I’ve always been fascinated by aliens. From about the time I could talk, I’ve been obsessed with them. For a while, growing up, I was convinced I was one. Now, as an author, I love writing about them.
Over the course of my adult life, I’ve also had an unusual amount of exposure to the science of things alien. I studied artificial intelligence at university, married an astronomer, and recently worked as a researcher in Princeton’s biology department, doing research on abiogenesis. I’ve had the chance to talk to scientists studying exoplanets, researchers at SETI, exobiology, and other wonderful people working in a host of related fields.
Having that science under my belt makes me want to get extraterrestrials right in my novels. It makes me a little fussy about them. And because I care, I want you to get fussy too, dear reader.
Just as many of us have developed a fixation with asking for better coffee, I want to convince you to ask for better aliens in your fiction. Yes, that’s right, I want to turn you into a hipster of alien intelligence. So with that, I’d like to offer you a taster’s guide to plausible extraterrestrial civilisation, along with some sourcing recommendations, so that you can get in on the good aliens before they’re popular.
First though, I should explain what I mean by bad aliens. After all, we’ve never met aliens. So who’s to say what’s a more plausible and interesting scenario? That’s a fair position, I guess, but I’d argue that there are likely scenarios and unlikely ones. If I were to write a novel in which a species arrived on starships that looked like rowboats, all of whom resembled Abraham Lincoln, people might struggle to swallow its plausibility. What I’d like to talk about is which scenarios are likely, and which ones should go in the same bucket as the Rowmatic Lincolnites.
Taste Test One: Comparable Technology
The first thing that storytellers usually cheap out on is to create alien races with similar levels of technology to humankind. By this, I mean anything from Bronze Age technology up to and including flying saucers.
Why does this leave a bad taste in my mouth? Because the universe is really old, and the incidence of intelligent life seems to be low. So low, in fact, that we’ve never seen any sign of it. What that means is that the probability of any two species meeting each other at similar levels of development is vanishingly small. It’d be like moving to a new town and discovering that your next door neighbour moved in at the same exact second as you. Furthermore, then had nearly identical luggage to yours that took the same number of seconds to unpack.
What this means is that the most believable aliens in books are ones so young that they’re not intelligent yet, or ones so old that we can barely understand them. Either that or they’re already dead. Try asking your local bookseller for tastefully deceased extraterrestrials. You won’t regret it.
Taste Test Two: Compatible Biology
This point isn’t really restricted to intelligent beings. It’s related to life of all kinds. It’s the idea that if we went to an Earth-like world, that we’d be able to eat the food, drink the water, or hang out with the locals without someone dropping dead.
The biology of living systems is both extremely subtle and extremely competitive. Experiments on synthesising drugs using randomly generated molecules have shown that life prefers to draw its working compounds from a specific set. Those molecules that aren’t compatible with life tend to be somewhere between neutral and toxic in their impact. That means that alien food and drink is likely to be more or less poisonous to us, as the chances that another world has picked exactly the same molecules is slim.
More significantly, we also know that life doesn’t leave opportunities untapped. Studies on the bacteria in the Texas-sized swamp of plastic sludge we’ve created in the middle of the Pacific show that it’s mutating at an incredible rate. Presented with a vast amount of indigestible resource, new kinds of microbe are appearing that can digest our waste. So, even if we visited a new world and found no problems on arrival, chances are that within a year, something would be chowing down on our faces.
Taste Test Three: Animal Heads and Other Human-Hacks
There are plenty of books you can pick up in which the aliens are basically people with novelty heads. Why should you resist accepting this quality of alien? Several reasons. First, nature creates a huge diversity of forms. The probability that another planet would give rise to an intelligent bipedal alien race designed for hunting and gathering is low. Particularly when you consider what a weird compromise the human body represents.
Giving birth and raising young is harder for us than just about any other species on the planet. That’s why human societies tend to have females that self-decorate rather than males. For the neolithic conditions we’re designed for, markers that indicate fitness for child-rearing are more important than any form of male decoration could possibly be. I’m not aware of single other species on Earth that self-decorates this way round. That makes the probability that aliens would be shaped just like us extremely small.
Add to that the fact that if you’re going to design a body for the kinds of environmental constraints that gave rise to humans, you should at least give it a head it can use. Stuff the noggin of a sub-sentient quadrupedal predator, (like say, a cat,) on human shoulders and you’d have a creature that’d be dead in a week. Why, I hear you ask. Where do I start? Throat structure, brain-case size, mismatch between dentition and any evolutionary reason to develop hands… The list goes on.
So with those tasting tools in mind, I present to you three respectable sources of high-quality aliens with which to start your adventure.
Want your aliens fresh and properly formed, why not read some science fiction by a trained marine biologist. In Blindsight, by Peter Watts, the solar system is approached by extraterrestrial ships of unknown age that blur the line between the mechanical and the biological. With base notes of fear and unease and high notes of top-notch science, this blend is sure to appeal.
For deceased and well-matured aliens with musty aroma of unraveling mystery, Al Reynolds, an astronomer by profession, can deliver the goods. In Revelation Space, he paints a picture of a future humanity tinkering with alien technology it barely understands and reaping the consequences.
While a little human in psychological makeup for some, Robert Forward’s aliens in Dragon’s Egg make up for this in the exquisite unusualness of their timeline, their body plan, and environment. If this species were a wine, it would be a simple, robust cabernet very cleverly aged in barrels of rare and pungent Tasmanian oak.
Of course, I cannot leave you without a plug for my own alien blend. Without giving too much away, my debut novel Roboteer, which comes out from Gollancz this summer, tries to hit all the right notes. While the story focuses on the human characters, I like to think that any discerning consumer of extraterrestrial fiction will come away fully satisfied. I recommend reading it before everyone else catches on.
Alex Lamb‘s Roboteer is published in the UK by Gollancz (it came out yesterday) — it is the first in a planned trilogy. Here’s the synopsis:
The starship Ariel is on a mission of the utmost secrecy, upon which the fate of thousands of lives depend. Though the ship is a mile long, its six crew are crammed into a space barely large enough for them to stand. Five are officers, geniuses in their field. The other is Will Kuno-Monet, the man responsible for single-handedly running a ship comprised of the most dangerous and delicate technology that mankind has ever devised. He is the Roboteer.
Roboteer is a hard-SF novel set in a future in which the colonization of the stars has turned out to be anything but easy, and civilization on Earth has collapsed under the pressure of relentless mutual terrorism. Small human settlements cling to barely habitable planets. Without support from a home-world they have had to develop ways of life heavily dependent on robotics and genetic engineering. Then out of the ruins of Earth’s once great empire, a new force arises — a world-spanning religion bent on the conversion of all mankind to its creed. It sends fleets of starships to reclaim the colonies. But the colonies don’t want to be reclaimed. Mankind’s first interstellar war begins. It is dirty, dangerous and hideously costly.
Will is a man bred to interface with the robots that his home-world Galatea desperately needs to survive. He finds himself sent behind enemy lines to discover the secret of their newest weapon. What he discovers will transform their understanding of both science and civilization forever… but at a cost.