by Keith Morrison
©2006 Keith Morrison -- all rights reserved
Outside of magic, they are probably the single most overused deus ex machina in the transformation genre. They may be here for our women, our water, take-out, entertainment, research, invasion, or merely being lost; but whatever the case, the little buggers seem to go out of their way to make our lives miserable. Well, I suppose if you're a straight male, and the invaders are Space Amazons who want to learn more about the mysterious things called "kissing" and "playing hide the salami", things won't be so miserable... but I suspect said straight male's terrestrial significant other will have a different opinion.
So let's talk about aliens. Not surprisingly, quite often I think their depiction displays a significant level of stupidity.
"But they're aliens!" I hear some cry. (Oddly enough, I tend to hear those people cry quite often.) "They don't have to make sense! They're alien! Beyond human understanding! They do seemingly-random things for their own alien reasons!"
Well, maybe. But if they're even marginally rational beings, they're going to have reasons for what they do; and odds are, they'll be reasons we can understand. It might be only a vague understanding, but it will probably be possible. That's not to say the author can't play the "aliens do stuff for mysterious reasons" card at all. Robert Silverberg did a series of short stories a few years ago (collected as The Alien Years) in a setting where the nigh-invulnerable aliens showed up, did whatever they wanted to do without any regard to what the humans did or thought, then up and left again for their own reasons. No one ever really figures out what the point was, because the aliens didn't bother to chat people up and inform them. Silverberg got around "we can't understand the reason" by simply not having people in any position to figure out what the reason was. The invasion was simply too short, the aliens too unapproachable, for the humans to find out. The stories were about humans trying to get on with their lives, most of them members of one family playing a key role in the human resistance that fails miserably.
However, that's pretty much a one-trick pony. You can get away with it for a while, if you do what Silverberg did and not have contact between humans and aliens in any meaningful way. The aliens were, in this case, the equivalent to a natural disaster: Something that just was, and people had to try and deal with it as best they could.
It's when you start getting into the heads of the aliens, have their motivations expressed, that the nonsense usually runs the risk of coming out. It's here that authors tend to screw things up by having the aliens act in utterly stupid ways.
The classic example is probably found in the miniseries V, where the aliens come to steal our water. Yeah, okay, so these intelligent beings who mastered interstellar travel, have all sorts of nifty tech and such, come to Earth in order to make off with our water. And in doing so, they sail blissfully past the outer solar system... where the water is already prepackaged in convenient solid form... in a lower-gravity environment, so they aren't wasting excess fuel and energy... and there are no residents who might take the situation badly and start shooting.
Needless to say, that idea disappeared after the first miniseries. I think even the writers, who were so blatant with the Nazi imagery for the Visitors that it was hammering the audience over the head, couldn't stomach that one.
And this idea is even stupider than it first looks when you consider the chemistry of water. Hydrogen and oxygen are among the most common elements in the universe (hydrogen being number 1 by far, of course), and when you burn hydrogen in the presence of oxygen, you know what the resulting byproduct is? That's right, water. Supersmart aliens were too bloody stupid to use their interstellar flight capability to collect hydrogen, oxygen, and use a match. It's no wonder humans keep beating the incompetent clods.
Now this is pretty blatant stupidity, but there's a lot related to the transformation genre that is just as ridiculous. I'd like to point out that having aliens acting like morons doesn't mean the story is bad: there are stories I enjoy where the characters are, in any objective sense, stupid twits. Go to one of the SF discussion groups such as rec.arts.sf.written and ask about stupid aliens from published and well-respected authors; you'll be overrun by responses and examples. So this particular nit isn't one I'm picking on only with amateurs, as the above-mentioned Visitor example shows.
The other main problem, and it's somewhat related, is when the aliens don't fully exploit the technological advantage they're shown to have. In some cases this is due to the author advocating human exceptionalism: A classic example from numerous stories is that humans are better at warfare. The aliens might have bigger guns, but the clever monkeys of Sol III know how to use them better. Yeah, okay. I might buy it, given sufficient world-building to explain why the aliens are so conflict-deficient, but too often the aliens are otherwise human in psychology. Even if the humans came up with it first, the aliens should be able to at least duplicate it... but no. Please, spare me.
A large part of the problem, especially among amateur writers, is that their main exposure to portrayals of aliens has been in the media, especially TV, where for budgetary reasons and such, most aliens tend to be humanoid in appearance and, since they are played by humans and (in the case of recurring characters) have to be comprehensible to human viewers, they aren't actually very alien. It's very hard, in fact, to find TV aliens that aren't humans in funny suits. They may look somewhat odd, but they're human through and through with human qualities. Oh, those qualities may be exaggerated for effect, but they are still recognizably those you'd find in countless people in any large gathering of humans.
The sad part is that you can have comprehensible aliens and still make them interestingly different by playing with their biology. Vernor Vigne's Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep are a classic example; a Tine personality is entirely comprehensible to humans, but Tine biology affects that personality. Tines are group-minds, a collection of a dozen or so dog-like aliens who are continually communicating with each other on a subsonic band through dedicated sound-producing organs.
This one fact has an enormous effect on Tine behaviour. As members of the group-mind die and are replaced, the mind's personality can change since individual Tines aren't simply interchangeable pieces. The main villain, Flenser, experiences this when he absorbs an individual from another group-mind he killed in order to make up for his own losses. While the female (Tine group-minds are considered "he" and "she" depending on the mix of sexes in the group as well as how the group sees itself) is simply a part of the individual that is Flenser, she still remembers being part of the good-natured teacher that he killed and starts undermining him by adjusting the group-mind's behaviour to try and show more mercy and, at a critical moment, betraying it.
Meanwhile, one of the good Tine leaders is eventually revealed to be largely composed of physically handicapped individuals. She's been so concerned about keeping her personality intact and not allowing outside individuals to influence her, that she's been breeding with herself for a long time, thus leading to birth defects in her increasingly-restricted gene pool. Biology plus psychology equals interesting character.
What you have in the Tines, basically, are aliens who are all schizophrenics. They really do hear voices in their head(s). And yet they are understandable and likeable -- or dislikeable, as the case may be -- and they work. I don't care if their biology is questionable or if anything like that could really happen; Vinge makes sure I don't care.
Another good example of psychology meeting biology comes from the science fiction role-playing game 2400AD. The Kaffirs are your typically bloodthirsty show-no-quarter alien invaders the good guys get to blow the crap out of, but the game's designers have actually come up with a clever biological explanation which not only adds a level of realism, but also makes the aliens more interesting.
Humans under stress release adrenaline, which improves our physical performance. Kaffirs release hormones that improve their mental performance. The more risk and danger, the smarter Kaffirs are (up to a point; just as adrenaline won't make a couch potato into a top athlete, the Kaffir brain juice isn't going to turn an idiot into Einstein). Once the danger is over, the mental boost subsides -- but the base intelligence has improved a bit, which means that someone who's been repeatedly exposed to dangerous situations will be smarter than another who hasn't. This has affected Kaffir history and culture. As civilizations rose, just as on Earth, their citizens became more secure and comfortable. Lower stress meant lower base intelligence, and those civilizations were repeatedly wiped out by barbarians who, living a more stressful life, were smarter than the city folk.
Eventually they created a culture where violence and danger became part of the society in order to keep the mental energy up, at least for the people in charge. Imagine Rome where every now and then the Senators would go into the Coliseum to get into a fight with some poor dumb schmuck, just to make sure they stayed on top of their mental game, or where the Emperor and his family played an alien version of The Running Man, chasing down condemned criminals (or just poor dumb schmucks who were in the wrong place at the wrong time) to get a mental rush, and where citizens watching the spectacle received their own, slightly lower, rush. Now imagine that civilization running into humans; humans, on average, significantly smarter than the average Kaffir. With a history where the smarter barbarians would always overrun society and destroy it, these aliens would be terrified of the same thing happening to them.
And voila: Realistic alien invaders who have a reason to fight, a reason comprehensible to humans, but are still alien enough that even if you can understand there's no guarantee you could ever come to some kind of peace. It's kill or be killed.
When it all boils down to is that if you give your aliens reasons for interacting with humans, they should be logical reasons. In order for it to make sense, you not only have to take into account the biology and history of the aliens (and you do know how your aliens work, right?) but their technology. Otherwise you get the Visitors and their ocean-stealing nonsense that everyone makes fun of.
So why do the aliens bother with us? Well, why do humans bother with other humans? Look at it another way. Imagine we were the invaders on their world. Why would we do stuff to them? And if we were doing stuff to them, why use any particular method?
Take one example I've seen used a few times: Transforming humans into animals or whatever, because "we're destroying our environment" or "we're a threat to the galaxy at large" or whatever other excuse is used. Imagine we, in a few centuries with super-tech, cruised over to an alternate version of Venus where life was everywhere and found an aggressive, expansionary civilization that had started to move into space and was surely going to intrude on our turf. That, and they were chopping down the Venusian jungles and doing all sorts of nasty things to the other Venusian lifeforms and whatnot. What would we do to them?
The answer, of course, depends: What level of technology we have? What is the political/social/religious outlook of people? What can we afford, economically, to do? If all we want to do is wipe them out, do we really need to go to the trouble of turning them into Venusian swamp mugwumps? Why not just kill them?
So if you can figure out a logical way to imagine what we'd do unto them, you've found a logical reason why someone would do unto us.
Bit more complicated than just having the change-happy sky-brothers descending in their flying saucers and firing off the Magic Transformation Ray, ain't it?