It is hard to avoid cliché when creating an alien. In a gravity different to Earth, they could be taller or shorter; their atmosphere may be completely different; they may have contrasting food sources and will no doubt support disparate microbiomes which may have in turn channelled their features. Carbon-based lifeforms are mostly likely according to the higher echelons of SETI, but that doesn’t mean to say other forms are unlikely. Many authors use silicon as the predominant building block for life, although silicon-based compounds are inherently more unstable, and other elements even more so. In any case, it seems when considering this, they will be unlike us in any shape or form. But is this strictly true?
We have seen so-called biological or physical attractors in evolution on our planet. Look at how the octopus eye and human eye, have developed independently along completely different evolutionary pathways – a phenomenon known as convergent evolution. Are humanoids clichés or an inevitability? I tend to think the latter. This isn’t to say there won’t be other differences, although it is a presumption based on a carbon-based lifeform, which has evolved in a similar ‘Goldilocks’ zone to Earth. This could explain why we see so many humanoids in SF, for example in series like Banks’ Culture.
So should aliens be feared or should we be grateful for their presence? If aliens do ever make contact, they would be of a technological level parallel to ours, if not more advanced. There is a good chance, if they aren’t intent on destroying us, that they may be able to help us out; maybe even let us piggy back on some of their technologies, such as McAuley’s Jackaroo. This doesn’t mean to say they won’t want something from us, whether it be elements of our culture, or at least, a calm, focused approach to their presence. Humanity doesn’t have a great record when it comes to dealing with members of our own species, let alone others. Could this be one of the reasons why they haven’t yet contacted us?
This brings me to Fermi’s paradox, the contradiction that given the four hundred billion stars out there in our galaxy, there is a high probability some must harbour civilisation, so why don’t we know about them? Is there an alien race out there, truly to be feared, like Reynolds’ Inhibitors, which extinguish everything as soon as it starts propagating beyond certain pre-defined limits? Have their civilisations blossomed and died already on the vast canvas that is space and time, such as those which created the cylinder of Rama? Is it because we inhabit a part of the Milky Way lacking enough dark matter for subspace transport? Or are we simply too immature as a species, too intolerant and irrational to intelligently deal with them?
It seems highly likely that aliens are out there, somewhere, or maybe even moving amongst us. Whether they will be able to help us or thwart us as a species is likely to depend on how we react to their presence. But until they make themselves known to us, we have to rely on conjecture, and sometimes fantasy. In the meantime, they can make good stories and help explain elements of ourselves, preparing us for that moment which will shake us a species, but perhaps bring out the best in us.
Banks, I. M. Consider Phlebas. Macmillan. 1987
Clarke, A. C. Rendezvous with Rama. Gollancz. 1973
McAuley, P. Something Coming Through. Gollancz. 2015
McGhee, G R. Convergent evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful. Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge (MA). 2001
Reynolds, A. Revelation Space. Gollancz. 2000
Shostak, S. The bricks of life: exploring the idea of alien chemistry @ teamSETI.org. 2004
Guy T Martland’s SF novel ‘The Scion’ is out now from Safkhet Fantasy. He admits to hedging his bets on the nature of aliens, the novel featuring both apocalyptic creatures, intent on destroying all life, as well as those with a more benevolent disposition. And there are some humans too.
About the Author
Guy's stories have been published in various places, including Noesis, Xenos, Lexikon, Jupiter SF, Bento Box and Albedo 2.0. He is an alumnus of the Milford SF course. He has also occasionally been known to publish poetry.
He lives in Bournemouth, close to where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a few miles from where Mary Shelley is buried. Also living under the same roof are his fiancée Darya and a grumpy Scottish fold cat called Gordon.
At 6'8" Guy is one of the tallest Science Fiction writers in the world. He can sometimes be seen riding around Bournemouth and Poole dressed in unfashionable fluorescent clothing on an extremely large bicycle, which has been likened to a gate. On Friday evenings he usually scrapes away at a 19th century fiddle with a local orchestra, before going to the pub to sink a few pints of Boondoggle. His collection of vinyl records is extensive, and he has a Cure T-shirt for every day of the fortnight.
About the Book
The Scion by Guy T Martland
The aliens from your nightmares are coming. The colonies of Earth are next. And it looks like nothing can stop them.
A blue star, a dying friend, a kidnap and the dusty contents of an old room: Septimus Esterhazy’s life is about to change. As he blows cobwebs from the manual of an old spacecraft, hidden for decades, a Pandora’s box creaks open.
Little does he know that the universe’s very nature is being threatened by a powerful alien race. Nor does he know that he is somehow involved with why the Wraith, destroyers of worlds, are coming.
The self-proclaimed ‘Protectors of the Known Universe’, the Sassrit, are trying to do everything they can to thwart a Wraith attack. But time is running out and resources are stretched.
A Sassrit agent, one of the shapeshifting Jarthiala, is recruited to help. The path he follows leads to the doorstep of a planet called D, an Earth colony, above which a blue star hangs, its light reflected in the eyes of Septimus below.
This is a journey which will change Septimus Esterhazy forever. It will make him question his nature. He will uncover secrets about his family that have lain dormant for years. And it will test the loyalty of those closest to him.
But first he has to watch his best friend die.
The swirling, towering clouds of black which had gathered on the horizon didn’t look right. A writhing movement within them suggested something else, something more organic than a simple weather pattern. Bolts of lightning flickered from the cumuli, lightning that seemed to harness the entire colour spectrum: red one minute, purple the next, then an iridescent green. The light was reflected in the eyes of the onlookers on the shingle beach ridge, who cheered as one of the first warships roared overhead, heading into the fray.
Khail’s fear had escalated to a level where it was now numbness at the back of his mind. He knew better than most what these creatures could do. He’d seen their devastation first hand. But it was only now, standing on this beach and seeing them with his own eyes, that he knew it meant the probable end for Arkenthria. As if to mark this thought, the warship was hit by a sheet of lightning and exploded. A gasp of shock rippled through the crowd. The ensuing ball of fire arced onto the broiling sea, flames dancing over its surface until they were eventually extinguished by the waves.
His fellow Arkenthrians watched aghast as the eldritch cloud continued its approach unabated. Khail wondered how many actually knew what this was about, how he and his team had brought this upon them all. Would they be standing next to him in solidarity if they knew? The images of the mangled spacecraft - those that had made it - limping back to their planet had been broadcast to every home, as had the ceremonies for those lost. And then the images of the creatures which had done this, images that had struck terror into the heart of the planet, had filled their screens. The research on the creatures since the first attacks had been widely publicized: Khail’s department.
They’d gathered to face the oncoming disaster calmly, in unison, in a defiant although probably futile gesture. His wife stood to the left, his arm draped over her shoulder. She watched, eyes glued to the horizon. His two boys stood on either side, slightly confused by the adults’ strange behavior.
A blind man stood nearby, a priest, kissing the hands of the devoted in a final act of absolution. A strong gust of wind caught the man’s robes, flapping them around his thin body, before his tail whipped out to flick them back into place. Someone next to him then began to jump around in a spontaneous dance, a man from the local hippy commune. Nearby acolytes began to copy his motions, crunching around on the stones.
Khail shook his head, overcome with a desire to laugh. His scientific thinking was at odds with these people’s thoughts, sometimes even at odds with his wife’s more ‘spiritual view’ on life. He tried to contain it, but something inside burst, deep rolls of laughter booming out of his barrel chest. As people turned to look, his wife instinctively nudged him in the ribs. Her desire for them to fit in at such a time seemed to him more inappropriate than his outburst. But he stopped himself, the laughter replaced by a wave of sadness which crashed down, smothering everything. He turned around to look at the other faces, most of whom were staring ahead, waiting for the end, as they solemnly watched two more of Arkenthria’s prize warships get swatted out of the way of the incoming clouds.
Mixed emotions still ran through him when he thought of the strange man, the alien Huwred. He could hardly bring himself to think of his name - if that indeed was his name - but found himself looking up into the heavens, willing him away from the planet, hoping he’d escaped. There were bigger things afoot here than Arkenthria, this Huwred had made him see that. There was a whole delicate tapestry out there, mysteries woven into its fabric; mysteries that he, Khail would now never see. At least Huwred had shown him that, and had shown him how important a part he’d played in the whole thing. He’d just been too late to save his own planet, to save Arkenthria.
The clouds started to approach with greater speed as they scudded across the ocean, but the perspective looked wrong. The sun remained hidden in the overcast sky, a faint bright blur in their cover. As they approached, they ceased to be clouds and became an edgy swarm: thousands of black winged creatures, swirling around with a furious energy. Their wings and talons were clear, but their torsos were blurs of darkness, hurting the eye when it tried to focus. People on the beach began to wail, plaintive sounds that seemed to carry the basest human emotions in their tone. The cries of a small child rose in reply, clearly oblivious to what lay ahead, but detecting the growing unease of the surrounding adults. Those who’d started the crazed dancing stopped abruptly.
Part of the cloud burst forward, expelling a shard of coloured fire, which flickered as it tried to hold onto reality, before crashing into the ocean. The impact caused the sea to swell and rise, a wall of water coursing toward the pebbled shore. To Khail, everything seemed to slow, as fear put a brake on time. More buds broke off from the swarm, issuing similar evanescent bolts of flame. Groups of the creatures descended from the heavens, attacking the beach directly.
The sky turned dark as the Wraith swooped over them. The wind ceased, and there was a sudden hush across the water. Then an impression of sound, rising in volume: the clattering of the creatures’ wings, like bones being crushed in an ossuary. Khail closed his eyes, held his head back as the sea exploded onto the beach. He felt a wing glance his cheek and pulled his wife and sons tighter to him. Searing pain scythed across his back and he was thrown forward, his wife and sons torn from his grip. He saw a black talon and glimpsed a blurred, cowled head, mucus dripping from its angry maw. A black flash of pain, followed by the water cracking like a whip, then seconds later, Khail was gone forever.
Space moves inexorably slowly. On its wide canvas, one hundred and twenty six years pass in an instant. And then, in the vicinity of a planet called D, a blue star blossoms into life. At almost exactly the same time, perhaps separated by a few milliseconds, something similar happens in a nearby system. Above a planet called Sanrelick, the natives look up and see a heavenly body bursting into existence, its wavelength the same. However, unlike the inhabitants of D, for those on Sanrelick, this event is something they’ve been expecting. And for some of them, it may be the defining moment of their lives.