Saturday, October 3, 2009

Aliens and Alien Societies

I borrowed Stanley Schmidt's Aliens and Alien Societies (Science Fiction Writing Series) from the library, but I plan on getting a copy of my own as soon as possible. It’s an informative and inspiring read for writers of speculative fiction – and just plain entertaining as well.

The book starts with the hard science and physics, taking a look at galaxies and stars, before drawing closer to delve into the biochemistry of aliens. Then we get into the softer sciences of the psychology and sociology of aliens and how they interact with humans. The entire second half of the book, in other words, would be helpful to fantasy writers.

Although I don’t plan to use many of the concepts in the hard-science part of the book, they were illustrated with references to stories that sound fascinating. For instance, I learned from this book that there’s a short story called “Microbe”, by Joan Slonczewski, that postulates an ecosystem based on DNA arranged in a triple helix. Not sure how that works, but I find it fascinating.

This book also shows why such creatures as the giant spiders so beloved of old-style SF/horror are not biologically feasible unless writers do more than simply making said spiders larger. Or unless we’re dealing with a fantasy world, which makes me relieved that I don’t have to deal with this. Science is a beloved but cruel mistress. On the other hand, the explanations of what you would have to do to compensate might well give writers further ideas of how to make their spiders or giant creatures different.

This book provides dozens of examples of pushing the envelope – races without emotions (which find an evolutionary advantage to this), planetwide single organisms, creatures which evolved wheels (I immediately thought of the Wheelers from “Return to Oz”), jet or rocket propulsion, tripedalism, different kinds of manipulators – e.g. tongues that function like an elephant’s trunk, modifications to eyes.

In my story “…And Comfort to the Enemy”, I took this a step further: the tsapeli, one of the few nocturnal civilizations I can recall, have “searchlights” built into their eyes.

This book is also a collection of what-if questions. What kind of culture might evolve among lions? What if a culture which stressed cooperation over conflict devised a competitive sport? The answer to the last, by the way, is the game of bagdrag, which is original and absolutely fun. There’s also a detailed chapter on alien language, which mentions what kind of language might be spoken by creatures with very flexible lips and mouths – but no tongues.

The chapter on alien-human interactions examines some of the hoary tropes of the genre – taking humans as slaves (what can we do for aliens that their own technology cannot?), taking humans as food (are our biochemistries similar, and do they really want something that’s so bony that carnivores tend to avoid us as meals?) and taking over Earth (does its atmosphere and gravity work for them?).

And in cases where humans and aliens can share a common environment, new questions and problems arise – such as Susan Schwartz’s Heritage of Flight, where human colonists have to deal with aliens which are beautiful and pleasant in their adult stage, but ugly and lethal as larvae.

This was a great read, in other words, and would be a useful addition to any SF writer’s library.


Anonymous said...

I'm always on the lookout for books like this. They are great reference pieces and places to find new ideas.


Marian said...

Glad you enjoyed the review! I'm on the lookout for more books in this series now.

writtenwyrdd said...

Thanks for the tip. I just might have to get a copy, too.

Have you heard about the free Rand ebook, Habitable Planets for Man? There's a link on my site, and you can also just google for it.

Loren said...

Some nits to pick. If the author thinks that we are especially bony, then he's mistaken. I checked on this subject, and I found that skeletal muscle is about 30% - 40% of our body weight, with the majority of it in our legs. I looked for figures for domestic bovines and I found similar values. It was hard to find numbers, because many of them are behind paywalls at professional journals.

The real reason may be that we are too good at fighting back, meaning that big carnivores don't get much of a chance to discover that we are good to eat. It's like the way that domestic cats can coexist with mice if they don't learn that mice are good to eat.

In any case, the rest of that author's criticisms are good.

As to slaves, they could always create a slave caste from within their population, complete with genetic engineering.

And as to eating human flesh, why that and not some other Earth species' flesh? Why not pigs? :)

They take about a year or so to reach full size, and they can produce 2 litters of 10 piglets each a year.

Single planetwide organisms? That would be rather implausible from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, unless parts of it ended up competing with other parts.

However, some organisms do grow in the fashion necessary, like soil fungi. In eastern Oregon, there is a growth of Armillaria fungus over nearly 9 km^2 of area

It's comparable in side to a grove of aspen trees in Utah that spreads by their roots making new stems.

Maria Zannini said...

Thank you for reminding me of this book! I know I have it in my library somewhere.

I'll have to hunt for it and reread it.

Loren said...

Here's a related one: To Seek Out New Life, by Athena Andreadis. She discusses what's in Star Trek, and she has an interesting section on Star Trek societies.

For instance, about the Klingon one, she notes that it is top-heavy; that warrior societies are always subsets of larger ones. There has to be someone to do the farming and the manufacturing and whatnot.

Marian said...

Hey Loren,

The bone-to-body ratio information was interesting, since I'd somehow assumed that animals bred for consumption would have less bone and more flesh. I thought I read something about a breed of chicken with breasts so large that it unbalanced them.

The planetwide organism, IIRC, was used in a novel called Conscience Interplanetary and it was a crystal-like creature very similar to the Crystalline Entity from Star Trek : The Next Generation.

You never see planetwide (or even very large) molds or fungi. :) So maybe I'll have one in a story some day.

Marian said...

Hey writtenwyrdd,

I bookmarked the Rand site after I found out about it on your blog but haven't had the time to read it yet. Maybe over the Thanksgiving break (next week, yay). :)

Marian said...

Hey Maria,

It's definitely the kind of book which can be read more than once. In fact, I skipped the chapters on physics, so I have something new to read when I buy my own copy.

By the way, I read your blog post on online promotion and found it very helpful.

Loren said...

That's correct for turkeys -- domestic ones have been bred for so much breast meat that they often cannot reproduce in the traditional fashion, so they have to be artificially inseminated - explains how to do it.

Some cows have also been bred to be super muscular, like Belgian Blue ones, though their muscle does not get in the way. :)

A paper that mentions human muscle-mass measurements -

JH said...

I just wanna put this out there: Joan Slonczewski is a great writer and A Door into Ocean and its sequels own.