The second plot type in science fiction is the alien contact story. This includes invasions of the Earth like H. G. Wells' The War ofthe Worlds, though, as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, this kind of fright story is presently out of vogue. More subtle and therefore more terrifying invasion stories, like John Christopher's The Possessors, are far more acceptable to today's readers: stories, in brief, in which only a few people—perhaps only a single household or individual—may ever know about the alien presence, in which the threat of world conquest is not dramatized in melodramatic terms, but in human ones. The alien contact story also includes novels about voyages of Earthmen to other worlds, and even stories in which the alien is a man from so far in the future of our own Earth that he is either mentally, physically, or both mentally and physically unlike a man. A good novel in this vein is Robert Silverberg's The Masks of Time, which deals with a physically perfect man from the future whose mind is strangely different from our own, his attitudes quite unlike ours.
Putting aside the man from the far future device—since it is rarely used—we see that all other aliens are extraterrestrial in nature, beings from other worlds and other galaxies, even other universes. No matter what the nature of the alien being, you can handle it in two ways. First, you may construct a creature which has evolved under entirely different circumstances than mankind has. Perhaps it's an alien from a world with many times our gravity. (Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity is a classic with this kind of background. ) Perhaps it comes from a world where the atmosphere is predominately methane or some other substance toxic to man. The possibilities are limitless. If you choose this path, you must thoroughly research—through science books—what such a world would be like, extrapolating from what present-day facts you can find. Then, you must learn what effects such strange conditions would have on the evolution of a species. Only then can you hope to convince the reader of the validity of your vision.
The second way to handle your alien is to have him originate on a world essentially like our own Earth, but to have him be a member of another species—besides the ape, from which man most likely descended—such as a lizard-man (my own Beastchild creates a sympathetic alien of reptillian nature), a winged man, a creature of the seas, a nocturnal, four-legged predator, or any of countless other possibilities. Robert Silverberg's excellent Downward to the Earth postulates intelligent, elephant-like creatures on an Earth-type world. A. E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle contains a catlike alien that can pass, unchanged, through walls or any other barriers, and my own Dark of the Woods is set on an Earth-like world where the native race is a diminutive and delicate human-variant with gossamer and functional wings.
This second method—creating an alien who comes from an Earth-type world and breathes Earth-mixture atmosphere—helps you avoid a great deal of research, while providing a suitably eerie extra-terrestrial being. You don't have to probe in science books if he comes from an Earth-type world—you already know much about him. You can concentrate, now, on extrapolating his physical looks and his culture.
At this point, considering your plot and your ability, you must decide whether the alien will be handled as a serious character or as a figure for satire and buffoonery. Unless your writing talents are well developed, and unless you are very familiar with science fiction, you should avoid the latter approach. You may think it a simple matter to create a comic alien with too many legs, several eyes, and a squeaky voice, imbue him with a crackpot sense of humor (we all think of ourselves as the master of the funny line, even if we write tear jerkers for a living), and push him on stage. This way lies disaster. Only one writer in recent years has proven continually adept at creating funny aliens and using them to advantage: Keith Laumer's many books, including his Retief novels about an Earth diplomat mixed up in galactic intrigues, usually escape crossing that line between humor and boredom.
If you intend to develop your alien as a serious character—in either the role of a menacing antagonist or as a compatriot of the hero—you should delve as deeply into the alien's psyche and personality as you would into a human's. Extra-terrestrials do not invade the Earth without purpose—indeed, they should have doubts, aspirations, second thoughts, loves, hates, and prejudices—unless they are megalomaniacs. Also remember that an alien creature, while having motivations just as humans do, will have substantially different motivations. Suppose, for instance, that the alien comes from a society where the institution of the family is unheard of, where breeding is a more natural process and less of a personal one than it is with human beings. The effects upon various motivations will be profound.
Examples of alien characterization, as well as other requirements peculiar to science fiction, will be given later in this chapter.
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