Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Brothers and Others: Creating Aliens that Aren't Alienating

by Kat Feete
2004, Kat Feete

by Kat Feete

The alien fascinates us. Tolkien's elves, Asimov's robots, Niven and Pournelle's Moties: they all serve the same essential function - to draw us outside ourselves and present us with something that is other. Compelling aliens are bulwarks of science fiction and fantasy which entice readers back again and again.

But what fascinates the reader often frustrates the writer. On the one hand, it is both unwise and exhausting to allow the aliens to overwhelm the story.  Hardened science fiction readers may be willing to follow your thought experiment through to the bitter end, but most readers will grow bored of technical details and aliens so strange that they cannot empathize with them -- particularly when writers become so fascinated by the aliens that they forget to lavish the same care and attention on the humans in the story. On the other hand, modern readers are also demanding about the details of aliens. Bug eyes and feathered crests are no longer enough to make an alien; pointy ears and a lisp cannot make a convincing elf these days.

Unfortunately, writers seeking a balance between the familiar and the alien too often achieve only the mediocre. Almost always (save perhaps in hard science fiction) they err in making their aliens too human, falling back on three main tricks to keep their readers, and themselves, from noticing that they are writing about humans in funny costumes.

The Unsatisfying Alien

The first unsatisfying alien is created via simple subtraction or addition. Star Trek's Spock is a famous member of this clan; he is a human with the emotions subtracted. Other writers have subtracted dreaming, lying, a sense of humor, the imagination, dying, the ability to commit murder, and varied other abilities that can be used to define "human." Or perhaps the alien is just like a human save that something has been added: an extra sense, an extra sex, an extra head.

The formula can be a valuable tool.  In The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, Ursula LeGuin took humans but subtracted the gender, thereby creating one of the most controversial science fiction novels of the time. LeGuin herself, however, later said of the novel "In other areas... I see now a failure to think things through, or to express them clearly." And for every author who produces a brilliant but flawed alien race, there are at least a hundred who fail to carry through at all. The fact that the alien cannot dream, lie, die, etc., will be thrown in when the author wishes to make a point or a joke, but the rest of the time the alien will act human. Its society will be essentially human. Its culture will be remarkably human. Little or no thought will have been given to what the missing or added element would have done to, say, the structure of their government.

The second unsatisfying alien is static and homogenous. Civilization thrives on challenge and difference, but this alien is based on one particular Earth culture or one particular Earth creature; it therefore lives in one particular habitat -- desert seems to be the favorite for science fiction, forest for fantasy -- and has one type of government, one religion, one set of cultural values, and one ethical stance.  Moreover, all members of its race look pretty much alike. Of course, one non-humanoid alien is likely to look much like another to a human, but oddly it's the humanoid aliens that lack the most in diversity. Diversity is a necessity. Specialization kills. Even if it weren't scientific fact, it would still be good sense.  Homogeneity isn't only a poor evolutionary strategy -- it's also immensely boring.

The third unsatisfying alien is being used to prove something. The authors that write these aliens have abandoned good characterization entirely in favor of political commentary and grandstanding. Their aliens may be markedly inferior to humans (a cautionary example) or markedly superior (a positive example), but in either case, they exist only to tout the author's views on war, politics, religion, sex, race, the environment, art, or any of a thousand other transitory soapboxes. It hardly matters. These platforms, once rendered through the voice of a cardboard alien puppet, are all equally uninteresting. Readers do not like being preached to; they will grind their teeth at every platitude and throw the book down rather than read the pointed speech. The only readers these authors impress are those who already agree with them.

These three aliens may occur one at a time or all at once. Often they are well-intentioned. Frequently they have moments of salvation, where the aliens become, if not good aliens, at least good characters. But mostly they are fatally flawed. They are alienating, not alien; they are not human, but only because they are less than human. "If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person," Ursula LeGuin wrote in her book The Language of the Night, "if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself you may hate it or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality." Working that backwards, if you hate or deify your aliens, if you deny them a full, human reality, then you are denying your affinity with them - yours, and your readers'. You are preventing your readers from empathizing with your nonhuman characters, and, by doing so, you are damaging their ability to empathize with anyone in your story.

Following Through

My three examples of bad alien creation are not definitive - there are plenty of other ways to ruin a story. Nor can they be properly referred to as mistakes; aliens with elements of any or all of these have been made into some of the most fascinating and compelling creatures in science fiction and fantasy. When writers think about what they are adding or subtracting, when they work to embed their beliefs into their aliens, the results can be dazzling -- and the problem of homogeneity tends to then solve itself, the complexity appearing naturally as the author's commitment to the alien deepens.

This makes the reverse equally true. If an alien race, whether fantasy or science fiction, shows no diversity of culture or government, then its alienness is probably a graft and not a deep and integral part of it. If the habitat, the appearance, or most especially the personality of the whole race can be summed up in a word, then that race is not yet a finished one. After all, if Klingons are violent and dwarves are dour, then what are humans? Can you contain the personality of the human race in a word? If you can, then abandon the aliens for the moment and concentrate on your human characters. There is something very wrong with your story.

But why go to all this trouble? Why fight and swear and sweat to create something which, by its very nature, will never be fully understood by you or your readers?

 It is interesting to note that all of the methods I list above -- denying a particular thing or adding one, demonizing or deifying, insisting that really they're all the same -- have, at various times, been used on women, animals, people of a different religion, people of a different country, people of a different skin color, and any number of other groups.  They have been used to generally deny rights that men, humans, people of the "correct" religion, et cetera, were considered entitled to. Fear of the other runs deep in us. But we are all aliens, trapped in our own minds and lives. Fiction writing is the art of creating a mind and letting other people traipse about it in for a bit, letting them recognize this or that -- "Yes, yes, I've done that, I've felt like that!" -- but also presenting them with incomprehensible actions or emotions, in the hopes that they may understand what they don't feel. Succeed in this, even in a very modest way, and you have written; fail in this, and you have done nothing of particular value.

Writing about aliens is stretching the boundaries of compassion further than ever before. It's a goal that is worth a little work.

Works Cited

LeGuin, Ursula. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace Books 1969. ISBN # 0441007317

LeGuin, Ursula. The Language of the Night. HarperCollins 1989. ISBN #0060924128. The two articles within the book that I quoted from were "Is Gender Necessary?" and "American SF and the Other", respectively.

Aliens in the first paragraph:

Elves are in all of Tolkien's Middle Earth books, including The Hobbit (ISBN # 0618260307 ) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Robots turn up frequently in Asimov's work. A good place to start would be either I, Robot (ISBN #0345321405) or The Robots of Dawn (ISBN #0345315715).

The Moties are from The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Pocket Books 1974, ISBN # 0671801074).