Raven’s Run concluded Monday, May 22. A new novel, Spirit Deer, will begin in Serial on June 5. Meanwhile, I am scheduled to participate in five panels at Westercon this year. Posts relating to the panel “What Makes the Golden Age Golden?” were presented in Serial last week.
This material is for the second panel “Alien Autopsy: the biology of ET”. Posts for the rest of the panels will be published in A Writing Life.
Take one human being. Count his parts. Now start changing the appearance, number, or configuration of those parts. You might come up with:
A two headed mutant on a century ship.
A seven foot humanoid with curving horns coming out of his forehead.
A human who consists of “four-hundred-odd pounds of rawhide and whalebone”, because his ancestors colonized a high gee planet.
See how easy it is. And that, by the way, was a quiz. All three examples are from major writers of science fiction. Their identities are at the bottom of the page. Sometimes, a little tweak all it takes, and for that you don’t need any help. Anyone could do it, although not everyone does it equally well.
The first of these three was a monster/villain type, and that was all the critter building required to let him do his job.
The second was an ersatz Amerindian and everybody knew it. By the way, the term Amerindian was used by anthropologists for a short time before Native American took over, and this author may be the only one to have used it in science fiction. Hint, hint.
The last human variant was a fairly major character, with an actual personality (albeit a cardboard one) and he looked like he did because he had to, in order to play the role assigned to him.
These are all humans, or the galactic equivalent of human. Sentient beings. HILFs. A HILF is a Highly Intelligent Life Form, a term coined by Ursula Le Guin, which should have replaced sentient being, but never caught on. Sentient actually means “having sensation”, not “having intelligence”. An earthworm is sentient in the dictionary sense, but science fiction speaks its own language.
Non-sentient (in the SF sense) beings can also be created by simple tweaks.
The people of Gorth in Star Gate ride larngs; I’m referring to the original novel by Norton, unrelated to the movie or TV series using the same name. A larng is shaggy, clawed, and has a bad temper, but basically he is just a hairy horse with an attitude. On Arzor — Norton, again, in Beast Master and its sequels — humans have to watch out for yoris (think alligators with a poison gland) while they herd frawns (analog to big-horn sheep) across a landscape suspiciously like the American southwest.
I’m not complaining. Beast Master is one of my favorite Norton novels. There is plenty of intrigue, adventure, battle, and family turmoil. It didn’t need a full scale exercise in critter building. In fact, more imagination devoted to that aspect of the novel would just have slowed things down.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, in Hunters of the Red Moon and its sequel The Survivors, gave us a mammalian snake, complete with nipples, and a giant hyper-fast weasel. She also gave us some sentient beings — there was the cat-critter and the dinosaur-critter. Again, I am not making fun. These sentients had plenty of individuality and charm, but it came from their cultures, not their body structures.
You might call this the minimalist approach; it’s surprising how often it works. Norton was the master of the technique. Gordon Dickson could paint a whole landscape in twenty words. If you have a story to tell, and that story just requires local color, it’s often best not to waste your efforts and your reader’s time in excessive descriptions of the local flora and fauna.
You can combine the minimalist approach with an occasional zinger that brings you reader up short. Marion Zimmer Bradley did that in The Survivors with the proto-saurian Aratak. In the middle of the action, he gets a pheromone soaked calling card from an enemy proto-saurian and disappears. Weeks later he comes back with a smile on his face, ready to take up the quest where they were when he deserted his companions.
I have read hundreds of stories with minimally different aliens. They were all as good, or bad, as the underlying story allowed. I never felt cheated.
However, if you want to go to the next level, and make your aliens really different, that works too. We’ll look at that tomorrow.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The quiz. The examples were from:
Robert Heinlein, Orphans of the Sky
Andre Norton, the Norbies from Beast Master
E. E. Smith, Galactic Patrol, referring, of course, to Peter vanBuskirk.