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.
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…”
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?