Today I want to talk about aliens, and not like… you know, those “little green men” or those silvery dudes with bug eyes or whatever. I want to get a bit more speculative and discuss intelligent species from other planets that show up in science fiction books, TV shows, movies, video games, etc. I’ve noticed a few different trends that I’d like to explore here, but the common theme is that these aliens are all capable of communication with humans.
The Humanoid Aliens
By far, these are the most popular type of alien species — especially on film — obviously because they’re the easiest to represent with actual humans playing the parts. Star Trek is well-known for this, as their database contains dozens of different alien species who make appearances on the show. Usually, they look like variations of humans who may have evolved differently for one reason or another.
Typically, they have some distinguishing feature like: ridges on their foreheads (Klingon), noses (Bajoran), or faces (Cardassian); spots (Trill); slightly different eyes (Betazoid); or different ears (Vulcan, Ocampa, Romulan).
Some get a bit further from a typical human, like the Ferengi with their giant ears (excuse me — lobes), Morn with his soft and squishy appearance, the Talaxians with their spots and whiskers, or the Xindi with their wide range of variations.
Another notable example — that’s not from Star Trek, thankyouverymuch — would be the aliens in the TV show Star-Crossed. They’re basically humans with some tattoo-like markings that glow in certain situations. Shrug. In addition there are several humanoid aliens from various sci-fi video games. StarCraft has the Protoss, a mysterious humanoid race with advanced technologies and psionic abilities. Mass Effect has a variety of humanoid races as well.
I know it’s easiest to portray aliens that are humanoid, but I have to confess that after watching so much Star Trek, I’m starting to get a little tired of seeing all the different humanoid species. They all walk on two legs and have two arms and two eyes and they talk with their mouths. They might have different physiological characteristics and needs, which are not always compatible with each other (or with humans), but they all pretty much look and operate the same way.
How do they compare to humans?
Obviously, each of these alien races have their own cultures that differ greatly from humans, but I think for the most part they’re on pretty level ground when it comes to general capabilities. There are some, however, that have extra-sensory abilities (which is a typical theme for aliens). The Betazoids are extremely empathic and telepathic. The Ocampa also have telepathic and telekinetic abilities. The El-Aurians have some special ability to just… know things?
I think this portrayal is interesting because it expresses the notion that beings from other places/planets/galaxies are not so different from us and that we can find ways to relate to just about anyone (Star Trek is extremely idealistic in its portrayal of the future *wistful sigh*). But it’s also a big egotistical (what, is human the best life form or something?) and short-sighted (I wonder so much about what other species would truly be like. Even as much as I love the idea of them being easy to relate to, I understand that they’re likely nothing like us.)
The Aliens Who Pretend to be Human
Aside from the aliens who are naturally humanoid in form, there are still those that pretend to be human. They take on a human form in order to either infiltrate human civilization or in order to communicate more easily with humans. I’ve seen it happen many, many times on Star Trek alone, but also on other shows and in books.
There are the ones who shapeshift into a human form
Some of them are friendly
On Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are aliens like Barash who just want someone to play with and Salia who just wants a friend before going into a life of duty. Deep Space Nine features Odo, and changeling who just wants to fit in and help people. Most of his kind don’t understand why he wants to spend his time with lesser beings, but he likes them (and seems to find many of them more honorable than his own “people.”)
Some of them are not so friendly
On Star Trek, there are beings like those in the Q Continuum who don’t really have a native form. They just exist as some omniscient part of the universe and seem to be able to do whatever they want. Q is a recurring character on the show (through multiple series) who makes himself look human and plays practical jokes on other (*lesser*) beings. On the show V, the aliens were reptilian humanoids that masqueraded as humans, with an ultimate goal of infiltrating human society and eventually taking over Earth.
Some of them are mysterious and enchanting
Aside from those on TV shows, there are aliens in books like First Day on Earth , View Spoiler », K-Pax, or the Lux series that basically take on a human form in order to infiltrate human society on Earth. Why? Maybe they’re there to learn about other life in the universe. Maybe they’re on some secret mission to do something sinister. Maybe they just wanna have a sweet romance with some humanoid hotties!
There are the ones that cross-breed with humans
Seriously, I was hoping to find more than this, but do you know what you get when you do an online search for “alien human hybrid novel”? A bunch of GARBAGE, that’s what. So I’m going to have to go with what I can remember off the top of my head, which turns out to be exactly one book and one TV show.
In The Rules, the main character is this weird genetic experiment of cross-bred human and alien DNA. In Roswell, apparently they’re the children of aliens and humans, so they look human (even though their alien parents apparently didn’t look human at all), and of course they have super special powers.
And there are the ones who just take over humans
The book that comes to mind first would be The Host, in which the aliens (aka “Souls”) are little fluffball things that creep their way into a human’s head somewhere behind the ear and take over their body and consciousness. These aliens take over control of the human bodies in an attempt to supposedly learn about humans and make them peaceful (all while forcing them under control of a foreign entity – heh).
Much less insidious would be the Symbionts in Star Trek that have a — *ahem* — symbiotic relationship with the Trill. The Trill work very hard to be chosen as an acceptable host for a symbiont, and the symbionts live on through multiple hosts, gathering lifetimes of experiences over centuries.* In this case, the symbionts do not take over their hosts, but rather enhance their hosts’ knowledge and experiences, in a gentle exchange.
*I wouldn’t necessarily say that the Symbionts join with the Trill in an attempt to pretend to be human — at all — but I still thought that they fit pretty nicely into this category.
How do they compare to humans?
Well, beyond the obvious… I think one of the main themes here is deception. Whether it’s just because they’re lonely or curious or devious, many of these aliens are flat-out deceiving humans in order to get what they want. That’s not to say that any other being wouldn’t engage in deception (heh), but with these it just seems a bit more overt.
But let’s not lump them all into the same boat. Beings like Odo or the Symbionts/Trill are clearly not trying to be deceptive at all. In Odo’s case (as for most of the Changelings), it’s simply a matter of making it easier to communicate and engage with humanoids. They’re not trying to deceive anyone — it’s obvious they’re not actually human. And the Symbionts have a longstanding bond with the Trill, which I find elegant and beautiful (and I doubt that humans would ever get to the point where they would be willing and eager hosts, as the Trill are).
The Aliens Who are Basically Blobs of Energy
Finally, there are some alien species in sci-fi who are able to communicate with humans in some way, but don’t really have much of a physical form and are unable to take one. Some of my favorites include:
- The wormhole aliens (or The Prophets if you’re Bajoran) from Star Trek Deep Space Nine. They live in the wormhole and only communicate with humans by entering one’s mind and speaking to them through various representations of other humanoids this person knows. It’s a really interesting effect.
- The aliens from another dimension in one of my favorite books: View Spoiler ». They communicated with humans via some pretty archaic means, like “tap once for yes, twice for no” and that sort of thing. Very interesting concept.
- The Caretaker from Star Trek Voyager. It communicates with humans in a similar way to the wormhole aliens, taking on familiar human forms in order to speak to humans.
- The Crystalline Entity from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s basically this electromagnetic-like blob thing that devours the life energy of everything in its path!
How do they compare to humans?
Well, I think what I love most about these is how freaking different they are. In many cases, it is almost impossible for them to communicate with humans because their physiology and ways of thinking and being are just so freaking different from ours. I mean, the wormhole aliens live in 4 dimensions, so they have to continually remind themselves that humans exist in linear time! These beings all have to make an extreme effort to communicate with the humans — altering their perceptions or their methods to reach us.
Again, it seems a bit egotistical, but in this way I also finding it quite fitting for representing the human race. We are rather self-centered and it can be difficult for us to adapt. We are curious and persistent and could probably be very annoying for beings like these because we don’t just leave things alone. We have to poke and prod and question and interfere (even with the Prime Directive tying our hands behind our backs!).
So, to that end, I really like these aliens because they have such a higher level of consciousness and being (most of the time). Not only are they evolved well beyond humans, but they can also exhibit high degrees of patience (which is probably a side effect of their virtual immortality — but then there are others like Q who just get bored and want to toy with people).