Saturday, 16 April 2016

How 'Alien' do we want our Aliens?

There's a wind of change a-blowing through sci-fi at the moment - one that relates in particular to extra-terrestrial life and how it's depicted in fiction.

Science fiction has been around for at least a century, but it wasn't until the 1950s that aliens and UFOs made an impact on the genre. Back then man had yet to land on the moon, poor old Pluto was still a planet and the Milky Way was thought to be The Whole Universe rather than just the astronomical equivalent of a zip-code. So there's no need to beat up ourselves or the sci-fi authors of the time if the depictions of aliens were... a little primitive, to say the least.

Now of course, thanks to space exploration, ever more sophisticated telescopes, satellites and probes and the brain-melting theories and experiments of various NASA boffins, we know so much more. And like the kid who grows up and discovers Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny aren't real, we've all had to adjust our ideas of how proper alien life might have to work in order to actually exist.

(Unless of course you're a conspiracy theorist, in which case carry on believing whatever bullcrap you like and by the way, that tinfoil hat is just so you, dahling..!)

As a result, some sections of the sci-fi community have been railing against the 'standard' alien so beloved of fifty-odd years of popular space fiction, saying that not only is it now known to be nonsensically implausible but a sign of 'lazy and unimaginative writing.' Those who continue to write aliens as little more than humans in neon body-paint with innuendo-inspiring appendages are doing the genre a huge disservice, and they need to stop it, like, now. Get with the (space) program, dudes, and dig deeper for the Weird!

I get that. No honestly, I do. Even in the fairly recent past there have been aliens so badly conceived as to be insulting to a human of average intelligence. Here are just two of the worst examples:

Independence Day - A super-advanced alien race with motherships the size of a suburban town that travel beyond light-speed and are equipped with building-melting lasers have invaded Earth, and even as we speak are merrily destroying key world landmarks they researched on the way (because you don't want to look like a total noob blowing up a McDonalds in Ohio and a Pizza Express in Slough, right?) Oh noes, we're all gonna die! Thank God then, that their inter-galactic fleet of Death Spaceships are still using Microsoft Windows as an operating system, and in their rush to pack enough laser-ammo to LEGO-brick the White House forgot to renew their McAfee subscription! Otherwise that little trojan virus that geeky guy slapped together on his laptop would've been useless for singlehandedly wiping out their entire armada!

Signs - Just imagine for a moment how the Project Planning Meeting might have looked for the uber-powerful, faster-than-lightspeed-spaceship-owning aliens in this particular movie:

ALIEN #1: So... which planet in this little corner of the Milky Way shall we invade and plunder then?
ALIEN #2: Well, how about the one that's over two-thirds covered with a liquid that's pretty much lethal to us?
ALIEN #1: Oooh, sounds like a plan!
ALIEN #3: Um, not wanting to come over all Health and Safety on you guys or anything, but it seems that this lethal liquid is so prevalent that it regularly just falls out of the sky - sometimes for like, days at a time...
ALIEN #2: So..?
ALIEN #3: Well... shouldn't we perhaps consider wearing some sort of protective clothing while we're down there? Y'know, in case that happens?
ALIEN #1: Where are your balls, soldier? If we're gonna go down and invade a planet swirling in stuff that kills us on contact, we're gonna do it butt-naked! 'Cause that's how we roll!

Yes, the above and other examples like them are spectacularly stoopid, and the writers could and should have done better. Yes, now that we have all this new knowledge about how other worlds unlike our own might work, we need to use it to inform our stories about alien races and take them to new levels. Innovate, don't imitate and all that. But at the same time, I feel some of the calls for change could be argued as sacrificing 'authenticity' for story, and we should review each on a case-by-case basis rather than impose new standards across the board. Changes like:

I'm a sexy alien and I know it.
 It's a popular trope - randy alien gets the massive hots for sexy earthling (or sexy alien-of-a-different-planet-to-the-other-alien) and they end up making sweet lurve, sometimes to the point of producing an adorable little hybrid-alien baby to boot. Captain Kirk certainly got close many a time, although fortunately for the Starship Enterprise he also had commitment issues when it came to putting a ring on it.  But could such inter-planetary dalliances ever happen in real life?

Well.... the getting the hots and making sweet lurve part isn't impossible. Humans are certainly kinky little devils who can get all fired up over and doing the most disturbing things (look in any murky corner of the internet for proof of that. On second thoughts, don't. You may be scarred for life.) But, like a union between a human and an animal will not produce a humanimal, the chances of procreation between two different alien races resulting in offspring are close to zero. So hybrid alien babies and plots involving aliens 'spreading their seed' among other alien races (including earthlings) are now considered uncreative as well as unrealistic erotica. (Compared to the other - um, 'realistic' erotica out there? Like, for instance, Dinosaur Porn?)

S'okay, primitive humans - my people memorised the Rosetta Stone on the way here.
In the ultimate example of long-distance language courses, most aliens who rock up to Earth can instantly speak whatever the local lingo for the area happens to be, often quite literally like a native, right from First Contact. Sometimes the explanation for this miracle is little more than a vague hand-wave and a 'just because' from the author, and other times they wheel out whatever name they've devised for the old 'universal translator' thingy (i.e. some technological gizmo/super-weird creature-pathogen possessed by the aliens that just magically translates everything everyone ever says to everyone else forever, instantly and in real time.)

You don't need to be a scientist, rocket or otherwise, to know there's no way this could work in real life, simply because the data still has to be collected, and to do that the different alien races need to spend a decent period of time interacting and then extrapolating that data first. Even websites like Google Translate won't help you instantly converse like a local with someone whose language you don't actually speak - and that's before you take into account that alien worlds may have things, ideas and states of being that have no equivalent in context on Earth, and vice versa.

So again, the feeling is growing that universal translators and instantly multi-lingual aliens are a lazy way of getting round the inevitably real-life language barriers. Especially if these aliens don't even use verbal language to communicate in the first place. And why should they? After all, we're the odd ones out in that sense right here on earth (yes we are - sorry Cat Lady, but Tiddles does not understand every word you say and you do not speak Meow.)

Oh hey, you're just like me - but blue, with random tentacles!
I saved this one for last, since it's potentially the biggest can of worms.

If we've learned anything in the last twenty or so years, it's just how crazy-weird and wonderful other planets are - not just in our own solar system but light years away, in the farthest reaches of the Milky Way and beyond. A frozen waterworld moon! Planets where it rains liquid methane! Planets with storms that last hundreds of years! A moon covered in volcanoes and lava lakes!

Obviously, us puny humans would struggle to last five minutes on worlds like these, so it stands to reason that any sentient natives of those worlds aint gonna be using much of our physiology as a blueprint. We are also carbon-based organisms, because there's a lot of that element on earth and carbon bonds well with lots of other elements, enabling complex structures like sentient life to exist. Other planets with crazy chemical make-ups nothing like ours would have to use other elements with similar properties - silicon is the most popular one touted as a next-best - which means they would probably look and even function very differently to us. And why would creatures on a waterworld need legs, or breathe air? Why would creatures who get their energy via photosynthesis (like plants here on earth) have a digestive system - or even mouths?

So the new, up-to-date message from many quarters of the sci-fi market is clear; writers of alien worlds need to start thinking out of the Star Trek costume box for today's ETs. We're a lot less dumb than we used to be about What's Really Out There (well, except maybe the aforementioned conspiracy theorists) and the guy in the rubber suit won't fool us any more - not even in books. We want proper, faithful depictions of scientifically plausible aliens, and we want them now.

But... do we? Really?

Remember when NASA announced they'd found evidence of life on Mars? The whole world did a collective squee and tuned in for more, panting to know what these critters looked like, what they did, could we bring some back to earth someday and breed them to keep as pets? Until the pictures emerged of these pudgy little worm-y things that NASA told us were so small that this view was actually them magnified about a hundred times, and these ones had probably been dead for about a billion years anyway...

At which point the world did a collective 'humph' and stomped off to - I don't know, play Star Wars Battlefront probably ("at least that's got shootable aliens in it!") Big red buzzer for the non-interesting aliens!

And that's the risk fiction writers take when they try to create 'scientifically realistic' aliens. Sure, they might be spot-on, factually accurate recreations of life that could exist on the fantastical planet of their imaginings - but would anyone want to read about a race of sentient snot-balls whose only form of expression is to spit snot-globs and change colour? For 200-plus pages?

No. So we're going to have to boot our imaginary aliens further up the evolutionary ladder - to be, at the very least, on a developmental par with us humans. And luckily, the boffins of the world have been thinking about that too, and devised a wish list of key characteristics such a species would need to possess in order to dominate their environment the way we do:

Sensory organs - all the better to see, hear, touch, taste and smell. The last three can be achieved a number of ways, as is the case on earth, (a snake 'smells' with its tongue and its skin provides the sense of touch, for example) but for seeing and hearing the requirements are more specific. For complex tasks like building stuff, throwing and catching and manipulating tools in general you need stereo vision - that is, at least two eyes next to each other, facing forward. Meanwhile, binaural hearing offers the greatest chance of survival, enabling a creature to not only hear sounds from all around them, but also to pinpoint the direction of that sound. This is why most highly evolved creatures on earth have two ears - one on each side of their head.

Opposable digits - Aint much civilisation gonna happen without these. This requires at least two twiggy appendages that can move independently of one another while also being able to function together as a unit, where pressure between them can be controlled (enabling gripping and releasing.) This is why apes, monkeys and humans can do complex things with tools, while dogs and manatees just try and eat them.

Highly-evolved socio-communicative skills - No man is an island, so the saying goes - and the same would be true for ambitious aliens. You want to get shizzle done, you need teamwork and an ability to communicate your plans that goes beyond pointy hands and grunts. The reason we can make the wide range of complicated sounds that constitute 'talking' is all to do with the configuration of our tongues, teeth and larnyx, and - get this - our upright standing/walking posture plays a part too. An ability to pass on complicated, non-instinctive information when we're not around to do it personally is also a bonus - which is why us humans invented writing, music and art. But first we needed big brains, and once we'd got one of those it took priority over muscles when it came to feeding our bodies. This is why most of us aren't naturally as huge as an elephant, pumped as a silverback gorilla or as fast as a cheetah; all the fuel that would go into priming the muscles required for those traits gets diverted instead to our massive brains. It also means they'd need to eat actual food to survive - particularly, but not limited to, proteins or something with protein-esque qualities- so no purely photosynthesising life-forms if you want them intelligent, I'm afraid.

So taking all of the above into account, it would seem the ideal alien for interesting and believable fiction would need at least five senses, forward-facing seeing organs next to each other, hearing organs on either side of its head or body, at least two opposable digits, flexible tongues and larynxes, an upright posture, a digestive system that can utilise proteins or an otherworldly equivalent and large brains at the expense of being pretty small, slow-moving and not overly strong.

Wow. That sounds a lot like... us!

You could argue that of course we'd believe that, because humans have proved throughout history that we think we're smashing, the best things ever invented. But even if you're not a scientist, it's hard to argue that the characteristics listed above aren't a massive advantage that mark us out from all the other creatures on our planet. So writers can feel justified in continuing to use them as a starting point in creating their own aliens. And there's still scope for turning up the weird. Why stop at just two eyes, for instance, when you could have three, four or even multiple mini-eyes like a fly? They might need an upright posture - but who says they have to have legs? And when it comes to how they procreate - well, that's between you and your inner therapist, my dears....

So when it comes to creating aliens that won't get the pointy finger of 'outdated cliche' thrust in their face, there's no need to panic; there are plenty of scientific reasons for them to not be so wildly wacky they no longer resemble humans in any way. But there are other reasons too, and they are to do with why we read stories in the first place - about anything, not just aliens. We want to read about shared experiences, to step into another's shoes for a while and walk their path through life, and to do that we need to see how, why and where those characters are like us. We want to laugh, cry, rage, fear, love and hate with them as they lead us through their story.

And it's darn near impossible to do that with a non-talking, quivering blob of goo.


So what would you add to an alien to level it up from Rubber-suited Guy? What cliche do you think should be taken away? Feel free to put your ideas in the Comments below.

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