The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Write Who You Know—part 2

So let’s start with the question: “can human beings write
about aliens?”

I think that, within useful limitations, the answer is yes. 
There are certain universals that can be assumed about
life forms. The first is a riff on Descarte: "I live, therefore I exist."
It must be a thing, conforming to the laws of physics as we
understand  them--or as they may be understood in the future.
Further, it must  conform to definitions of
“life” otherwise, whatever it is, it will not be recognized
and defined as such, until those definitions change.  So,
then, what are the characteristics of living things?  In
general, living things:
1) Exchange energy with their environment.  Otherwise,
the energies of their life processes would violate laws of
2) Reproduce.  Either said living thing has existed
throughout all time in its current form, or it was
spontaneously created at some point, or it is the end-point
of an evolutionary process.  While great stories have
been written about creatures that do not reproduce, this
is a fairly safe bet.
3) The number of   total offspring produced exceed the
number that die.  Often, but not always, this means that
the said alien form, if “conscious,” has some investment
in some of its offspring surviving.  Even if it eats all of
its children it can catch, if it eats ALL of them successfully,
consistently, there will be nothing for the next generation.
While good stories can be written about such creatures, it
is, again, a safe bet that creatures either care about the
survival of their young, or are damned inefficient about
killing them.
4) Are concerned with their own survival.  In other words,
will move away from “pain” and toward “pleasure” unless
there is something seriously wonky going on.  Creatures
that consistently place themselves in lethal peril probably
won’t live to reproduce.

Beginning with such basic principles, it should be possible
to extrapolate nicely, creating non-sentient creatures which
are plausible, and sentient creatures with solitary existences
or social interactions that make a certain amount of sense
in context.

Such creatures will usually protect their young, have
strategies for avoiding danger, have social rules that
guarantee that the population remains stable or grows
(overall).  If you deliberately change one of these basic
principles, you are at least doing it consciously.

Further, they will have strategies (conscious or unconscious)
for receiving energy from their environment.  If these are
complex strategies, they will have ways of passing them
on to their offspring, which implies language or some form
of communication.

Begin then, with the most basic chakras: survival, reproduction,
comfort, and you will probably be safe. Violate these
CONSCIOUSLY, and you may create a classic.  Do it
unconsciously, and you create an unbelievable piece of
pulp.  The creature in “Alien” whose motivations seem
impenetrable initially, becomes less opaque once we
understand its lifecycle.  That very believability increases
it’s mystery and terror.  We see a lethal animal, rather
than a man in a rubber suit. And that makes all the

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