Okay, let’s be honest. If aliens are out there, whether they’re monitoring our world or flying around their own little corner of the cosmos, they probably aren’t hairless, bipedal primates like us. They might not even perceive the universe in the same way we do. And yeah, they definitely don’t speak English. So why is that in the vast majority of books, movies, and TV shows about aliens, they seem so much like human beings with unique skin tones, claws, or bigger heads?
Why aren’t aliens… more alien?
This exact thought was a huge part of what inspired me to write Intraterrestrial, my upcoming weird, emotional, psychedelic alien novel which will be floating your way later this month.
In most sci-fi media, “aliens” tend to resemble futuristic humans. Sure, maybe they have grey skin and tentacles, but the differences from us are relatively minor. Aliens still wear clothes or ceremonial armors, they still pilot metal ships, have families, and interact with the world using the same five senses. Alien technology, while usually more advanced than Earthling technology, is nonetheless quite similar to ours. (Though Giger’s hyper-sexualized designs in the Alien movies are a notable exception.)
Now, the reason that fictional aliens are so “human” is easy to understand. For one, humans have a tendency to try to imprint our image on everything, whether it’s finding human faces in wood grain (the pareidolia phenomenon), or believing that an omnipotent creator would resemble an old white guy with a big white beard.
This is also because from a storytelling perspective, it’s easier for readers and audiences to connect with “creatures” that resemble us. That’s why it’s easier to recognize the “life” in an animal than it is a plant, even though both are equally valid lifeforms. The use of “human” aliens has been a necessary ingredient in many important media franchises, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Marvel Universe. That’s because the “aliens” in these tales aren’t there to explore the sci-fi idea of aliens: these “aliens” are representative of humans, so it suits the story to make them as human as possible. This aspect is particularly strong in Star Trek, which uses a utopian “Federation” of alien races to represent the ideal of humankind’s many races/cultures/societies one day working out their differences and living in harmony. It’s powerful stuff.
So, I’m not criticizing the use of “human” aliens, because they serve a valid narrative function for many stories. However, I am asking: shouldn’t our stories have room for both types of alien, both human and…. less human?
And furthermore, can’t we see more stories featuring inhuman aliens, which don’t simply write the beings off as “monsters,” or “beasts,” and instead work to engender audience compassion and connection for creatures that aren’t just like us?
I say this, because many stories demonize inhuman creatures, and that’s problematic, because it signifies how we feel about (and treat) animals, plants, and other lifeforms that don’t have smiling faces. For example, when I used talking slugs as characters in my last novel, Pale Highway, I did so hoping that it might make at least one reader reexamine these “slimy” creatures, and perhaps come away with more respect for them. Slugs might be totally different from us, but they are a valid form of life. If my story convinced even one person to never pour salt on a poor slug again, then hey, that’s an achievement I’m proud of.
Anyway, getting back to the central point, depictions of truly otherworldly aliens—particularly more sympathetic portrayals—are rare. Off the top of my head, the most noteworthy example of this in recent times was the film Arrival, where the Heptapods were seen as complex, intelligent beings of a truly alien background. The other example that comes to mind are the “Scramblers” in the novel Blindsight. While these creatures certainly weren’t “sympathetic,” due to their total lack of free will and/or emotions, the novel itself presented their strange nature as a plot point, and an examination of what our “free will” really is.
Now, why am I interested in seeing more alien-like aliens? A few reasons. One, it’s largely unexplored terrain. It’s a big, cosmic horror (or mesmerizing wonder) of possibilities that fiction has only begun to tap.
Two, because I think it’s an important way to break through the myopic nature of human perception. I think that telling stories wherein the aliens are distinctly not-human—but are still viable creatures in their own right—could help break down barriers in human society, help tear down prejudices, and make it easier for people to relate to others who aren’t like them. After all, the “other” is not the enemy.
For Intraterrestrial, the key difference I wanted to explore was the notion of perception. The main character, Adam Helios, is a 13 year old boy with a brain injury: this injury causes his perception of the world to differ significantly from a “normal” person.
However, the aliens who contact him perceive the universe in an even stranger way: while us Earthlings use five senses, the aliens do not possess senses. They explore the universe psychically, using creativity as a “sense.” They are so incomprehensible to our hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, and sound that the aliens can only appear before Adam by “creating” sensory constructs of themselves, with his imagination.
A large part of what inspired me to write Intraterrestrial was my desire, both as a writer and as a reader, to see fictional aliens that are more “alien,” instead of just seeming like futuristic humans. This book will be my own contribution to the cause I’ve described above, and I look forward to you folks reading it, and letting me know if my aliens are “alien” enough!