It seems to be an idea we’ve had for as long as we’ve had science fiction: Beings from other planets that were humanoid in build and appearance; from slightly to exactly, and everything in-between. It’s always been a great metaphor for our meetings and dealings with people from other continents, whose skin color, language and/or customs were often very different from our own.
It’s also been easier to depict in live-action productions, where creative makeup is all it takes to depict a man from Vulcan or a woman from Orion. Countless science fiction TV series and movies have used this relatively cheap and easy method to present us with aliens from all corners of the galaxy, who can just as conveniently talk with us, breathe our same air, frequently eat and drink our same foods and liquids, and even have sex with us.
But realistic science has also schooled us in the overwhelming likelihood that, IF we ever meet aliens from other worlds, there is little likelihood that they will be humanoid in appearance, not even as much as the many colorful aliens in the Men In Black movies or the myriad characters of the many Star Trek series. Most likely our atmosphere, food and drinks could sicken or even kill a visitor from another planet on the far side of the galaxy from us. Yet many science fiction writers continue to write stories of these humanoid aliens, blithely ignoring the reality of their almost certain nonexistence.
When I wrote The Kestral Voyages series, I liked the idea of many worlds in the Fraternity of Orion planets that they could visit and beings on those worlds that they could deal with. But I didn’t like the idea of creating aliens that would be capable of dealing with humans on a direct, one-on-one basis; I thought, as a writer, I could do better. So, instead of borrowing from the Book of Humanoid Aliens, I reached for a different book… the Book of Terraforming.
Terraforming is a concept wherein a planet is intelligently restructured to be as close to an Earthlike planet as possible. The idea has been used in many books, in TV series (including Star Trek and Firefly) and movies (Aliens), and it’s become very familiar to regular SF readers. It’s also a major element in the Kestral series.
But I considered the difficulty of terraforming, and the possibility that not all terraformed planets would end being completely Earthlike; that there may have been limitations to what could be done to some planets, and resultant variations on the Earth-standard environment that might not be completely healthy for humans. What would be the best course in such a situation?
My answer was making genetic alterations to the humans who would live on those planets. Genetic augmentation is a technology that we’re just starting to study and experiment with (more with other animals than humans, at this point), and as we learn more, it’s conceivable that we may start experimenting on ourselves, and maybe our children, in due course. We may create humans altered from our baseline DNA, their alterations capable of allowing them enhanced traits or abilities that will benefit them in certain jobs or environmental conditions.
Imagine genetically altering a human to be able to better filter out an extraneous chemical in the air… or to create stronger muscles to deal with a heavier gravity… or to adjust the rods and cones in the eye to better see in naturally foggy conditions. These would be the “aliens” in my books: Actual humans that had been altered to fit their worlds. Some would have minor alterations, not discernable to the human eye; while others might look significantly different, perhaps with unusually-colored skin, or feathers instead of hair, or more massive frames, or slighter frames, larger ears, prehensile tails… the possibilities are pretty large and just as potentially interesting as the possible range of humanoid aliens.
The most notable such characters in the Kestral series are Mark O’Bannon and Tirri Riza, members of Kestral’s crew. Mark is a native of Mars, where early efforts at genetic augmentation unfortunately went awry, resulting in a population of humans with jet-black skin and bleached-white hair. In fact, it’s considered an embarrassment in Fraternity medical circles, and sometimes considered reflective of the relative intelligence of Martians that they did this to themselves (draw your own conclusions). Tirri is an Avian, from a planet with such light gravity and convenient atmospheric conditions that their residents can fly with minimal extra equipment, they’ve developed lighter skeletons and musculature, and traded normal human hair for compound follicles that resemble feathers. As I write new stories, I’ll introduce more such characters and tidbits on how they fit in Kestral’s universe.
To me, this makes much more sense for the future: We may never actually meet aliens, but in moving out to the stars and refitting worlds for our use, we may become the aliens ourselves. And the advantage of this concept is that, if all of these characters are human at root, then they can share a common language (and the ability to speak and hear each other), share much of the same foods and nutrients, breathe the same air, and therefore live amongst each other with minimal need for specialty apparatus to coexist in the same environments. And this is even a better metaphor for the many races concept, as my characters are all variations on humans… just like in real life.
And let’s face it: There’s a delicious irony in imagining other-planetary races that would look much like the makeup-inspired aliens shown on TV and in the movies…