An original concept is what grabs me when reading a sci-fi novel – something clever, insightful and surprising. After reading a lot of science fiction, genuinely original ideas are becoming harder to find but when I do so, it makes a book a much more enjoyable read. The best way for a novel to engage me with an original idea is with a clever, new variety of alien. With that in mind, what follows are my 5 favourite aliens in sci-fi novels.
Affront – Excession
The Culture, from Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, meddle in the affairs of other races to make them more like the Culture. Usually there is a degree of ambiguity about whether this is wise; for example, in Look To Windward the Chelgrian class system seems unjust but in removing it the Culture create a devastating civil war. In Excession, Banks did away with the moral ambiguity of the Culture and created a civilization so awful that they were crying out for Culture intervention, this is the Affront.
The Affront are Banks's dark imagination at its best, they are unrelentingly awful. The Affront are vile and violent creatures, constantly attacking their neighbours, eating their captives and fighting each other. Perhaps their worst offense is their abuse of genetic engineering technology. The Affront have altered the DNA of all the animals native to their home world so that they have a much heighted sensation of fear and pain, and they then hunt them for entertainment.
The Affront are a sick parody of the Culture: the latter is an utopian anarchistic collective, free from hierarchy, prejudice and resource scarcity, the Affront are bigoted patriarchal and violent. They are sick but imaginative creation, the perfect offset of the Culture.
Ariekei – Embassytown
China Miéville is well known for his impressive imagination and many brilliant creations. One of my favourite is the Ariekei from his novel Embassytown. The Ariekei speak simultaneously with two mouths, the cut and the turn, which makes their language complex. What makes them harder to communicate with is that they can only understand language with thought behind it, no recordings or machines. Only special human ambassadors, consisting of cybernetically linked twins, thinking the same thoughts, and speaking the same words, can communicate with the Ariekei.
The novel develops the strange world of Embassytown and the consequences of being the guests of bizarre aliens. When a new ambassador arrives, one whose thoughts and speech are not quite in-sync, and speaks to the Ariekei it turns out their words are powerful drug capable of bringing the Ariekei to their knees.
Miéville is a linguist as well as a fiction author and he uses his knowledge excellently to bring to life a world that could have been difficult for readers to believe. Speech for aliens in a lot of sci-fi novels tends to be similar to humans (thus allowing dialogue to take place easily and the plot to move forwards) but Miéville shows how creative he can be with something as everyday as language.
Hippae – Grass
The Hippae are introduced slowly in Grass, and so when their full monstrousness is revealed it comes as something of a shock. At first the reader assumes that they are beasts of burden, referred to as ‘mounts’ by the inhabitants of the planet Grass, and ridden for sport by the gentry. However, Sheri S. Tepper slowly builds up how violent and powerful they are. When they first appear, it is revealed they are twice the size of a horse, covered in sharp spines and extremely aggressive. They also have eyes that speak not only of great intelligence but also of murderous hatred.
Tepper plays with how alien aliens in sci-fi can be, the Hippae are difficult to understand and harder to sympathise with. At first they appear to be large animals, they do not have tools or cities or anything else we would associate with intelligent life. However, their cunning and hatred are slowly built up along with the novel’s rising tension and deepening mystery.
As the novel progresses, the power of the Hippae is slowly revealed and how they not only hate humans but have a plan to wipe out humans in the galaxy. The pastoral world of Grass is turned from a gentle planet of leisure to a siege, as the humans cannot venture outside for fear of a Hippae attack. Tepper builds the tension to an explosive climax.
Tines – A Fire Upon The Deep
Vernor Vinge has created a number of interesting aliens for his novels, including the Skroderiders and the Spiders. However, a favourite of mine is the Tines from his novel A Fire Upon the Deep. The Tines are very similar to our wolves but a personality is not contained within an individual Tine but across an entire pack, consisting of several members. Packs can exchange members, which alters their personalities.
Through ultra-high frequency, members communicate and build intelligence, and so two packs cannot get too close together or else their thoughts merge. This makes fighting and sex animalistic, and the rest of their time packs keep their distance. There naming culture is also interesting as each pack member has a name and the name for the entire entity is made out of member names. As pack members change, so to does their name to reflect the new make up.
Vinge takes a familiar idea, the wolf pack, that is clearly established in the reader’s mind and produces a very alien approach to this idea. The interesting thing about the Tines is how familiar they are to us but also how very different.
Zōtl – The Last Legends of Earth
There are few aliens in science fiction that are quite so strange as the Zōtl, a spider-like, technologically advanced alien race who feed on the chemicals created by the brains of intelligent beings who are in pain. They capture humans and other intelligent creatures, and torture them to provide nourishment. The few humans who survive become their slaves.
The Zōtl are the perfect villain for a sci-fi book: strange, scary and violent, with superior technology and no understandable morals. They appear in A. A. Attanasio’s The Last Legends of Earth and torment the humans who are caught as bait in a trap set for the Zōtl but their enemies, the equally powerful Rimstalkers.
What links all these aliens is that they are not similar to other well-known aliens of science fiction or they break the model established by formulaic science fiction novels. The Zōtl are technologically advanced aliens who want to enslave humanity for nourishment, but the means and the specifics of doing so are quite unlike any other science fiction book I have read. This is what makes them brilliant and scary.
Those are my five most creative aliens in science fiction novels. Are there any I have missed off? Add your suggestions below.