The Problem With Aliens Is That They're Aliens... After all, who would read about a REAL alien? There would be nothing with which a reader could connect.

At first, alienness showed up as conventional creatures (or famous fossils) with oddball colors. The red and white saber tooth cat from the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale "Lost on Venus" is an example. As an example of "doubly strange" it is a fossil animal with unnatural coloring. The "past as future" and "unnatural nature" shows up in science fiction often enough to be a stock trick for authors.

Shifting context is also a way of creating familiar unfamiliarity and calling it "alien." Parallel universes and outré dimensions are ways of changing context for familiar characters or events. Displacing characters ranges from shaggy dog stories such as the Quest for the (cyber) Egg in Robert Heinlein's "Glory Road" to space operas by E. E. "Doc" Smith. In between are thought experiments in the "what if..." motif, which comprises a number of themes in sociological science fiction.

Some authors have experimented with aliens which are largely unfamiliar. That is, they are not "retro" or bizarrely colored aliens. And they are not "vintage aliens of the future" with romanticized characteristics or projections of our hopes and fears. Edwin Abbott (with the pen name "A. Square") created aliens as the mathematical entities in his 1884 classic satire "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions." Abbott plays with the idea of "pattern," an idea which was not rigorously defined until more than a century later by Grünbaum and Shephard (1986 "Tilings and Patterns"). Pattern is a motif, a design, a template which may be repeated.

Puns are transmogrified patterns. Malapropisms are slightly off kilter attempts to match patterns of spelling and meaning in words (which is why spelling is important as a key to meaning). For the alert person, the missed matches are information about why a word means what it does and not something else. Clever transmogrifications are often a doorway to a sci fi story.

In any case, "pattern" is an idea so important in our existence that we begin soaking up patterns in the womb, are born with our neurons ravenous for data...and then we go to school.

There are three Universes in the Flatland story narrated by the Square: Lineland, Flatland and Spaceland. The satire works by analogy, a kind of pattern matching between descriptions of geometric figures and accounts of their social behaviors which have human parallels (that's at least a double pun, folks). Square lives in the two dimensions of Flatland where status is hierarchically defined by shape, and visits Lineland in a dream. He is visited by a Sphere from Spaceland, whom he convinces that there are worlds of higher dimension.

Click on these images to see them full size.

LEFT - Some mathematical aliens from Abbott's "Flatland."

Tne triangle/pyramid is an "Isoceles Warrior" from Flatland as it might appear in Spaceland. The red/green sphere is a "Priest" from Spaceland. It has a plane added by me to help viewers visualize the entity as it passes through the plane which is Flatland: the sphere shows up in the plane (Flatlanders can only see in two dimensions) as a half red, half green line of changing length.

To visualize these mathematical aliens in your imagination, picture the different lengths of red/green lines, note that they are similar in pattern (half red/half green if the Priest passes thru the plane as shown) and then mentally recombine them into the three dimensions of a sphere. If the Priest passes through a plane rotated on some axis, it will appear as a set of pattern lines characteristic of that rotation.

The Dodecahedron I updated and placed in camouflage, because the ideas in the original satire lead to a continuing reflection on the lack of imagination which many people...but we don't need to worry, right? WE have imagination that lets us travel anywhere, anytime...

Images: NLNicholson using Bryce 2 by MetaCreations Macromedia FreeHand 7.0.2 and Adobe PhotoShop 4.

Isaac Asimov experimented with unUrrthly aliens in "The Gods Themselves." My interpretation of the aliens he describes appears ABOVE LEFT. Using aliens from another Universe, it remains one of his obscure stories, even though cleverly written around solid science (Asimov was a biochemist). It has an ancient theme or pattern, sharing with "Flatland" the idea of parallel Universes where conditions are unfamiliar (they do not correspond to the patterns you have soaked up living in your home Universe). The concept/theme is that difference from what one knows is attractive and inspires awe.

In Western culture, religion and science have the same historical roots, even though they eventually disagreed about causation and the nature of our Universe (or, as engineer Heinlein put it: "Is there Someone Up There turning the crank to keep Creation going?"). Asimov's knowledge of science recombines with emotional response to produce "The Gods Themselves." Epiphany (apparition of a supernatural being), with its lure of mystery emerging from its enigmatic dimensions, form part of a religious experience.

Thus "aliens" or outsiders may be regarded as gods by an unsophisticated, hubristic culture, as in Euripide's ruthless penetration of self-deception in "The Bacchae." In the play, outsider Dionysius was influential in the palace at Thebes, even appearing godlike to the naive inhabitants of the palace, precisely because no one knew anything about him. The source of incomprehensibility was prideful lack of insight and absence of developed criteria by which to evaluate genuinely new experience. Cunning calculation and ecstatic will to believe made a lethal mix for Thebes. Similarly, aliens in Asimov's tale came from another Universe, run by different natural laws from our Universe. Their behaviors seemed godlike, but were merely incomprehensible because those in our Universe had no experience to permit interpretation of what they "saw." Unlike the arrogant fools of the Bacchae, Asimov's people developed means to understand the aliens. If you like sci fi with hard science, this is a good read.

It is one of the risks a scence fiction author takes: despite an excellent story, a work may not find its audience if the theme does not connect with the life experience of many readers.

By the way, Euipides often used a favorite sci fi device in his plays: deus ex machina, the "god out of the machine." It is not clear if Euripides liked the device, or used it as a concession to his audiences. In any case, this ancient storytelling tool is still popular in our culture and in sci fi tales it finds a happy niche.