Writing Aliens

The thorny issue of writing aliens has vexed writers of science fiction since H. G. Wells first set pen to paper.

In a way he had it easy: he was writing about aggressive alien invaders, so described the Martians as slobbering, slimy, tentacular monsters bent on nothing more than slaughter and destruction.

But as SF became more sophisticated – especially in the area of alien relations and first contact – the problem became one of how to present alien races realistically: how to tread the fine line between making your aliens seem genuinely alien (without alienating your audience by presenting unknowable aliens) and making them comprehensible (without anthropomorphising them to the point where they resembled nothing more than cute teddy bear analogues).

Many science fiction writers shy away from depicting aliens by not writing about them at all: their argument is that aliens, when we do eventually meet them, will be so alien, products of an evolution so unlike ours, that we might not even recognise them as sentient, and that writing about them realistically is almost impossible. Other writers take the more pragmatic line, and claim that since they’re writing entertaining fictions, then they are allowed to anthropomorphise their aliens for the comprehension of the reader. For many years Keith Brooke was in the former camp; he steered away from writing about aliens until broaching the subject head on in his excellent novel alt.human (Harmony in the US), in which he presented a plethora of aliens as wholly unknowable, their motives opaque to the human race who are enslaved by the alien invaders. Other writers – H. Beam Piper springs to mind, with his Fuzzy aliens – go down the road of writing aliens as human analogues, for the sake of story-telling.

I’m often asked how I go about writing aliens.

And I answer that that depends on the type of story I’m writing. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to my fiction. I don’t mind using human-analogues if the tale I’m telling requires this. My novels Helix and Helix Wars spring to mind. In these I had to tell the story of aliens and humans from their respective points of view. In Helix I had a race of lemur-like aliens whose civilisation was the equivalent of Europe in the late nineteenth century, ruled by a draconian Church. For reasons of reader comprehension I had to make these aliens, their emotions and motivations, human-like. Likewise in the sequel, Helix Wars, the story called for three lots of viewpoint characters to be alien: a hard-bitten, pragmatic race of engineers; a fey, insect-like race of Buddhist-like creatures, and a fascistic military race. I could be accused of writing aliens, in these cases, too human to be believable, but my defence would be that the story I was telling demanded this treatment of extraterrestrials.

On the other extreme, I’ve tackled the problem of presenting aliens by not showing them on stage at all – because this strategy worked for the particular stories. In Kéthani, in which aliens come to Earth and offer human beings the gift of immortality, the Kéthani are never shown, never described. Likewise in my novel The Serene Invasion, in which aliens come to Earth and inhibit our ability to commit violence, I decided that the best way to present aliens would be to not describe them at all, and allow the readers’ imaginations to create the extraterrestrials in their absence. Often, what is left to the reader’s imagination is more powerful than any amount of description.

So, as far as I’m concerned, there are no hard and fast ways, no set rules, that govern the writing of aliens. It’s what works in the context of the tale you’re telling at the time.

It’s horses, you might say – or rather aliens – for courses.

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