Anyone reading science fiction has most likely bumped into a few alien characters. Now, aliens are tricky to write about. If their form and thought processes are too alien, the readers won’t connect with them. Also, trying to figure out how an alien would look and think is difficult if you’re working from a human brain.
And that’s my assumption for most authors.
I finished reading A Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. This is truly old-fashioned science fiction at its best. The Wayfarer is a patched- up space ship that has seen better days. The captain is offered a lucrative contact to tunnel a wormhole to a far off planet. Human Rosemary Harper is running from her past, and this opportunity to explore the galaxy with beings that know nothing of her family is just what she is looking for.
While Captain Ashby is human, the rest of the crew is an assortment of delightful aliens, along with a sentient computer, named Lovey, that runs the ship. A surprise clone is also thrown in for good measure. You get a delightful dollop of diverse aliens.
However, the trick Ms.Chambers uses to make the aliens connect to the reader is to co-opt familiar animal forms and behaviors found on Earth.
Sissix is their exotic reptilian pilot, complete with lizard tail, who gets traumatized when she starts shedding her skin. Kizzy is the brilliant ADD engineer with feathers, beak, and nesting instinct–definitely of the avian line. Jenks is her dwarfish assistant, born premature, who is in love with the ever-present Lovey. He is saving up his money to buy a body for the AI so he can download her to physical form.
Dr. Chef is a tall affable cook /doctor in the crew who has a multitude of hands/feet and reminds me of Alice in Wonderland’s talking caterpillar. His favorite dish is Rock Bugs, a supposed delicacy. The navigator is a Sianat pair conjoined due to a virus and able to visualize multidimensional space. They have short blue fur, large eyes, long fingers, and other quirks. There are more in the crew, but the connection to the aliens comes from various species of creatures familiar here on Earth that are presented as sentient.
An alien species that sits at a middle ground between human form and strange is C.J. Cherryh’s atevi found in her Foreigner series. The atevi race has the basic human form (a head, two eyes, mouth, arms, legs, etc.) but are ebony colored and eight feet or more tall. They have familiar behaviors of family, politics, emotions, but also cultural differences that contrast with their human residents.
The atevi are seen through the human eyes of Bren Cameron who becomes the designated paidhi to the tevi, which is a form of ambassador. The series embeds Bren into the atevi culture as he climbs the political ladder serving Tabini-ajii, the current ruler, and his heir, Cajeiri. Bren’s ability as go-between takes him up the social ladder until farther into the series, he becomes an atevi lord with his own estate and guild. (entourage of bodyguards and attendants)
The atevi are alien enough, but very relatable to the reader. Then, in Visitor, book seventeen of the series, (see my recent blog on it), Cherryh’s introduces an even more alien species in the form of the Kyo. Bren, Cajeiri and Ilisidi, Cajeiri’s dowager grandmother, meet the Kyo at the orbiting space station Alpha to form a treaty, hoping to keep relations friendly. These aliens have a harder form factor and show emotion through thumps and noises, but are technologically far advanced over both atevi and human. Thus, they form a threat. Bren uses all his skills as a diplomat to try to make friends with a species that is far different from human. The major content of this book is to show how difficult it would be to communicate with a completely alien species.
The most recently published novel in the series, Convergence, sends Bren to Mospheira, the human settlement on the atevi world to deliver the Kyo treaty. The clever trick that Cherry accomplishes is to have so immersed the reader in the atevi world over the last seventeen books, that when Bren confronts the humans, they feel like the aliens.
This most recent book in the series doesn’t have the heart pounding tension of the previous one, but is a pleasant read, nonetheless, even if the humans come off as arrogant jerks.
In my latest book Somewhat Alien, coming out in June, I bring the alien even closer to human. The invaders are from Earth, and the native species they interact with share their DNA. However, looks can be deceiving. Just like cultures here on Earth can sharply differ in dress, religion, and mindset, so too, the Alysians and Terrans differ in unknown ways. Two diverse cultures coming into contact to share a planet create conflict. And even when the alien is only somewhat alien, there’s bound to be misunderstandings.
Saving the best for last, I wanted to offer a link to an easy to read visual presentation of genre books sold through Amazon. These charts offer an intriguing glimpse at how various publishers are represented in Amazon’s Top 100 bestseller lists and asks the question: Is Amazon influencing the best sellers list?
An interesting peek at what genre sells best where.