The hard questions

Well, after all that, here is, ultimately, the hardest question I need to ask myself:

Why aliens?

If the core story is just an adventure, the secondary story about forging trust between peoples, the third story about diaspora…

Why not just different kinds of people? Or like in my childhood story, heavily modified people?

Is it to bring perspective/distance/detachment the way Star Trek, X-Men, etc address various human issues using aliens (or mutants, or whatever)? Is it because “aliens are cool” and is that enough? Is it because it’s just what I expect from SF?

And since I’ve chosen aliens, how do I make it worthwhile that there are non-humans in this story?

Also, why the heck am I asking these questions past midpoint in the draft?

If you’re writing about aliens, why did you choose aliens?

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  1. I chose aliens for two reasons. I like to write action adventure and space has lots of potential for both. Also, I LOVE writing “fish out of water” stories, the contrasts between the familiar and the, wait for it, alien. (grin) I wrote a bunch of contemporaries using this theme, but then I had an idea that begged for a larger canvas and aliens. This idea became The Key. I had to much fun writing it, I couldn’t get me or my characters back to Earth (except to visit!).

    • Awesome! Aliens are fun, and I love the whole “fish out of water” theme myself.

      I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much, as I’m having a ball with my alien story, whether or not I’m really pushing the boundaries enough. I guess that’s what future stories, and revisions, are for :).

  2. Roxanne Bland

     /  August 19, 2011

    I put an alien in my book because I wanted to meld an urban fantasy with science fiction. Second, I wanted to see how werewolves, vampires, etc., already in hiding from the human population, would react to an alien in their midst.

  3. Camille

     /  August 21, 2011

    My inner dialogue with this post:
    –Why aliens?
    –Why not?

    –If the core story is just an adventure, the secondary story about forging trust between peoples, the third story about diaspora…
    Why not just different kinds of people?
    –That would also be cool and workable, true!!

    –Or like in my childhood story, heavily modified people?
    –Yes, yes that is indeed another very viable option! So… um… you can pick one! Or mix them all together!

    I didn’t respond to the first query, although I read it with great interest, because I felt unqualitifed: while I like reading about aliens (sometimes) I have never felt any compunction to create any. I’ve always felt compelled to write about various sorts of humans, many of which are way freaking out there to a Western mind, but don’t get covered in my genre, which tends to generalize either Medieval European (English) feudalism or thinly disguised US indidivdualism as “human” values and qualities, with a physicality that is generally either white or written about from a white-norm perspective. And… my favorite writers don’t really do aliens that much, come to think of it. Samuel Delany does human derived colonists on other worlds that have evolved new apperancend and abilities (and detriements, and self-destructive tendencies) and does a lot of playing around with gender and sexuality (a place where, for example, you get called “he” or “she” not based on your body parts but based on whom you’re sleeping with at that time, or something. It was grammatical) or Le Guin, who is all about anthropology even if thinly disguised. A culture based on bird migratory habits (they did have beaks) or a culture suffering a generational gap based on how none of the youth needed any sleep…

    I’ve never minded Star Trek aliens, though. I mind the practical aspects of having one planet per culture, which is juvenile, but I see their aliens as doing exactly what they were intended to — allegorically exploring aspects of known human nature. Fun stuff with religious and political variance, that kind of thing. And of course, the aliens were mostly humanoid because of budget constraints and lack of CGI back in the day. The better tie-in books did some fun stuff.

    But…is “aliens are cool” a problem, really? Does the presence of them really *have* to be justified? Something about that question reminds me of a professor I had who, when I presented him with a fantasy story (with no weird creatures in it at all, and frankly not that much magic) responded with “Why fantasy at all, can’t you just set this in the REAL world?” Which question is bascially a non-starter.

    My fictional motto is one I’ve nicked from Adrienne Rich, who nicked it from Arturo Islas: “the great justification for the act of reading and writing fiction is that through it we can be disciplined and seduced into imagining other people’s lives with understanding and compassion, even if we do not ‘identify’ with them.” I’ve read books with really impressive, well-thought-out and original aliens, but I can’t remember that the STORIES really resounded with me just via the aliens being really strange. (I’m thinking of a novel called “Murakami” where I was impressed by the physicality, and the sketches and so on, but was utterly unmoved by the actual tale itself. The aliens remained alien and I never really cared about them, even though I was told they were sentient.) Such stories have terrified me at times. (Intentionally, I’d guess! A story where the conceit was that an alien is encoded into the actual text/words of the story, and they breed by having the story read by YOU, GENTLE READER, NOW I AM IN YOUR BRAIN, bwahahaha — I did not finish reading the short story, I felt threatened. :-D)

    • Camille

       /  August 21, 2011

      China Mievielle writes brilliant, award-winning stuff. It is filled with very alien creatures. [Art spiders!] Not because he wants to say something about being an alien (what he wants to talk about is Marxism) but because he’s liked making up freaky creatures since he was a child. (I was so incredibly jealous of him until I read that in an interview. He said something along the lines of “I like monsters! I’ve always liked monsters!” — and I realized that I have never really liked scary things, never wanted to write about them, and suddenly everything seemed to fall into place, and I felt okay being me while still enjoying him.) And I’m not saying his aliens are just there to be scary, he does great stuff with them, intellectual stuff, but underlying it all is just…his unabashed childhood joy in making the freaky monsters. At the end of the day *he is having fun doing what he likes to do.*

      It comes down to what one reads fiction, any fiction at all, FOR. Me — oh god, I have different answers for this question depending on my age or where I am or what I’ve had for dinner, probably. Does it make me think? Does it touch me? Titilate me? Make me laugh? Divert me, distract me, send my problems away for a while? Teach me something about what it means to be me, something I can extrapolate about being human in my world, interacting with other humans?

      I have no problem with going the distance trying to posit, in a work of fiction, what a truly alien alien would experience, how it would interact with wildly different species, what being “truly alien” really means. But if I encounter a story where the aliens don’t actually do that, I’m not going to wonder why the aliens are there at all — I don’t consider allegorical aliens a failing in the slightest, especially since the chances of our encountering a truly alien alien are far lower than the chances of us encountering a fellow human being that we fail to understand because we lack the mental and emotional tools with which to process unfamiliarity. I don’t think a writer should feel *pressure* to do that — a writer who wants to, to whom it comes naturally, will do a more enthusiastic if not outright better job.

      (Although Mieville’s latest book is indeed about ultra-alien aliens. ^__^ “Embassytown” is, I believe, specifically exploring alienness and interacting with it, but it took him what, eight books to get there?)

      I think what I’m getting at is I don’t think “why aliens” is the hardest question — I don’t even think it’s truly *necessary* beyond “I like them and they amuse me as a writer.”

      There are pitfalls, of course — you don’t want to fall into the “here are my aliens, but they are really Native Americans and I can’t be arsed to actually research Native Americans” trap, but I think you can avoid that quite neatly by not making all your human characters “mainstream” white American Protestants, which you have covered pretty thorougly, I think.

      • Ha, I want to read that short story now, the one where reading it is breeding with the aliens. Sounds awesome.

        I read Perdido Street Station and definitely think China Mievielle is brilliant at world and creature building. I love hearing that he just likes to make up monsters. I admit I just like to let my imagination run away with me, be it with realistic people, or with crazy out there worlds. I do tend to get carried away though. I can totally lose myself in world or language building, and I can get sucked into worrying about a tiny, nonessential detail.

        I guess in the end I just want people to believe in my aliens, and I worry that they’re going to go “why yet another race of humanoid alien? Why didn’t you just write this story with people?” I really did, when I first set out in writing this story, consider making the Sister Races human derivatives–human stock massively altered to suit living on another world, and separated for so long from their other Sister Races that it was basically like coming back to aliens. But I ditched that idea for some reason or another and to go back to it now would change a heck of a lot. I don’t know though. I still could.

        … I am somewhat tempted, but again, that’d require a heck of a lot of rewrite. Although, it would give a different weight to the background conflict of the races trying to build an alliance.

        I also toyed with the whole “shared seed” thing–some sort of shared seed of life/amino acid/dna that for whatever reason populated these nearby planets and led to life that arose along similar lines. I think that came from some article I read on some basic building blocks for life being found on some asteroid. But really, I suppose Star Trek did that too, at some point, to explain a whole universe of humanoids. (Even though yes, it was really budget constraints.)

        I’m tempted to integrate that now, but I don’t know. Is it really important to the plot? I need to decide.

        I do want to avoid the whole “Native Americans but not” type trap… but yeah, none of my human characters are even white… I won’t say they aren’t American to a degree though. For all that I’ve tried not to be.

        I don’t know why but the question DOES seem important to me in that… It will help me decide how, I guess, heavy and scientific and serious to get about these aliens.

        Which I guess is in a way dumb because I started out writing this novel for fun, as a bit of relief after The Red Box.

        Also this is a bad sign, because getting too fussy about tiny details before the story was finished was what killed Tarnished Armor and Under a Dreaming Sky about halfway through….

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