Aliens as Characters in Science Fiction

Explicitly Out of this World Characters

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Aliens are beings from another planet, thus why they are also referred to as extraterrestrials.

We have yet to discover aliens in the Universe. However, in science fiction literature and films, they are stock characters, even protagonists.

Horror has its monsters, fantasy has its dragons and elves. Sci-fi has its aliens.

Aliens both fascinate and frighten us, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, whether we are alone or not in the Universe it is equally terrifying.

It does not matter whether they are Martian or Venusian, Jovian or Saturnian, from the Andromeda galaxy, Cygnus A, or the Triangulum galaxy, wherever human explorers go, they are likely to find aliens in sci-fi.

the friendly, pacific aliens from James Cameron’s film Avatar

Besides, you could not write a first contact story without aliens to contact with.

But, how does humanity has imagined alien beings? What purpose have they served as characters? Why are we fascinated by them? In what direction should authors take them?

Can you write sci-fi on other planets without aliens? Furthermore, what are stories about aliens truly about?

Previously, we explored alien beings as monsters in horror stories. Today, we will explore aliens as science-fictional stock characters.

The Alien as a Metaphor

Star Trek’s Nibiran alien race is a metaphor for the colonization of indigenous people

Science fiction works best when it is allegorical. And what better metaphor than the alien. But, a metaphor for what?

The controversial and influential editor John W. Campbell used to tell his writers he was not interested in stories about aliens as protagonists, that the focus should be on the human characters.

Although a limiting perspective, I agree. Humanity and the human question should be front and center in science fiction.

We should be asking, what is our place in the universe?

Moreover, if we encounter aliens, how would we react? How would we cope?

In most stories, the alien is a metaphor for otherness. Hence, the author can write freely about controversial topics using the alien as a stand-in for women, the foreign, minorities, the underclass, etc.

Alien experimenting on a human. Pinterest

Similarly, the alien had been a metaphor for socio-political ills too.

Whether it is colonialism, communism, nazism, etc. Thus we get those stories about alien invasions and conquering monsters depleting our resources.

In a sense, alien beings are the ultimate invasive species.

They arrive from far away and land on our planet, unannounced, seeking to oppress us.

Conversely, whenever we arrive on their planets, we try to communicate with them, study them, and engage in cultural exchange.

Do you see the problem with that?

We the humans always the “good” guys; the alien always the villain of the story. Are there alternative ways of looking at them?

A Reinterpretation of Old Tropes?

Doctor Who’s Ood alien race, ©BBC

Alien beings seem like such a modern literary invention. However, it is not. Ancient people wondered if they were alone in the universe too.

As far as Lucien of Samosata in the 2nd century speculated about life on other planets. Tenth-century Japanese folk tales told stories about Moon princesses.

Francis Godwin (1638), Cyrano de Bergerac (1656), and Jonathan Swift (1726) wrote about travels to other populated planets.

However, I consider Voltaire‘s Micromégas (1752) the true precursor of alien beings in fiction.

First, he is not aiming for philosophical debate and satire. Second, his “aliens” are more advanced than humans. Third, the visiting aliens are from Sirius and Saturn, not our moon.

Steven Spielberg’s ET: the Extraterrestial, perhaps cinema’s most beloved alien

Regardless of the origin of the modern alien in science fiction, we can look at them as a modern reinterpretation of old fantasy tropes.

Whether the alien is a xenomorph, a shapeshifter, a reptilian, a simian, a humanoid, benevolent, or a conqueror, a cuddly monster like E.T. or Alf, a passive observer judging humanity, or a hive-mind collective intelligence type, they are new names to old fantasy creatures.

In effect, elves, dragons, ogres, orcs, angels, demons, gnomes, and djinns by other names.

Furthermore, from that perspective, the alien being is not an “other”. It is something else.

The Alien as a Point of Reference

DC’s Kilowog from the Green Lantern Corps is one of the many aliens as superheroes in comics

We can write science fiction in outer space without aliens and it can be entertaining. Hard science fiction usually discards aliens for future evolved humans.

Conversely, you could not have space opera without dozens of alien races in competition with each other.

Alien beings are fascinating to readers and writers for these reasons:
  1. They serve multiple plot purposes. They can be friends, allies, enemies, monsters, competitors, even love interests.
  2. A cultural and biological referential. Whether they are humanoid because of parallel evolution or completely different because, for example, they evolved in a higher gravity, tidally locked planet, they show us how life on Earth could have been under different conditions.
  3. They are not human, and yet, unlike unicorns, scientifically possible.

sexy green alien female, Pinterest

How do we imagine the alien and their purpose is up to the writers and how it serves the story they are trying to tell.

Perhaps I exaggerate but third-gender, sex-changing aliens like those found on Ursula Le Guin’s Hannish Universe did so much for feminism, queer and transgender rights by simply allowing us to divorce sex from gender and imagine different sexualities.

Again, that is just one example.

Nonetheless, science fiction is full of them. The possibility of imagining what could be our future is what makes it compelling.

Our Relationship with Alien Beings in Fiction

image: Tumblr

Nevertheless, our relationship with aliens in sci-fi (as in real life) walks a thin line between fear and infatuation.

For instance, if we ever discover aliens, there would be a mix of fellowship and competition–as well as a hell of a lot of mistrust from each other. Again, Arthur C. Clarke‘s warning.

Thus, if we think about what direction modern authors would take the alien trope, it will result in whatever readers need.

Our great-grandparent’s generations got the bug-eye monsters. Their generation had a black and white morality.

Our grandparents got the UFO driving, human abducting ones. The Cold War period was full of paranoia.

Meanwhile, our parent’s generation got the Star Trek/Star Wars-type of alien: sexy, beautiful, brave, reluctant team member against an evil Empire. A suitable metaphor for a dog-eat-dog capitalist society.

the unforgettable aliens from Arrival, based on a short story by Ted Chiang

Our current generation craves diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. No wonder space opera is making a comeback.

Except, in the end, the alien as a character is a metaphor not so much for “the other” but for us, human readers.

You could argue each generation gets the aliens they deserve.

I pray if aliens are real, they show more kindness and humanity than humanity. That they are as emotionally advanced as technologically advanced. Otherwise, we are doomed.

Maybe we are alone in the universe. Maybe we are not. Either way, read more science fiction. It will open a whole universe to explore. No spaceship required, just imagination.

Reader, are you a fan of alien beings in science fiction? Who is your favorite? Share in the comments.

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March 2023