From campy b-movie space romps to the Sci-Fi big-budget epics, authors, screenwriters, and movie makers keep committing the same old sin. Instead of inventing new and exciting creatures for their alien race they’ll still disappointingly cop-out and sub-in cheesy monsters. And not just any monster–it’s usually a monster from old Hollywood cinema.
Two reasons. Budget and ease of narrative. The budget part is easy to understand. But when I refer to ease of narrative I’m talking about the painful process of teaching the reader about a totally new creature they’ve never imagined before, and asking them to picture this non-existent thing in their mind.
As a thought experiment, try to imagine one of these bastards doing space-battle against armored marines;
- “Lacking stomach and mouth, the [alien] rely on symbiotic species of bacteria that aid in digestion of proteins and lipids. The [alien] have colorful feathery plumes that act as gills and unusual root-like structures that absorb nutrients. The [alien] secrete acid (rather than rely on teeth) to bore into bone to access the nutrients. Between 50 and 100 microscopic dwarf males live inside a single female and never develop past the larval stage.”
Feathers that act as gills, bacteria that digests food for it, roots for a mouth, microscopic males riding around inside it…how goddamn awesome is that as a creature concept? Pretty cool, right? Here’s the problem; as a narrative concept it’s hard to keep all that in mind while you’re writing a rapid-fire battle scene that switches from the baddies to the marines, back-and-forth, back-and-forth. It’s much easier to tell readers to “imagine a werewolf, and you’ve got what the alien looks like.”
Oh, and the above creature description isn’t something I made up. It’s an animal that lives here on earth and is infinitely fascinating; the Osedax, a sea-faring beast that feeds on nightmares and craps insanity.
But instead of dredging up strange and wondrous concepts from the ocean (an infinite source of potential Sci-Fi fodder) we keep going back to insects and wolf-like mammals. Seriously.
Wait, does this count?
And it’s not just movies and comics, either. Critically acclaimed authors of the genre are guilty of this. Authors like John Scalzi, who otherwise invents incredibly interesting alien creatures, will pull the Wolfman card from time to time (The Last Colony / Zoe’s Tale). Then we have creatures like the wedge-faced ants from Starship Troopers, or John Steakley’s swarm from Armor,
Or the ‘buggers’ from Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse, which are also described as ant-like with exoskeletons and hives, even though they are revealed to be warm-blooded.
Ants. We have almost 9 millions species of life on this planet, and we keep coming up with space-ants and werewolves.
Using monsters in place of aliens (whose anatomy should be novel) is a cop-out. It’s cheap. It robs us of new experiences in Sci-Fi. And it sets a boring yet dangerous precedence in fiction. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done well. The Xenomorph from the Alien franchise works fantastically precisely because it has insect-like qualities that disturb us on a primitive level. But the Xenomorph uses an amalgam of creepy creature qualities, mashing together the reproductive cycle of a Bot Fly, the colony structure of bees, the mindless ferocity of hunting predators, and the LSD hallucinations of H.R. Giger.
If you’re writing a Sci-Fi feel free to borrow from the natural world. But if you find yourself throwing up your hands and declaring that the alien planet is infested with ants or werewolves, then you’ve done a serious goddamn disservice to the audience. We should have learned this when we introduce giant insects into fiction 60 freaking years ago.
If you can find black-and-white film images of your “clever and inventive” space alien, then you’re doing it wrong.
Featured image from ‘Them’ 1954.
Originally written for Statbonus.com