As much as I love the colorful galaxies full of various alien species that coexist in a more or less peaceful manner, I think the biggest power of science fiction is presenting the unknown. And to present an alien species that is truly different from human species, not only in its anatomy but also in the way it thinks, is an art in and of itself. Therefore, books that explore this aspect of speculative fiction always get my attention. Here are some that I consider noteworthy, even years (or decades) after I’ve read them.
The terrifying unknown
Whenever I think of terrifying and truly different aliens, Peter Watt’s “Blindsight” comes to mind. To watch the crew of the crew of Theseus, comprising AI, post-humans, and a vampire struggle to understand the entirely different beings that don’t think and communicate with them while dealing with internal issues. What I loved about this book was the reminder that there are other evolutionary paths, and humanity, with its endless pursuit of individuality (and personal pleasure or happiness), might not be the best one for survival. The struggle between the human species and the alien one isn’t a political or ideological. It’s simply biology and law of nature where the stronger eliminates the weaker. I don’t see the book as a critique of human liberties, but rather as a stark warning of what would happen if we give in ultimate decadence.
Another book that presents such a feeling of an unknown threat to humanity was Peter K. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction. I’ve read it back in my 20s. Because the Polish publisher had split the book into two parts, and I only got a hold of volume 1 (since I’d mostly relied on libraries), so technically, I’ve read only half of the book, but I clearly remember the overwhelming feeling of danger and helplessness witnessing humanity utterly unprepared to deal with something that came from another dimension.
The enemy we don’t understand
Lack of mutual understanding and fear of the unknown breeds conflict. This theme has been often explored by what we consider classic science fiction books. The first that comes to mind is Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein—one of the first science books I’ve read (though I wasn’t aware at the time the publisher in Poland abridged the original to make it more fast-paced), but there are many others.
From the more contemporary books, Michael Mammay’s “Planetside” comes to mind. In some ways, the Cappans are very similar to us, conniving and plotting even if not as advanced as space-faring humanity, but peace can only be made on human terms which aren’t acceptable for many members of the alien species. Although the book starts as a mystery, it takes a turn toward exploring such issues like relations with alien species, not always ethical experiments, and leaves us questioning whether we’re really the good guys.
But science fiction also offers the light in the tunnel: if we communicate, we might become friends (or at least stop fighting). One of the most beautiful stories I’ve read in my teens, and one that still brings tears to my eyes, is “Enemy Mine” by Barry B. Longeyear. The story of two enemies, a human and an alien, stranded together on a desolate planet brings a powerful message that we stop blindly hating when we learn and try to understand. And that comes with communication, which brings me to the next point.
The language that changes us
When I was a kid, exchanging diaries to write good wishes, silly poems, and inspirational quotes was very popular. When I asked my English teacher for one, he wrote something along the lines of “You are that many times a person how many languages you know—Chinese proverb”. You can guess it made an impression if I can recall it some 30 years later, and as a bilingual person who studied a few more languages (though none to a level of fluency), I find it both true and fascinating: languages reflect cultures, they force us to think in a differently… they might shape us into a different person.
So it comes as no surprise that I love this topic explored in science fiction.
“Story of Your Life”, a short story by Ted Chiang, is probably my favorite take on the topic. The way the author describes the slow learning of the languages that is so different at its core while showing simultaneously how it changes the main character is not only superb but also deeply emotional and personal.
Another interesting book on the topic is “Babel-17”, a classic by Samuel R. Delany. It explores the linguistic relativity: how language itself could be used to turn people into traitors, and even though the author himself later stated that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is incorrect, it’s the job of science fiction to explore such aspects. Because perhaps some day we will invent or discover a language that can alter the way we think and perceive, and taken with a right perspective, it offers insights into reality as well: it’s enough to think how propaganda language (applied repetitively and with limiting of other sources of information) can change the way people perceive and think.
It’s been such a long post, and I still feel like I barely scratched the surface. I haven’t read Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, which both are said to have interesting aliens. I’m also sure I’ve forgotten more books than I remember: even while writing this, memories of books I’ve read kept popping up, and I had to find them, sometimes having as little as a vague memory of the title.
How about you? What are your favorite alien novels? Do you like your aliens colorful, friendly, and English-speaking, or do you prefer them as strange and eerie as possible?
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.