Wednesday, March 24, 2010


About a week ago I had a conversation with Ahyicodae about some of the trends regarding aliens in science fiction.  Now I should probably make it clear that I really only know enough of any particular science to get me in trouble, so I'm hardly an expert.  I can only ask questions, not necessarily answer them.  But that was essentially what we were doing: asking questions.

Specifically we were discussing trends of alien race designs, both biological and cultural.  We both felt that, despite some of the fantastic creativity put into some of the alien races in science fiction (John Scalzi's Obin come to mind), there is still a lot of room for branching out.  No matter how undeniably inhuman some of these races are, there are still features (eyes, legs) and behaviors (aggression, timidity) that we can recognize as human-like.

And sometimes this is a very good thing.  There are few, if any, undiscovered human races still left on earth, yet we still have a fascination with the concept of two cultures meeting for the first time.  It is only natural to carry this concept into space.  But I think there is room for other kinds of stories having to do with alien races.

Which brings me to the point: what restrictions, if any, must we place on alien design?

My first question related to this overarching question is something that I genuinely don't know and would like to understand.  All life (that we know of) on earth is organic (carbon-based).  As far as I know, any attempts to look for alien life rule out places where organic life would be impossible.  But is there really no way that other forms of “life” or intelligence might exist?  If I understand correctly, organic life works because carbon chains form the blocks that life is built out of.  But is it impossible that intelligence could have its home in some other elemental structure?  What do the bio geeks think?

If inorganic intelligence is possible then that opens up so many other questions.  There might even be “alien” intelligence on earth that is simply so foreign to us that we can't possibly recognize it.  But perhaps there is simply too much disparity between organic and inorganic “life” to write anything meaningful about the two together.

Say we are confined to organic life then.  I still think there are infinite untapped ideas.  Most of the alien species I have encountered in science fiction move around using humanoid or insectile legs.  I don't believe I've come across any aliens that don't have vision.  But why should they?  There are other ways to move; there are other ways to gather information about the world.

I always thought it would be interesting to have an alien species that interacts and communicates primarily by sonar.  I'm not just talking about it in the sense that bats use echolocation, but even as a way of conveying ideas.  Imagine one creature conveying the idea of a box shape through sonar to another creature.  That is communication and it is a form of intelligence.  Now imagine that intelligence multiplied a hundred fold, communicating through a complex language of shapes.  How fascinating that would be!  And how different from human communication.  How might that influence the culture of these creatures?  I could imagine they might have a very structured society, but with a lot of isolation even within that structure.

And that is only one idea.  There are so many others to explore.  How much more can we do with science fiction?  I don't know, but I would certainly love to see some new ideas.


  1. I am all for the sonar communication. :) I think there are so many places to go with that idea. I also like the idea of alien social structures that are *not* based on human ones. Even higher mammals have very different societies and can be used as models for exploring other kinds of culture. Insects have been done to death; but what about, say, orcas? Or what about a sentient non-social alien? Instead of forming its identity through prolonged and hierarchical struggles within a group it might form its identity in isolation in some completely different way. And the need or desire for companionship would be absent.

    Would this be too inhuman to relate to? Maybe as an MC, it would. But as a side character, a race encountered by a more human MC, it could be very interesting to see something really and *truly* inhuman in its thought patterns.

    I dunno. I'm just sick of "aliens" that are really just humans in disguise. :P

  2. Delightful Audrey! I've always had a fascination with realistic but non-traditional views of extraterrestrial life. There are a few quite excellently unusual alien concepts out there, but my main scifi days were almost a decade ago so my memory is rather shaky on the particulars. The Four Lords of the Diamond by Jack Chalker, The Chaos Chronicles by Jeffrey Carver, and Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman are three of the best examples that I remember.

    Scientifically speaking, no one can honestly tell you what is or is not feasible, realistic, or possible. I think that allows for plenty of freedom on the part of an author who is willing to drastically change parameters pertaining to a new biosystem. But I would suggest making sure that a world that is host to a non-carbon based life be substantially different--I think it is the best guess of most scientists that life from an planet similar to Earth would have, at least, recognizable biological molecules, if not similar ones.

    Nanotechnology is such an exciting area of research these days that I would love to see a species that evolved on a planet where some specific set of conditions caused the formation of stable nanoparticles and tubes. The replicative unit (DNA or whatever analog) could have been shelter within that instead of a lipid bilayer. The ramifications of that alone are staggering, not to mention so many other conditions would be altered as well, producing life in an unimaginable way.

    Another form of 'life' or intelligence I've found fascinating is the energy species. Some form of organized energy currents inhabiting potentially inert and otherwise not living matter.

    And why must life live only in our dimension? Is it possible for a species to exist in four or five spatial dimensions and still interact with us in three? Or even two or one--or multiple time dimensions. Or even something we don't consider a dimension. Dimension play, to a degree, was done by Carver, but still plenty of creative space there.

    I would love for there to be more non 'Star Trek/Star Wars' aliens out there, so here's one from Iowa rooting for creative aliens!

  3. Great thoughts, thank you both! Your enthusiasm is exciting. I'm tempted now to go study as much molecular biology as I can and start designing some new "life" forms. One thing at a time! I must keep reminding myself. Still, maybe there's a short story in here somewhere... Oh, the possibilities!

    Well, Austin, next time we chat you'll have to explain some of these things in more detail for me. I'm totally fascinated by the infinite potential.