I don’t like, in general, aliens that are too human. There are very good stories with human aliens in them, that even depend on the humanity of the aliens, but as aliens, they’re disappointing.

There’s a tension here. In general, characters who are unbelievable and unsympathetic are frowned upon. That a writer accurately and penetratingly depicts the human condition is high praise. The best fiction shows us the love, hatred, courage, cowardice, happiness and neurosis of real people, whether they are storming the Dark Lord’s castle, resolving shocking murders in the Tokyo underworld or wandering the streets shouldering the meaninglessness of the universe. Even if larger than life, they’re human.

This breaks down when one or more actors in the story aren’t. Our standard way of relating to an entity in the story becomes problematic. And so we have the dilemma: on the one hand, we want a story with aliens in it. On the other, we want a story that makes sense to us as human readers. The challenge is to write the relation of the alien to humans inside and humans outside the text, and it’s a hard one.

The easiest solution is to avoid making the aliens particularly alien in any difficult way. There is a long tradition in SF of aliens, even anatomical non-humanoids, who act like humans in makeup. This makes the problem easy: the aliens are another group of humans, but in space, and can operate in the story as such. Beyond this there are distorted humans – this species is logical, that species is prone to anger, that other species has a telepathic phone in their heads. Aliens of this sort have a rich history in SF, particularly in comedy (Zaphod Beeblebrox), satire (Micromégas) or space opera (Mass Effect). They can do everything from illuminating by caricature the human condition to acting out dire racial stereotypes with a thin coating of lasers.

But that’s not everything we can do. Science fiction is the literature of possibilities, and more is possible. The task is to get outside what is familiarly human into group or multiple consciousness, strongly different perceptual or conceptual organisations, novel emotional states and other ways of thinking, living and interacting with humans that do not map easily, if at all, onto our own. But this presents enormous problems from a practical storytelling perspective. As we have a hard enough time understanding our own thoughts, lives and relationships, doing the same for a being where our experience and intuitions are at best weakened and at worst dangerously misleading is incredibly difficult. And aliens so radically different also prevent or complicate some usual stories, as humans inside and outside the text cannot relate to the aliens like they would a human character. The problem we avoided by removing the alien element has reared its head again.

The second easy solution is to black-box the aliens. A sufficiently alien alien can’t be related to, so don’t try. It is an arbitrary or simplistic force of nature the protagonists must challenge and overcome (or not). This is the formula of space opera featuring genocidal hive-minds, or of cosmic horror. It can produce excellent stories – Solaris is ultimately an example of this – but still rests, like the first solution, on denying the premise. Rather than removing the alien, it removes the relation, and humans still move through a universe limited in a sense to their own selves.

Alternatively, we can attempt what Solaris tells us is impossible and try to penetrate the black box. To look, long and hard, at how we think and live and how those things might happen otherwise and to communicate what we find to others and to ourselves. This task is extremely difficult because our own existence is both totally immersive and poorly understood. To do more than scratch the surface of the possibilities of and comprehension of the truly alien is the most difficult task in SF, and may be impossible before, or even after, AI lets us do it in the real world. But it is worth attempting, because even a limited success is fascinating and mind-expanding, and if we didn’t want to reach for the future we wouldn’t be writing SF. Story of Your Life and Embassytown both make the attempt and benefit for it.

And beyond that, in my experience, once you have started knocking on the black box you can never really go back, because you lose faith in the very premise of human aliens. Even humans ourselves are more different within the species than too much thinking, and especially too much science fiction, often imagines. Human aliens feel false to me, and so science fiction that relies on them rings false if it makes any pretense to realism. The universe is out there, and it’s bigger than us.

All this applies equally to the question of transhumanism, where the aliens come from inside, rather than outside, but are alien nonetheless.

In future posts I’ll look at some sources of inspiration for aliens, and put together some thoughts on how to construct and use them.


This is a blog. It will gradually accumulate posts about: science, writing, futurology, possibly politics, and other.