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)


  1. Esen Alit Quar from Julie Czerneda's webshifter series as well as the aliens from her Species Imperative series are incredible. Robert L. Forward's aliens in Dragon's Egg and Starquake and those in Flight of the Dragonfly are great. Also, David Gerrold's Chtorr are quite alien.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion - I'll check these out!

  3. For those of you who have been following the excellent discussion on Scifi Reddit, I'm afraid the blog has been removed from their site and I can no longer respond to comments from that site. Sorry for the inconvenience. Feel free to post here.


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