Fun Scifi Tropes: Aliens (and Their Invasions)

Good morning, squiders! I hope your Thursday finds you well.

Today we’ll be looking at aliens. Aliens come in a number of different flavors. You have your friendly aliens like E.T. You have your invading aliens ala Independence Day. You have aliens who have their own cultures and beliefs and goals, which can be presented in a totally unfamiliar way (such as insectoid aliens from Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers) or as friendly, relate-able faces that showcase different aspects of humanity.

(Alien has stopped looking like a word.)

“Alien” is a word that has been used in English for hundreds of years. My Internet combing tells me that it came into usage in the 1300s as a word meaning a foreigner (a usage it still has, though perhaps less common) or an outsider. I’m getting mixed results on the word as meaning “someone from another planet.” One sources says 1920s. Another accredits it to John Wood Campbell in 1953 in Analog magazine. Who knows? Apparently not the Internet.

(On the other hand, the word “extraterrestrial,” which is perhaps more explicit in its definition, was first used in 1848, according to Merriam-Webster.)

But anyway.

Aliens have evolved throughout science fiction. Early science fiction, which often has adventurers exploring far-off-but-not-really locales such as the Moon or Mars, usually has extraterrestrial beings that are close to human beings (I’m looking at you, A Princess of Mars).

Indeed, a lot of science fiction tends toward fairly human aliens. We touched on this a few weeks ago, but part of this is because science fiction tends to be an exploration of humanity, and by representing different alien species as different aspects of humanity (::coughStarTrekcough::) you can explore humanity as a whole. Another reason is because if an alien has an aspect of humanity to them, it makes them more relate-able to a human audience. If a character is supposed to be sympathetic, they’ll often have a human element to them.

Alternately, inhuman aliens are often portrayed as “evil” or in opposition to humanity. This isn’t always true–writers often turn this trope on its head by focusing on the miscommunication between two species with little in common. But almost all of your “evil” alien species are inhuman in appearance or actions. Series with multiple alien species sometimes make this more apparent. If you watched Falling Skies a few years back, contrast the Espheni and the Skitters (the bad guys) versus the more human-sympathetic Volm. Or take Doctor Who, where the Time Lords are literally indistinguishable in appearance from humans, versus anything that decides to try and eat Earth at any particular moment. (See particularly: Daleks.)

What are you favorite aliens, Squiders? Favorite exploration of alien vs humanity themes? Likelihood of an ancient, powerful society seeding other planets with life and/or rescuing the dinosaurs so they can earn their sentience and eat us in the future?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Perhaps my favorite is when aliens are used as proxies for examination of real-life issues (when sci-fi is at its best). District 9 is perhaps one of the best examples. Invading aliens are just to cliche now (says the guy who’s working on an alien invasion story right now). I also like when the aliens are just living with us, ala Alien Nation.

    Reply

    • I do think you’ve got to have a bit of a twist on your standard alien invasion story (though some people like to have someone to blow up without their conscience getting in the way).

      Reply

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