What Makes Aliens Alien?

HAL CLEMENT: Okay, my watch says....11:00, or some seconds after, and the audience outnumbers the panel, so I guess there's no reason not to start. The subject assigned is: "What makes aliens alien?" And believe me, it doesn't have to be looks....(names panelists)

I don't really know any logical way to start about this, because one of the ways of being alien is to have your logic alien, so I'll simply point out very quickly: alienness can be defined on terms of where you come from, merely have a(?) passport from some weird place and you'll meet the dictionary definition. You may look different; you may behave different; or you may be completely indistinguishable, but made of right-hand amino acids and can't digest anything that you'd eat on Earth. I don't know which of my friends here likes which of those particular aspects, but if Ann doesn't mind I'm going to start at her end and see which of them she likes, or does she prefer some other criterion of alienity?

ANN CRISPIN: I have to do the plug first, which is, my new book is out - it's called Starbridge.....In my books, since I'm not the expert in science that Vanda and Hal and some of those folks are, I tend to invent aliens mostly by trying to think of different mind-sets, or different bodies, and then try to put mind-sets to those with the different bodies. Or I try to invent different bodies and imagine which mind-sets would go with them. I don't really start from the chemical level or anything like that. I'm not, as I said, a scientist.

One of the things that I do when I try to invent aliens, or think about what makes people alien - sometimes it's(?) kind of a cheat, I guess....but it also makes for some interesting aliens, or so my readers tell me - is to work from some sort of Earth creature and try to imagine what would happen if evolution had taken a turn. I've done that with wallabies. I've done that with baboons. I've done that with snakes, and some other creatures like that. Other aliens that I've invented, I didn't work from any known Earth creature, I just had a picture in my mind and tried to graft on a mind-set.

But, the main thing I have to do, since I don't pursue it from a strictly scientific view-point, is to try to maintain my own internal logic, which is the same thing I do if I create creatures in a fantasy book.....Keeping an internal logic is vital. You can't have a creature that has a certain stated amount of abilities in chapter 4, and then suddenly sprout some new ability in chapter 12, just in time to save the day. Your readers get real disgusted when you pull red herrings like that out of the air, so.....aliens should be logical. And not necessarily like Spock, either - you know what I meant.

MARY HANSEN-ROBERTS: That's a good point. I have to agree with Ann on that....One of the things that's always bothered me in grade-B science fiction movies is how easy it is for humans to communicate with aliens, so-called, when it's so difficult in real life for us to communicate with our own planet's animals. Animals are really alien if you think of it. By the same token, so are kids, because they're animals, too. And if you really want an alien, try my fundamentalist brother-in-law, sometimes. But the alienness of animals is what I emphasize in my own work, which is illustration, by and large. Like, I have a fish which communicates by changing his colors. And Asimov wrote a very interesting short story at one time about aliens that communicated with each other in this manner, and that kind of rang true to me....in the Peace (?) stories, they have reptilian characters, and the more reptilian they become, the better I like them.

It's so hard for humans to relate to something so terran as animal characteristics in communications, but they really can become alien if they're brought to their logical conclusion, as Ann has done. My own creatures - my Leonids, or lion centaurs that I draw - I have a concept behind them, but it's partly human. I mean, these creatures were bio-engineered to inhabit a kind of theme park originally, and the people who put them together originally meant them to be able to relate to humans, so they can communicate in a more human fashion than a lot of aliens, true aliens, could. But their animal characteristics set them apart. Siskel and Ebert love a good movie that can put them into another world, and nothing can do that like buying into the alienness of an alien. That's how I get into it, is my animal characteristics.

VONDA McINTYRE: A friend of mine said that a number of years ago science fiction had almost progressed to the point where the alien cultures writers dreamed up were almost as strange as some of the human cultures that he could discover on Earth. I think that's a really useful point in a number of ways, because no matter how alien your aliens might be, the writer is always going to be a human being, at least for this decade. Everything you write about is really in some way about human beings. It might be directly about human beings; it might be in contrast to human beings.

One difficulty writers often have, or a difficulty I run into, is having people complain about the alienness of my aliens. I had somebody write to me and tell me in no uncertain terms that these aliens I had invented would not behave that way. Which is pretty interesting, since I invented them. (laughs) I wrote her back and said, 'They're alien.' I wrote at least a page of letter, about every other sentence being, 'They're alien.' I got another letter from her that said, 'It took me about half a page of your letter to realize that you're really pissed off at me.' (laughs) And I kind of was, because it's real easy to approach reading a novel from a very human mind-set, and not be willing to suspend your disbelief a little bit and try to figure out what is different.

I think that the alienness of an alien depends at least probably 30% on the willingness of the audience to accept what you're doing and give you a little slack before immediately saying, 'That doesn't make any sense.'
REBECCA ORE: Either Kim Stanley Robinson came up with it ahead of me, or I came up with it around the same time he did, but he had the idea, and I had worked with the idea in many cases that aliens in science fiction, in any kind of writing done by humans, are something that we're not living out in our culture, that is maybe a fringe human possibility. And that the ones that are really resonant are the ones who sort of point to an archetype on one level, or are very internally consistent on another level, will use biology, will use the physics of the senses. And on the third level, the third of the tripod that makes it kind of really ring true, is that sense of them being something that isn't going on that we can conceive of, but for various reasons in the culture are not able to move out into......

When I started writing the books that I've done with aliens - Becoming Alien, Being Alien, Human to Human - I came up with a kind of gut theory about how evolution would have worked on different planets with different conditions, and that, in the end, everybody becomes more like each other because they're dealing with physics at the end. Your culture develops more to a uniformity.
The most diverse human cultures were in the 17th century, and that, as people use tools, the physics of tools require them to think in terms that allow them to use the physics of tools, so there is a convergence of sorts. So you end up with all these theories you're playing with that you may not use in the next book, but this is (unintelligible).

DON SAKERS: Well, I'm coming at this from a slightly different perspective. When I did The Leaves of October, my aliens were 15-meter-tall sapient trees, which live for millions of years, communicate through sound and color, and have the ability to control biological evolution. So my problem was not how to make them alien, it was how to make them accessible to humans. You can make anything alien. We can sit down right now and discuss a story in which the chairs that you're sitting on are intelligent aliens. It doesn't become real to a 20th-century reader until we can find some common ground between us and those chairs that allows for communication, that allows today's readers to get inside the mind of the alien.

So the perspective that I'd like to take on this whole matter is not really how do you make an alien - that's easy enough to do. Open a dictionary to a random word and go from there. Let that be your alien. The question more is: How do you get the alien to the point where your readers can understand them?

HAL CLEMENT: Ann's claim (was) that she was not a scientist, but she uses apparently exactly my method. I am fairly careful of the science, first of all. I do start my planet environment, then a reasonable ecology to go with it, then a reasonable physiology for intelligent members. But I do build the alien character around its anatomical and biological needs. I would like to let my imagination go, but actually I have to discipline the darn thing.

Presumably, any species is going to have certain common drives. They will have a sense of self-preservation under most circumstances. They will have a desire to reproduce. If either of those qualities were missing, the species presumably wouldn't be there. So you can at least start with something common. And the details are how. What detailed activities and attitudes would the creature have in order to live in the environment where it is? My Mesconites (in Mission of Gravity) were acrophobes, quite logically - they were afraid of heights. And if you lived in a 200-gravity environment, this is a perfectly natural attitude. The Observers in The Nitrogen Fix reproduced by budding from the site of any injury. This gave them a certain different set of drives from the normal human one, and incidentally, left me trying to figure out what would be a drive for their everyday activities. They had no particular problems with food. So I wound up - this was certainly prejudiced, and they weren't as alien as they might have been - I figured that their main drive was going to be a search for information, followed by an urge to communicate it to others. This seemed a perfectly reasonable drive for an intelligent being to have (?), and I let it go at that. But the fact that it was their prime drive, rather than either hunger for food or hunger for reproductive activity, which certainly made them somewhat alien to the average human being.