As a teenager I remember being wowed by Larry Niven’s ‘known space’ stories, including his Ringworld novels.
Looking back, though, I’m not so sure about his aliens. He had two main ones – the Puppeteers and the Kzin. At the time they were pretty cool. Up until the mid-1960s, most (good) aliens basically looked human, albeit with a lobster glued to their foreheads or pointy ears or something. The bad aliens, inevitably, were also humanoid but dogged with googly eyes or similar (think: Metaluna mutant from This Island Earth).
The problem was that the idea of other sentient species looking exactly like a single type of Earth creature, out of all the millions of species Earth has produced, was a bit anthropocentric of us.
Niven seemed to get around that, at least by 1960s standards. His aliens riffed off the idea of carnivorous creatures being aggressive – and herbivores being skittish and frightened.
From this emerged the Kzin: sentient, bipedal cats – carnivores with an aggressive warrior culture, apparently befitting their carnivorous nature. The Puppeteers were even stranger: herbivores with two ‘heads’ (neither carrying the brain) with mouths doubling as hands. They were cowards – very smart cowards whose defences included trading with everybody, manipulating their potential enemies – usually through deal-making – and building spaceships with indestructible hulls. Niven always hinted that they also had the means to destroy anything that attacked them.
All of this sounded like a good escape from endless aliens who looked human apart from the eyebrows.
But in fact Niven’s aliens still riffed off Earth biology – the carnivore/herbivore split. They were also anthropocentric. The Kzin’s aggressive nature was always put down to their being cat-like carnivores. Actually their nature was very, very human. They were portrayed as having senses of honour; of always attacking before they were ready – seeking revenge – and having a society where status flowed from success in combat. That’s human.
Cats (of all kinds, from lions to domestic felines) don’t behave like the Kzin. They behave like cats, which means they spend a lot of time sleeping or sitting in vantage points looking around.
The same’s true of the Puppeteers whose manipulative and trading behaviours reflected an aspect of humanity – not an aspect of being a cow or a deer. Although I think Niven got the danger of herbivores right. You realise the most lethal wild animal in Africa isn’t a lion – it’s a hippo. They kill a lot more humans than lions do. Why? Well…
However, when you look at a hippo or – for that matter – a bull, it’s also clear that the schtik of ‘carnivorous’ equating to ‘aggressiveness’ and ‘herbivorous’ equating to ‘defensiveness’ doesn’t ring true at all.
My take – as always – is that an alien is going to be – well, alien. It might not match anything we know or recognise at all. In fact, it almost certainly won’t. And I think the onus is on sci-fi writers to imagine aliens accordingly.
The challenge, of course, is being able to convey that strangeness without alienating your readership (Geddit? Alienating your readership?).
If you want to check out my own take on weird aliens, it’s in my novella ‘Missionary’ – one of seven stories by seven great authors in the first Endless Worlds compilation. Out on Kindle and in paperback.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016