Monday, August 15, 2016

Creating plausible aliens

The aliens (Jadderbadians) in my novel adopt remnants of the human race (a million years after a catastrophic asteroid impact) as pets. Because I want my title alien, Morticue, to be a complex and sympathetic character, I needed to develop a background for him—one that included his natural and well as personal history. 

To make things a little easier on myself and to provide a situation in which both Jadderbadians and humans could comfortably live together, I postulated a species from an Earth-like planet—although one a third larger than Earth and with even more water. I used my background in biology as a primary resource. Most SF writers do, in one way or another, draw on the biology of our native planet. We have no other option. Thus, the horrific alien in the movie, Alien, was patterned after the lifestyle of wasps and similar insects who lay their eggs inside hosts. The young eat their way to maturity and the outside world.

Here’s my attempt to describe Jadderbadian biology and natural history. Although every detail will not be used, I will have these notes to refer to as I develop my characters. The details, of course, will be subject to change, should a bolt of inspiration strike me. Such are the god-like prerogatives of SF writers J

Morticue (Emerald 31) & Selaea (Amber 86) (Tripodians from a planet, Water, circling a dwarf yellow star near the belt of Orion)

Biology/natural history:
Tripodians measure roughly 2 meters tall. They have internal skeletons, bilateral symmetry, tri-radial arms and legs. They possess coarse, hairless skin, somewhat mollusk-like in texture. Their home world is Earth-like, though one third larger (with roughly one third more gravity) and 75% ocean. Races vary in skin color (emerald, amber, and turquoise varieties), eye decoration and arrangement of sensory pili on their skin. They possess certain insectoid features, including a succession of larval phase transitions that add limb whorls. They are born as simple tripodal aquatic creatures with a small head and incomplete self-awareness. The first molt produces a functional, trainable and fully terrestrial tripod with its first set of 3 manipulating limbs. The second and third molts produce progressively larger adults with 6 and 9 limbs, respectively. The progression typically takes 400 to 450 years.  Tripodians don’t transform into sexually active forms until after third molt metamorphosis, but they do take companions before this time and are serially monogamous. The sexual phase lasts just 1 year for males and 10 years for females, during which time adults must mate, females reacquire juvenile gills, lay and protect their egg cases and young tripods before they die. Tripods that survive their time in the ocean wade ashore before first molt. Second stage (6-armed) adults arrive at breeding grounds and adopt two or more “Firsties” to raise and educate. “Seconds” & “Thirdies” pursue careers in art, science, technology, and philosophy. Many Thirdies serve as judges, spiritual advisors and philosophers until their final molt into adults. Thirdies aspire to wisdom and accomplishment before giving themselves over to the pleasurable excesses of a brief adulthood.

Tripodians passed through mental phases not too unlike those of humans, though stretched out over 5 million years rather than a million. These phases—that involved a progression from creative tool use to self-awareness and consciousness and from innovative art to primitive totemism, religion and natural philosophy—were, also like humans, stimulated by especially violent, concentrated cycles of climate change. Tripodians discovered rational thought processes that led to what humans would describe as “scientific inquiry,” though tripodians relied more on intuitive insights to spark new explorations. Thirdies, who left extensive recordings prior to their final molts, more often made these insights.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The games SF writers play

Readers and writers of science fiction tend to be science nerds of one flavor or another. By definition, SF is fiction, but it is fiction extrapolated from the natural laws and phenomena that scientists have distilled from their experimentation with nature. Thus, writers are constrained knowing that E always equals mc2 and objects in free fall will suffer collisions based on the particulars of mass and gravitational forces. Readers also know about these constraints and delight in discovering that a writer may have failed to do his homework. SF writer Hal Clement, known for works like Mission of Gravity, explained the kind of games SF fans play with each other in an article he wrote in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1950s:
“Writing a science fiction story is fun, not work...The fun...lies in treating the whole thing as a game. I’ve been playing the game since I was a child, so the rules must be quite simple. They are: for the reader of a science-fiction story, they consist of finding as many as possible of the author’s statements or implications which conflict with the facts as science currently understands them. For the author, the rule is to make as few such slips as he possibly can.”

            The writer makes the first move in this game by telling a story. The reader makes all the other moves in the game, trying to see how the writer may have gotten the science wrong. Clement played his part of the game so well, that readers still devour his work today. Mission of Gravity, along with related fiction and commentary, appeared in 2002 under the title, Heavy Planet.
            Clement was famous for creating believable aliens. In Mission of Gravity aliens subject to the immense gravity of a rapidly spinning Jupiter like planet called Mesklin evolved flattened, centipede-like bodies to accommodate gravity that varied from 3 times Earth normal at the equator to 700 times Earth normal at the poles. He designed a biochemistry for his creatures based on methane as the key solvent rather than water.
            My new book will also feature aliens, although not quite from so exotic a world. Nevertheless, I must fashion the world they come from in a way that is consistent with what scientists know about Earth’s biology and ecology. In particular, I will feature some of the knowledge science is rapidly acquiring about microbiomes: the mostly hidden world of microbes that coexist with the cells of complex organisms like us and provide many of the biochemical services we must have to survive. A key question becomes “Whose in charge?”—us or our microbial infrastructure? Undoubtedly alien worlds will have similar relationships between the first simple life forms that evolved on their planet and any complex ones that developed later.
            The next blog entry will feature some of the specifics of the world of Morticue Ambergrand and his kin. It will be up to you to see if the world I create is plausible. Let the games begin!