You can write a story and make up aliens – sentient or otherwise – to fit. Or, you can make up aliens, and write a story about some peculiarity of their makeup. Decades of stories were about human mutants (not technically alien, but close enough) with psi powers. if you didn’t live through the fifties, you probably don’t realize how many ESP wielding mutants there were in science fiction, long before Professor X and his X-men made it to the comic books.
Sometimes a single biological factor, with its secondary ramifications, may suggest a whole species and their culture, as in Gardner Dozois novel Strangers.
It is the bittersweet story of a love affair between an Earth man and an alien woman of a people called the Cian. Throughout the novel, Dozois drops hints about the central paradox of Cianian culture, but Farber, his hero – if that is the right word – doesn’t pick up on them. Because he doesn’t understand his wife’s culture, he chooses to have children by her, thinking that is what she wants, and in the closing chapters Dozois drops a house on all of us when Farber – and we – discover that Cianian culture is all built around the fact that, because of a biological defect, its women always die in childbirth.
Technically, this is a gimmick story, but it is so well done that it doesn’t feel like one. Strangers is build around Cianian culture, but Cianian culture is built around the structure of its aliens’ reproductive biology.
There have also been a lot of less salutary books written about aliens with odd reproductive structures, but lets not go down that road.
(Aside: My novel Cyan, named after the planet which was named after the color, has no relationship to Dozois Cian, or the thousand other Cians — characters, book titles, and authors names — to be found if you type cian into Goodreads.)
Those of us that grew up with the original Star Trek knew aliens as humans with big masks and padded clothing. CGI made quite a bit of progress in removing that limitation in movies and subsequent TV programs, but the wildest aliens aren’t products of technology. They have been around for more than a century in novels. Remember War of the Worlds? Great monster. Even better radio broadcast.
Larry Niven’s Puppeteers might be hard to reproduce in a movie, but that doesn’t stop readers of Ringworld from enjoying them. In fact, that may be part of the appeal. We science fiction readers enjoy having a cadre of writers producing phalanxes of weird critters that would leave lesser readers shaking their heads.
No one has read all of science fiction, but I’ve read a lot. And in my slice of the SF universe, I have never found a writer who created more or weirder creatures than E. E. Smith, PhD; aka Doc Smith.
Smith was not available in either of the two libraries that were the centers of my childhood universe, but when I got to college, one of my roommates was a fan. He wisely started me on Galactic Patrol, and I read through to the end, then circled back. Take my word for it — keep the same order. If you start on the putative book one, Triplanetary, you’ll probably never make it past page five.
(Another aside: books four through six were written from 1937 through 1948, all appearing in Astounding. Smith wrote “book one” in 1934, unconnected to the rest. When he got a chance to see the complete series published, he rewrote Triplanetary to fit the others, wrote an entire new “book two”, First Lensman, and tweaked the rest. They fit together, and the first two have moments of excellence, but the last four are the essence of the tale. If you find the style too old fashioned after two chapters of Galactic Patrol, move on; you were born too late.)
You will, however, miss a menagerie of strange aliens, both sentient and otherwise. I’ll describe just two; first Worsel:
. . . there was hurtling downward toward them a veritable dragon: a nightmare’s horror of hideously reptilian head, of leathern wings, of viciously fanged jaws, of frightfully taloned feet, of multiple knotty arms, of long, sinuous heavily-scaled serpent’s body.
This is the creature who will become the second most formidable Lensman, and Kennison’ s best friend. The third second-stage Lensman was Tregonsee:
This . . .apparition was at least erect, which was something. His body was the size and shape of an oil-drum. Beneath this massive cylinder of a body were four short, blocky legs upon which he waddled about with surprising speed. Midway up the body, above each leg, there sprouted out a ten-foot-long, writhing, boneless, tentacular arm, which toward the extremity branched out into dozens of lesser tentacles, ranging in size from hair-like tendrils up to mighty fingers two inches or more in diameter. Tregonsee’s head was merely a neckless, immobile, bulging dome in the center of the flat upper surface of his body — a dome bearing neither eyes nor ears, but only four equally-spaced toothless mouths and four single, flaring nostrils.
These are the minions of civilization; the baddies look worse.
Part of the power of these descriptions comes from E. E. Smith’s writing style. In flipping through the internet while writing this, I ran across a comment that if the Lensmen series were to be offered for publication today, it would not be accepted. That is absolutely true, but it is also true that without the Lensmen series, there would be no Star Wars, nor any other space opera. The Lensman series set the pattern that all others would follow, and nothing that came after was as good as the original.
Heinlein was Smith’s friend, and our best picture of him, from RAH, shows Smith as the original of the Gray Lensman, and shows his wife as the original of Clarissa MacDougal. Much of the charm of the series lies in Kennison’s Boy Scout incorruptibility. Those who say he has no personality are wrong. He simply has a personality that is out of the modern norm. Like Jesus. Which is exactly what he should be, as the end product of thousands of years of Arisan work in perfecting human DNA.
All this works, and the hundreds of weird aliens work, because E. E. Smith’s writing style is essentially naive. His rolling cascades of description could only come from someone who is so sure of himself that he is incapable of embarrassment.
It’s been a long time since that kind of writer has been in vogue. more tomorrow