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.