On Humanoids in Space

At a recent conference I participated in, our panel talked about world building. One panel member in particular, talked about building alien worlds. Something she said stuck with me and really made me think. Okay, and maybe this is totally obvious, but I’m going to mention it anyway since it made an impact on me.

She said not to make your aliens humanoid.

We all know I’m a Trekkie. Love it. Watch it all the time. And sure, at the end of ST:TNG, they finally give an explanation of why so many of the races they’d encountered were humanoid. DNA had been seeded around the galaxy if I remember correctly; we haven’t gotten that far rewatching the series yet.  But to tell you the truth, it never once bothered me that so many races were humanoid. I didn’t even really need an explanation. Sure, it was a laughing point, but that’s part of the point, right?

Even Isaac Asimov in FOUNDATION had an explanation: everyone originated from Earth (right? it’s been a long time).

If/when I write a space-based novel, I’d almost certainly stick with humanoid aliens. Maybe it’s the easy way out. Maybe it’s easier for the reader to relate to the characters. And if I do this, I’m guessing I’d come up with my own explanation for why the aliens had two arms and two legs and all the other general human features. After all, editors and agents do like the “why” question answered.

So what do you think? Humanoid aliens or not? Which do you like? Which would you write?

pjhoover_casual1 PJ Hoover wonders if humanoid aliens are living among us right now :)

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32 responses to “On Humanoids in Space

  1. Hmm… In visual media I tend to just suspend any disbelief, as long as things are consistent (frex when watching Avatar I kept thinking “why do the Na’vi have four limbs, and all the other fauna on their planet have six?”).

    In books, where we don’t have to worry about SFX budgets, I think it is very cool when authors create completely alien creatures. But you can’t just say they look like giant fuschia spider-apes, and then have them nodding their heads for yes and eating with forks and forming democracies and listening to rock music. You have to provide a whole alien culture that also makes sense. Off the top of my head I can’t think of very many MG/YA sf novels that do that.

    I myself spent a bunch of time thinking about this when writing my third novel (CIRCUS GALACTICUS, tween sf due out in 2011). Part of the reason I was writing it in the first place was to try to capture that feeling that science was cool and that space exploration could be fun and exciting. So at the same time I really wanted to try to make it an accessible story. A down-to-earth story. For me, that meant making my aliens very “human”. So I built an explanation for the similarities into the fabric of the world of the novel and the plot. Hopefully will make sense to readers. I guess I will find out!

    Wow, this ended up much longer than I expected. Thanks for posing this question, PJ! I am curious to hear what others say, and if there are any examples of really well done non-humanoid aliens in YA/MG lit that anyone can recommend.

    • Thanks, Deva!
      So now I’m thinking I need to see Avatar.
      You nailed it when you mention that for non-humanoid aliens, EVERYTHING has to be defined. They may not have heads to nod. They may not have ears. I wonder if all the possible differences that these new worlds would create would be almost too much for the reader, especially in the MG/YA range.
      I’m really looking forward to CIRCUS GALACTICUS!

  2. Pingback: Deva Fagan » Blog Archive » Humanoid Aliens

  3. I think you hit the key point when you said that it is easier for readers to relate to humanoid aliens. If the writer went with something truly imaginary or, example, based on an insect or crustacean life form, it would follow that the emotions and reasoning of such creatures would not follow human development, either. This would turn a relationship/culture-clash story into a mere creature-feature.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Vonna! Relating to the characters is huge. What if the new aliens never experience love? Or fear? What if everything is instinct? This would make relating much harder. Readers love to feel the emotions of the characters.

  4. My husband and I had a discussion about this after we saw Avatar. It does seem like aliens are harder to relate to if they’re not at least somewhat like us, especially when one of “our kind” has a romantic relationship with one of the aliens. Often it seems aliens are non-humanoid when they’re supposed to be evil.

    However, I was thinking about The Left Hand of Darkness (though it’s been a looong time since I read it) and I remember there being a human/alien romance in that book even though the aliens were pretty different from us. Also, A Wrinkle in Time has Aunt Beast, who is pretty far from humanoid. And, finally, there are the Boov in The True Meaning of Smekday, who are both good and bad.

    I’d love to see more sympathetic non-humanoid characters, though. They’re so fun to read about and imagine. And I’d like to think humans can get over ourselves once in a while and consider that other lifeforms might be nothing like us.

    • Oh, you are so right, Anna. So many times the weird looking aliens are the evil ones. Maybe it’s the communication gap which makes them attack?
      I haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness. Do you rec. it? And ditto Smekday, though I know I really should get around to reading that!

  5. Overall, I agree with Deva, I think. Though I’ll toss out Bruce Coville as a writer who’s done a really good job with making aliens seem alien — in the My Teacher series especially, the human protag runs into a variety of aliens that are non-humanoid and very interesting.

  6. This is a great question. I believe that if life does exist on other worlds it is very likely that it would be unlike us in many ways. It might be so alien that we would have a hard time even recognizing it as alive. It might not be intelligent, in our way of thinking about intelligence, or it might far surpass us in intelligence. We might be able to communicate with it, or we might never be able to make the connection.

    Depending on the story, I think aliens can be portrayed as really “other”, but it would be a bit trickier to make them sympathetic to the reader. Think of a story where a human befriends a jellyfish. I think that would be harder to write than a human befriending a chimp or a dog. Still, I think that with the right story and a good writer it would be an interesting challenge. District 9 was able to make creatures that were, at first glance, pretty off-putting into characters that we cared about.

    • Hey Diane! My logical side tells me you are totally correct (unless of course DNA had been seeded around the galaxy). Alien life would have no reason at all to develop into anything humanoid.
      I love your jellyfish example. It would be a huge challenge. So does that mean you’re going to write it? :)

      • Jan

        It was actually Star Trek TOS (the original series) that explained how the humanoid DNA was spread around the galaxy, forever making it cheaper to do aliens :>) It’s not a bad idea, actually . . .

        I like John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale (YA novel from his Old Man’s War adult series) for really good alien – human interaction.

      • Oooh, which episode, Jan? I’d love to rewatch it.

        I was referring to The Next Generation episode from Season 6: The Chase
        Did you see that one?

        And I’ll have to read Zoe’s tale. Thanks for the rec!

  7. Parker Peevyhouse

    Asimov’s THE GODS THEMSELVES has a whole section told from the point of view of a creature from another dimension who is very strange, not humanoid, and yet entirely relatable.

    I think a you could read about a pencil and totally root for it as long as the writer lets us see it’s inwardly human qualities–emotions, motivation, etc.

    • I think I read THE GODS THEMSELVES, Parker, but I’ll have to check my bookshelf. If I did, it was 20 years ago at least.

      Okay, so human qualities on the inside. Hmmm…what gives us our internal human qualities? A pencil has nothing inside that could generate those feeling. But as the writer starts to add things inside to create those feelings (a brain, nerves, skin, the five senses, etc) don’t we start to cross into the physical aspects?

      Fun comment!

      • Great post, PJ. Have to think about it more, but scuba diving and the very, very odd things that live underwater has convinced me that life elsewhere is much more likely to really weird than humanoid. But just as many creatures have senses and systems that we can’t really understand (let’s talk about blind beasties living in ecozones most creatures would find utterly toxic, like undersea volcano vents), they could easily have organs that gave them emotions or motivations or ways to communicate we can hardly grasp, let alone need to parallel ours. I think a story exploring how that was discovered would be fascinating. We can barely admit to ourselves that elephants and dolphins might have emotions and feelings. Jellyfish? But that doesn’t mean that they don’t, just that we haven’t figured how to relate yet. (They figure us out better than we’ve figured them out.)

      • The relation thing is huge, isn’t it, Joni? So the hard task would be getting the non-humanoid aliens and humans to intermix to any level and getting them to communicate.
        Somehow, I have a feeling you would be able to do this. You are a master on communication!
        (which, btw, just read and loved FARWALKER’S QUEST!)
        And no worries on typos :)

  8. Dang, should have proofed that. Too many typos. But you get the idea.

  9. Gef

    If I were writing, I’d almost certainly use a humanoid alien. I’m a Trek fan too, and to hell with scientific authenticity–I want characters I can relate to. Spineless, mouthless amoeba won’t cut it. :)

    I just wonder why so many of them have giant, frikkin’ heads.

  10. I think it’s simply because we can relate better to humanoid aliens. They seem like people instead of some strange space monster.

    And, of course, it would have been weird for Captain Kirk if all those females had been anything but humanoid.

    • So true, Becky! But if anyone could have pulled it off, it would have been Captain Kirk. That man could do anything. He was THE CAPTAIN!

      • Jan

        P.J. – this proves who among us is hopelessly geeky about Star Trek. In “Return to Tomorrow” Spock remarks that an early space-faring race may have seeded the galaxy with proto-Vulcan and Romulans, etc. The TNG episode “The Chase” does indeed flesh out this rationale.

        For the non-geeky among us – TOS means the original series (like classic Coke), then we have TNG, VOY, DS9, ENT and finally the latest version AOS (alternate original series). And this all proves I should be living on the series “Big Bang Theory.”

      • Very cool, Jan! So even back in the sixties they figured out the “why” question was a good one to answer. Thanks for the episode name!

  11. There are plenty of well-established shows and movies featuring aliens who are not just humanoid, but downright human-looking. And often, no explanation is given for their appearance being similar to ours. Just off the top of my head I can think of DOCTOR WHO, STARMAN, ROSWELL, and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH as examples.

    What surprises me is that there is not more of this kind of thing in fiction, particularly in MG and YA fiction. You would think the next logical step after sexy vampire boys and sexy angel boys would be sexy alien boys, wouldn’t you? Apparently not.

  12. And thanks for visiting, btw!

  13. Pingback: Avatar – Big Bucks Create Incredible Movie Experience Via a Compelling Story | Movie Ticket and News

  14. Here they are aliens who mastered illusion…..

  15. Pingback: Is there still a place for humanoid aliens in SF? | Olsen Jay Nelson's SF Author Blog

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