At what point the first alien appeared in fiction is debatable. Possibly it was in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; possibly it was long before that. I mean, you could argue that the old Aztec gods were aliens. In fact, some folks are pretty sure they were.
No, I mean it. Literally. Space aliens. Scout’s honor.
Anyway, I don’t really know when the first alien appeared in a story, but I do know that we’ve been writing about them for a very long time because we are fascinated with the idea of First Contact and, beyond that, continued contact with other races of people (Orps). We speculate about how different they will be when we finally do meet them (and we will). We fantasize about how much like us they will be, and we wonder if the similarities will blind us perilously to the differences (“It’s a cookbook!”)— or if the differences will blind us to how alike we are, also to our detriment.
This is a favorite theme of mine, by the way. Read “Distance” on my BVC bookshelf and you’ll see what happens when I’m really having fun.
I personally believe that part of the job of a science fiction writer is to prepare us for that First Contact moment—to give those of us so inclined practice in meeting people who do not come from this world so that we will not exhibit bad manners when the Day comes. But I also believe it’s the little invisible bits of alienness that will cause us the most trouble and that the more another race of people looks like us, the harder that invisible alienness will be to see, acknowledge and accept.
Now the GFFA has a lot of alien races in it. George Lucas clearly indulged his dearest fantasies when creating his cosmopolitan galactic culture, and as a writer who’s been allowed to play in that culture, I’m profoundly glad he had such a good imaginaton. He provided the templates for aliens whose brains were augmented by head-tails (Nautolans and Twi’lek), aliens who used pheromones to manipulate others (Falleen and Zeltron), aliens who evolved from insectoid life-forms, reptilian life-forms, amphibian life-forms, and on and on.
Naturally, science fiction writers are in love with the whole idea of The Alien. This has an upside and a downside. The downside is that we sometimes resort to stereotypes. Sometimes we do this because of cultural or political baggage. In this case we may use the “evil aliens” as proxies for some real world group we think of as “evil” (read Stephen King’s marvelous analysis of horror and fantasy fiction, The Danse Macabre for an insightful look at this phenomenon). And sometimes we do it because we need to send encoded messages to the reader in short-hand. In this case our choice of alien for a particular type of role subliminally shapes the reader’s idea of how they will deliver their lines and what attitudes they might have toward different subjects. For example, I will divulge that a Toydarian makes a brief appearance in a scene in Star Wars: Shadow Games (aka, Holostar). I chose a Toydarian because I needed to telegraph to the reader that this is a mercenary sort of fellow and I needed to do it without spending valuable page space building up a character that was only going to walk on, utter a few lines and walk off (okay, flap off—as we all know from Chef Jeff Vader’s YouTube video “Midichlorian Rhapsody” Toydarians are reminiscent of bumblebees).
For other roles, I choose aliens because I want to write about them, explore them as people and, well, because I think they’re cool. Take Twi’leks, for example. I love Twi’leks because they’re so graceful and elegant and because of the way their brain power is augmented by their lekku. I think it’s also fun to explore how the lekku are used in communication. Humans shrug their shoulders, Twi’leks (and other species with head-tails) can express indecision, or mirth, or anger and a range of other emotions in much more subtle ways. This might mean that subliminal conversations can take place between Twi’leks while other species remain blissfully unaware.
And then there is our fascination with the truly alien. Beings that don’t even relate to the universe in the same way that we do. In the Coruscant Nights series, Michael used a species called Cephalons that experience events in time the way we experience objects in space. I love the way he has I-Five describe this to Den Dhur, who’s mightily creeped out by the whole idea:
“…See that landspeeder parked behind you?”
Den looked behind him. “Yes.”
“Call it the past.”
The Sullustan frowned. “Why?”
“Because it’s behind you. See that trash bin ahead of you? That’s the future.”
“For you, maybe. I try to be more optimistic.”
— Coruscant Nights: Street of Shadows
This, of course, affects the way Cephalons communicate. They say things that sound oracular, spacey and downright bizarre. And therein lies the “fun” for a writer. What sort of mysteries can be folded up in the alien dialogue, or hidden in a simple twitch of a tentacle? How will the way this alien is made affect how he relates to the cosmos and to other beings? How will the way he relates to the cosmos affect how he communicates with those other beings?
Therein lies the next entry in the Padawan’s Journal: Warbling in Wookiee and other unique communication experiences
Go to Maya’s bookshelf.