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When Aliens Attack!

I've just had a new story, "Pedagogy," published in the anthology I, ALIEN edited by Mike Resnick (DAW Books).

The theme of the anthology is stories written from the first person point of view of an alien, and I wrote the story back in February 2003. (Anthologies often have a lot of lead time.) The publication of the book started me thinking about aliens. Aliens are a staple of science fiction stories, but to be honest, I'm not that comfortable writing about them. And so the publication of "Pedagogy" prompted me to survey the aliens I've created, to see what I've done with them.


The first question a writer must ask is, why aliens? What's the point of them? From my own perspective, I've always felt that aliens are there to hold up a mirror to humanity. That's why so many alien races in science fiction seem to be somewhat one-dimensional. Star Trek is a good example of this. Klingons are aggressive, Romulans are sneaky, Bajorans are religious, the Ferengi are greedy -- in all cases, a human trait is exaggerated to create a generic behavior for an alien race. And, I'm sorry to note, a lot of my aliens have been rather one-dimensional as well.

For a while now, I've been claiming that the first alien I created was in "Escape Horizon" (Analog, March 2000), a story I published five years into my writing career (if I can be so immodest as to refer to a handful of short stories as a career). The alien in that story was primarily a plot device; I needed to provide my human characters with a superdense material that could be used for spaceship hulls, so they could be protected from the tidal effects of diving close to black holes. My protagonist competes in black hole diving, which has become a popular spectator sport in the future. The alien race in the story are the ones who had developed this technology, and the one alien character, Bleen of the Pookrah, is a conniving, greedy businessman whose main concern is the money he can make off of good publicity when my protagonist cheats by using a new material he's developed for hulls.

However, looking back at my stories I now realize that the first alien I actually created was the spider in "The Spider in the Hairdo" (Urban Nightmares, edited by Keith R.A. DeCandido and Josepha Sherman, Baen Books, November 1997). I tend to think of that story as more of a horror story than science fiction, and I also avoid re-reading it, as the ending gives me the creeps. But the main character of that story is an alien spider from a dying planet, sent to our planet to recreate its own race. Her own motivation is simply survival, and nowhere do I really explain anything else about her race. Of course, I was dealing with the inherent limitations of a short story written for a horror anthology.

The next aliens I created were in collaboration with Shane Tourtellotte, for our novella "Bug Out!" which had the cover of the July/August 2001 Analog. Those aliens, the Alulans, never appear front-and-center in the story. The story is about a human base hidden on the aliens' moon, and how the humans have to evacuate when the aliens they've been watching finally develop a space program. We wrote a sequel to the story, in which we see the same events from the aliens' perspective. Those aliens, who call themselves the trepna, are probably the most fleshed-out aliens I've ever helped to create, but sadly, the story never sold. Shane and I have considered expanding the two stories into a novel, but for the moment we've moved onto other projects.

Moving on, I created the Leyens for "The Great Miracle" (Analog, December 2001), my science fiction Chanukah allegory. The Leyens have conquered humanity and attempted to assimilate us by creating Leyen-Human hybrids. My human characters fight back and manage to retake the Earth. Once again, rather one-dimensional aliens; I don't think they ever even appear on stage.

However, the hybrid concept seems to have appealed to me, for I reused it in "The New Breed" (Men Writing Science Fiction As Women, edited by Mike Resnick, DAW Books, November 2003). In that future, a race called the Nivronians have conquered Earth, and have forced humanity to provide women to breed human-Nivronian hybrids. Again, the aliens never appear on stage, but frankly, for this story, I was more concerned with the conceit of writing a story from the first person point of view of a female character. I have to admit that I have great affection for my protagonist (named Melissa Connor) and her plight, and I hope to revisit her one day.

I just realized that one more story of mine has aliens in it, but they're a surprise, so I won't mention the story by name. I will note, however, that they fall into the stereotypical category of aliens who are peaceful and know better than we do that our destructive tendencies will get us into trouble.

Which leads to my last two stories that feature aliens. The first one, "Pedagogy," I've already mentioned. Xerpers Fromlilo, a member of the lizard-like Tenjant race, has come to Earth to teach science to human children. In a way, the story could be read as a metaphor for the way that adults and children are always aliens to each other. But again, the alien race is not very well-defined, except in its differences with humans. Xerpers makes it clear that the Tenjant are much more concerned with the education of their children than humans are.

And finally, we have "Sanctuary," which is scheduled for the September 2005 issue of Analog.

I just finished going over the galleys for "Sanctuary," so it's very fresh in my mind. This is one of those stories that I have quite literally been working on for years. The earliest version of this story I have in my files dates from the summer of 2001. The premise of the story is simple: a Catholic priest is asked by an alien for sanctuary. I had this image of a priest giving sanctuary to an alien on a spaceship, or in a space station, and having to justify doing so to his superiors and to the alien's pursuers until events come to a crisis.

To write this story, of course, I needed to know why the alien would come to a priest for sanctuary. And so I've had to create an entire future society, including a political structure, a slightly altered future version of Catholicism...and an alien race. And so I created the Stanquel.

The Stanquel are an insectoid-looking race (there's that surface appearance thing) that have one interesting and vital biological characteristic. All of their children are born as identical twins. An intelligent race that breeds in this manner will soon fill their planet, since births could increase the population at an exponential rate. So I decided that many years in the past, a prophet in their midst declared that God only wanted one of each pair of brothers or sisters to breed, and to do so only once. The other sibling would choose not to breed, thus obeying God's will.

Perhaps it's easy to see where this is going. I don't think it will ruin the story to reveal that my main Stanquel character, a female named Zwaren, requests sanctuary because her sister has already had children, and now she herself is pregnant and wants to bring her own children to term...

With the exception of the Alulans/trepna, I think the Stanquel are the most fleshed-out aliens I've created up until now. I'm looking forward to seeing them in print. And I hope that, as with all things, that with each story I'm getting a little better at what I do.

Comments

I've often felt that the best person for a First Contact situation would be a mother; there's little more alien than an infant. Preferably a mother of an autistic child, or one with a disability that matches the alien's physiology.
Michael, looks like you have a story...

I can send you some old APA entries from when my kids were little for 'research purposes.'
Heck, I'll do you one better. I have five children I can send you for research purposes. They range form 9 to 22 years old, so you can experience a vast timeline of development.. though I have to say, the two 13 yr olds (or any teenager) is more alien than you can imagine..

I think I shall pass on having people send me either APA entries or their children...
Nice retrospective. Very interesting and it is good to take a step back and examine every now and again.

I love Butler's aliens in the stories I've read. Very creepy and alien.

Zhaneel
Octavia Butler? Can you recommend any specific stories? I need to read more of her work.
In all my excitment of trying to ship my children away I forgot to congratulate you on another publication, Michael. Wow, over a two year wait, that has to be a little unsettling, but congratulations!
I like the idea about the Stanquel a lot. But from the basic premise of all children being identical twins, it seems to me that the overpopulation issue would be less significant than the fact that everyone has a doppleganger. There's a lot of interesting things to consider about identical twins, like how they develop their own mini-languages, from baby-talking to each other; how they develop similar traits even when raised apart, etc. There could be interesting psychological effects, like the aliens considering themselves each to be half of a whole, and thinking of the twin pair as the more significant entity.

As for overpopulation, well. For most of human history, women had children every year or two, resulting in as many as 10 or 12 over their life times. Our population is determined more by our medical and farming technologies, than by our birth rates.

Another thing to consider is that, assuming a man-woman pair, every female needs to have two children, in order to maintain the population: one to replace her, and one to replace her husband.

Just thoughts.
A lot of these things are "iceberg" ideas, stuff which I've fleshed out about the Stanquel but which does not appear explicitly in the story, only under the surface.

Good thoughts.
I look forward to reading it in September!
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