One of the first things you learn as a science fiction romance writer is how to populate your worlds with alien beings. You make your choices—will your aliens be humanoid or so different from us they are nearly unrecognizable? Will they be carbon-based, or based on some other element common throughout the galaxy? Do they breathe oxygen/nitrogen or some other mix? And are you a tentacle-love kinda gal, or, um, not, and will you carry your readers along with you?
|The Grays--of froggy origin.|
My decisions led me in the direction of mostly humanoid, carbon-based and air-breathing, only because those characteristics made it so much easier to justify my basic premise: that a species of aliens was stealing humans from Earth to serve as slave labor in their galactic empire. The slave-trading aliens—the Minertsans, or Grays—are themselves cold-blooded and amphibian in basic biology, having evolved in a swampy environment from frog-like creatures. But they share enough of the same characteristics of humans that both species could exist on the same planets.
That’s also true of the other humanoid alien species in my Interstellar Rescue series: the tall, lantern-jawed Ninoctins; the brutish, flat-nosed Barelians; the aggressive, telepathic Thranes. Even the non-sentient creatures I’ve created for the series—the buffalo-like psoros, native to Thrane but now commonly raised as a meat animal on several planets; or the targa, a wildcat with a poisonous bite, from a system in the Outer Reaches; or Minertsa’s fang eel—would be able to survive, though possibly not thrive, if transplanted to Earth.
These parameters circumscribe my science fiction universe a bit, I’ll admit. I ruled out tentacle love a long time ago. And a “monster of the week” for my starship captain wasn’t in the mix, either. I’m more interested in the human—or humanoid—interaction. And I’m plenty challenged trying to come up with wild new ideas within the boundaries I’ve imposed on myself.
Take my latest work-in-progress, for example. In King of Pain: Interstellar Rescue Series Book 5, I’ve had to describe the homeworld of the alien Thrane people in detail as the primary setting of the book. This is the story of Trevyn Dar, a Thrane and half-brother to Gabriel Cruz, hero of Trouble in Mind: Interstellar Rescue Series Book 2. In his first appearance, Trevyn is a “good bad guy,” doing his best to mitigate the damage done by his older brother Kinnian while still under his thumb. He moves toward the light at the end of Trouble in Mind and makes even more progress toward becoming the man he wants to be in Not Fade Away: Interstellar Rescue Series Book 4. But he still carries the guilt of his time as Kinnian’s lieutenant and the son of the Thrane known galaxy-wide as “The Butcher of Four Systems.”
Trevyn’s chance at redemption finally comes when he is called upon to rescue a woman imprisoned on Thrane due to his mistake and slated for execution as a terrorist. Lael Saphora is Hinarr, a genetically separate species that Thranes disparage as “Ghosts”—because they lack the psy talents that distinguish the majority species of that planet. Yet the Hinarr have their own unique ability: they are shapeshifters, sharing DNA and physical bodies with the snowcats of the rugged mountain ranges of Thrane.
For hundreds of circuits the dominant Thranes have considered the Hinarr little more than animals, hunting them in their snowcat form and exploiting them as unskilled labor in their humanoid form. But things are about to change. The Hinarr are rising up. Trevyn and Lael, on the run from enemies both political and personal, first forge an alliance of convenience. But they soon find a love stronger than any history, culture, pride or family tie is binding them inevitably to each other.
The challenge I’m facing now is in creating a new alien species that incorporates elements common to paranormal romance—the shapeshifter. I’ve read plenty of PNR, but I have to admit, I wasn’t paying attention to some of the details. Like, what happens to the clothes when a shifter shifts? It’s fine if the climate is warm (like in Christine Feehan’s Leopard series, which is set in the tropics), or if you just say up front that your characters don’t mind the cold (like Nalini Singh mostly does in her Psy-Changling series). But Thrane is cold, especially in the snowy mountains. Naked humanoids would need protection.
And then there’s the problem of modesty between newly introduced main characters. She shifts and leaves her clothes behind; he sees her naked wa-a-a-y too early. And in one scene, they’re in the process of escaping a prison. I currently having him scooping up her clothes for her when she changes, but it’s awkward, you know?
I’m also still working out exactly how she shifts—in a flash? Slowly, cell by cell? Or is it like one of those 80s werewolf movies where she sprouts fur and ears and the snout elongates—no, that’s definitely not romantic!
And, of course, there’s the ultimate question of how the Hinarr evolved to embody two such different types of physical beings in a single, uh, package. Somehow, it’s easier to imagine—and explain within some realm of scientific possibility—the existence of aliens in our vast galaxy. Even aliens that share much with humans, or that have evolved under similar circumstances. But shapeshifters have usually come under the purview of the paranormal, that is, those things unexplainable by science. So, what’s a science fiction romance author to do?
I have a theory, which I’m not quite ready to reveal yet. It probably wouldn’t satisfy our pickier brothers over at the hard SF end of the spectrum, but they aren’t my biggest fans, anyway. Too much kissy-face in my books for them! I figure if I can provide a reasonable explanation that doesn’t rely on magic or shatter the laws of biology beyond all repair, my readers will accept it.
As long as the story keeps them turning pages. That’s always the first priority, anyway, right?
IN HONOR OF
|Katherine Johnson in 2005|
Mathematician, space scientist, human computer and NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson, who died February 24 at the age of 101. If not for Ms. Johnson and her fellow "computers"--most of them black and all of them women--at NASA in the late 50s and early 60s, the U.S. space program would never have gotten off the ground. We certainly would never have made it to the moon in a time without the vast calculating power of cyber-machines. Ms. Johnson and her colleagues did all the calculating with a sliderule and their considerable intellect, despite overt prejudice and the bullying that came with it. We all owe her a massive debt.