Feb 262009

I’m an avid reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I also enjoy the occasional scientific text for those of us who aren’t physicists or biologists. I’m also (to the surprise of many) not a big Star Trek fan.

And I have a bone to pick with certain SF television shows and movies and what they’ve done to the collective unconscious as far as alien life is concerned.   No, not just Star Trek is guilty of this, I know.  It’s a broader problem.

It seems that these various institutions consider aliens to be . . . pretty much just like you and I. The average badly imaged SF alien is just some guy with a thin coat of blue paint on and a few candy corns stuck in various places. They’re typically motivated by extremely un-alien emotions, like jealousy, rage, greed or love.

I mean, these are aliens we’re talking about, right? Isn’t one of the very definitions of ‘alien’ to be unlike a human in just about every way? so why is it that aliens are constantly portrayed like futuristic Blue Meanies? One argument I get a lot is it’s a problem with the budget.

Sure not everyone has a couple of million bucks to blow on spectacular CG effects. But when it comes right down to it, I think that’s a pretty lame excuse.

Take an extremely alien, cold, almost unthinking killing machine that will stop at nothing to bring down the protagonists – not because it’s evil, not because it’s motivated by revenge, but because it’s hungry. Doesn’t that sound just a little alien to you? Now think about what this thing would look like. It can move fast, exists in an element that’s toxic to humans yet that we insist on invading, and it’s big. Four, five times the size of you or me easily. It’s been spending millions of years evolving into a super predator. Think that would be a tough creature to make? A hard one to portray? Well Steven Spielberg did it with a few hundred pounds of leaky rubber in a little movie called Jaws.

Bruce (the shark in Jaws) has more alien qualities than most on-screen aliens I’ve ever met. And Spielberg did a well thought out, tense, well paced and suspenseful movie while barely showing Bruce to us at all! I think that does pretty well for the budget argument for lame aliens.

Perhaps another reason aliens are portrayed as so human is that it’s really, really hard to think like something other than a human. Really. Give it a try. Think about what you’re life would be as a giant, ambulatory hot dog. Or a scattering of energy across a million miles of void. That’s not easy. It’s doable with some heavy creative energy and a lot of work, but easy it’s not.

Even scientists fall prey to this. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I’m watching some show on the Science channel and a scientist type comes on and says “no life could possibly exist on a planet like this.”

When they say that no life could possibly exist on this planet, what they really mean is no Earth like life could exist there. They say nothing of a silicon based entity name Vrokkkth who subsists on radiation and completes a single thought in the span of a year.

What about sentient robots that have self evolved. I mean come on, I’m just one guy with a passion for neat things and no one is giving me a budget to produce massive SF films. Can’t someone else think like this?

Or maybe they don’t want to. The kinds of aliens that I’m talking about (both the human/alien and the alien/alien) abound in modern Science Fiction, so why not on the movie screen? Perhaps it’s because the people in charge of making movies – by this I mean those who hold the purse strings, think that we the movie going public are just too dumb to want that.

[tags]alien, aliens, SF, science fiction, literature, movies[/tags]

About Ben

I'm a geek. A nerd, a dweeb, whatever. Yes I owned garb, yes I still own medieval weaponry. And yeah, I could kick your butt in Mechwarrior the CCG. I love video games, role playing games, tactical board games and all forms of speculative fiction. I will never berate someone for wanting to be a Jedi and take everything Gary Gygax ever wrote as gospel. Well, all of this but that last bit.

  9 Responses to “They’re called aliens for a reason”

  1. Budget is a major problem for ongoing shows, movies is another matter but how could you say that high budget movies hadn’t accomplished this? Look at “The Mist,” albeit a bad movie plot but it had reasonably thought out alien diversity. Also consider ID4 (“Independence Day”) or even some of the better ideas from Stargate and Star Trek (alien whale that eats star ship energy anyone?).

    The problem with the argument is that intelligent life has to evolve to develop star ships in order to become alien life. To do this you will have to build something. Most industrious beings are either very small with limited intelligence or big animals with more intelligence but have 2 arms with hands and fingers attached for manipulating items. We can reasonably assume that you need fingers to build space ships (bolts are small). You also can’t be slimy or else electronics won’t work well. You have to be flexible enough to fit into tight spaces, so the central star-shaped configuration of humans is best. And you shouldn’t have extra extremities or else you’d be giving up nutrients that would otherwise power your intelligence. 2 arms and 2 legs is the most efficient.

    The big question is would other intelligent life stand or crawl on all fours? Would they have eyes and nose in similar positions? Would reproductive organs be in similar places, and would they have live birth? We can assume that live birth provides the most nutrients, resulting in a smarter animal so maybe live birth is universal. We can also assume that their anus is far away from their mouths (for hygienic reasons). We should assume that they have more than 1 eye, ear, and possibly nostril because our bodies tend to have a built-in redundancy when it’s appropriate. Redundancy on hearts and brains would cause the same problem as extra appendages, so it’s ruled out. They would probably eat meat because it provides the most protein for intelligence evolution.

    With all of this we can only assume that a life form that can travel through space in a space ship must look somewhat similar to us in many ways.

  2. If a planet were similar enough to our own to support human life, then it’s a possibility that life similar to humans could evolve. It’s a big universe and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the far, far distant future we’d meet them. I just don’t think that the amount of humanoid species would be a numerous in pop Sci-fi. But remember the words of Mr. Spock, “It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.”

  3. […] They’re called aliens for a reason | Troll in the CornerI’m an avid reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I also enjoy the occasional scientific text for those of us who aren’t physicists or biologists. I’m also (to the surprise of many) not a big Star Trek fan. […]

  4. I loved this essay and I wrote one I thought you might like on the related subject of aliens and racism.


  5. You’ve got two reasons for the lame excuses… But I really think that the main reason why aliens in the movies look much like of humans, or should I say, don’t look like aliens, is that we really don’t know what aliens really look like. And the fact that we haven’t seen one, we don’t have any idea what they actually look like. We just have to wait for Steven Spielberg to be able to get a chance to see a real alien. By that time, he will be able to create a realistic alien movie.

  6. Hah! I was ranting at my friend about this just yesterday! He’s playing a game full of aliens, and they’re all just slightly disproportioned humans! And ALL THE FEMALE ALIENS HAVE BREASTS! “At least Star Trek has the budget excuse,” I was quick to point out, “but this is just a total lack of imagination!” my friend mumbled something about how they were all motion capture, and I mumbled something about, “Oh yeah well maybe… I guess…but still…imagination!”

    What really bugs me is I’ve been watching Doctor Who, and they’ll go 5 BILLION YEARS IN THE FUTURE, and the ONLY thing that’s changed is the cars are flying. Seriously!? Heck, just 100 years from now I doubt things will be recognizable! You think humans will still have to sleep? Or even remain attached to our bodies? I give it 25 years before some sort of “augmented reality vision” is considered an essential part of life, where the web and real life become intertwined (we’re seriously almost there already).

    I’d just love to see some sci-fi flick or show that wasn’t just, “It’s the future, and it’s the same, but also spaceships and lasers.” I’m sure there’s some pretty darn out-there literature… I should see if I can find it.

  7. The fact that we haven’t seen one, we don’t have any idea what they actually look like. We just have to wait for Steven Spielberg to be able to get a chance to see a real alien. By that time, he will be able to create a realistic alien movie.

  8. I think this can be done well or done poorly, but in order for an alien race to get out among the stars, it has to have some sort of motivation. And when encountered by humans, humans will see the alien motivation in human terms.

    For example, a shark-like race might develop ways to manipulate matter as a way of competing with each other for resources, leading to the survival of those best able to manipulate matter. They would need to be able to find mates and protect their own offspring. Going into space, they would be motivated by thoughts like “I have to do this so my mate and offspring will be safe” or “That is one hot shark-like alien, I must have him/her/third gender pronoun!” or “This monument means that I OWN this planetoid, and anybody who messes with me is @#$#ed”. Humans encountering them are likely to interpret those thoughts as protectiveness, love, jealousy, greed, arrogance, et cetera.

    If the shark-like aliens have enough social cohesiveness to join a galactic society, they are likely to predominately drift into roles suited for their instincts. Humans who might only encounter one or a small group of these aliens are likely to take the first group they encounter, and generalize for the whole race, even though if they took the time to get to know the whole race, they’d see a much broader spectrum of shark-like alien behavior.

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