Making An Alien...

I don't believe science fiction is about the future. Science fiction authors, with very few exceptions, are truly lousy prognosticators. Science fiction novels are really about the here-and-now. We're just using the framework of the genre to make a point, and oh yeah, tell a hopefully entertaining tale at the same time.

I believe that if a truly alien race happened by this planet, the odds of them looking or acting anything like us are about the same as those of the sun going nova tomorrow.

But that doesn't matter, because in science fiction, the aliens are really funhouse mirrors that reflect back distorted images of us.

Let's face it: if you want your reader to easily sympathize with and identify with an alien, then the alien's probably going to need to be humanoid... You think it's a coincidence that ET had enormous sad eyes like a Keene painting? You can probably think of a dozen similar cinematic examples. (In fact, in movies you quite often get the reverse example: when you want the audience to instantly hate your alien, you make it reptilian, with gallons of thick, gelatinous ooze slathering over nasty teeth (the ALIEN series springs to mind...). Truth is, we have certain in-built visceral reactions to appearance. The less something looks like us (or like something we find cute and cuddly, like cats and dogs and teddy bears), the less we instinctively trust it.

So... what does it look like, huh?

In THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A DRUID PRINCE, there are reconstructions of what the bog body might have looked like. Knowing that's what Anais, one of the protagonists of DWE would have done, I pulled out the sketchbooks from under the desk, blew the dust off the toolbox with my art supplies, and started pencil sketch by "Anais" of the alien's hand, based on the description in the scene I'd already written. The scan above loses a lot of the shading detail of the final sketch, but gives the general idea of what it looks like.

I liked the sketch well enough that I thought I'd have "Anais" do a drawing of the face. Here it is...

Again, the sketch loses shading from the pencil original, but give you a sense of what I had in mind.

In the 'chicken-and-egg' scenario of the aliens in DWE, the sketch comes before I actually did much fleshing out of what my aliens were like. I'd wanted them to have a third light-sensitive organ in the middle of the forehead -- this came from reading (somewhere) a speculation that the pineal gland was once a 'sightless eye' that could warn of predators above through the increase or decrease in light levels: unlikely, in my estimation, but I thought it'd be a cool 'accessory' for an alien one day.

Since I'd already decided that the world was going to be a bit further out from their sun than ours and would be rather colder, I thickened the skin, giving it a ridged, leathery appearance. Still the overall impression is -- very deliberately -- humanoid. I also tried, with my limited artistic skills, to temper the 'hardness' of the face (which would translate as 'masculine') with 'feminine' touches such as the larger eyes. The creature Anais was reconstructing, after all, was one of the 'midmales', the middle sex, and I wanted it to look somewhat androgynous.

Do you need to have a sketch of the alien in the world you're building? No. Absolutely not. Having a word-sketch will work just as well. Pulling out the sketch pad and pencils was not something I'd ever done before, but I found it interesting, and might try it again next time.

So now I knew what they looked like, but there were still other problems.

Hey, what do you call it?

The intention to have flashback sections throughout the book from the viewpoint of the alien gave me another immediate difficulty: pronouns. English is limited in its choice of pronouns. You have the male set -- he, him, his. You have the female set -- she, her, hers. You have the sex-neutral set -- it, it, its. 'It' was far too neuter to use as a sexed-based pronoun for the book; it would give the impression of sexlessness. The currently fashionable 's/he' or 'heshe' was right out: they're both ugly in print and you can't read them aloud, and they were also entirely inaccurate -- the midmales weren't male or female. Which meant that I needed to invent pronouns...

Coming up with new names and terms is generally not a problem for science fiction or fantasy writers; it's a basic job skill. But while I could have used any random collection of letters (oh, let's say, for instance: lir, liw, lijs), the reader was going to really struggle with phrases like 'Bob gave liw his business card' or 'Lir stretched out lijs arms.' The reader's eyes are going to trip over those words for the entire book.

Irritated readers are not happy readers. Irritated readers do not recommend your book to their friends. Irritated readers do not nominate books for awards. Irritated readers do not go out and buy your next book.

I played with alternatives for a long time, and then suddenly realized that the reason none of them worked for me was because they just didn't scan as you read the page. I tried several different options over the next few days before I realized that what mattered wasn't the word, but the look of the word -- how it appeared to the reader. My latest candidate in the pronoun game was "ked" and I fortuitously realized that just the first two letters -- "ke" -- looked an awful lot like "he," and would have the advantage of sounding roughly the same, as well. And since I didn't want the strictly male identification of "he", I could use "ker" for "him/her" and "kers" for the possessive "his/hers." The structure would look like this:

Male: He ordered a meal. In due course, the waiter put it in front of him. He ate his dill pickle first.

Female: She ordered a meal. In due course, the waiter put it in front of her. She ate her dill pickle first.

Midmale: Ke ordered a meal. In due course, the waiter put it in front of ker. Ke ate ker dill pickle first.

I was pleased with this -- it scanned well, was close enough to English in sound and appearance, and gave a nice ambiguity in sexual identification.

And with the pronoun in place, I could start writing the alien-viewpoint sections. Almost, anyway... Because appearance is only a shell, a facade as false and unconvincing as a bad movie studio set. To give consistency and three-dimensionality to an alien, you must also know their history, their background, and their culture...




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