be necessary or even desirable. Most of Star Trek’s aliens exist as mirrors for humanity, isolations and amplifications of certain facets of our own selves. As strange as Klingon or Vulcan culture might seem to us, we can see how they would have arisen, and it is not inconceivable to think of human beings with slightly different physiologies in those circumstances giving rise to just such cultures. Star Wars aliens are even less diverged from humans, although they might appear more divergent, physically (thanks mostly to a higher special effects budget) – most of them are just character archetypes embodied into a species.
Nothing is wrong with that approach, and in many cases it can be a valid and even desirable method – the aforementioned The Left Hand of Darkness and The Gods Themselves do something like this, where the aliens are not supposed to be too foreign, or it would actually make the story less meaningful, less impactful. Both Asimov and LeGuin wanted us to understand their aliens, sympathize with them, and relate to them. While you should probably be a little more creative than Star Trek, with its weekly experiments with new ways to glue prosthetics on people’s faces (don’t get me wrong – I definitely enjoy Star Trek – but I can still make fun of it), for most of the stories that we’re looking to tell, making your aliens too alien would quickly become a disadvantage, not an advantage.
Despite that, I still want to do it. I still seek to make truly alien aliens. While I haven’t gotten it right yet, I have learned a lot in my various attempts. First, you can’t provide an alien perspective. If you want your aliens to feel alien to the reader, giving them a point of view will ruin that, and no matter how creative you were with your physiology, culture, and so forth, that distance will be gone and the alien will no longer be alien – it will just be a different kind of human.
Second, you’ll need a human, scientific character who can think about the aliens in a coherent, thoughtful, and analytical way. Without this, either interaction with the aliens will be completely impossible and you will be forced to keep them perpetually as something more akin to natural artifacts, ala Blindsight’s aliens, or you’ll end up anthropomorphizing them by virtue of characterization, and never get to the point of helping your readers realize how alien the aliens you created really are (I’m afraid that I can’t apologize for using the word “alien” so many times in a post about writing aliens).
This is something that I’m continuing to work on and struggle with, and I don’t know that I will ever achieve a perfect answer, or ever succeed in writing the truly alien aliens that I would so enjoy bringing to life on the page. In fact, I’m not even entirely convinced that imagining the kinds of aliens that I want to write about is possible. We are, after all, human. We think with human brains, we use human terminology, we live a fundamentally anthropocentric existence, and we have never encountered something completely alien to us. Even when we finally encounter real, alien species of intelligent life in our galaxy (or outside of it), we might not be able to imagine such a thing – we may inevitably anthropomorphize them to some degree. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it is how we are able to adapt readily to new situations and comprehend something so utterly, well, alien, but it does present a problem when trying to write these completely alien aliens.
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