We’re not saying this podcast is about aliens, but it’s about aliens. Specifically, what makes aliens cool and how that is different when you’re talking about alien characters vs alien monsters. We go over options for making aliens feel unique and cool while also keeping them relatable and then talk about what happens when you go too far in either direction. We also discuss some our favorites, which is mostly Oren ranting about alien hive-mind dogs, if we’re being honest.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Corwin. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening music]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren and with me is Chris and Wes.
And today we’re talking about what makes aliens cool. I don’t have an opening bit for that; we’re just doing aliens. Uh, I was trying to think of one, but all the alien things I can think of are makeup related, [laughter] I just couldn’t think of a good one.
Chris: That’s okay. To be perfectly frank, our opening bits are dorky. Like really dorky, like dad fun level dorky. I’m not going to stop doing them. I’m going to continue with them, but don’t think we need to apologize when we spare the audience.
Oren: Speaking of dorky, in fact, is there any reason why in your novel, you can’t just do like Star Trek and have all the aliens be humans with some funny forehead ridges?
Wes: I thought that was how you did aliens for a really long time.
Oren: Yeah. That’s how aliens do.
Chris: Well, I mean, if you want a retro futuristic feel, what did people in the 1920s think about Martians?
Oren: Yeah, that was actually one of the things that weirded me out a little bit about the Old Man’s War series. I like it. It’s a fun book. I enjoyed it, but the aliens, most of them just struck me as being extremely human.
Especially once we get into the later books and we start talking to this alien dude, who’s trying to make the space UN. And, I keep forgetting he’s not a human, because technically he’s an alien… There are a few aliens in there that are “okay, yeah, those guys are weird.” Like those weird bug people, because they have a hive mind thing. That’s easy to remember, but then there’s this guy and I’m like “what makes him an alien again? What is his alien physiology?” I’m sure it was described a couple of times, but I can’t remember what it was.
Chris: Yeah. I have to say if the alien is kind of somebody you’re supposed to relate to, which is not everybody right, but certainly if it’s a protagonist, the number one thing is I just don’t want them to feel human.
Wes: But they still have to have something human about them to make you think they’re cool. Right?
Chris: I mean, honestly, to be relatable, I think what they mostly need is some kind of human thought process that you understand.
Like for instance, you can have animal characters, right? We know what animals are like, so they’re off often less human than aliens are. Because you know, we know that they run on, for instance, four legs, and eat different things than we do, and generally behave in different ways than we do.
But we do have to anthropomorphize them, the audience always has to understand the motivations, right. And why they’re doing what they’re doing is I think the most basic thing. And so that’s the part that has to be somewhat human.
I’m not convinced that anything else needs to be human, although if it feels really random and nonsensical, maybe that would be a problem. There’s usually some kind of logic to it. And if you try to be “Oh, humans just can’t understand why they are the way they are”, that doesn’t usually work very well. [laughter]
Oren: Right. I mean, it’s a lot of those things when I look at aliens that just seem kind of nonsensical, a lot of that is because of budget issues on television shows. On Star Trek every once in a while we’re running into aliens who have things that grow over part of their mouth, and I’m “What is that for? That looks really inconvenient. How do you eat with that?” You know, that sort of thing.
I haven’t found that to be a huge problem in prose work because in prose, the author can just describe what the alien looks like, and isn’t super limited by budgetary constraints where they have to try and make a human actor look alien.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, there’s the special effects budget. But then there’s also the fact that, you know, if we want a character to be charismatic, we want a human actor to be playing them. And while it is possible to map an actor onto, you know, as they do in animation, it certainly does up the budget. Right? If we’re mapping a human onto some completely non humanoid CGI alien, besides just looking bad a lot of the time.
Oren: Right, and then you also just continue with the whole relate-ability thing. A big example to me is in Farscape where they did a lot of the aliens with puppets.
And while admittedly I’m not a big Farscape fan, I did like the puppets. They were pretty great. Two of the aliens on the main crew, the main characters who were alien puppets, there was a pilot, and then, oh gosh, I’ve forgotten his name, the short little guy who was an exiled king [Chris agreeing], they were both puppets.
They were both clearly non-human in appearance compared to the other aliens on the ship, some of whom were just humans without even any makeup on. But even so, the character who was more important to the plot, who was the little short exiled king guy, he was much more human in his interactions. He had a very human story of being betrayed by his relative and exiled and wanting to return home to reclaim his wealth and fortune.
Whereas the pilot character, who is this weird kind of bug squid thing, it’s kind of hard to understand what he’s doing and why he does what he does. He’s not nearly as important in the story, except as occasionally a plot device, because if something goes wrong with him, the ship won’t work.
So that’s definitely an example of you can make your alien look super weird and different, but to a certain extent, you still want them to act human, if it’s going to be part of a plot that humans are supposed to care about.
Wes: Right, especially if they’re a protagonist, because, Alien. It’s hard to say alien and not think of that franchise to me. [Oren agreeing] Yeah. The xenomorphs, right? That’s just not really what we’re talking about. I don’t think, I mean, I don’t know. Are they cool in the way that they’re just monsters? You know, they’re not relatable. They’re very alien. They are not human, you know, I wouldn’t call them cool. I don’t see anything, it depends on what we mean by cool, but I see them as just threat. They’re pure threat, that’s it. [agreement]
Chris: Yeah. I mean, that would be the other side of the spectrum if you want, I don’t know if you would even call them characters at that point. They’re more like monsters; if you don’t want them to be relatable then you’re on the other end of the spectrum where they can be as wild and creative as you want them to be.
They are inherently more threatening, and less sympathetic. I think a good example is the aliens in Arrival. [agreement] Which are really great but definitely designed to be weird and not relatable. The whole plot is about a translator, who is trying to basically bridge the gap and come up with a system of communicating, basically to teach them English, at some level, or signs, or something like that, to create a system of communication with them.
And so them being strange is really important because it kind of gives her a mountain to climb. And they don’t look at all human, and they don’t seem to act human, the way the communicate definitely doesn’t seem human, and it’s a lot about guessing what their intent is. So in that case, the plot, they’re not actually antagonists, spoilers. [laughing] Sorry.
Oren: [sarcastic] Couldn’t tell that from five minutes into the movie…
Chris: But again, it definitely benefits from them being strange. So that would be on that the other side of the spectrum from having an alien that’s actually a relatable character, that you really do need to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, why the choices they’re making are choices as they are, you know, sympathize with their wants and needs and their emotions and all those other things.
Oren: Yeah, I’m a big fan of, if you want to make your alien seem not human, but also be relatable enough that the audience can care about the buddy cop story you’re doing, I’m a big fan of giving the alien some very specific non-human feature, a thing that humans just don’t do.
You know, this alien sees in infrared instead of normal human visual light. Or, this alien sleeps for 10 minutes every six hours instead of an eight hour cycle, something that really clearly affects their behavior and makes them feel different and beyond just their description.
Because again, you can describe them looking however you want to describe them. But if that description doesn’t really change how they do things, you’re back to “space UN guy” from the Old Man’s War where I’m sure he was described as looking non-human, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was, because none of it affected how he did things.
Wes: Right. You need to go beyond just saying something like “Oh, this sun makes this alien indestructible, we promise he’s an alien, he’s just a Kryptonian and he’s a human, but it’s the sun. [laughter] It’s just the sun guys…”
Oren: To be fair, he’s also a bird and a plane. [laughter] So he’s a lot of different things, he’s got a lot going on.
Wes: Okay. I always thought that was, I mean, I like some of the Kryptonian stuff and the Kal-El and that, but I just never fully get on board with the fact that he’s an alien. No, he’s a superhero.
Oren: I’m fine with him being an alien. The weird part to me is that he’s supposedly super powered by a yellow sun. I keep forgetting that’s technically part of Superman’s story, and when it comes up, it feels it’s really confusing to me. I’m like “Wait, what does the sun have to do with it?”
Wes: And the Kryptonians had a pretty advanced, I assume space-faring race. They went to, I’m only drawing on that recent movie, which was not good, to save their species. Did they not fly by any yellow suns? Like “Feel different?” I don’t know.
Oren: No, apparently, nothing they ever looked into. [laughter] It’s always weird to me every time we go to Krypton, I keep expecting Krypton to be full of super people and have them flying around and eye-lasers and whatever, but no, they’re just like normal people. [Wes agrees] Every time we flashed back to Krypton I have to remind myself that Superman is only Superman on earth because of that weird sun. [laughter]
Chris: This just goes back to the issue of a flavor, basically, in role-playing or in writing, where if you describe something and then it never affects anything, it almost just disappears and is forgotten, never to be seen again. Back with Superman, if we actually saw him doing something different because he’s powered by the sun. He’s not any weaker at night, right? It’s only Kryptonite that weakens him? [Wes agrees]
Oren: I can’t swear that there is never a Superman comic where being at night changes his powers, because there’s a lot of Superman material out there. But if there is, I have never seen it.
Wes: Yeah. I think they gloss that over by his skin is a solar battery that fills up when he’s out. I don’t know.
Oren: Yeah. I think the idea is that he’s supposed to absorb the radiation, but yeah, the fact that it being at night doesn’t affect him at all really makes it hard to remember that he’s supposed to be powered by the sun. And then, you know, there are lots of Justice League cartoons where he goes to other planets and he’s still Superman.
I mean maybe you could explain all this by saying “Oh, well, he’s just never been away from Earth long enough to use up his supply of Earth radiation.” So there are ways to explain it, it’s just that it doesn’t make it feel particularly interesting.
Chris: Maybe Superman needs one of those battery status lights, where you can see how full the battery is. He leaves Earth and the battery starts to go down. He plugs himself back in at Earth and charges for a day. [laughter]
Oren: This is the grim dark version of Superman that we need, he has to deal with charging himself, all right, I’m way into it. [laughter] We thought it was edgy when Superman snapped a guy’s neck for no reason, but no, it’s actually being charged by the sun. Way into it. [agreement]
One alien race I’m very fond of, and it’s amazing because of how much it cheats, are the changelings from Deep Space Nine, [agreement] because they’re weird and alien, they can take any shape, but they can also just become human, so the moment we need to have a hot make-out scene or whatever, they can just do that, and it’s not weird. It’s just such a great cheat. It’s such an amazing solution to the problem of making aliens that are both weird and different, but also human enough to sympathize with.
Chris: I should add that frequently in the show, we do see that Odo needs to reform to a goo in his bucket, right? [Agreement] It’s his version of sleep. So we do see him doing that, so we know that he’s different, besides the fact that they also just make his features look different and their explanation for that is actually really bad [agreement]. You know, supposedly he just can’t get the nose right, but he can turn into a full eagle with feathers and everything. But the human nose is too difficult… We do know that he has to do this bucket thing, that he can’t keep his humans to shape 24/7, three 65.
Oren: I would have really loved to have seen an uncanny valley with the eagle that Odo transformed into, that he couldn’t quite make the eagle look right. It’s like, yeah, it’s about the right shape. But, uh…
Chris: Maybe it looks normal to humans, but then another eagle sees and is, ah…
Oren: Yeah, the eagles know.
Chris: The eagles know it’s wrong! [laughter]
Oren: You could go really deep with the changeling stuff is what I’m saying. I’m also a big fan of the Geth from Mass Effect. Mass Effect aliens are ranged from really boring to pretty good, but I think the Geth are probably the best, because they are an artificial race. They are created by the Quarians. Instead of being just a bunch of robots, they are actually made up of billions and billions of individual programs, none of which are sapient on their own, but if you get enough of them into one platform, they become sapient because they share processing power.
I love beings that can dissolve and reform in different combinations. I just think that’s so cool and lets you do so many fun things, because you can have a Geth who you got to know this Geth, and that’s great, and you like them, and they have their own personality, quirks and everything, and then that Geth breaks up, all of the little runtimes they call them, are separated and go into different platforms. So now there are three Geths, [Wes agrees] each of which has a piece of the Geth you knew inside them.
Chris: Oh, that reminds me. You haven’t talked about the Wolfpack aliens.
Oren: I was just about to talk about the Wolfpack aliens. [laughter] Because they’re basically the same thing, except with cute puppies instead of computer programs. So it’s the only way to make it better.
Chris: Maybe we should name the book they’re from, that would be a good idea.
Oren: Should we now? Um, yeah. So the book they’re from is called A Fire Upon the Deep, which is a terrible title, [Wes laughing] and I would change it if I could, but it’s called that. Part of the premise is that a spaceship crashes on a planet with about a medieval tech level, except instead of humans the planet is populated by these weird alien dogs.
Again, none of whom are sentient or are sapient really on their own, but they can link up into packs and they have weird auditory sensors and transmitters that allow them to communicate very quickly. So once you have a pack of three of them, then they become about sapient and then you can add like a few more, they max out at about seven, at which point the link is too big to maintain. And this is so cool, each pack is a character and if one of the members of the pack dies, that is a traumatic experience, it’s like being badly injured and it changes their personality.
And if they take on a new member that can also change them in fun and interesting ways. Sometimes the packs will split and that’s kind of their equivalent of having children. It’s fascinating. Yeah, they’re called Tines. I think they are definitely the single, coolest alien species that I’ve ever run into.
They also just have a great power balance versus humans, because a single human is far more capable than any one of these alien dogs, because we have hands and stuff. It’s also really great the way the dogs describe humans, it’s like “They have these long appendages with tentacles at the end that they can combine into a club. It’s very strange.”
That’s so cool. I love it. I’m here for it. But then the dogs are pack creatures, right? So they can do multiple things at once, and the way they fly spaceships is super cool. You got just six alien dogs, on a control panel, and each of them is controlling one thing, and it’s great.
It’s beautiful. The rest of the book’s okay. The alien dogs are so cool and are definitely worth reading the book just for that.
Chris: So that’s kind of hard to follow up.
Oren: I meant to save that for the end, but it kind of got in.
Chris: It’s my fault to be fair. [laughing]
Wes: It was great. It was great. I was trying to think about some early aliens that I encountered in my youth. You guys remember Animorphs? [Oren agreeing, Chris not as much] I’m trying to think back on, if we’re talking about cool aliens and stuff, this kind of gets on the shape-shifting thing that we mentioned, but the Andalites give the kids the power to turn into animals, to animorph. They then fight the Yeerks, those slugs that can go into a creature’s brain and balloon over it and then control the body. And I always thought as far as like aliens go, Yeerks were just really evil, cool villains in the sense of there are ostensibly really weak things. On their own, they are nothing. But their power, what makes them cool is really they’re just so well prepared for all things, they know that they can’t stay in their host bodies for, there was like a time limit, right?
Oren: Yeah. They have to go out and hang out in a pool for a while. Have some water therapy, you know. [laughter]
Wes: With the Yeerks and Andalites, I kind of thought, when Oren was talking about changing stuff, that cool alien thing, an ability to transcend a single body type thing. The Animorphs and the Andalites can do it in the way that the Skrull can. And then the Yeerks can do it by just invading people, which is terrifying. But it’s still, you never know if that Yeerk, which Yeerk you were like dealing with. Which also adds to the tension, or who one is, or something like that.
So I thought that the shape-shifting aspect of aliens is always been a super cool feature.
Oren: I also really liked, you mentioned the Skrull, in Captain Marvel, [Wes agreeing] which I guess, moderate spoilers for Captain Marvel, I’m not going to give away anything huge to the plot, but the idea of the Skrull shape-shifting and being able to read recent surface level memories, when they do that, [Wes agreeing] it’s really cool because it makes them dangerous. They can pretend to be you, but it also gives a super fun way to try to look for Skrulls, where you start giving each other quizzes. And I’m like “Oh, this is so great”. On the one hand, it’s something you can do, it’s not just “Well, we have no way of knowing who the Skrull is”. It could be literally anyone at any time.
There are ways you can try to find them, but they’re kind of risky, right? You don’t know for sure it’s going to work, and they don’t go super great into this part, but it’s also possible that people forget things, so it’s also possible that someone could not remember something you think they should. Then you’re like “You’re a Skrull”, and it’s like “No, I just don’t remember what I had for my birthday last year.” [laughter]
Wes: I did really like the set up in the movie where she talks to Nick Fury about it, and then we get that payoff where he’s in the elevator with his, you know, air quotes “boss”. That was cool, [agreement] that was a really well done.
Oren: The Skrull are definitely one of the cooler aliens we’ve been introduced to in Marvel, because they actually feel kind of alien.
Wes: Yeah, unlike Xandarians from the Guardians movie, or even the Asgardians, who are God-human…
Oren: The Asgardians are just kind of weird because I’ve never really been clear if the Asgardians, if the Asgardians, [changing pronunciation] uh, putting the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable, [laughter] um, I’m never really clear, are they all super strong?
Or is that just Thor? Because Thor gets his powers taken away once, and then he’s a normal human who’s real buff. But at the same time, maybe he lost his Asgardian powers as well, I don’t know. Sometimes they sort of imply that the Asgardians are all super strong, but sometimes they also just seem like normal people. So it’s very unclear to me and I would like to know more. I’m sure the comics could tell me, but I’m not going to look it up. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, not worth your time probably. [laughing] I watched the first Guardians movie last week again, and the whole thing with all these Xandarians, what is, they’re aliens I guess, but it’s John C. Riley not wearing any makeup, but he’s a Xandarian? Okay. Like, aliens? I guess that’s…
Oren: Here’s one thing that weirds me out. Again, this is more common in visual mediums than in books, but it weirds me out when some aliens look just like humans and then some don’t, this happens a lot in Marvel.
Even in Captain Marvel, her boss, her team leader is just a human, he’s just a human guy, but he’s not human, he’s technically Kree. And it’s just kind of weird to me that some of the aliens have purple skin and look human or whatever, but some of them just look like normal people.
Star Trek did this too sometimes, where it was here are Vulcans, they have weird ears. Here are the Klingons, they have a forehead, and here are these guys, and they’re just humans. We didn’t have time to put any makeup on them, they look like humans [laughter]. You know at least the Betazoids have that completely black iris, which you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking real close.
Chris: Yeah, I really think that more storytellers should just consider, making it standard, yeah, these people come from different planets, but they all have humans as progenitors. And humans are spread across the galaxy and then become different over time, because that just resets the standards.
Because when you have aliens, the standard’s “Oh, these should be really well, alien. Really different.” So then when they’re humans, it’s just kind of disappointingly unoriginal. But if their default is human, than anything that’s different about them becomes interesting instead.
And then you could have all these weird explanations for how did this colony of humans acquire this trait on this other planet? And that becomes interesting, right?
Wes: Yeah, that reminds me, I haven’t read any of the other books, but I read Hyperion, Dan Simmons’ book, and most of it is the individual character’s kind of stories, but you learn about the three factions. The artificial intelligence have their own faction, there’s kind of a federation of planets or whatever, but then there’s a group of humans that never became a part of that group, having decided to just live in space, and not live on planets and stuff.
And you learn a little bit about how, because of that, they spend their whole lives in zero gravity, they’ve kind of changed. They’re still human, but the plasticity of the bodies has changed. With one of the character’s POV chapters, I remember he ends up using some of their tech, but he has to strain to use it because his body just isn’t as long. Because, you know, he’s been, he spent his life raised on a planet with gravity, so yeah, you’re right.
It’s all those little tweaks to humans…
Chris: It really lowers the bar for how different, you know, each group is, and instead puts the focus on, you know, what their history is and why they’re different. So, it’s not for every story, but if you don’t want to make lots of really weird aliens, I think you’re going to have a better reception if you do that instead.
Oren: Because frankly, a lot of authors just kind of run out of effort at some point, when you want to have a big Star Trek style space-opera setting that has giant federations with lots of different species.
Eventually authors kind of run out of effort and they just, you know, the first aliens we run into are super weird and different and the second ones are, kind of weird and different, and then by the third ones, it’s a, whatever, it’s a person, they’re talking to them. [laughter]
It’s like “Oh… I don’t have time for this anymore.” Having them be humans from different environments reduces the burden a lot. You’re not expected to put in so much, like front-loaded effort to make them seem weird and different.
And I think that’s just a lot more sustainable in the long run.
Wes: One of the weirder alien stories I think I’ve ever read, and I read this forever ago and nobody knows this book I’m sure, it called the High Crusade and I don’t even know who wrote it. And it’s kind of just a trash British novel, it was probably written like early 20th century, but basically the premise of the story is that it’s during the Hundred Years War between Britain and France and an alien ship crash lands outside an English village.
Knights go check it out and slay all the aliens except one. And they somehow tie him up and kind of get an idea that this is a thing that moves and it’s really big, and so this is obviously what we should do to end the battle with France. So they put their entire village inside of it, hundreds of people.
And then they forced the alien to drive them to France. And the alien obviously doesn’t, and he takes them into space. [laughter] Nightly space battles occur where the low tech of the knights is such ancient relics that they can penetrate the high-tech stuff of all these advanced alien races, because they never melee fight any more and they don’t know what horses are. [laughter]
It’s just ridiculous. But the thing that I really liked about it, I mean, I don’t know, I liked it because it was just so bad, but at the end, it flashes forward, you know, in the way those books did to 2001 where Earth makes contact with those humans that got accidentally sent into space hundreds of years ago.
And they’ve kind of like established their own space civilization. I was “Oh, I like that idea, humans got blasted off into space and somehow survived, and then we make contact with them a few hundred years later.”
Oren: That is kinda neat. If you want a slightly more serious version of that premise I would definitely recommend Eifelheim. It’s a novel that is split in half, half of it takes place in the present and that’s the boring half, and you can skip most of that. But the part that takes place in the past centers around, like you mentioned, a crashed alien ship, this time outside of a German village in the 12 hundreds.
And it’s about this village priest trying to understand what aliens are and what they need, because he’s like trying to help them and trying to interact with them through his worldview of being a 13th century priest. And it’s fascinating. [Wes agreeing] It’s kind of double cool because on the one hand you have this 13th century priest who views the world very differently, even from a modern devout Christian, and he’s talking to aliens who view the world very differently because they’re aliens. So you have these two worldviews that are both very different from a modern reader’s interacting and trying to understand each other.
And I’m really impressed by how well it was pulled off. It did a very good job in my opinion. I don’t know why it’s bundled with all of these modern scenes of an archaeologist investigating this village. It’s absolutely not needed, you can just skip those chapters.
Wes: That sounds cool.
Oren: Yeah. I’m way into it. So unfortunately we are definitely out of time, we got caught up talking about weird alien dogs and whatever, but I think that was definitely well worth it. So before we go, I just want to thank two of our patrons.
First is Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Second is Ayman Jaber, who is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel.
If anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?