Friday, February 8, 2013


In the case of STAR TREK, the justification was simple:  the budget just didn’t allow for Starship Trooper bug-like aliens.  Or anything resembling the saliva-dripping, toothy creatures of nightmare that eventually became Alien or Predator.  The best the costume and makeup departments at Desilu could come up with was the occasional sentient bipedal lizard, big-brained, small-bodied evil grandma type (sometimes affectionately known as a “butthead”), talking rock or scurrying carpet.  Every other alien Jim Kirk and the gang encountered looked a lot like, well, Jim Kirk and the gang.  Only not so good looking.

Brow ridges like this?
But, okay, that was the ’Sixties.  We’ve progressed a lot since then.  Now we can do nearly anything in the movies or on television.  The aliens we envision can be monstrously hideous (see the films above), elaborately mechanical (Transformers, Battleship, Battle Los Angeles.) or even simply beautiful (Avatar).  Is there any justification for creating a race of aliens that might look pretty much like we do?  You know, two arms, two legs, one head, all in the places you would expect to find them?

As it happens the scientific community has been mulling this question over a bit lately.  Richard Aleyne, online Scientific Correspondent of U.K.’s The Telegraph, reports that Professor Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University believes any aliens out there would not only look like us but share our penchant for greed and other nasty habits.  Morris plans to tell an upcoming conference of the Royal Society on extraterrestrial life that the options for developing lifeforms are “limited”—all roads lead to some kind of humanity, apparently, in Dr. Morris’s view.  But, then, the good professor is not so sure there is anyone else out there at all.  He says it is “quiet, too quiet” in our galaxy.  We should have heard from any fellow travelers by now.  I say if they are anything like us in behavior we’re better off not knowing them.

Or like this?
Dr. Ralph Purditz of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada provides an explanation for why extraterrestrial life might be less “alien” than some in Hollywood might think.  Purditz' theory rests on the ten simplest amino acids considered to be the “building blocks” of DNA and, thus, life. These can survive in low pressure and low temperatures.   If the chemicals that combine to form these amino acids are commonly found on meteors throughout the galaxy, as they are in our own solar system, then the same elements should be providing the building blocks of life everywhere.  That is, basic DNA should be the same everywhere. 

  Of course, tremendous variation can be gained within just a small change along that strand of DNA, as we see here on our own humble Earth.  Depending on the environment and the circumstances of the planet, after all, dolphins could have emerged triumphant here on Earth. Who’s to say they’re not smarter—they could just not be talking. It is difficult to build things without opposable thumbs, however.

Finally, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, tells Discovery interviewer Dave Mosher that he believes aliens might actually have evolved into intelligent machines by now.  Why would an advanced civilization consider a need to remain encased in protoplasm—of any shape?  I suppose the question in that case would be, what shape would they choose for their robotic, uh, selves?  What shape is ultimately most efficient for a machine’s purpose?  And, if you ask me, I think Dr. Shostak probably needs to review the Terminator films.  He’s been spending far too much time with his computer if he thinks leaving behind our bodies in favor of advanced machines would be a benign development.

So, okay, it’s beginning to look like the folks at Desilu weren’t completely crazy.  Maybe most of the aliens Jim Kirk would encounter really would look like him.  But there’s another reason why it’s not so illogical to consider that most of the characters in your SFR novel would be humanoid, oxygen-breathing and living within the general temperature and climate variations we find on Earth. 

To put it simply, like follows like.  As humanity moves out into the galaxy in search of new worlds and new civilizations, we will naturally be drawn to G-type stars and Earth-like planets, to environments most like our own and, eventually, even to races and cultures most like those found on Earth.  It is difficult enough for us to understand each other across cultures and languages on our own planet.  Can you imagine how difficult it will be across solar systems?  Given a choice of using resources to explore a planet that looks like our own and possibly has humanoid races or a Mars-like planet with Starship Trooper sentient bugs, which one would you choose, Captain First Contact? 

Even if the evidence suggests the humanoids are warriors and the bugs are peaceful, odds are you’ll choose the humanoids, and so will all your fellow captains.  We'll end up with a bias toward contact with fellow humanoids and most of our trade and other interactions with planets that are compatible environmentally, biologically and culturally.  That would remain true even if the galaxy was full of other kinds of planets and species.  Yes, we’d get around to them eventually, especially if they were powerful or threatening or useful in some way.  But they wouldn’t be our first choice.

Neither would they be our first choice as writers in creating lovers or main characters, though they make good villains and sometimes secondary characters in our novels.  Their differences make them interesting, but logistically uncomfortable.  How do you fold up all those limbs?  How do you maintain different temperatures/atmospheres/humidity onboard the same ship?  Can their mandibles even form human languages?  And vice versa?

It is possible to write the story entirely from the point of view of such an alien species and even include a credible romantic element.  Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge did it in his Hugo Award-winning A Fire Upon the Deep, for example, and there have been others, but I wouldn’t call them science fiction romances, by any stretch of the imagination.  For the most part, readers are interested in the human condition, and whatever we say about the aliens is really just a reflection of their humanity.  It  helps if we can visualize them in our own terms.

All this is to say that if your starship captain is human and the lone wolf trader he loves is a humanoid alien from Tellas who’s only apparent difference is that she has green skin and silver eyes, you don’t have to feel guilty anymore.  Just throw in some explanation about amino acids and DNA, standard variations and environmental adaptation and you’re good to go.  As always, it is the story that counts—and characters that show their humanity, whether they are of alien origin or not.

Cheers, Donna


Laurie A. Green said...

Fabulous blog, as always Donna.

I'm not sure I agree with the scientists who think intelligent life will look much like we do. Yes, we may all be built from the same cosmic building blocks, but look at the vast diversity of life on our own planet alone.

Who's to say sentient aliens wouldn't look like giraffes, or vultures, or deep sea angler fish. Why would they have to be bi-pedal with appendages that come in twos? What if they didn't even have heads at all, but evolved with brains inside the protective mass of the ribcage (assuming, of course, they even have a ribcage).

Even though Earth-like, other planets would present unique scenarios for adaptability and evolution, possibly with very different obstacles to survival that present very different outcomes in body structure.

I think we may indeed find life out there--abundant, wildly divergent life--but I don't think we'll find many life forms, if any, that have reached our level of understanding. Intelligent and advanced are two very different things. Other civilizations may have existed at some point in time, but the lifespan of most species--whether due to environmental catastrophe or self-destruction, would most likely be very limited.

There have been billions and billions of years for civilizations to rise and disappear. What are the chances that another like ours exists in the same eyeblink of time that we've occupied, and close enough that we would even encounter each other in the lifespan of our species?

But the universe of storytelling is a very different place. In fiction, aliens have to have some relatable, recognizable features so they are comprehensible to human readers. So things like eye contact, body language, and personal interaction pretty much ensures our aliens have to be somewhat humanoid.

Pippa Jay said...

I've read two studies - one that theorized alien life would look like us and one that, like Laurie, suggested it would be as diverse as life on our own planet.
My editor raised the point about the alien races in my book all being humanoid and I argued the same point in a blog post on Spacefreighters - like would attract like, especially if you're bringing romance into it. It helps if there's at least some physical compatibility between your characters. But something I love about one of my fave scifi authors (Neal Asher) is that he explores intelligent species completely alien to the human race.

Pauline B Jones said...

The "we're all humans" in the universe is part of the religious canon of my church, but I'm willing to suspend my personal belief and enjoy the non-humanoid stories. Fiction is, after all, made up. (grin)

Donna S. Frelick said...

I agree, Laurie, life is one thing, sentience is another. And recognizing it and communicating with it completely something else. We humans will be doing the defining in most cases, so we'll be likely to overlook the intelligent spiders and sentient giraffes on other planets--until they kick our asses, of course!

D L Richardson said...

I think the main reason most sci-fi characters look humanoid is that the reader must relate to the story. Aliens that look like the things we squash with shoes or spray with, well spray, hardly evoke empathetic emotions when the species is in danger of being wiped out.