Whats the number one problem in most sci-fi novels (or more notably in TV or movies)?
That’s right. Aliens that look pretty much human, or look like an insect or a slug or something that we have on our rocky planet.
Sure, in TV it’s difficult, especially if you think in terms of Star Trek TOS, where their budget was a bit less than most people’s toothpaste monthly budget! So they made due, and compensate with interesting storylines, for the most part (I’m looking at you, Spock’s Brain).
But in a novel, you don’t have make-up or special effects constraints, so why follow the formulaic alien-of-the-week look?
The first thing you should do, is find a planet, and there are many out there we know enough about. Once you know the basic composition, the abundant elements, and seasons and so on, you can figure out if life can evolve. Now, a hint here, (or maybe personal hunch) is that life will need some basic chemical requirements. Reactions that produce energy. Oxygen is the most prevalent exothermic creating element. And Oxygen is fairly common in the universe. (Not compared to Hydrogen or Helium, but definitely more than Cobalt).
So use the internet, learn some basic chemistry. And create a chain of events, point A to point B to point C of evolutionary events. Create a chart, with branches (much like our taxonomy) and see which organisms will evolve to…something. It may be multi-celular, or single cell. It may be sentient or instictual or something totally different.
You can skip this part, and take some animal from Earth and create an alien with some similar traits. The problem with this, is that invariably, people go back to human evolution and mimic that for their aliens. Cat people may not wear clothes. They may not have family units or other things that we consider as normal.
An example would be lizard people. Yes it’s ridiculous because of how they have been portrayed in writing and TV so far. So make a list of some of the notable features of these lizard people.
-eat things whole
-solitary (no social habits)
-are blind (just to throw in a curve ball. These lizard people evolved on the dark side of a tidally locked planet)
So, they need heat. Their entire existence will be driven by finding sources of heat. Geothermal or if they develop to be technological lizard-made. Saunas and UV lights might be everywhere lizards may live.
They will have no need for clothes, because they are cold blooded and clothes would actually block out any heat. And since they have no way of producing heat a coat has nothing to trap near their bodies. Unless, its a heat-suit. But we have those for space too.
They might have barbaric-style societies, or dictatorships where one powerful lizard imposes some semblance of structure on a species that wants solitude. Submissive lizards would obey and be the scientists to build ships.
And the tough part. Being blind means they don’t write. Or maybe they do, something light braille. Maybe they communicate verbally augemented by smell. (Reading a lizard book could be a very olfactorilly challenging prospect for a human). So now you can have intrigue by a scenario where a war breaks out between humans and lizard people because of a smell made by a human. Sweat, other odors could have specific meanings for them and there goes peaceful first contact.
These are all simple ideas, because I use a chart, and create an entire planet, with resource locations, geography and so on, and play a bit of a game, where “countries” develop, each with customs, culture, language. Some merge, some are conquered. They invent things, or maybe they don’t invent things. And most certainly not in the same order we have. They could have cold fusion but have no clue about internal combustion.
So there. Make some believable aliens. Not the same old human with odd ears or a deformed forehead, that smile and shake hands and call it good. Star Trek struggled with this and tried to explain the humanoid form but its a bit of hand waving…
Now I have to go back and finish a war between two competing countries for my next aliens.
Signed, Somebody that is procrastinating right now and should get back to work
(photo: Ray Walston in My Favorite Martian, you may also know him as Boothby in Star Trek)