Building an Alien: 101

I was on a panel at the ConDor Science Fiction Convention on Saturday, February 27, discussing the topic: “How to Build an Alien.”

Since my books are full of aliens, I was a natural for the panel. Also, to my honor, author David Gerrold was also on the panel. He’s not only the author of over fifty books, countless articles and short stories, he’s also the creator of The Trouble With Tribbles Star Trek episode during the original run of the series.

David is one of the cadre of old-school writers from the Golden Age of Science Fiction and knows all the big names. The bottom line: Attendees to the discussion didn’t come to hear me speak; they came to hear David Gerrold speak, especially since the theme of the convention was Everything Star Trek, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original series.

This is all preamble, as I set the stage for what came next.

There were four of us on the panel, and as the discussion got underway, the moderator asked the panel what type of aliens we each have in our stories. She called on me first.

I answered ‘human-like’ aliens, and gave a brief summary of the interaction between humans and aliens in my books, as well as the general theme behind The Human Chronicles Saga, namely that we are the supermen when we travel out into the galaxy.

David Gerrold was the last to speak. He prefaced his reply with a quote from sci-fi legend Hal Clement, who said, “Having human-like aliens in your story is the sign of a lazy writer.”

Well, that was just great. I’d just gotten done proclaiming proudly that my aliens are human-like, and now this sci-fi legend, through his quote by another sci-fi legend, had just called me a lazy writer! Needless to say, that got the panel off to great start…at least for me.

I have to say at this point that I was slightly embarrassed and upset. But sitting in on an hour-long panel with a legend, not only within the sci-fi world, but also the Star Trek community, I didn’t feel it was the time or the place to get into a lengthy rebuttal to David’s/Hal’s premise.

Yet as it is with most spur-of-the-moment events like this, I spent the next day engaged in a profound and poignant discussion with myself as to what I should have said.

Since I don’t consider myself a lazy writer when it comes to ideas, I knew instinctively that I took exception to that characterization. And now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I know why.

According to David Gerrold, Hal Clement says that in order to determine what kind of alien species would evolve on a planet a non-lazy author would need to know certain things. What type of star does it orbit? How far is it from said star? What’s the gravity like? What kind of atmosphere is there? What’s its rotational cycle? Is there a solid or molten core? Is there a magnetic field? From this data—and more—you can speculate on what kind of creatures would inhabit such a world.

Clement is right…if that’s the kind of story you’re writing. If it’s about a Human crew that lands on an alien world and discovers life there, all this make perfect sense, and back in the glory days of science fiction, there were a lot of stories like this.

Yet if your story is about the interaction between galactic empires, things change.

Consider a world that has double Earth’s gravity and where the natives move around on four legs. Also, the atmosphere is methane and the inhabitants of this world eat food completely incompatible with Humans. Here’s my question: Why would a creature like this give a damn about the Humans of Earth? And why would we care about them? Even if these aliens were capable of developing advanced technology, including star travel—in an atmosphere that’s flammable!—why would they visit Earth in the first place? And why would we visit Methaneia?  And if we’re looking for raw materials, why not go to one of the millions of uninhabited planets in the galaxy with an abundance of such material? In this case, Methaneia would be a world we’d only want for study, not colonization or exploitation.

In this case there would no conflict between species, because we would have nothing in common.

So the thought experiment about what type of life would evolve on some random world is interesting, but irrelevant. Without some commonality between species, there wouldn’t be anything we would want from them, and vice versa.

If you think about it, conflict only happens when there’s compatibility. We eat the same food as the aliens, therefore we compete for food. The atmosphere and gravity are similar and there’s a temperate climate and liquid water. Guess what? Now we want their land…and they want ours.

So let’s carry the thought experiment forward. If we postulate that in order to have a story, there has to be conflict, then we need commonality of wants, needs and desires—as well as environment—for such conflict to occur.

Next we have to consider the trillions of planets in the galaxy and then concentrate only on the tiny fraction of them that would be Earth-like, at least to a factor of 80% to 120% (a range I just made up, but one where I figure Human-like aliens could survive with relative ease). This still leaves tens of thousands of Earth-like worlds in the galaxy—if not more.

Now employing Hal Clement’s process of the ‘non-lazy’ writer, let’s consider what kind of life would be on one of these Earth-like worlds.

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate on what kind of life would evolve on an Earth-like planet. We already know.

Unless we assume that all life on Earth is a fluke, it stands to reason that such a world would have carbon-based lifeforms, who feed on other carbon-based lifeforms, mate generally with two sexes, breathe a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, and are protected from solar radiation by a magnetic field created by a molten core, along with a whole host of other traits and environmental conditions.

We would also have to assume that there would be one dominant species on the planet, the apex predator sitting atop the food chain. This happened here; why not on Earth 2.0?

What would this prime predator look like? Possibly something that walks on two legs, and who has two arms, and four-fingered hands with an opposable thumb, perfect for gripping things and manipulating tools? It happened here; why not on Earth 2.0?

Next, assume this creature has the intelligence, dexterity and eyesight capable of creating tools, and then they use these tools to make more tools, and then machines, and then machines that make other machines.

Further on, these two-legged creatures would utilize other native species to improve their mobility, finding horse-like creatures a natural fit. At some point, they connect two wheels together with an axle, and finding this to be inherently unstable, join two such wheel-axle concoctions together to form a four-wheeled stable platform. From here they employ domesticated animals to pull such platforms, before developing more mechanical or even electrical means of propelling their carts.

Next comes the leap into space. (I know that was jarring, but it is the logical step going forward.)

And once these creatures leave their native planet, what would they be looking for? Food, living space, raw materials, trading partners…slaves? It really wouldn’t matter. What matters is what type of planet would they seek out? They came from an Earth-like world, so naturally they’d be looking for more of the same.

And when contact is made, it’s between Humans and—wait for it—Human-like aliens. Otherwise, why bother?

And when two compatible species meet, each coveting the same things…now THIS lazy writer has a story to tell.

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