Aliens with Kimia Wood

Aliens were what kept me away from sci-fi for the longest time. Nevermind the fact that I read and wrote fantasy filled with all sorts of non-human characters ... I just couldn't justify it in our own universe. And now I write alien sci-fi...

Anywho, Kimia Wood is here with us to talk about how to write with aliens. Kimia is the author of multiple novels, spanning from dystopia to kingdom fiction to mysteries. Both of the books that I've read of hers have been intriguing and fun to read.

Kimia Wood
Science Fiction/Dystopia/Historical Fiction
Author of Soldier


The word "alien" means, by definition, something different. Something strange. A creature apart. What’s it look like when we’re not just writing about different people, but actually different species?
When we're talking space aliens, this separate-ness can manifest in a number of different ways: biology, psychology, and theology. In science fiction, authors have almost limitless choices when it comes to how they design their new species.

Physiognomy

The obvious way for an alien to be different is physically. Tentacles, multiple eyes, weird colors and skins, it's easy to imagine wild and crazy body types for aliens!
Why Aliens Are Different — Kimia Wood
Image credit: BusinessInsider

The Star Wars Cantina is packed with strange creatures of different kinds. In fact, the Star Wars universe is a great example of many different species whose bodies look and behave in different ways.
The Pride of Chanur* by C.J. Cherryh is also a good example: in this book (and series) there are some aliens that breathe methane. Others have double jaws and their arms are jointed so that they can't reach behind their back. Still others look like humanoid cats…and are always getting their claws caught in the seats, or shedding when they get upset.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye* is a first-contact story where a certain facet of the aliens' biology shaped their entire civilization…and paved the way for their civilization's collapse.
Have you read a book recently that played around with how different body types (like having a tail or no hands) would affect how a species designed their buildings, furniture, and vehicles? For instance: would a species that mostly communicated through smell invent a telephone? This kind of "what if…?" thinking is part of what makes sci-fi so fun!

The Way They Think

An even bigger difference among aliens is their psychology. To get this right, an author has to understand the different ways that humans think.
Although we have certain experiences that are similar, our different cultures and societies also have foreign ways of viewing the world. After all, the word "alien" doesn't just apply to the outer space kind, but to people from other countries as well.
Superheroes, Aliens, Robots, Zombies* is a fun short read (if you don't mind zombie gore, and having the book stop 1/3 through the story!). One of the chief reasons it gained my respect, though, is the way it handled the third world.
Why Aliens Are Different — Kimia Wood
I've mostly grown up in the first world West, but both my parents were missionary kids, and I'm familiar with some of the differences between our cultures.
In this book, a character gets lost in an African city (the author even knows that there're two Congos, right across the river from each other) and immediately gets attacked and robbed. He buys a soda from a street vendor (missionaries know you never buy street food!) and it makes him violently ill.
While I'd hate to be the character, the experience sounded exactly like the stories I'd grown up with! It made me trust the author that he knew what he was talking about, and didn't just assume, "Oh, Africa is just like here only the people are black!"
(If you're looking for another fictional example of expressing opposing viewpoints among humans, The Erthring Cycle*, by Wayland Drew, is very long and a bit heavy-going – but the author does a marvelous job of having several different characters express very different points of view, with complete sincerity.)

Different Brains

Different-ness isn't just in how an alien thinks, though! It's also in what it thinks about!
C.J. Cherryh is a master of creating aliens with different ways of thinking. In her Chanur series*, aliens called the Tc'a breathe methane and communicate with other aliens through matrices. As Wikipedia puts it, "their brains are multi-part and their speech decodes as complex matrices of intertwined meanings." This definitely makes for an interesting reading experience!
The driving plot of the series is the conflict between how the protagonists (the hani) think and how the antagonists (the kif) think. One race thinks life and peace are important, and try to rescue other sentient creatures whether they're friends or not. The other race wants to get things for themselves, and every individual kif is focused on how to keep himself alive and climb higher in the social ladder.
I heard so much about Ender's Game*, by Orson Scott Card, on the internet that I finally read it. While not my favorite book ever, I appreciated how the alien enemies truly were "alien". The characters call them "buggers", and they behave like bugs—they have a queen and worker/warriors who do her bidding. The key to Ender's success lies in unraveling how they think and beating them with their own rules.

How They Relate To God

What the author believes is going to hugely impact this question. Most sci-fi comes from an evolutionary worldview, from Doctor Who to The Mote in God's Eye* to Star Trek.
In this framework, all life simply "happened" to come along the way it did, so it makes sense that 1) humans are not the only life in the galaxy, and 2) the way that we evolved is similar to the way the other creatures evolved. This is how you can get stories about humans having romances with aliens – because we're all just the same, really, just biological machines.
Except we're not. Humans are made in the image of God, and Earth is the only place in the cosmos the Creator came and lived like us. What would space aliens look like in that kind of a universe?

Why Aliens Are Different — Kimia Wood

C.S. Lewis explored this in his Space Trilogy, portraying un-fallen aliens in a couple different ways. In the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, the inhabitants of Mars don't sin, but they still die. They're like animals in that their deaths are not the result of their own rebellion – and they're like angels in that they are "servants" of God ("angel" literally means "messenger", after all).
In Lewis's second book, Perelandra, the aliens are more human-like and the whole story plays more like an allegory — will this planet follow the Creator's command, or will it rebel like Earth did and descend to corruption?
Once again, he's playing "what if…?" What if there were aliens on the other planets who didn't suffer from our curse? How might God have chosen to create them differently?

Value-Driven Characters

You don't have to get so allegorical, of course. An author will still reveal his or her theology through their story, whether they intend to or not.
C.J. Cherryh's novels don't really consider a Creator God; her humans are just one more species among the ranks of thinking creatures. Her stories are still entertaining, though, because her characters are engaging and relatable, her plots tense, and their goals and values match ours. Some of her characters happen to not be human, but we follow along and come to care about them as humans.
What's more, the protagonists reveal by what they're willing to fight for what they hold important: Do they protect and care for strangers in need (the good guys)? Or do they kill and betray their own allies to promote themselves (the bad guys)?
After all, who sits around wondering if Jesus died for Spock? Or why Spock wears clothes? (We wear clothes because of the shame of our sin, and to avoid leading others to sin. Animals – and the aliens in Perelandra – are free from both sin and clothes.) The nitty-gritty of character choices (and what the author asks you to celebrate/root for) will show you what she considers important.
One last example: the game series Destiny. It's not entirely clear whether the team behind Destiny is making deliberate theological choices, but they're very clear with who their good guys and bad guys are. The bad guys believe in killing anyone who gets in their way – even their own siblings – and that only the strongest survive. The good guys get their power from someone/something else (not relying on themselves) and believe in protecting "widows and orphans", and in sacrificing themselves for the good of others. They don't talk about God or Jesus, but there's a clear distinction between the Light (life and sacrifice) and Darkness (self-worship and death).
(Side note: some players identify more with the Darkness and wish they could join the enemy in self-worship. We know that you can't be stronger than God – only God will win.)
Authors get to choose which method they'll write from. Do they sit down and decide exactly where these aliens fit in their theology? Or they might say, "I want to tell a story about creatures who think like bees…with a queen in charge, and no individuality between each worker. What would a race like that be like?" and go from there.
Either way, you'll be able to tell by reading whether the author promotes "light" or "darkness".

The Common Thread

God gave us minds to dream – to ask, "What if…?" What if there was a creature who looked unlike anything we've seen before? What if they viewed the world in a completely different way? This is what the Bible says about people and animals on Earth…but what about creatures on other planets?
The next time you're enjoying a science fiction universe with creatures from another planet, feel free to dream…but also use your mind to think! What do the characters' values say about good and evil – and what does their self-awareness say about who God is?
What are some of your favorite alien books? In what ways are those aliens different from us – and in what ways are they similar?
*NOTE: Not all the books referenced in this article are appropriate for all ages or temperaments. Read reviews from sources you trust and check with more mature Christians before you read any of them. My dad read some of them aloud to us — that might be a good filter mechanism if you're really curious about them.

Comments

  1. Great post! I haven't written any novels involving aliens, but if I ever do, I'll make sure to come back to these tips.

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