We love Klingons, Twi’leks, Time Lords, and all the other aliens who are basically just humans with a bit of makeup. But sometimes we need aliens that are more, well, alien. In fact, that’s the topic of this week’s episode. We talk about what it takes to set aliens apart from humans, why you might want to do that, and what the costs are. Plus, have you ever heard of wolves forging plate-mail armor in the woods? Inquiring hosts want to know!


Generously transcribed by Shu. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. 

[opening song]

Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is

Wes: Wes

Chris: And…

Oren: Oren

Chris: I have to confess, I am an alien. I have chosen a form all of you are comfortable with because you just wouldn’t be able to perceive my true form and my name is unpronounceable by human vocal cords.

Wes and Oren: *laughs*

Oren: I mean, I assumed you were an alien because who else could understand human storytelling but an outsider.

Wes: *laughs*

Oren: Ah, yes. Just cut through all of it straight to the heart with such ruthless efficiency of a cold alien mind.

Wes: Of course, now we don’t know to what end Chris, that’s not even your real name, is doing these things, which makes it tense.

Chris: Tense, maybe?

Oren:  Yeah, very tense. I’m tense right now.

Wes: Maybe?

Chris: We’re not too sure what the stakes are.

Wes: You don’t seem bad *laughs* I don’t know actually anything about you or what you’re doing behind the scenes, but sure, I’ll be afraid of you.

Chris: So this time we’re talking about alien aliens, as opposed to just aliens that are not aliens.

Wes: Right. So Star Trek and Star Wars aliens.

Oren: What do you mean? I can’t just put some bumpy foreheads on them and call them an alien? What have I even been doing with my life?

Chris: The thing is most aliens are a bit human-ish. I mean human-ish rather than humanoid because a humanoid is a specific body shape. And that is not the only way in which we make aliens like humans.

Oftentimes it’s more a matter of culture and personality than the way that they look. And we do that just so that they’re relatable to humans since humans are consuming our stories. And that’s kind of how we make them characters that people can understand and get attached to, is by making them more human-like. And so when we depict aliens, they often have really uncanny similarities to humans. So for one thing, so that they can talk to us without us going to too much effort, etc, etc.

But they’re also pretty low in realism. So they work better for low realism stories than high realism stories. And to be clear, this does not come with a value judgment. High realism is not inherently better. And sometimes we want alien aliens that are closer adhered to what we imagine aliens could be like.

Oren: Yeah, we want big old Heptapod aliens that we got to hold up signs that we’ve drawn their circular language on that gives us time travel powers.

Chris: Yeah, I like the rival Heptapods.

Oren: Yeah, they’re great.

Chris: What if cosmic horror but friendly?

Wes: They are cool.

Oren: I don’t really love the language that gives you time powers, but I do love the aliens. They have a great design.

Chris: Admittedly, learning an alien language that gives you time powers does kind of stretch believability for me a little bit.

Oren: Just reminding me of Battle 17, where it was like this language makes you better at code breaking. And I’m like, all right, I can kind of see that languages and codes are sort of the same thing.

And then it also makes you better at tactics. I’m like, all right, maybe those are both mental exercises. And then it also makes you better at kung fu!

All right, you lost me there, bucko.

All: *laughs*

Wes: I do like the Arrival aliens. They’re a great one because I immediately also thought about the movie The Abyss, which featured on our underwater podcast.

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Wes: Because this is probably getting into the cosmic horror stuff, but alien aliens that definitely are inspired by Earth sea creatures. It just does it for me.

Chris: Mm hmm

Wes: Because I guess that’s the point. The thought of there’s still so much in the ocean and we don’t have any idea of what’s going on. And how does anything live in there? Instead of empty void of space, okay, whatever.  But the ocean, it’s just got a lot more going on. It’s completely alien.

Chris: Those deep sea trenches where things glow.

Wes: Yes. 

Chris: There’s heat vents.

Wes: Yes.

Chris: A totally different environment.

Wes: So creepy.

Chris: Yeap.

Oren: Wes, did you write this article that I read a while back that was like mad that NASA got all this money and wanted that money to go to ocean exploration instead?

Wes: *Laughs*

Oren: That’s the weirdest article. It’s like, come on, man.

Wes: I didn’t write that, but I regularly go on anti-space rants and how all that money should be spent here on Earth. And yeah, half the time it’s definitely on the ocean. So stand by it!

Chris and Oren: *laughs*

Wes: The abyss aliens are great because they don’t talk. And at first you don’t really know what they are until the end. And even then it’s iffy because they just kind of shaped the water in the underground rig to kind of take forms and make faces at the end of a little tentacle and stuff. And it’s got a good mystery, but there’s still some personality with the play aspect that then suddenly turns violent when it gets attacked by the underwater Marine or whatever.

Oren: Mm hmm.

Wes: I think they do a lot there without any kind of verbal communication to kind of, like, make you side with these weird underwater aliens.

Oren: Right. And of course the basic rule here is that the more time your characters are going to spend around these aliens and the more interactions you have, the harder it is to maintain them being non-human. Right?

Because eventually you’re going to run into a point where it just starts to feel like they don’t make sense if you spend too much time with them and they’re still just being weird and inscrutable. That just gets harder and harder to maintain. And that’s why the aliens in Old Man’s War are a lot less weird than the aliens in Ancillary Justice. 

Because the aliens in Ancillary Justice, they’re around, but the humans don’t interact with them very much. Like the aliens show up and will do something for their own weird alien reasons and then the humans just kind of have to deal with it. But in Old Man’s War, the aliens are all part of a big galactic community that has diplomacy and a space UN and space wars and space treaties. And they can’t really have that if they’re all operating on like completely different levels. So they have to be much more human in their actions, even if they are described as looking very different.

Chris: I would say that if you’re going to have really alien aliens in interaction, it’s just a much higher investment.

Oren: Mm hmm.

Chris: And it depends on like, do you want your story focused on the nitty gritty of communication?

Oren: Yeah.

Chris: So that’s what Arrival is about. It’s all about a translator who encounters an alien species and has to teach them English basically from nothing.

Oren: Right.

Chris: And it kind of breaks down how you would do that. But that obviously takes a lot of story time, right? It’s not something that we can just move on to the next scene. Okay, we can talk to the Heptapods now moving on.

Oren: You can’t like to meet a Heptapod and then immediately go on like a space adventure with it. I mean, you could, but it would stop being the kind of alien we saw in Arrival. It would be a more human-ish alien.

Chris: I think a great story for talking about alien aliens is Project Hail Mary. And there will be spoilers for about halfway through, FYI. So we have first just the astrophage, which are just microbes.

Oren: Right.

Chris: Which has really high realism, right? If we found aliens, chances are pretty good they would be more microbe sized than humanoid size and shape. And then when we do meet an alien that’s sapient, there is some effort.

It’s not Arrival level effort put into communication. This alien does eventually take on some human-like characteristics, but Andy Weir still puts a lot of effort into the differences and into how the characters have to work really hard to bridge the gaps.

So we have a whole sequence where the main character comes upon an alien spaceship and then they have to figure each other out. They have to figure out what kind of environments they can live in. They have to figure out how they can sense what materials they can sense each other through because they don’t have sight. They have a different perception.

And do that language building. They definitely used shortcuts to make that go faster.

Wes: Mm hmm

Chris: Definitely kind of.

Oren: Yeah, a little bit of handwavium there.

Chris: There’s a little bit of handwavium that makes it go faster than it does in Arrival.

 But at the same time, the idea is that there is an upfront legwork that is done to get them communicating with each other. And then we established that they eat totally different things, live in totally different environments, and have completely different anatomy. 

Rocky is basically spider-shaped and they can’t live in each other’s environments. And that Rocky has a much longer life cycle. Just lots of details gone into it. So Rocky is still more human-ish than, for instance, the Heptapods.

But it is about, I think, as if you want just another character in your story, is about as alien as you can make a character while still having them be a named person that you get to know.

Wes: Yeah. That’s so important. So you want to include an alien-alien. Okay, how much screen time are you giving them? Because it’s going to determine quite a lot about what they’re going to be capable of and how many human qualities they’re going to need to take in some capacity. Because otherwise it makes no sense.

Chris: Or they can just be the threat. They can be monsters.

Wes: Yes.

Chris: That’s the other option. They can just be monsters.

Wes: Yes

Chris: Yeah. Like the Crystalline Entity.

Oren: The Crystalline Entity is weird. *laughs* Why does it want to eat humans specifically?

Chris: That’s really what I want to know. There is this big universe out there. It’s a crystal. How did it evolve to predate on meaty flesh beings that run around? I don’t…

Wes and Oren: *laughs*

Oren: The first Crystalline Entity is also hilariously inconsistent in their description of it. Because in the episode where it’s destroyed, it’s supposed to be like a tragedy. They described it like an animal. Picard is like a sperm whale. It’s not evil. It’s feeding. And it’s like, do you remember two seasons ago when it talked to Lore and plotted with him to eat your ship?

Chris and Wes: *laughs*

Oren: Because I don’t know any sperm whales that can do that.

Wes: Moby Dick.

Oren: Yeah

Chris and Wes: *laughs*

Wes: Yeah. I ran into similar problems. I quite enjoyed Memory Called Empire and I read the second book, Desolation Called Peace, and Memory Called Empire.

We’ve talked about it before, the ending of how they used this weird thread of Cthulhu space aliens to solve their conflict or whatever.

Oren: Hey guys, there were Cthulhu aliens the whole time.

Wes: The whole time.

Oren: Well, that’s good to know, I guess.

Wes: And then in the second book, obviously those aliens are like the feature of it. But the main point is Mahit and Three Seagrass go to strike up communications with them. Because their ships are the most Cthulhu non-Euclidean thing going on because they dissolve the other spaceships and stuff.

Oren: One second. I just want to say we’re probably going to do some spoilers for that second book because that second book is still pretty new.

Wes: Before I continue, definitely a spoiler notice. I’m going to spoil this book so hard because I need to get this out.

Oren: Yeah, go for it.

Wes: So Mahit and Three Seagrass go to try to set up communications and talk to these things. But all they have is this really weird recording that when humans listen to it, they basically vomit and get headaches and nosebleeds and things like that. It’s horrible, but they listen to it and they think they pick out a type of syntax to get these messages going.

Anyway, long story short, they land on a planet and the aliens show up and they’re just open to a random page in a monster manual and point at one. It’s not memorable. But what makes them alien is apparently they’re connected by a mycelial network in their brains. So they consume a spore that they call a people maker and then everybody’s linked mentally.

This reveal was so underwhelming because up to that point in the book, they spend so much time emphasizing the technology that they have for the space ship, like the fighter pilots for those, being linked together through like technological neural networks. And so it’s kind of like running in parallel. And ultimately at the end, the aliens realize that there are other people, just not with people makers.

And then the spaceship fighters get to go in and join with this to get a sense of empathetic repair because they feel it when their fellow spaceship pilots die and stuff.

But I was just like, wow, way to really just make it so boring.

Oren: It’s like the solution is that they were a hive mind.

Wes: Yes, that’s it.

And it’s a challenge when you make your entire story focused on just trying to communicate with these things. And it’s like, okay, well the secret is just that there’s actually this alien is in a symbiotic relationship and you can communicate with it if you also eat this spore.

Oren: Done!

Chris: That’s all you had to do the whole time.

Wes: The whole time.

Oren: Solved!

Wes: And Mahit and Three Seagrass aren’t even the ones that figured that out.

Chris: Oh, boo, boo.

Wes: It’s a random character introduced in that book. They don’t even get to eat the spore. They just watch somebody else do it. Oh my gosh. Okay, I’m done. *laughs*

Oren: Admittedly, one of the things I was wondering about when I started that book is, why on earth were Mahit and Three Seagrass picked to go and talk to these? What qualifications do they have to do this?

Wes: Yeah, none. I think really Three Seagrass gets wind of it because she’s working in intelligence and then just makes a stop at the station or wherever, at the station.

Oren: Yeah, LaSalle station.

Wes: To just grab Mahit and drag her on an adventure. *laughs*

Oren: Right,I mean, I remember how, because I read about a third of the way into the book, and it’s like, okay, so sure, she grabs Mahit because Mahit’s her girlfriend. She wants to hang out. That’s fair. I can even kind of buy that she grabbed the job before anyone else could see it because she’s a spy or whatever.

Wes: Mm hmm

Oren: That seems like an odd thing for Three Seagrass to do. It doesn’t really seem in character for her, but sure.

What I don’t understand is why when they get out there, the admiral in charge of the Imperial fleet isn’t like, who the heck are you?

Wes: *laughs* Yeap.

Oren: Someone, someone get me some real experts. You sent me like a VIP escorter and a disgraced backwater ambassador. What am I supposed to do with these people?

Wes and Oren: *laughs*

Wes: Yeap.

Oren: Although this actually hints at another problem that you often get with like big alien aliens, because very often what you’re trying to do is have them be like, whoa, the things they’re doing, they don’t make sense. Like, why are they doing these things? It must be because they think differently, but then it turns out that they don’t.

Wes: Right, yeah

Oren: The 10-C in Discovery has this problem where – spoilers for season four of Discovery, the 10-C are basically strip mining our galaxy for stuff. And they have like this giant black hole type thing that just floats around the galaxy, hoovering up anything in its path as part of their mining process.

And everyone’s like, wow, I wonder why they’re doing this? They must be really weird aliens. And they go out and talk to them and they’re like, “Hey, so we live in the galaxy. Could you please not send that big old black hole thing near us?”

And the 10 C are like “Oh yeah, good point. We didn’t realize there was anything living in that galaxy.”

Wes: *laughs*

Oren: I don’t believe you. Like I just, that just, that answer is not believable. It feels like you’re lying and you’re upset you got caught. It’s kind of, is what’s happening here.

Chris and Wes: *laughs*

Wes: It’s the same thing with the aliens in Desolation Called Peace. Because they’re supposed to not recognize that the humans are people. And it’s like, how many non-sapient or in your case, non-sporient and species do you run into with spaceships? Right?

It’s like, you know, it, yeah, sometimes it can be hard to recognize intelligence and there are huge debates of whether or not certain animals have certain levels of intelligence. But like if some wolves came out of the jungle wearing plate mail armor that they had made themselves and we could see them making it in big forges, I think we’d probably be like, you know, those wolves are probably about as smart as we are.

Like even though that technology is less advanced than what we have now, it’s still clearly not something a regular animal can make. Right?

Oren: *laughs* I really want that to happen.

Wes: Just some wolves show up to be like, “Hey guys, we built a trebuchet. This is our most advanced engineering is we’ve have the math for trebuchets. That’s as far as we’ve gotten.” 

And people being like, “I don’t know. I mean, can animals, maybe some animals can make trebuchets. Do you, do you need to have human intelligence to make trebuchets? It’s like, they haven’t figured out airplanes yet.”

Chris: This is our Discovery/Fire Upon the Deep Crossover. Fire Upon the Deep with the, the wolf, the dog aliens.

Oren: Yea, the Tines. Tines.

Chris: Tines. That’s another one that is really creative while still being understandable enough. Right? But still feeling very different because they have a pack mind. So not quite as far as a hive mind and they look kind of like dogs. That’s the other issue is a lot of these aliens, if they’re not looking like humans, they look like animals, like all the space whales in Star Trek.

Oren: Everyone loves space whales.

Chris: Does speed things up by giving us something to at least compare them to because otherwise just describing an alien might get kind of tedious. And the fact that they work together as a pack just gives them lots of novelty and lots of big differences. And again, the story takes some time to work out the communication differences and how, you know, humans and the Tines learn to relate to each other. So it still invests some time.

Wes: I think with some alien aliens, you can run into a chicken and the egg situation. We’ve been talking about Animorphs a fair bit lately. And so the Yeerk, I’d like to know how that happens.

Oren: Yeerks

Wes: Sorry, the Yerks. Like, okay, you are a very intelligent slug-like alien, but definitely have to have hosts who have extremely good technology.

Oren: Are you asking how did the Yeerks evolve that way or how did the Yerks make a space empire?

Wes: Both. Yes.

Oren: Okay, okay. So the answer to one makes more sense than the other one.

Wes: okay hit me

Oren: So the answer to how the Yeerks evolve that way is that they were originally just regular brain parasites that weren’t sapient. They just lived in the brains of various creatures on their home planet and got nutrients that way.

And over huge stretches of time and evolutionary time scales, they were selected for ones that could make their hosts do things that increase the viability of their life cycle. That brought along with it intelligence. If they were more intelligent, they could make their hosts do more complicated tasks which would then increase their chances of survival and breeding.

So, to a certain extent that makes at least broad sense. There are a lot of problems you can raise with some of the individual execution of it. But on a very broad level it makes sense. The way they have a space empire is complete nonsense. It’s super contrived.

Wes: *laughs*

Oren: The way that it happens is that the Andalites find them and they are just very low tech. The creatures that they have are kind of like monkeys that don’t have a lot of capabilities and the Andalites are like “You guys look cute”.

One day the Yeerks steal some Andalite ships and fly away and kill a bunch of Andalites and basically declared war on the Andalites. For the next 20 years, the Andalites just can’t find them. The conceit of this book is that the Yeerks just went out and hide and in 20 years, the Andalites, despite combing the galaxy for them, couldn’t find anything.

Basically the answer is by being off screen for a while.

Wes: Riight

Chris: *laughs*

Wes: That’s so weird because they also have to like soak in a hot tub. *laughs*

Oren: Well, the whole Kandrona race thing is a little weird. It’s funny because the obvious solution when you’re trying to figure out how did these parasitic slugs get a space empire? The obvious solution would be that they infiltrated the Andalites when the Andalites first arrived and the Andalites didn’t realize it until the Yeerks had already, you know, were in control of a large part of their military.

Right. That’s the obvious explanation. But they can’t use that one because Visser 3 has to be the only Yeerk with an Andalite body to make him a very scary bad guy. So that explanation, the one that actually makes sense is right out. So we need to have this bizarre contrivance of the Yeerks are just really good at hide and seek.

Wes and Chris: “Laugh”

Oren: Is there an explanation?

Chris: When we get to predatory aliens, there’s a lot that don’t really make that much sense. I’m trying to remember if we knew the Mimics from the Edge of Tomorrow/ Live Die Repeat why they are attacking the surface and what they want

Oren: Do we find that out? There was a queen, I think, that Tom Cruise had to kill on his last run.

Chris: She has time loop powers. That’s what makes them distinctive, because they have time loop powers.

Oren: Do the aliens have that? Is that where he got his powers from? I forget.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. Because they have this, it’s basically a hive mind, but with different levels. I don’t know if it was another queen or a higher lieutenant or something, higher level blood got in him before he died. And so basically how it works is whenever I think a queen dies, they reset the time loop because they don’t want their queens to die. So then he gets that power to reset the time loop whenever he dies.

Oren: Maybe they taught him the language that you get from the heptapods that allows you to go back and talk.

Chris: But just like in this case, we just defeat them and then we don’t ever have to learn what their supposed purpose is. Why do you want Earth so bad? It doesn’t seem like there would be that much stuff here for you.

Wes: That’s kind of a good example though of alien aliens also where interacting with them, despite maybe how knowable or believable they are, there might be a conference of ability on a human character.

Maybe it’s magical for all intents and purposes. But something like that where the aliens possess an ability to take your memories and control your body and these other things that clearly humans cannot do. And I think that helps set them apart from your standard different styled forehead alien who has just a humanoid body and likes shooting blasters.

Chris: Or if we’re talking about the Expanse, what is it like the Protomolecule or something? We can create a sexy version of the dead lady you’ve been stalking. That’s your special ability at the end.

Oren:The Protomolecule does a lot of stuff, okay? It’s a very flexible molecule. It can fill in any plot holes we might have.

Chris: But it’s alien based, right? The Protomolecule?

Oren: Yeah, yeah. It’s some alien nonsense. Although that was one of the problems in the later expanse books is that the aliens were too advanced. I guess this isn’t really making them more alien problems.

This is really more a technology issue because the plot of the books is that the big overarching plot is that something wiped out the gate builders – the Protomolecule makers. Something wiped them out. And it’s like, what was it? And we’re going to have to deal with it. That’s what the series is building towards. But by the time we have exhausted all of the human political conflicts, we are nowhere close to being ready for that. And so instead, the books insert a 30-year time jump to invent some more human villains to fight.

And it’s like, wow, okay. That’s where it lost me. I was out at that point. I’m like, I’m sorry. This 30-year time jump is too jarring. It’s 30 years later. They’re all doing the same jobs with the same character dynamics on the same ship.

I refuse to believe their lives are that static!

Chris: But for some reason in the show, and I don’t think this was in the book, right? The girl doesn’t reappear in Protomolecule form.

Oren: Does that happen in the show? Yeah. Is this when Miller dies in the show? I barely remember that. I don’t think that happens in the books. But the first book I read so long ago. And I also get the first book confused with the second book because they have almost identical plots.

So I’ll be remembering things that I thought were in the first book. And it’s like, that doesn’t happen until book two. It’s like, Bobby’s not even in book one. And I’m like, man, what a dark time when there was no Bobby.

But I mean, the whole question of a person interacting with an alien and being changed is that’s very cosmic horror-y. That’s very fun. That’s your Delta Green thing. One of our agents spent too long looking through this gap between worlds and now they have psychic powers, but probably they’re going to snap and kill everyone at some point. So be on the lookout for that. But they’ve got psychic powers for now. So it’s cool, right? It works out.

Chris: Yeah, I’m guessing the Protomolecule, again, part of the reason it did that is so if you want your super-alien alien to talk, that’s the whole, I thought you would be comfortable with this form. After a while, it becomes really, really cheesy.

Oren: Right. Well, at least in the books, the Protomolecule creates a ghost Miller to hang out with Holden for a few books so that Miller can still be in the story despite dying, which is the aliens who made the protomolecule are all dead. We never interact with them directly.

So instead we have ghost Miller who is sort of an alien and he’s like, I’m acting like this so that you can understand me. And also because the authors really liked Miller as a character and weren’t really ready to let him go yet.

Chris: Yeah. Actually, Fire Upon the Deep does something similar with Pham, his golden boy character.

Oren: Yeah, the super cool guy.

Chris: The author clearly likes the best. But he’s there to be a mouthpiece for the super intelligent entities that rule the galaxy in that setting. So here I’ve got a little puppet person who I can kind of speak through to be at your level without demystifying that big super intelligence.

Oren: That’s not a terrible way to do it. I do think at some point you have to go beyond that though. If you have your weird alien aliens and then they’re like, I have created a human mouthpiece. All right, I’ll accept that for a while, but I’m going to need a little more eventually.

Chris: Right. Yeah. I mean, first of all, it has to be distinguishable from just being a human. Yeah. Which is a lot of like, I thought you would be more comfortable with me in this form. A lot of times it doesn’t pass that test, right? It’s like, well, for all intents and purposes, you just are the form that you’re showing up in because you can perfectly mimic human behavior, for instance.

Chris: Man… Supernatural does that a lot. Especially with its angels. With Castiel, they at least spent a while making him weird, but with the other angels, they’re just very human the moment we meet them.

Chris: So yeah, I would say if you’re going to do that, try not to make it a perfect resemblance. Try to show some of that alien personality in there. Oren: Make them little weirdos.

Chris: All right. If you enjoyed hearing about alien aliens, consider supporting us on Patreon. Just go to https://www.patreon.com/Mythcreants.

Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, there’s Plottr, the popular book planning software which you can learn about at plottr.com. Next we have Callie Macleod, Kathy Ferguson who is professor of political theory in Star Trek then there’s Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel and finally we have Danita Rambo she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.

[closing theme]

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