The most recognizable and challenging topic in science fiction is, of course, the extraterrestrial. This bewildering mould for horror, comedy, and whatnot has been used and overused for bazillion times, which is why today we’re going to meddle with it some more. So what exactly is the purpose of creating credible alien stuff?
To start with, why bother about designing something highly scientific when you could just take elves, call them ynggulves, make their skin stripy green-yellow-grellow, and tell everyone those folks are from Betelgeuse?
Reason number one: Everyone’s going to notice.
Elves? Seriously? You see, we humans are quite good at distinguishing what is familiar and what is “ah-h, green tentacles miles long, run away!” Actually, green tentacles are quite familiar as well, so forget that one. The point is, no-one knows how aliens might look like, but I doubt they resemble unicorns, let alone homo sapiens. Universe is very gigantic, and this is the only noun that allows to use “very” with “gigantic”, because that’s exactly what it is, but even the universe isn’t vast enough for trillions billions of atoms to randomly arrange into the same sequence as it happened on Earth.
Take a few famous sci-fi pieces like “Men in Black” or “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. In all of them most aliens seem severely mutated Earth animals, or not that severely mutates humans. Sure, the credibility of the extraterrestrial is not why we are enjoying those stories, or else we wouldn’t.
Reason number two: Ynggulves limit your possibilities.
One of the best applications of intelligent alien life forms in art is the contact with humans, presenting the clashing differences between the two species, and often uncovering our own vices and virtues. If your aliens appear, move, and think almost like us—yeah, elves, whatever—that storyline is missed out. Even if you don’t want to focus on it, alien characters allow more fun with building their psychology. Or, say, you don’t want that either, then why bother about creating aliens at all?
That depends on your story. Take a look at it again: do you really need aliens? Making up an entire species is no easy task. To help you decide, let’s talk about the benefits the extraterrestrial can bring into the plot and character development:
- The encounter with the unknown. It doesn’t have to be intelligent otherworldly beings; a tiny piece of alien technology could do. The capital letter Unknown arises most primitive fears and instincts in a person, and causes all sorts of actions, from animalish to heroic. For proof, read anything written by H.P. Lovecraft. Of course, the Unknown doesn’t have to be anything extraterrestrial, but that’s just the question of what appeals to you more as a writer.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
- The display of human characters. I mentioned this one a few paragraphs above: intelligent aliens can expose our darker sides in contrast to human beings. Say, take an alien that for some reason (just don’t leave it a “some”, actually make it up; it’s usually to do with evolution and their environment) do not feature the same family values but the exact opposite to human ones. Here, you’ve got yourself a conflict. If your “folks from Betelgeuse” are herbivores, we might seem atrociously violent to them. The same suffices for differences in world perception, longevity, communities, life cycle, and so on. The contrast between humans and aliens is magnificently shown in Lem’s “Solaris”, so I recommend you to take a look at this novel as well.
- The cool element. I know it doesn’t sound serious, but let me explain. A few years back, I wouldn’t even set eyes on a piece of fiction that didn’t contain anything from out our world of sanity because, well, what is it I haven’t seen here? Quite a number of younger people, while not necessarily thinking in the same way, will be better attracted to a story if it features aliens, magic, and all that supernatural hullabaloo. On the other hand, older people don’t always support “this nonsense” well, but the teen-young adult-adult audience is more faithful and passionate in general. I do agree that this aspect is very subjective and varying from one book to another.
There is much more to this extensive topic, of course, such as “how the hell do I make up an alien race?”, which I’m going to cover some other time. For now, I’ll just mention a terrific book “Aliens and Alien Societies” by Stanley Schmidt, a guide to creating the extraterrestrial civilisations, and wish you all good luck with whatever it is you’re writing, because I’ll be out of touch till the end of the next week. I’m going somewhere with no Wi-Fi, which I actually find rather relieving if extremely inconvenient. Lastly, have a laugh and read over here how penguins are a highly intelligent telepathically-communicating alien race possessing some utter bollocks like “higher selves”. I appreciate the idea, though. What I don’t appreciate is stuff like this dressed up as an oh-my-gosh-scientific-revolution. That should stay in fiction.
And some questions for you to ponder on:
What do you imagine can alien beings signify in the science fiction stories, apart from the things I mentioned? Can you think of any new applications for them? How precise in the terms of science should a sci-fi work be, and does it depend on its size? Does the presence of supernatural creatures draw more of your attention to a book? Do you think it’s a today’s passing tendency, or are fictional beings interesting to us at all times? And finally, does a younger audience make better sales?
If you can find some useful or simply not boring ideas in my blog, you should also check out a link in the menu that says “flash fiction”, containing a few literary experiments. You can also read my article “Science Fiction Is Not Science Fiction?”, in case you’re interested in this particular area.