For all the science fiction written, it’s surprising to realize that there are not a lot of truly alien aliens out there. In TV and the movies, aliens are little more than people with some makeup and prosthetics. This is usually a result of budget, but also allows the audience to more readily relate to them. However, novels have far more time to develop characters and effectively have an unlimited special effects budget, yet aliens are generally air breathing humanoids with the same senses. Sure, culturally different, but that’s not so much as alien as it is foreign.
Among the foundational works of science fiction that I’ve read this observation generally holds true with a few notable exceptions.
Anthropomorphic tigers organized as a male dominated warrior society. While they make an appearance prior to Ringworld, that novel made them known. This is the kind of alien that is easy to relate to: start with humanoid tigers, mix in Bushido and give them advanced technology. One alien race, ready to be served. Sure, from that simple start a lot of effort can be spent on detailing the nuances of their customs, their history, but everything written from that point onwards could just as easily apply to humans as well. This is what I mean about being more foreign than alien.
Insectoids typically with a queen hive mind that perform the role of staple alien antagonist. They’ve made appearances in Ender’s Game, Aliens, Starship Troopers and go as far back as Selenite in A Trip to the Moon (considered the first science fiction film). While definitely alien, generally only enough effort is expended on their species to demonstrate how unrelatable they are and hence should be destroyed (preferably with fire).
Martians (Stranger in a Strange Land)
While the Martians themselves don’t figure as characters in the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, their influence through Valentine Michael Smith does. So while Mike is human, his culture, beliefs and language is alien making him a foreigner or proverbial stranger in a strange land. It was an effective way to introduce an alien while still being completely relatable as a human being.
The Overlords in Childhood’s End specifically look like the devil incarnate. This is done to purposefully evoke our fear and mistrust. Yet they are intelligent, moral caretakers of the human race under whose supervision humanity enjoys a golden age. This is Clarke’s way of making his readers challenge their assumptions. It also subconsciously keeps the reader always questioning the motives of the Overlords.
Now onto some aliens that are different enough to break free from the anthropomorphic animal mould and whose accompanying characterization lifts them above all the noise of those other aliens that seem so formulaic.
A Tine (A Fire Upon the Deep) is the concept of group mind applied to a pack of small wolves.
An individual tine is not much, just a fragment of a personality. But a pack, usually four to six tines, is a person – a communal mind that shares its thoughts among its members. Their mouths, which packs can use in concert in lieu of fingers, are flexible enough to produce both the quick, clipped barks that comprise their language and perfectly mimic human speech as well.
The Tines, though an extremely intelligent race, are stuck at a medieval technology level. Packs have a hard time cooperating in close quarters, because when they get too close, they begin “hearing” the other packs’ thoughts. For the Tines, invading the 10- to 15-foot-wide area of personal space around a pack can be a chaotic, mind-wrenching experience that can bring confusion, embarrassment and loss of identity.
Skroderiders (A Fire Upon the Deep) are essentially fern-like plants with no mobility and limited short term memory. They communicate through the rustling of their fronds. Originally rooted at the tide line they would let there minds calmly wonder with the rhythm of the waves. Another race gifted them with skrodes, cybernetically grafted carts, that give mobility and enhanced working memory.
Puppeteers (Ringworld) cannot be easily described as some humanoid derivative of <insert animal here>. They are physically unique with three legs and two “heads” and we’ll leave it at that. What’s interesting is their behaviour – danger averting herd mentality where courage is considered a mental illness akin to depression – and how this simple dominant trait affects everything from architecture (no sharp corners) to social governance (Hindmost – the one who leads from behind). For a puppeteer to even interact with other species is ludicrously dangerous, so they prefer to mediate through agents and prefer bribes and blackmail to violence.
Soft Ones / Hard Ones
These unique aliens live in a para-Universe where the physical laws as we know them are different. Asimov came up with a truly alien race – a triad composed of three individuals – a Rational, an Emotional and a Parental which ultimately fuse to become a Hard One. To me these aliens represent the high-water mark in describing a truly alien alien, and I think this is the challenge Asimov set himself to when he wrote The Gods Themselves.
The cheela of Dragon’s Egg are worth a mention since they represent aliens living in an utterly altered reality. They are seasame seed sized creatures living in an environment of 67 billion gs. However unlike the Soft/Hard Ones they evolved culturally much like ourselves (albeit at an accelerated pace).
Inventing a truly unique alien is hard work. Finding a way for it to interact and relate to humans is a challenge. Wrapping this into a compelling story is a rare thing even among the wealth of science fiction we have now.