Author Dean Koontz once wrote, in an essay on writing, that aliens should be like ghosts. Now, I don’t remember all of that quote, as I read it way back in the 1980s, but I considered what he said. The best ghosts aren’t from the Ghost Busters movies, or Beetle Juice, or anything like that. They’re from books like “The Turn of the Screw” or films like the original “Uninvited” from the 1940s. Ghosts should be mysterious, frightening, malevolent, unknown and unknowable, bizarre, hidden. And so should aliens be, just like ghosts.
Most aliens, whether in TV shows, films, or books are really just people in costumes. Stuntmen and stuntwomen running around in rubber monster suits.
Most of the best aliens have already been used. The Horta and Medusans from the original Star Trek series. The invisible alien invaders in Stargate: SG 1. A two-dimensional alien in the original Outer Limits series. The wormhole aliens and shapeshifters from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (The wormhole aliens live outside of linear time. You never get to see them except as the memories of various regular characters come to life. And these aliens, who live inside a wormhole, have difficulty understanding linear time and human emotions.)
There are a few other great aliens, usually monsters. The Blob ranks up there near the top. It’s just a micro-organism brought to Earth that has no natural predators and consumes all animal life. It’s always hungry like some sort of space shark.
Then there’s the monster from Alien and Prometheus. It’s a killing machine that doesn’t really see humans as anything other than a target and an occasional incubator for its off-spring.
There’s also the aliens from War of the Worlds (I prefer the 1953 version to the Spielberg remake) and the ones from Independence Day, which is really an alternate version of War of the Worlds, as a computer virus rather than a biological virus does in the aliens.
There’s also the aliens in the 1950s film “It Came from Outer Space”, cool creatures that look like a single big eye and leave a sparkling trail like some sort of alien slug. One of the great effects of that film is looking through the alien’s eye at human beings, made all the better with 3-D photography and glasses.
I’m missing a lot of other cool aliens, I’m sure, but the point with all these aliens is that they’re well-thought out and are mysterious and frightening as can be. And they’re not just humans dressed as monsters running around scaring us.
Aliens need to be alien–different, spooky, unknown and unknowable. Think of bugs. How would you communicate with an ant, or a flea, or a black widow spider? How would you talk to a virus or a bacterium? How would you make peace with a shark, keeping it from eating you and your children? After all, sharks see us as food.
What if we met an alien who communicated through different shades of pigment projected through its flesh? Cuttlefish do that. Related to squids, they may have a language of their own. Who knows? If a tiny Australian spider can rationalize and plan its course of attack on its prey, what makes us more intelligent than any other creature?
How about if travelers from another world or even another universe didn’t have vocal chords? How would you talk to them? What if they were silicon-based and looked like everyday rocks? The Horta from Star Trek was a living rock, and only Spock, a telepathic alien, could communicate with it.
In Science Fiction, we find all kinds of ways to communicate with aliens. The Tardis from Doctor Who allows The Doctor and his companions to talk to all aliens. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series you put a special little alien fish in your ear and it translates alien languages. And in Star Trek, you have a universal translator.
But, how would you actually communicate with an alien without vocal chords, one with flippers or tentacles or claws instead of fingers and therefore unable understand human sign language? One without ears to hear with? Maybe you might find common ground through using the Periodic Table of Elements. Or maybe through the use of basic math or even machine code.
As writers, we have to think about these things. We have to make our aliens alien and not just humans parading around in rubber suits.
In my E-book, Sky Knights, and in my soon to be published E-books, Chaos Company and the sequel I’m writing, Chaos Marines, I created an alien race that resembles the Gorgons of Greek mythology. The difference is that my alien Gorgons have no eyes, no ears, no noses. Their faces have orifices for eating and breathing, but in place of other sensory organs and hair they have hundreds of weaving and wiggling sensory tendrils.
Now, I have to admit that I borrowed some of the ideas for my Gorgons from Star Trek’s Medusan an alien race portrayed in the TV episode as flashing bizarre lights which are so hideous that if humans, or any alien race with eyes, look at the Medusans without a special visor, these humanoid people go insane. But my twist was this question, what if the Gorgons were driven insane by the very existence and physical appearance of humans?
What would they do to overcome the insanity caused by our existence? How about if they sought to destroy us and everything about us, including our buildings and houses, our families, our pets and farm animals, everything that reminded them of our existence? And what if human colonists and Gorgon colonists claimed and shared the same world? What tensions would that create? When would war break out?
That’s the exterior conflict in my stories. The interior conflicts for my human characters is how can they hold on to their own sanity fighting a race that commits such atrocities as chopping living prisoners up with axes or throwing human children from skyscrappers in attempts at catharsis for their intense fears and insanity over humanity’s existence?
Why, you might ask, would the Gorgons do that? Well, when ants invade our homes don’t we poison them? When roaches and black widow spiders invade our homes, don’t we stomp on them? Don’t we swat bees and flies? Don’t we poison gophers, rats and mice? Don’t spray for mosquitoes? Don’t we kill sharks for the threats they impose?
Why would aliens be any different than us in that respect? For us, it would be truly alien for intelligent beings to wantonly kill us because we are different. Yet wouldn’t some of us do the same thing if encountering a ravenous blob or the creatures from Independence Day?
Think about it.