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?|
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?|
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.