All too often, television and films have depicted alien races as either shapeless blobs bent on wholesale destruction or else human actors with wrinkled noses or pointed ears. Alas, printed media have not proved immune to such generic and often salacious depictions. Fortunately, enough science fiction (and fantasy, if elves, talking dragons and the like are “aliens”) authors have either the scientific training or the resourcefulness and imagination to do careful research. Both genres abound in well-crafted intelligent nonhuman species. Much has been written on the topic of “how to design a really alien alien,” and it is one of my favorite convention panel topics.
When I set out to create an alien race for Jaydium, however, I hadn’t participated or listened to many discussions. I had some guidance, but felt mostly on my own.
At that time, aspiring writers were encouraged to use check lists in developing alien races and their cultures. I find check lists singularly unappealing! They remind me of a conversation I overheard while standing in line to register for my first convention: a person was holding forth (quite loudly and in excruciating detail) about a world he had created. My reaction was twofold: first, that I had never and could never design such an intricately-described place; second (which kept me from utter despair about my own writing) there was no story there.
My aliens arose from my writing process. That is, I started with the forward momentum of the story, the characters under stress, the unstable setting, the cascading sequence of events that led inexorably to a climax. Only when I understood the demands of the story did I know what questions to ask. I realized fairly early in the writing process that the mineral jaydium was the result of the destruction of a wonderful civilization, a sort of cataclysmically-metamorphic rock with special properties. I wanted my characters to be faced with a choice of attempting to save that civilization (at the risk of there being no jaydium, and hence no way to get home) or to let the tragic events unfold. This led me to ponder, What kind of civilization? Created by what kind of beings?
Since I loved invertebrate zoology in college, I used the gastropod family as a model. In doing so, I violated a slew of biological realities (including the limits on size of creatures that don’t have skeletons, internal or external, as well as the limiting rate of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange). And yet, what I did worked. No one, not even my professor (to whom I presented a copy) railed at me for scientific idiocy.
Part of the reason, I believe, is that although my gastropoids were far from technically perfect, they formed an integral part of their world. I made them partly-understood, neither completely divorced from the reader’s experience nor too-explained, too-familiar. I’d thought through how their secretions are used as building materials, their aquatic and dry-land functioning, their reproductive biology and its affect on their individual relationships, and their mode of communication.
However — and this is crucial — I didn’t bash the reader over the head with everything I’d worked out. The gastropoids and their culture are experienced through the eyes of our human castaways, who of course are not going to be handed a textbook of alien physiology. As our viewpoint characters interacted with the gastropoids, I gave the reader enough information to understand what is going on, but not an overpowering, indigestible treatise.
Lessons: Respect your own creative process, whether organic or tightly planned. Respect your reader’s intelligence and patience. Cut to the chase.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing fantasy and science fiction professionally since 1982. Her first novel, a space adventure written under her former name, Deborah Wheeler, is now available as an ebook from Book View Cafe Press. Read her latest collaboration with Marion Zimmer Bradley, the Darkover novel Hastur Lord.