This series is intended to help writers brainstorm the elements that go into creating convincing aliens. It can also be applied to creating convincing nonhuman fantasy creatures, artificial intelligences, and so on.
My science fiction novel, Absence of Blade, is set in a universe where humans are only one of many intelligent species, who maintain an uneasy coexistence in a complex web of interstellar relations. I pushed the creative envelope by making the lead characters members of a nonhuman species, the Osk, and narrating large sections of the novel through their eyes. To do so effectively, I had to create characters with relatable emotions and inner lives who were nonetheless distinctly alien.
Part 3: Interstellar Relations
With a solid biology and culture in place, it’s time to consider your alien species’ place in the larger universe. What relations, if any, your species has with other intelligent species will depend on the scope of your narrative. Though rare, there are stories out there written entirely in the perspective of a fictional species that has never encountered other civilizations.
However, it’s more likely that your aliens will interact with other intelligent species, including humans. Adopting the perspective of a nonhuman species is an effective strategy for reflecting on our own unconscious assumptions, biases, and cultural discourses through the lens of an intelligent species that may share none of these assumptions.
For this reason, the most common trope of interstellar relations is the First Contact narrative, where humans make contact with an alien species through radio communication or with a research team. Establishing your aliens’ biology, environment, and culture ahead of time will help you answer several questions that often arise in a First Contact story, such as:
-How technologically advanced is your alien society compared to human civilization at the time of the story?
-Are there areas of technology where your aliens have outpaced humans while lagging behind in others?
-What’s the economic base of your alien society (agricultural, industrial, post-scarcity, etc.)?
Knowing these features of your alien society will help you decide their likely reaction to First Contact with humans, as well as how it might occur. If you flip the script and have your alien species contact ours, what’s their motivation for doing so? Is it a research survey, an act of war, a religious mission, an accidental encounter?
If your universe incorporates several alien cultures, what are their interactions like? What are the histories behind their various instances of first contact, and how have their relations developed since then? What is your alien culture’s basic stance toward the other cultures they interact with–are they traders, researchers, conquerors? Are they active in interstellar relations, or are they largely reclusive and indifferent to galactic affairs?
Finally, if applicable, what standing do humans hold in the galactic community and why? One of my favorite examples of interstellar relations done well is the Mass Effect video game trilogy by Bioware: the story is set in a galaxy-spanning federation of species to which humans are relative newcomers. As such, humans are still commonly dismissed as upstarts by more established members. Not only is that a great worldbuilding detail, but it comes into play when the human protagonist, Commander Shepard, tries to apply to the galactic council for aid in fighting the Reapers, synthetic intelligences that constitute the series’ endgame threat.
What Not to Do: They Invaded Us Because They’re Warlike
I think I could happily go the rest of my life without reading or watching another aliens-invade-Earth story where their motivation for invading is glossed over, or worse, totally unexplained. Even when there’s a reason for the invasion, too often it’s something lazy like “They need our resources”, or worse, “They’re just warlike”.
I agree it’s possible for a species to have a warlike culture–there are many examples of warlike human societies that raided and subjugated other cultures. The problem with this explanation lies in the enormous investment of material and energy a civilization would be required to muster before it could cross interstellar distances to invade Earth. If you stick to Einsteinian physics as well–in which the speed of light is the upper limit–it also means a significant investment of time. Traveling at sublight speeds, it would take aliens from even the closest stars hundreds if not thousands of years to reach Earth. There needs to be an extremely compelling reason for an alien species to cross that gulf of time and space.
In Donald Moffitt’s The Jupiter Theft, our solar system is one stop of many for the space-faring Cygnans, who left their system millions of years ago when its suns threatened to go nova. The Cygnans are actually there not for Earth but for Jupiter, which they plan to steal so they can harvest its hydrogen to refuel their generation ship. That’s right–they steal an entire planet, and yet it’s believable not just in terms of the supporting science but also because their motive for doing so makes sense.
Even if you choose to bend Einsteinian physics a bit to allow wormholes or some other way around the lightspeed barrier, your alien civilization would still need to be fairly advanced to circumvent that limit. At this stage of development, it’s unlikely they’d be invading Earth–or anyone–simply for our raw materials or our real estate.
So does this mean you shouldn’t write an aliens-invade-Earth story? Definitely not! It just means it will be to your story’s benefit to spend more time than a Hollywood script-writing committee crafting a reason for your aliens to invade Earth. One of my favorite series of all time, Animorphs by K.A. Applegate, is based on such a plausible invasion scenario: the characters learn that Earth is being invaded by Yeerks, a slug-like species that infests and takes control of a host species’ brain and body. The Yeerks have invaded and conquered a number of species before discovering Earth, making humans just their latest victims.
Boom. The Yeerks have a plausible motive for invading–they need the mobility and senses of host bodies–and it’s a motive that fits into their history of interstellar relations.
I hope you found this series on writing convincing aliens useful. Now I’d really love to hear from you: What are some of the alien species you’ve come up with, and who are some of the writers whose alien species have inspired you?