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Monday, 26 December 2011

What makes a good alien character (2)

A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog on this topic, and via Reddit Scifi got about 50 replies, and thought I'd summarize what people said. First, a reminder of the five 'rules' I posted:


1. Aliens won't look humanoid
2. They won't speak English
3. They will be more intelligent than us
4. They won't share our value structure
5. They won't wish they were human

Most comments agreed, though a couple of people took issue with number 3. Anyway, here's  summary of what people said.

1. Most agreed that, different to most films/games/TV series, the non-humanoid alien was best for books and stories. There was a big discussion as to why other media still go for humanoid aliens, despite the power of computer graphics; in brief, films etc. have to gain empathy from the viewer much quicker than a book does, and so humanoid central characters, or at least anthropomorphic (essentially humans even if in disguise) characteristics are the norm.

2. Avoid the 'humans are special' trope (my rule 5 above), which one person pointed out was the same as the 'Everyone wants to be American' trope.

3. Those that accepted my 'more intelligent' rule thought it should be intelligence at a completely different level. Somebody pointed out that genetically there's not that much difference at DNA level between us and chimps, but the actual differences in what we achieve are enormous. 

4. Vastly more intelligent aliens would probably not be interested in anything we had to say. This 'indifference' can be used to great effect in books, creating mystery and 'alien-ness'. Incidentally, even less intelligent beings can be indifferent to great effect, as with the Bikura in Dan Simmons Hyperion.

5. Intelligence is a product of environmental need. If a species is surviving nicely, thank you very much, and has a stable niche (like the cockroach, or jellyfish), then there may be no need to evolve, and intelligence level will plateau. This is a challenge for the SF writer, to indicate why intelligence might increase, perhaps due to interaction with other species (e.g. David Brin's Uplift saga). Other options are eugenics, cybernetic augmentation and psychosurgery, and inter-species mating.

6. Some stated that intelligence would be limited by a species' physiology, with a bit of leeway for social evolution. Similarly with civilization - it would go so far and then just add more of the same, despite technological advances, the end result being social advancement and/or stagnation.

7. The most convincing aliens have an entire culture behind them, which takes a lot of time and skill to develop. 

8. Further to (7), space-faring aliens will likely have met other aliens, and so there will be cultural mixing  or at least references between different alien cultures. This is akin to normal fiction, where writers mention a character's half-brother or uncle or day-job, to give the reader the feeling the character has a life off-page. This suggests a galactic society in some cases, and a long history to boot.

9. Intelligence can be electronic, as in the 'Minds' of Iain Banks, or in some of Alistair Reynolds' works, or the later Dune sequels by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson

10. Advanced cultures might be less technologically-focused (i.e. been there, done that), and be more focused internally (zen aliens). This might mean they don't need ships to travel, and maybe are seeking some kind of (Stargate-like) ascendance to a higher realm, or just trying to get out of this galaxy/universe (as in Stephen Baxter's Xeelee aliens). In brief, they might be more concerned with 'inner space' than outer space. 

Since posting the blog I've thought of two other facets which can be useful for 'building' alien cultures:

11. Mode of reproduction. A lot of human social life is actually geared around reproduction, and in fact it is probably the biggest driving force in nature. The actual mode of reproduction will affect social behavior and traits which can be quite alien to us. Incidentally, someone pointed out that insectoid aliens (as brilliantly done in the Ender series by Orson Scott Card) have been a bit overdone, so new approaches would be preferred.

12. Perception. Humans are generally very visual, and a little bit auditory. What if aliens weren't, or were perceptive of a different or vaster range on the electromagnetic spectrum, or telepathic, or just thought much faster or slower? Perception shapes a lot of who we are, ditto for aliens.

So, where does this lead me? I'm writing book three of the Eden Trilogy, and have some work to do as I already have several species far more intelligent than humans. For me the biggest lesson is that aliens, even if they have some interest in humanity, must never, ever be 'human-centric'. Aliens, as the dictionary says, are different.

The Eden Paradox available in paperback and ebook on Amazon
Eden's Trial available in ebook on Amazon
Eden's Revenge - available only in my head ... until September 2012.

Friday, 23 December 2011

When's the next space-bus to Kepler, please?

If you were the head of NASA's Space Division, and had unlimited budget, what would you spend your money on? Okay, let's assume the world economic mess is 'fixed' and world poverty is eradicated, back to the question: where would you focus?

Well, our own backyard seems an obvious place to start, Mars being everyone's first choice, because Venus is too hot and the Moon has no atmosphere, right? And the gas giants have too much gravity, though their moons might be interesting, if a little icy, and maybe there are some exotic particles hanging around Jupiter that might help answer some of our big questions about the universe. But what would we do on Mars, or the Moon or any other moons for that matter? We could do research, a bit of mining, maybe, but transport costs would likely make it a bad business model...

So, what about terraforming? Thinking of Mars again, maybe strips at a time. Could Mars be reclaimed one day? But do we really have any clue how to terraform?

Okay, let's think interstellar. Many do, but the word on the street is 'not in the forseeable future': see NASA's website here. We have lots of ideas, but they are still more at the speculation stage than the science stage.

But we keep discovering planets, right? Sooner or later, we're going to find one or two like Kepler 20 & 22 that are either 'terraformable', or downright habitable. Why go there, you may ask? After all, in America most people don't even have a passport, let alone an inter-stellar visa. Well, give it another 50 years, and let's just say that one or two (billion) might be interested in a fresh start...

When I was a kid, I won a high school debating contest on whether to put money into space research or not. This was in the 70s (I got teary when Armstrong put his feet onto the Moon, by the way). My final clinching argument was that if there was a global calamity (no, not the current one, a real one like a man-made swine or bird flu virus breaking out of one of those oh-so-safe labs, and don;t get me started on nannites...), then we might need somewhere to go. You see, I think it'd be a shame if First Contact arrived and we weren't around to party. Aliens would look around, see interesting stuff and hear our cool music and lofty speeches, and think, gosh, that's a shame, they might have been fun.

So, back to the question: what do you spend your money on?

We're actually blocked by our lack of understanding of the laws of physics. We need more geniuses, and we need to get out into the rest of the Solar System, because it's likely some of the answers are out there rather than in CERN's Hadron Collider.

Now, back to reality, because budgets are short these days. In which case spend it on physics, and on beautiful minds that can unravel today's conundrums, and work out how to break the light speed barrier, or at least bend it. I personally reckon we have about fifty years to make a breakthrough. If you study the statistics of wars (which follow a Poisson distribution, incidentally), or look at how accidents arise, and mix into the pot that everything is so connected these days that small Wars or accidents could turn global, fifty years sounds generous.

So, think fast, boys and girls with beautiful minds, think hard and fast... And NASA - give them some more funding!


The Eden Paradox is a near-term Scifi thriller about our first inter-stellar trip to what we hope will be Eden. But in this galaxy, there are no free lunches...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

What makes a good alien character?

For many years when reading science fiction, I was continually struck by how aliens were simply mirrors for humanity, foils against which heroic humans could find inner strength and show how good humanity could be. It didn't mean it was not enjoyable and even great, but for me it had the trappings of fantasy where the ultimate story is about good and evil, about what we can be (as is most fiction). When I stumbled upon David Brin's Startide Rising I uttered a 'Hallelujah' and plunged into the 'otherliness' of his aliens in the Uplift saga. I recently read Jack McDevitt's Deepsix and loved it for the same reason.

So when I started writing SF I was determined not to fall into conventional traps and set myself five simple rules:

1. Aliens won't look humanoid
2. They won't speak English
3. They will be more intelligent than us
4. They won't share our value structure
5. They won't wish they were human

Judging from feedback I've had for my first two books, I've been at least partly successful, though I'm not nearly at Brin's standard.

The first is easy in principle, but as a writer I need to be careful and not chuck it all onto the page at once like a police description. I had some good advice early on from Jen Dick (a poet who loves scifi) who pointed out that people tend to describe things in different ways. So, in The Eden Paradox, in the first two thirds of the book there are only glimpses of the principal alien character, the Q'Roth, and people who see it describe it in different ways. Only later in the book is the reader able to piece them together to get a good look. This is used in films such as Alien, where only at the end is the creature really seen. Meanwhile, the reader's imagination gets a workout, which is what Scifi is all about, isn't it?

Communication is not only oral. In Eden's Trial there is an alien artifact called a Hohash, which cannot speak or utter sounds. Several professional readers (and SF author Gary Gibson) found this 'being' one of the most interesting aspects of both books (think of an I-Phone left to evolve for a million years...). Trapped onboard an alien vessel with a lone human female (a 'baddie' incidentally), the Hohash resorts to physical violence as a form of communication, always stopping short of killing her, its motives unclear until the very end of the book. Another alien, a reptile called Ukrull, can speak English, but hates to do so, because he finds humans so simple he'd rather not bother. The Ossyrians, a medical race, take another tack - they perform brain surgery on one of the humans so he can understand them, slowly destroying his humanity in the process. In Eden's Trail, there is no handy 'universal translator', and the human characters are constantly struggling to understand and be understood when they encounter aliens. Isn't that the most probable situation when we finally encounter aliens?

'More intelligent' is difficult to write, for obvious reasons. A trick is to make alien motivations obscure, adding lots of technological advancement and capability, and we infer intelligence. I'm just finishing Timelike Infinity by Stephen Baxter, and the Qax fall into such a category (also of course some of Greg Bear's works), though towards the end they started having human failings which for me lost some of the impact (but Baxter is such a terrific SF writer, who cares, right?). More intelligent can mean thinking faster, and as a writer this is easier to manage, since aliens can 'get it' when it has taken their human counterpoints a long time to reach what to the alien is obvious. In one scene in Eden's Trial I make this even clearer, by having the 'upgraded' human mentioned earlier thinking through a series of complex options literally while his former partner blinks once. Near the end of the book, Ukrull remarks of this human, "not so dumb."

Creating different value structures requires a lot of thought. Whilst loving most of the entire Star Trek series, the one race which stands out for me was the Cardassians. Initially they were painted as simply a nasty race, torturous, treacherous and brutal. But towards the end of Deep Space Nine, more of their culture became apparent, and their different value choices to ours became a little more understandable, and richer.

In The Eden Paradox, the Q'Roth are mankind's nemesis, and are a little black and white in terms of their value structures. But in the sequel, their role in the galaxy becomes clearer. In the finale of the trilogy, Eden's Revenge, which I'm writing now, a human who was hell-bent on their destruction has been turned into a Q'Roth and forced to fight alongside them against a larger enemy. Through his eyes (well, slits, actually), we gain an insight into what they care about, and what they simply don't feel (compassion, sympathy, love, the need for positive feedback, etc.). He still hates them and would like to destroy them, but he begins to respect them as the bravest soldiers he has ever seen.

The last rule (aliens shouldn't long to be human) requires the author to distance him or herself from the warm embrace of human contact and think instead about the cold hard vacuum of space: in other words, not to get 'romantic' about humanity and aliens, and not to secretly write fantasy under the guise of science fiction. A useful allegory is the African savannah of the Serengeti, where a panoply of animals co-exist, often by eating each other, according to the implicit rules of the food-chain and animal hierarchy. A wildebeeste doesn't 'want' to be a lion, for example, it just tries not to be the one taken down when chased. Would any of them want to be human? Really? I've been there, trust me, they wouldn't. The reverse might be true...

In dictionaries, the third definition of the word 'alien' usually means "a being from another world", and later definitions include the adjective "unfamiliar". Whilst I still read science fiction which is predominantly about humanity and may have no aliens whatsoever, frankly I get enough of humanity in daily life, so I'm always looking for books which have well-developed and thought-out aliens, to make me think about possibilities, because one day, I think they'll come a-knocking, and for me, they sure as hell won't look or be like us.

The Eden Paradox available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Omnilit.
Eden's Trial available from Amazon on kindle (B&N soon, paperback version summer 2012)

Friday, 9 December 2011

The main advantage of multiple characters, multiple points of view

When you read a book, often there is a single protagonist, a single point of view (POV) through which the reader sees the book's events unfold. This may be the book's hero or heroine, whom things happen to, or it may be somebody slightly off-centre watching the events (a great example of the latter is The Great Gatsby).

A lesser-used style is multiple points of view - the reader gets to sit in 'more heads', and can for example see why certain people may act badly or wrongly. It is generally harder to write multiple characters in this way, because not only must their dialogue sound different to the reader, but also the way they think. The author also has to keep a careful track on what each POV character knows as the plot unfolds (a useful tool to help is called Scrivener, available for Mac or PC).

So, why bother making it difficult for ourselves as authors?

The main reason an author may write with multiple POVs is, for example, where the story is complex, and a single POV protagonist simply cannot know enough to let the reader make sense of it. The standard solution is to use what is called omnipotent third person, so the reader floats above all the heads, seeing everything. But this is a little impersonal, not the same as being in different people's heads in different chapters, not the same as really knowing a character better than we know people in our real lives, because we can know their innermost thoughts, fears and desires. Going inside their heads is a form of intimacy, and can connect the reader and the characters, creating a bond which says "I really know this person." Only if it's well-written, of course, and if the heads explored are interesting and the ones relevant to the story. Stieg Larsson's Millennium series is amazing at multiple POVs, using over thirty in one book.

But the main benefit of course must be for the reader, not the author.

In a single protagonist book, the reader may like the central character. Imagine if they don't, however - will they keep reading? The author's solution is to have the main character be 'sympathetic', by which is meant the reader can at the least empathise with the character (if they are not a very nice person, for example, but are a product of their past and present circumstances), and at best root for and wish they knew them personally. A classic example of the latter is Captain Black Jack Geary in the Lost Fleet science fiction series. Many readers will love this character and wish they were him. But of course they're not. Well, I'm not, anyway.

So, here is the main advantage of multiple POVs: with a larger cast of characters, the reader is bound to identify closely with one of them. For example, in my own book, The Eden Paradox, there are ten main characters, twelve POVs, of which four take up most space. My neighbor, and quite a few women who have read the book, loves Gabriel, who is an assassin. My neighbor is a martial artist, which is why he connects with Gabriel and his code of honor, and several female readers like him because he is a tortured soul, despite his career choice, and because he is a man of action. Other connections are less obvious, but there is plenty of choice - Blake, the heroic type, Micah, slightly geeky and anti-heroic, Rashid, an Indian with his own strange code of honor, and Louise, who most male readers like, despite (or because of) her dark side, Kat and Jen, strong yet completely different female characters, Pierre, a socially-inept scientist, Dimitri, a wily professor, and Vince, a savvy interpol agent who never takes prisoners. Readers can root for one character, while identifying with another. My first reader actually said to me, "Barry - you want to be Blake, but you're actually more like Micah." It was a cutting remark personally, but in a sense, as an author, it meant I had succeeded.    

Multiple POVs allow the reader to find emotional resonance with one of the characters who is more like them personally, even if they'd rather be another character. This means that the author can connect with the reader, and hopefully cross that fine line between a reader saying, "Yes, I liked that book, it was good,", towards "I loved that book. When's the next one coming out?"

There is a cost for the author. We must carry these characters round in our heads. Mine won't go away. I had to write the sequel because they demanded it, and now that's coming out, they want the final. I've done a deal with them - three books and I get a vacation. Not sure if I can trust them, though...

The Eden Paradox available in paperback and ebook on Amazon and elsewhere
Eden's Trial available on Amazon very shortly...
 
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