This week the novelociraptors go scifi and explore the question, “What is your favorite alien race?”
I first saw this question and thought, “Hey, this is easy.” Then I realized. “Uh, no it’s not.” There are so many aliens out there to choose from, and the stand-outs for me are in movies more so than books. I was raised on Star Wars–the words “Da Wars” were literally the second and third words I spoke as a baby–and always loved Admiral Ackbar and the Hammerhead in the Cantina and the Jawas.
But to pick a favorite, I’m going to go with something somewhat more obscure. There’s this ’80s movie Flight of the Navigator. I won’t spoil the whole thing if you’ve never seen it, but it has time travel, family drama, and a sentient spaceship. The ship is very formal at first but in the course of the movie it becomes humanized by exposure to an Earth kid. They end up with this very endearing relationship that’s largely based on respect. It’s deep stuff. The movie has actually aged pretty well, too.
As far as aliens go, I could also be all nostalgic for The Last Starfighter, though that hasn’t aged well at all. But I still love it. “I’ve always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds…”
I’m inclined to think of Mrs Whatsit and her friends from A Wrinkle in Time as aliens or angels or a bit of both sometimes. They are wonderful.
Most of my favorite aliens are found in Vernor Vinge’s worlds: the Tines, the Skoderiders, and the Spiders, from A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. I don’t want to spoil someone’s own first encounters, so I’m only going to speak in generalities. In part, what entrances me is that each group is so beautifully conveyed on the page. I’m caught up in their communities, their means of connection and their politics, which are so very different from ours. With that, each group’s methods of communicating with the humans who are aliens on their worlds is fascinating. I love that there are as many “good” and “evil” “aliens” in Vinge as there are “good” and “evil” “humans”.
Michael R. Underwood
Favorite alien race? Do I have to choose just one? How can I pick the trifurcated Minbari over the grandiose conniving Centauri? Do I pick the symbiotic oankali of Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood over the endlessly creepy Xenomorphs of the Alien franchise?
There’s an endless supply of answers, so I’m going to focus on a weird species from one of my favorite Science Fiction stories of the last decade: the Mass Effect Trilogy.
Mass Effect has plenty of interesting races. The Krogan are an interesting tragic twist on the uplifted race of warriors, providing both Urdnot Wrex and Grunt, some of the most memorable characters of the series. The Asari were at times a bit too male sexual fantasy-ish for my taste, though I liked the SFinal work the series did with them being mono-gendered and enthusiastically exogamous in their partnering.
But the race I really want to talk about, due to their delightful weirdness, is the Elcor. Slow, methodical, and mighty, the Elcor evolved on a high-gravity planet, and communicate largely through scent, microexpressions, and subvocalized infrasound. This means that when they started communicating with other races, races that lacked their physiology were left taking Elcor speech as entirely flat, without affect.
In response, all of the Elcor you meet throughout the series have adopted a speech pattern that I found very interesting as a player and as an SF fan. They preface every line of dialogue with an emotive statement to provide context, in lieu of tone.
When an obstinate human threatens an Elcor bouncer, the Elcor says “With barely constrained menace: Try it.”
The kind of rich worldbuilding and thoughtful design that lead to the Elcor’s speech patterns help make them one of my favorite races in SF.
So many choices! And so many favorites over the years!
At age four I’d have said wookiees. Nothing could have made me happier than having Chewbacca over for dinner. (Come to think of it, that might still be true.)
At age eleven I’d have said the Decepticons. They deserved to win.
At age thirteen I’d have said the aliens from Aliens. But only for a year. The next summer I would change my mind to the predator from Predator. Today it’s hard to decide. They’re both totally badass.
At twenty I’d have said the Vorlons from Babylon 5. That show is tied with Firefly for Least Appreciated Really Awesome Show, and the Vorlons were at the heart of what made it cool. You almost never get to see them. You only see the encounter suits they contain themselves in, because if you were to look at them directly, you’d think you were beholding a god. Oh, and their spaceships aren’t even spaceships; they’re living creatures, symbiotes to the Vorlons themselves. Wicked cool.
And today? I look back at this list and I see all my favorites are from TV and cinema, not from books. That’s a little disappointing. Then I start thinking about my favorite sci-fi books and I realize there are hardly any aliens in them. There are alien minds—Wintermute in Neuromancer, the Guild Navigators in Dune—but not many real live according-to-Hoyle extraterrestrials.
Honestly, I didn’t know that about myself before I sat down to write this. Now I wonder what to make of it. Maybe it’s the philosopher in me: I seem to be more interested in unfamiliar thinking than unfamiliar anatomy.
Maybe. I’d still invite Chewbacca over for dinner.
I don’t have much to add, but I wanted to throw in a vote for the little guys on the Mushroom Planet. I loved those books! I should try reading them to my currently space-obsessed preschooler after we finish Dr. Dolittle in the Moon. See how they hold up. … OMG, I just opened the first page of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and the hero is reading Dr. Dolittle in the Moon. Great minds think alike, I guess!
Well, I’m one of those who was raised on a steady diet of Star Trek. I loved it. I did time for it (if you count detention in the 4th grade for reading during class time as incarceration, I mean). And one of the things you could count on in any Trek iteration was that there would always be an alien or two on the crew. There’s Mr. Spock, and his Vulcan issues. There’s Mr. Worf, and his Klingon issues. How charming!
Then came Deep Space Nine, and it blew. my. mind. I LOVED the Ferengi – at first just for the sake of having actual humor to break up all the war-scarred grit and gravity. What funny, ugly, greedy little people they were!
But looking back on it, DS9 did something really remarkable with the Ferengi. I can’t think of any other Trek race that began as comic relief (and earlier, clownish villains-of-the-week) and then developed into a fully-realized, three-dimensional culture. And I think a huge part of that was having not one token Ferengi, but a whole family of fully-realized, three-dimensional Ferengi characters, whose struggles are affected by but not limited to the expectations of their society. There’s Quark, trying to reconcile his conscience with his ledger. There’s Rom, striving to be a good single father and something more than a bar-flunky. There’s Nog, shocking his family and risking everything to join Starfleet, and Moogie, with her scandalous, horrific desire to wear clothing, and Zek, whose shrewd leadership is increasingly hampered by his own advancing age.
In short, there is a terrific example of how we can leave behind the “These are the _____ and they’re basically all _____” model for crafting alien cultures – and still hold on to a good sense of humor.
Mine would have to be the radially symmetric 4-limbed creatures in Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman’s Road series. Yeah, I know, I’ve talked about these books before, but the aliens are definitely one reason to read. They play a huge role in my favorite book of the series so far, The Lost Steersman, in which our heroine follows a friend’s map to the end of the known world and interacts with these creatures that had been entering and terrorizing small villages.
She performs an intriguing dissection, then works on entering their society, finding out that they have three different modes of communication, all of them quite striking. Don’t want to spoil it (because I want lots more people to read them!!) I think the creatures are simply called “demons,” from the perspective of the humans. These aliens are *really* alien and fascinating.
Favorite stories with aliens include Ender’s Game, “Buy Jupiter” by Asimov, and, more recently, “Neighbors” by Rob Butler. But I love those for reasons other than the aliens in them.
I grew up on Star Trek — literally, my earliest memory is Klingons swinging bat’leths at each other. And Klingons are awesome. But my favorite are those big-eared Ferengi. Star Trek first used them as a stereotyped shorthand for hypocrites, liars, and swindlers, but in DS9, they got to speak for themselves as protagonists and heroes.
And they made unique, fascinating heroes. Quark showed his dedication to business contracts by hiring someone to assassinate himself because he’d erroneously sold his own vacuum desiccated remains. Nog and his bartering skills navigated the Great Material Continuum to get the USS Defiant the graviton stabilizer it needed — while helping a bunch of other people get stuff they wanted in the process. Who else in Star Fleet thinks like that? And let’s not forget an all-Ferengi team facing down the militant Jem’Hadar. Yeah. That’s good stuff. Instead of a caricature of greed, DS9 gave us a bunch of individuals navigating their Ferengi culture in different ways. Sweet.
Maybe I also loved them because for the first time, Star Trek had children present whose relationships with each other mattered. Watching Jake and Nog grow up together, while I was growing up myself, was pretty cool.
J. Kathleen Cheney
I’ve had to give this quite a bit of thought. It seems to me that my favorite aliens are…humans. Well, at least sort of human.
I loved the Sime-Gen Universe created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, where one subspecies of human was dependent on the other. While both sides of that coin are human, they’ve diverged along the path somewhere from the humanity we know. (The Sime have tentacles on their forearms to suck out the Gens’ life energy.) The Liaden Universe of Steve Miller and Sharon Lee is another of my favorites. The Liaden are another subspecies of human who had long ago left Earth (maybe) behind to settle a planet called Liad, and didn’t look back.
Serpent’s Reach is, without doubt, my favorite novel by C. J Cherryh, and in it, there are three tiers of ‘human’…the aristocratic Kontrin, the normal Betas, and the cloned Azi who are essentially slaves. Although technically the Azi are human, they are programmed to serve. And while the backbone of the story is a political hotbed, the most interesting part to me was watching one of the Azi break his conditioning and step out into the greater world, realizing as he did so that he’d cut himself off himself from everything he’d ever known. (And the majat? Gotta love giant ants.)