Monday, July 6, 2009

Life, not as we know it

I’ve often written about ways to make humanoid creatures as alien and intriguing as possible. But what about creatures which aren’t humanoid, which don’t look like anything we know or expect?

Life not as know it, in other words.

What inspired this post was the trailer for Aeon Flux. I’ve been warned not to watch this movie, but something in the trailer fascinated me – the swarm of ball-bearings that rolls purposefully down a corridor, stacks against a door and blasts it open. I couldn’t help wondering if they were alive. Sentient, even. Were they a group made up of individuals or one mind in several small, identical, spherical bodies?

Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition is another rich motherlode when it comes to truly alien creatures. Barlowe deliberately designed the organisms of the planet Darwin IV to be very different from those of earth, so none of them have eyes. I find myself looking at their heads and searching for a point of reference, something to meet my gaze, but there’s nothing of the sort. Many of them are also monopedal or tripedal – another fascinating difference.

And while I don’t remember anything else about Samuel Delany’s City of a Thousand Suns, I think there was a council scene featuring creatures with thirty-foot eyestalks, beings composed of crystal and others consisting entirely of sound. Whether this is feasible or not, it produced a visual image that’s remained in my head for nearly twenty years now.

It also makes me imagine even more unusual substances that could make up the bodies of such creatures. What about fire? Allow the fire – whether it be a candle’s flame or in a fireplace – to go out, and the creature ceases to exist.

Or rock… no, better yet, mountains. Gives a new meaning to “the hills are alive”. If the mountains of a land were alive, opening their eyes so high above the world that all they saw were clouds, what would they be like? Slow to speak and decide, rather like Ents, since they’ve lived for millions of years and aren’t going anywhere?

Or what if that substance only produced sentience and intelligence when enough of it was gathered together to cross a certain threshold? So a handful of sand – just enough to fill an hourglass – might understand and obey basic commands, but an entire garden of sand would be more than capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation with you. And a desert… well, that would be the silicon equivalent of Stephen Hawking.

Graham Masterton’s Edgewise features the Wendigo, which is two-dimensional, hence the title. This characteristic enables it to slip under locked doors and disappear whenever it stands edgewise. When it stalks the heroine, she’s only able to catch a glimpse of it (and take it aback) by setting up an arrangement of mirrors that reflects it no matter which way it turns. I’d love to see the same thing done with shadows. Shapeless creatures made of shade would be fascinating.

Life, not as we know it.


Anonymous said...

The real challenge is how to make them, well, human. Why? Because the readers need to relate to the alien somehow, otherwise you might lose their interest.

writtenwyrdd said...

There are a lot of cool non-bipedal aliens out there. It's easier to have them humanoid, of course (especially if you want to write a romance! ;) ) but if the writer wants to explore unique, alien perspectives, then really wierd aliens are a great challenge.

Frank Herbert even had a sentient star in Whipping Star. Personally, Star Trek's 'crystalline entity' was always one of my favorites.

Marian Perera said...

Oh yes, they have to have some human trait even if they're completely non-human.

For instance, I'm going to have the little spheres in a story, and although they won't blow anything up, they're going to have a malicious sense of humor.

They work security for a place, so if they spot an intruder, they roll here and there unpredictably, knock small objects over and in general, try to scare the intruder to death even before they trip him up.

Marian Perera said...

writtenwyrdd, I've sat and thought about how to pull off a romance between a human and a non-humanoid but nothing feasible or erotic came to mind. I feel defeated and strangely relieved at once. :)

Oh, the Crystalline Entity! I had something like that in one of my stories - it's wonderfully alien. I believe a similar creature was used in a SF novel called Conscience Interplanetary.

Anonymous said...

"I've sat and thought about how to pull off a romance between a human and a non-humanoid but nothing feasible or erotic came to mind."

That is, indeed, very difficult to pull off. All the more power to you if you can find a way. :)

Anonymous said...

You could always go old school and use silicone based lifeforms. Not so long ago many scientist thought that if life existed outside of Earth it may not be carbon based by silicon based (the element that most approaches carbon ability to bond with basically everything else in the Periodic Table, the whore!).

Hazardgal said...

C. S. Lewis' other books left a mark on me. The "sorns" I remember from one, were tall creatures like iridescent celery sticks. Even feathery too.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

I thought about a humanoid/non-humanoid relationship a little more and it’s feasible, but difficult. The writer would have to show what these two gain from each other that they wouldn’t get from others of their own species – maybe they’re flawed in such a way that they’re outcasts among their own kind, but that draws them closer to each other?

Or perhaps diplomatic relations with the non-humans mean honoring their custom that requires a close association/bond between one of their species and whoever they’re forming an alliance with. No choice but to lie back and think of England under those circumstances. :)

So I think it can be done, but the writer would have to work overtime on the characterization, and I’m not sure if the romance would appeal to everyone.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Marge,

I forgot to say, congratulations on your book's acceptance. :) Here's to Scary Perry!

Loren said...

There's plenty of weirdness right under our noses -- lots of fauna and flora that is very odd by familiar standards.

Look at an arthropod close up -- its mouthparts and antennae (if any) are all modified limbs. Insects, crustaceans, and myriapods have three pairs of limbs in their mouthparts(!) Aquatic ones have feathery-looking gills sticking out of their leg bases, and insect wings are likely modified gills.

Or look at a squid or an octopus or a jellyfish or a sea anemone. Tentacles around their mouths.

But even these might look ordinary in comparison to those blobs and the giant snowflake of ST:TNG "Datalore".

Barbara Martin said...

This was a unique post on an interesting topic, and some of the comments provided many possible plot points.