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Tips for Describing Extraterrestrials

We are long past the point in speculative fiction where seeing a bipedal cat works convincingly as an alien. Knowing how strange and multitudinous life is on our own planet gives speculative writers a special responsibility to envision alien life as least as weird and unpredictable as that we find around us.


Morgan Crooks 2015
Way back in the 60s, during the New Age of science fiction authors were already beginning to chafe at the existing models of aliens - the bug-eyed octopuses and sentient cows. A reprint of Mutation Planet by Barrington J. Bayley shows  how potent previous generations of writers were at conjuring the truly alien. Aside from the baroque biological oddities described in this story, Barrington focuses on one of the most important aspects of xenogensis, quickly illustrating how different biologies fuel different imperatives. While the story bears some defects of its time, sexism and clunky dialogue, it nevertheless captured my imagination with its ruthless and grim depiction of the universe. This is science fiction as Thomas Ligotti might write.  

Two works acclaimed from last year are The Darkling Sea by James Cambrias and The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. I liked both books very much and even though the books are written at slightly different registers: spiffy new-school space opera for Cambrias and literary fiction steeped in sci fi tropes in the case of Faber , these works provide an antidote to insipid alien cliches. The two novels employ strategies - constantly revised metaphors and fidelity to concept - that other writers would do well to emulate.

Cambrias’ project is to create not one but two convincing alien species as well as the ecosystem of one of the race, trapped beneath layers of ice on a frozen moon. Because this is more traditional space opera, the two aliens are rendered at slightly higher resolution than Faber’s novel.

The Illyatrans appear as explorers, brigands, scientists, and freedom fighters (and that’s just one character), part of an elaborate civilization that stretches for millennia into the past. Cambria’ other creation, the otter-like Sholen don’t have nearly as much screen time but also register as believable and alien, their motivation of blending into the consensus particularly well-done. I think the lesson here is to not shy away from metaphors when they help the reader grasp basic concepts but also to keep complicating that picture. While it is possible to trace details in the story to real world precedents (volcanic life at the bottom of oceanic rifts, whale songs and alike) this is ultimately a very different world than anything on earth and I loved how Cambrias constantly forced the reader to examine inadequate metaphors. At first the Illyatran are sentient lobsters but upon reflection it’s clear they have sonar, almost like whales or porpoises, but they lay thousands of eggs that only gradually achieve sentience. By the end of the novel I really did feel as though I had gained an understanding of what the Illyatran truly were beyond any attempt to fit them into neat Earth-centric terms.


Morgan Crooks 2015
Faber isn’t quite performing the same trick in The Book of Strange New Things but I found myself liking his story even more. First of all, the narrative of a Christian minister going to a strange planet inhabited by alien inextricably fascinated by Jesus was engaging. The main character attempts to hold on to his old life even as he feels increasingly drawn into the plight and problems of his alien flock. While the form of the aliens - the diminutive Oasans are somewhat more familiar than ice lobsters and space otters - there are some clever and well thought-through descriptions of the aliens.

For one thing, Oasans lack anything corresponding to a human face and so producing human speech sounds is a challenge. Faber renders this linguistic discrepancy through a series of glyphs borrowed from the Thai alphabet, slowly introducing more alien sounds into the text of the novel until . Ultimately, I did not go into this book expecting truly courageous feats of world-building but left pleasantly surprised. Although Faber takes a more subtle route than Cambrias, his world swarms with strange yet plausible alien life, life that is different from our own and yet concerned with the same basic traumas and desires. I’d suggest reading this book as a speculative writer with an eye towards using the familiar to mask the strange and outlandish. Each casually introduced word is re-examined later on, slowly pointing the way towards a fuller understanding of the world of the Oasans.


Morgan Crooks 2015

Writers interested in capturing the essence of aliens must be courageous in using familiar metaphors to point towards things genuinely indescribable. There is no simple recipe for this. However, from these examples, we can see that while writers should start with something easy to grasp, an ambitious writer will seek to undermine and complicate those metaphors as early and frequently as possible. A successful xenogensis will produce a life-form that cannot be summed up in anything as reductive as a single sentence. 
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