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.