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.