into Alien Lifeforms
2002, S.L. Viehl
a bit of movie trivia you probably don’t know: Charles Bailey III, the Chief
Model Maker and the man who helped created Stephen Spielberg’s E.T. the
Extra-Terrestrial (1981), told a reporter that he inverted a domestic cat’s
head when he made the preliminary sketches of the much-beloved alien’s face.
By turning a feline’s slanty, slightly wicked features upside down, he
was able to produce a tender, sympathetic yet-still-inhuman face that would
appeal to everyone, especially children. E.T.
went on to gross over $400 million dollars at the box office, so I’d say he
had the right idea.
science fiction and fantasy novels usually means populating your story with
other-than-human life forms. For
fantasy writers, this generally means raiding mythology, or using the genre
standards like dragons, trolls, and faerie-type creatures to come up with
fiction authors, on the other hand, produce a lot of very strange critters.
In the desperate dash to be different, many go way overboard to invent
fantastic, outlandish species unlike anything anyone has ever seen.
It’s an admirable expression of their artistic abilities, but there’s
an inherent problem: they almost
always lose the reader along the way. Sure,
it sounds ultra-cool to have a whole herd of 80-foot quasi-limbed orb-stasis
beings, but unless you draw me a picture of these things, I have no idea what
you’re talking about. However, if
you tell me that your alien has four wings, ten eyes, and looks a little like a
kangaroo, I’m right there with you.
Go With What You Know?
difference is simply point of reference. Most
readers need at least something familiar to draw on for their imagination, or
like me, they get lost. They might
read “quasi-limbed” and “orb-stasis” as being anything from gigantic
paramecium with protruding stomachs to legless/armless/headless bubble-beings.
But if you base your alien on something familiar, like a kangaroo with
wings and lots of eyes, they can construct a vision of what you’re describing
out of what they already know.
classification of organisms is called taxonomy. Here on Earth we use a taxonomy
system that places all organisms into five categories, or kingdoms:
Monera (prokaryota), Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia.
These categories are further subdivided into phyla, classes, orders,
families, genus, and species. The
way our science teachers have us remember the order of the classification system
is a little jingle: King
Philip Can Order For
five kingdoms make up Earth’s Tree of Life.
Any biologist can tell you that we’re barely begun to count all the
branches in the tree, and what belongs to them, and how they all work together.
One on my favorite sites on the Internet is David R. Maddison’s Tree of
Life Web Project, which you can find at http://tolweb.org/tree/phylogeny.html
use Earth organisms from all five kingdoms as foundations for all the alien
species in my novels, not only for point of reference, but because it saves me a
lot of headaches. With all due
respect to outlandish-lovers, I think our planet has enough interesting critters
to keep me creatively inspired forever. Also,
researching Earth animal biology allows me not only to construct believable and
interesting alien life forms, but to give them instincts, feeding and mating
habits, natural environments, and so on, similar to the same for the real
aliens don’t have to be based on a single animal, either.
In my StarDoc series, my Aksellan miners are pretty much straight-forward
three-foot-tall sentient black widow spiders, with some tarantula
characteristics thrown in. However,
when I created the Patriarch of Furin and his people, I crossed a beetle with a
horse and gave it the ability to fly (imagine finding one of those things
circling around your porch light one night).
You can combine two, three, or six different animals to create your alien
critters, too. There’s no limit
on the mix, how you put them together, or what they do.
Just keep in mind that if you have an entire race of winged beings and
they don’t fly, you’d better have a good reason why not – otherwise, why
would they develop wings in the first place?
the Perfect Beast
the moment I’m working on building onto an existing species that I wasn’t
able to get into much detail about in a previous book – the natives of K-2,
the ‘Zangians. Originally I
envisioned them as an amphibious, ambulatory cross between an orca and a dolphin
(at the time, the thought of sharing an E.R. with a walking, talking Shamu the
Killer Whale was too much fun to resist). Now
I have to expand on that species for my BioRescue books – not just present
readers with a glimpse of my orca/dolphins, but their entire life cycle,
habitat, natural enemies, and so on. I’m
going back to hit the biology books, not just to reacquaint myself with the
species, but to see what advantages they have and what challenges they face here
on this planet. I think my
‘Zangians will be more believable and enjoyable for the reader because I’ll
adapt what really happens to their “cousins” here on Earth for them.
you set out to construct your alien life forms, don’t simply look at biology
– look at their biosphere, too. If
you have a desert world, you’re going to need beings who can survive in that
type of environment. Obviously, not
orca/dolphins. Also, at what
evolutionary stage are your aliens? If
you have a civilization with the capacity for light-speed space travel,
they’ll probably have a highly developed, sophisticated culture as well.
On the other hand, not every species evolves out to the stars.
Some may remain at certain levels and never progress beyond them.
Some may be facing extinction as a result.
These are all questions you need to ask yourself when you’re world- and
Practical, Having Fun
extremely practical to use Earth animals as foundations and guides toward
creating your alien life forms, but have a good time with it, too.
of the SF books I enjoyed reading the most was Little Fuzzy by H. Beam
Piper. Piper obviously had a lot of
fun creating his Fuzzies, which seemed to me to be a cross between monkeys and
raccoons. Although this book is
long out of print and the author sadly committed suicide in the ‘60’s, I
still recall the main Fuzzy character learning to communicate with the
protagonist, “Pappy Jack.” Fuzzy
did so through food, sorting stones by color, and other delightful behaviors
(all very chimp-like). That’s a
hallmark of creating excellent aliens – when someone like me who read the book
once can remember the characteristics thirty years later (and I vaguely recall
some local pest Jack called “damnthings” too).
your reader that point of reference, and then use your artistic skills to build
up to something they’ve never seen before – but won’t get lost trying to
imagine. You’ll end up with
aliens you love to write, and stories people will love to read.