The Alien Sea

AA2 is now in my editor’s hands.  My accountant has my tax stuff.  I’m slowly shifting back into thinking like a person who creates stories, rather than being in editorial mode or business mode.  Of all the aspects of my profession, I like being a storyteller best, so much so that it tends to color most aspects of my life.

Underwater Alien

Underwater Alien

Take this weekend.  Our friends Walter Jon Williams and Kathy Hedges came over for dinner.  After green chile chicken enchiladas and salad, but before (and later with) brownies, we settled down to view Walter’s pictures from his recent trip to Indonesia.  Walter scuba dives and the trip was centered around his hobby, so the majority of the pictures were taken underwater and featured various brilliantly colored, often peculiarly-shaped, forms of sea life.

As I probably don’t need to tell you, Walter also writes science fiction.   Given our shared interests, inevitably, alien life forms entered the conversation.  After viewing various types of sea turtles and octopi, nudibranchs (lots and lots of these), giant clams, miniature crabs, striped eels, infinite-armed starfish, and bustling cuttlefish – not to mention fish that walked, “flew,” and performed elaborate wriggling dances, (as well as a few that merely swam), we all agreed that SF writers who desired to create a truly alien race would do well to depart land and delve into the sea in search of models.

I, for one, would be seriously tempted by the octopus – and not as the monster of horror.  They’re so very appealing, with their flexible bodies, camouflage coloration, ink clouds, and big eyes.  The problem of digits for manipulating their environment is neatly handled – or perhaps I should say “tentacled” – by their eight limbs.   I’d enjoy getting into the psychology of a creature who would not have our restrictive ideas of “front and back,” for whom an “impassible” barrier would need to be something far more dense than what stops us.

And that’s even before evolving my alien from the octopus template, much as humans are evolved from primates.  Could there be an effective land octopus?  Perhaps an amphibious one.  Would they take a page from the hermit crab and design elaborate shells?  Mecha-octopi from the deep…  Maybe they’d be naturals for space travel.

Compared to some of the creatures Walter showed us, octopi are practically “normal.”  But there would be a problem with evolving aliens from, say, nudibranchs.  For one, how many readers have ever heard of a nudibranch?  Before Walter showed them to us, I only knew about them because a friend of mine belonged to a yarn club that used the coloration of different types of nudibranchs as the basis for a challenge to yarn dyers.  When a writer starts out needing to lecture the readership, it’s a dicey situation.  So aliens often are modeled on creatures that can be quickly shorthanded for the reader: reptiles, cats, and canines for the “good guys,” spiders and other insects (and often reptiles) for the “bad guys.”

Even when a writer tries hard to keep the aliens alien, often they’re reduced to the nearest terrestrial equivalent.  I am passionately attached to the various alien races in Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, but I can’t help but be saddened by how the Kzinti are often reduced to “tigers in space.”  I know why…  The “real” Kzinti aren’t nearly as attractive.  The epithet “rat cat” frequently applied to them in the stories is a reminder that their tails are pink and naked.  But tigers in space look so much better on the book jacket and, in time, the depiction colors the interpretation of the creature.

Larry Niven often used psychology as much as biology as a model for his aliens.  I adore the cowardly Puppeteers.  The paranoid Trinocs were fun, too.  Then there are weird Outsiders, who sail between the stars without need of ships.  Their motivations may be mysterious, but Niven never leaves the reader in doubt that the Outsiders have motivations.  Still, it’s the rat-cats that everyone comes back to, maybe because they can be more easily understood.

It’s been a long time since I read any of C.J. Cherryh’s “Chanur” books, but this was another good take on the “cat-like” alien.  In this case, she used the idea that in a “real” lion pride the males are idle studs.  It’s the females who go out and get in the dinner.  Evolve this forward and you have the Chani and their culture, up to and including shortcomings that mirror (perhaps deliberately) those of the Kzinti.

If I had to pick my favorites among more recent aliens, I’d go straight to Vernor Vinge.  His great, fat books need to be fat because there’s no “shorthanding” when he creates an alien culture.  The Tines, featured in A Fire Upon the Deep are wonderful.  Superficially canine, they are actually group minds, a development that permits them to get around the restrictions of not having “hands.”  Instead they have mouths…  lots of mouths, and a lot more range and coordination than the average human.

In Vernor’s A Deepness in the Sky he explores (among other things) the human desire to see the “other” as some variation of ourselves.  The alien “Spiders” are anything but human, but over and over again the humans who interact with them need to fight the conflicting impulses to see them either as terrifying monsters or as “just like us.”  Even at the end of the novel, the human who has come closest to understanding Spiders on their own terms finds herself forced to remember how physical orientation alone is enough to create distortions in interpretation: “…human bodies extended upward, and Spider bodies sideways.  If she didn’t keep a downward ‘view’ she missed out on ‘facial’ expressions…”

Great stuff!

So creating an alien – especially if it is to be used as a character, not just window-dressing – is a real challenge.  On the one hand, its needs to be alien enough not to just seem like, say a Japanese samurai in a fur suit – and on the other it needs to resonate enough with the reader that there can be sympathy, interest, and enthusiasm.  Or that’s how I see it.  Now, how would an octopus invite a human in to visit its house when it gets inside by slipping through the keyhole?


12 Responses to “The Alien Sea”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Well, a keyhole implies a key, which implies a lock, which implies a door to be locked. In which case Octi would just unlock the door, open it and invite the human in. Probably after a quick ‘wait a minute, I have to go get the key!’ before slithering through the keyhole.

    The existence of the door is easily explained by the need to get furniture and appliances, and probably provisions, in and out of the house.

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Well, building off what Louis said, I had an extra thought. Your octopus may fit through a tiny hole, but I bet even he has things inside that won’t do the same. Thus you need a way to get them inside. Octopus man (or woman) goes inside his way, then lets the human in via the service entrance.

    Though I have to admit, you’ve re-kindled concerns over my own work. I love Star Trek to death, but the different races were all different heads. Not enough imagination. Only Species 8472 was a truly unique creature. Star Wars did a lot better, so I was okay with the few races that were still very humanoid.

    So I try to make my races truly alien, but even I have to build off-of what I know. My main race that you see is, for all intents and purposes, a fox. Well, to be exact they look like foxes, even though they aren’t really. So I fear I’m falling into the same trap.

    Then again, I remember a line from Babylon 5. Ambassador G’kar was dinning with a friend, and they were eating something called breen, except it wasn’t breen. It was swedish meatballs. As G’kar noted, “It’s a strange thing, but every sentient race has its own version of these Swedish meatballs! I suspect it’s one of those great universal mysteries which will either never be explained, or which would drive you mad if you ever learned the truth.”

    I’m probably being lazy, but the scientist in me has probably tainted my universe asking the question; “Why can’t this be true in life forms? Who says the life we have here isn’t similar elsewhere?” It’s an interesting thought. Either by evolution or creation, are we not born of the same origins? Could we not develop along similar lines, with additional adaptations fit for the world?

    That said, I tool like it when races are truly unique and unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Yet at the same time, humans have this tendency to see the familiar in the alien.

    You realize I’m going to spend the next week thinking about all this.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    I imagine the writer’s goals and objectives also affect how they would create an alien race. Is it just a fun exploration of “what if”, pushing past our conventional understanding of biology or psychology? Or is the author trying to say something about humans, and needs a specific foil in the form of an alien race? Is there an allegory? Are the aliens primarily to add depth to the setting, or are they essential to the plot? In Star Wars, for example, the aliens are mostly there for color and spectacle, rather than having the interactions between the different species be a major focus. Ender’s Game had understanding the strangeness of others as a major theme. I think it really comes down to the author’s goals as a storyteller.

    And note regarding octopuses and small holes: the only hard and rigid part of an octopus is it’s beak. Everything else, including brain, guts, eyes, and so on, can be squished and squeezed without a problem. The beak is generally on the order of less than 10% the width of the head. So it can get through any hole it’s beak fits through.

  4. Paul Says:

    Back in the pulp magazine days, practically all aliens were humanoid, much like “Star Trek” (a bit less like “Star Wars”), and the general reason given was parallel evolution. Maybe we’re getting back to that concept, given that make-up and such is easier with human-like aliens. And speaking of early days, the first wave of alien invaders were, in fact, octopi-like in Wells’ “War of the Worlds” (tentacles, but they did have leathery bodies and two somethings that looked like eyes). Even earlier, in Voltaire’s “Micromégas,” we had a couple aliens calling on us back in 1752 – but human-like, except one was 6,000 feet tall and the other was 20,000 (tiny little differences…).

  5. Heteromeles Says:

    One problem with “truly alien” is that it’s easy to get stuck in the story. If it takes a long time for each species to even realize the other is sentient, then you’re a bit limited in how complex their interactions can be.

    You can also easily end up in Lovecraft territory. Or more likely, Peter Watts’ territory (Blindsight). It takes work to get people out of their “oh yuck!” reaction mode when dealing with something truly alien, and that can be easier to do with horror rather than straight SFF.

    A different and interesting approach was Rebecca Ore’s Becoming Alien trilogy. She posited a multispecies trading (con)federation, with the aliens all bipedal, and of four basic ecotypes (bears, bats, apes, and birds, depending generally on what kind of earth-like planet they’d evolved on*). The interesting thing was that she saw this federation as something like a zoo, where the “animals” were each others’ keepers and it took time for them to become habituated to each other. Wars flared up when a species new to star travel encountered this federation, freaked out, and attacked them. The federation’s goal in the war was primarily to protect itself until the newcomers became acclimated enough to start interacting, rather than attacking. Humans in the books were simply another “ape” species, primitives who were labeled xenophobic/xenophilic flip-floppers and thus rather dangerous. Being a spy on Earth was considered a hardship assignment for most aliens.

    *Convergent evolution. It’s not a bad idea, really: despite the reality that there are all sorts of highly intelligent and cultural species on our planet (culture being defined here as that set of traits that babies have to learn from their mothers and others in order to survive, rather than being able to learn to live on their own.), humans are unique in that we figured out how to make fire, and we’ve certainly come to dominate our biosphere (see Can you imagine an octopus making fire? It’s not silly for an SFF writer to assume that, if humans are able to become a starfaring species (which is a huge and under-examined assumption in its own right), then other starfaring species may well have to have something close to our body plan through convergent evolution, just as dolphins and sharks and fairly similar in body shape due to the requirements of hydrodynamics. Ore assumed that there were roughly four different ways Earth-like planets could develop, and on those separate planets, ape-like, bear or raccoon-like, bird-like, or bat-like alien lineages evolved into bipedal firemakers who eventually figured out how to make jumpdrives, went to the stars, and freaked out when they realized they were far from the first and that other aliens were not only alien, but bureaucrats as well.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I really like the idea the octopi would need a service entrance for furniture and appliances.

    Even though I’m the first to point out that large, flightless birds (ostriches, rheas, and emus) apparently evolved separately three times in response to similar environmental pressures, I’m hesitant to automatically accept this as an excuse for all aliens being humans with head bumps or cute perky ears or whatever.

    I believe it was Asimov who postulated that robots would, of course, look more or less like humans because that would enable them to use our tools. Maybe this will be so if we ever end up with “general purpose” robots. However, the reality seems to be that we’re building robots into our tools…

    So a writer should not always take the “easy” path but come up with good reasons for what happens in his or her universe.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Actually, that’s an interesting question. Ostriches, Emus, and Rheas are fairly closely related (along with cassowaries, kiwis, and extinct birds like the Malagasy Elephant Birds and Moas). While they all evolved from a flying ancestor, I’m not sure whether their last common ancestor could fly or not.

      The more interesting question, to me, is about firemaking. That’s so central to what we are as a species: so much of our food processing and technology depends on fire that we’re adapted to it–compare the teeth and GI of a human and a chimpanzee. Our teeth and GI tracts are much more fragile, because we use fire to pre-digest our food for us. Since brains and GI tracts are two of the most energy-intensive organs in the body, the biologists speculate that they steal resources from each other during development and evolution. A species that needs a huge GI tract may have trouble allocating the nutrients and energy to run a huge brain, and vice versa. Chimp brains may be limited in size because they have to chew and digest all their food raw, whereas we can cheat with fire, and thus afford big brains and weak teeth, stomachs, and intestines.

      That leads to the next question: how do you make a fire? I’ve actually tried using a hand-drill to start a fire, and I had to give up due to blisters. It’s not that easy, and it’s pretty necessary to have really sophisticated grippers and the ability to put a lot of energy through those grippers to rotate or rub things until they get hot enough to ignite tinder. If you think about it, that’s a really weird combination of traits to find in a body. An octopus, even if it was able to walk on land and breathe air, would have trouble starting a fire. So would an elephant. A raven couldn’t do it. Nor could an ant or termite or a dolphin. Chimpanzees certainly have the strength, but I’m not sure their hands could manipulate a hand drill well enough to start a fire.

      That’s why I’m saying that it’s not entirely silly to think that starfaring aliens would be built somewhat like humans We know our body shape helps us make fire, and we know that fire enables our technology, including the hypothetical ability to make starships. Note that I’m emphatically not saying that human-level intelligence only comes in human shape. I don’t think that at all. However, without fire, a very non-human society might be extremely complex, but it won’t have the kinds of technologies necessary to build a starship, because those require fire as a necessary precursor technology.

      • janelindskold Says:

        How about a lens? A very simple one can be made with water. Most lens grinding is done with sand and grit in various degrees, both amply available underwater.

        So an amphibious octopiod might make fire in a different fashion…

        Just playing with ideas.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        I think playing with alternatives is a wonderful idea.

        The fun part is figuring out the necessary precursor technologies, then figuring out what’s necessary to get there. I’ve recently tripped over a couple of good history-of-technology books that are helpful in this regard: Robert Courland’s Planet Concrete, which is still in print, is about (surprise!) concrete. The first chapters are fascinating, because, while you can make a bit of quicklime by burning seashells, you need a kiln to turn limestone into lime, which can then be made into cement or concrete. That kiln is also a precursor for everything from fired ceramics to charcoal to metal-smelting. While I don’t entirely agree with him, he makes a good case for limekilns (which first showed up in Anatolia about 10,000 BCE) being the precursor for all the metallurgy that grew up around Anatolia in the following 8,000 years.

        The other book (out of print) is Theodore Wertine’s The Coming of the Age of Iron, which is a collection of studies on how Bronze ages arose and gave birth to iron ages. Again, there’s the idea of precursor technology: iron was used as part of the bronze-smelting process for over a thousand years before it became commonly used for anything other than making ornaments and ritual objects, because the technology for making copper-alloy tools is very different than that for making iron tools, and iron was apparently considered too tough to work in bulk (much as titanium was a few decades ago). The evidence is all through Middle Eastern archeology: little tiny iron artifacts going back over 1,000 years before the “Iron Age” began.

        Now, as I noted, it’s not stupid to think that an alien with a roughly human-like shape could create the same sorts of technologies, because we know it works. The real challenge is designing an inhuman alien that could do the same thing: make fires, build kilns, smelt metals, and so forth.

        As for the two books above, if you’re working on a sword-and-sandal type fantasy, they’re quite handy for understanding really old-school technology, and I recommend them both.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Here’s an interesting wrinkle on any number of topics related to this: one interesting problem in astrophysics is finding a self-consistent scenario explaining the abundances of the metals beyond the iron group [and a few lighter than nickel, as well]. The currently-accepted version either over- or under-produces a significant fraction of them. some crucial to technology-as-we-know-it, life-as-we-know-it, or both. It’s also notable that mixed terrestrial/Jovian solar systems like ours are unusual, to put it mildly, although that could easily be an observational artifact. I was just reading a paper on Arxiv [ ] that explains these little inconsistencies as the result of a collision of a compact object with a now-absent object in the early solar system. The gotcha being that the probability of such a collision is so low that our system would probably be unique in the galaxy [which makes me think the hypothesis will not be popular – the authors make the point that they only advanced it because they couldn’t get theory to match observation any other way]

        _if_ this is correct, one consequence is that much of our technology would typically be unfeasible on the average terrestrial planet of Earth’s age even if it could support intelligent life, and evolution would be forced into rather different paths by the variant metabolic short-cuts resulting from different elemental abundances, so many of H’s constraints on form and function would be very, very different.

        In fact, if there’s a minimum absolute abundance required for some critical elements that means life can normally only evolve in systems with supersolar concentrations of metals, that evolution may only just be getting rolling around stars less that a billion years old – and we really are alone, for the time being.

  7. Heteromeles Says:

    So Louis, basically the idea is that the early sun collided with a neutron star before it spun out planets (thereby providing the observed elemental concentrations), and it appears that it’s having some trouble getting published.

    Could be. It’s possible that we’re alone in the galaxy.

    But I’d point out that, if Mirror-Earth was orbiting Alpha Centauri, it seems unlikely that we’d detect it. I’d also point out that the radio noise that SFF people used to talk about (Earth being brighter in the radio spectrum than the sun is) was actually a side-effect of really inefficient radio broadcasting. We’re now getting much better about directed, low power radio signals, primarily because it’s a lot cheaper than high-powered broadcasting, so as a planet we’re actually going silent in the radio spectrum, with the exception of occasional radar signals and such used to track asteroids and the like. The key point is that this radio noise upsurge and dim-out has taken much less than a century, and it was driven entirely by self-interested economics. Assuming simplistically that every alien is like us, the chance of catching a technological civilization at that brief stage when it’s making lots of radio noise is pretty small, simply because that much noise is really inefficient and not worth continuing.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Exactly. To both your points.

      The nice thing about their hypothesis is how easy it is to falsify: all we need is accurate compositions of, say, a couple of dozen other solar systems. If they don’t match the models any better, the issue is the models, not us 🙂 [for those following at home, getting accurate compositions from those systems will probably require sampling missions, since most heavy elements aren’t detectable in stellar spectra]

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